I Hated The Hours (et d'autres tristesses)
On the morality of fiction, writing like a pianist, and freedom in art
Everybody keeps telling me how much I love New York. I get it: my social media is full of concerts and visits to museums, the kind of things that actual New Yorkers berate themselves for not doing. There’s nothing like nine years on the Plains to light a fire. But, five months in, I’m still not sure I can bear this city. I love walking a few blocks to the Metropolitan Museum, or across the Park to the Metropolitan Opera; I love having a French-language bookstore, Albertine, in my neighborhood; I love being able to get a good bagel. But New York has never felt like my place. I hate the hurry and the noise; I hate the miasma of ambient conflict that greets me whenever I step out of my door. Fighting my way to Penn Station in the morning—a walk to the Q, another from Herald Square—I’m always in somebody’s way; somebody’s always in mine. Crossing the street near Penn the other day—I was in the crosswalk, the little man was green—I was hit by a guy riding one of those murderous little scooters that apparently are always catching fire. I don’t know what he was thinking—that I would leap out of the way, I guess—but I am a large homosexual who was forced to play American football as a child, and he was the one who was knocked down. He yelled at me, I yelled at him. Am I a real New Yorker now?
What I am is a small-town boy with big-town cultural tastes. It was a month of hits and misses on the concert front, and I’m afraid I hated a few of everybody’s faves, so before I disappoint you let me talk a little bit about books. I spent much of the past few weeks preparing for my online seminar on poetry for prose writers, which was a surprising joy. These Shipman Zoom classes were started out of necessity—when the pandemic shut everything down, Leslie offered her clients a platform to teach whatever we wanted, which was a lifeline in those terrifying early weeks. Those classes have since become some of my most rewarding teaching experiences. I’ve developed a few models for courses: themed workshops (on writing sex, on style), which are by necessity small; large craft talks like this month’s poetry class; and single-novel seminars, where we read a great book together over four weeks or so. This last model is maybe my favorite, and also maybe the one I think most pedagogically sound, since a writer’s real education occurs in reading, analyzing, wrestling with work they find exciting.
That’s certainly the case, for me, with Alexander Chee’s debut novel, Edinburgh, the focus of a four-week seminar I’m offering in March and April. (Alex will very generously stop by in the last session to answer our questions.) I’ve been reading the book since it came out—the poet Carl Phillips put a copy in my hand back in 2002, telling me I had to read it right away. It’s a hard book to describe, at once intimate and hugely ambitious, both in subject matter and its sometimes high-modernist style. (Alex has said that he was reading a lot of Guy Davenport as he wrote it, so returning to that great Kentucky queer will be part of my preparation.) I’ve taught it a couple of times in university settings, at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Grinnell College, and I’ve been surprised by how it has divided students. All of them admire it; many of them love it; some of them don’t know what to do with its complex treatment of cross-generational relationships and cycles of harm. That complexity is what I love about the book, its refusal to comfort us with answers to the questions it asks about desire and predation, suffering and revenge—answers that could only simplify and flatten.
I often run into this with my students, this resistance to stories that seem to me morally complex, stories that assume there are ways of knowing others more profound than judgment, that deny us anywhere to stand that might allow access to righteousness. I hear from my professor friends that they encounter this as well, a desire for narratives that provide morally legible situations, that provide, finally, something like a moral. The case for such stories was put in its best, most sophisticated form recently by the brilliant novelist Elif Batuman, on the New Yorker fiction podcast. She’s talking with Deborah Treisman, the New Yorker’s fiction editor, about Tolstoy’s novels, which long were her favorite books (these quotes are taken from the transcript available on the podcast’s page):
Now when I look at them, I feel like the thing that I loved about those novels was how they made everything look like an insoluble conundrum where nothing is anybody's fault and you can see everybody's point of view and everyone's justified from their own point of view. But there's some critics now who are like, that kind of worldview, it gives you the feeling that nothing can actually be changed. Maybe that's not the most helpful way to tell stories.
I mean should stories be a moral quagmire or should they be instructional?
Well, that's the thing. My whole life, I believe that it should be a quagmire and that that's what makes great art. If you already know what the answer is, then it's bad art. You have to not really be sure and you have to leave it unresolved.
It's true that there's a lot of horrible art and horrible novels that make it really clear who the villain is and then that person's punished. But could that be a coincidence? Could there be a way of writing art that doesn't aestheticize that unresolvable quagmire and that doesn't aestheticize the rich tapestry of human suffering and that points to some kind of a way out?
Aestheticizing a quagmire. Well, it does sound kind of bad when you put it like that. But I’m pretty sure of two things: first, Elif Batuman is a genius, and part of her genius is her willingness to challenge things she has taken as settled truths. Second, in this case, she’s wrong. (To be clear, since maybe it doesn’t come across in the transcript, she’s speaking speculatively, probing an idea she’s thinking about, not presenting something she holds as settled truth.)
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To begin with, I’m not sure this is an accurate account of what those great novels do. Please don’t quiz me on this—it’s been a few years since I read it—but I’m not sure that Anna Karenina, say, forces me to permanently suspend judgment and hold everyone blameless. I don’t think that’s true of any of the books I love, which actually I think are constantly inviting me to exercise my judgment. But they also constantly remind me that human beings are not monovalent, that no judgment can be final, that any life is more ample than any judgment I could draw. That’s what annoys us, I think, in our age of ideological bubbles, of blocking and ostracization: the insistence that judgment does not exhaust our knowledge of a person; or rather, to put it more strongly, that judgment does not exhaust our duty to know a person.
To be sure, there are situations whose moral valence is clear: there are crimes, and there should be punishments. But if that’s all you want to know about a situation—that there’s a villain and they should be punished—then I don’t think we need art to think about it. This was part of my annoyance with Tár, which I really don’t want to write about very much, since I think it’s best forgotten. But that’s an example of a film that always already knows the answer, in which everyone is held up for our derision and condemnation, in which dumb horror-movie atmospherics (which never add up to anything or lead anywhere) try to fill up the void where characters should be. There’s no complexity: Tár is a monster from the start, threatening schoolchildren and tyrannizing her family, not to mention talking about music in the dumbest, most cartoonish way possible; and her victims are nothing but victims. (The most interesting character in the film is Tár’s assistant, whose story it should have been: she adores Tár and hates her, is betrayed by her and engineers her destruction. Make that movie, you cowards.)
Anyway, I didn’t need a movie about Tár, or not this movie, since it doesn’t convincingly portray her brilliance or her hungers, or even, with any depth or penetration, her cruelty. For the story the movie apparently wants to tell, an article in the Times would have been plenty. I want more from a novel or a film: call it a moral quagmire if you want, or call it depthlessness, an awareness that our knowledge of others is always partial; an awareness that the value of others’ lives is not exhausted by their bad acts, that such value can never be exhausted. This doesn’t mean permanently suspending judgment, or suggesting that “nobody is at fault”; it means seeing that no one is reducible to fault.
But that’s a subject to be pursued at greater length than a Substack—and I try to do so in an essay on Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater, a filthy and offensive novel that exemplifies the moral work art can do, coming out this spring in the Yale Review. Here all I wanted to say is that Edinburgh is a model of the kind of book I most value. I hope you’ll join me for the class.
I’m very sorry to report that I hated The Hours, Kevin Puts’s new operatic adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s novel, which had its premiere last month at the Met. Many people loved it! Even people who didn’t love it, like Zachary Woolfe at the New York Times and Alex Ross (my favorite writer on music, one of my favorite writers on anything) at The New Yorker, had kinder things to say about it than I do. My expectations were pretty low: I haven’t heard a ton of Kevin Puts’s music, largely because what I have heard hasn’t inspired me to seek out more. It’s squarely middle-of-the-road, people-pleasing, unchallenging, mostly unimaginative: a blandly neo-Romantic American sound, with a little Adams-y minimalism sifted in as spice. Not bad, exactly, but boring.
What good there is to say about the opera is largely due to Greg Pierce’s libretto, which brings the narrative’s three spheres of action into tighter communication than either Cunningham’s novel or the Oscar-winning film. This was sometimes moving, though also the narrative braiding—establishing a scene, bringing it to a crisis, then cutting to a different strand—came to feel monotonous, a little cheap, a lazy, television-ready narrative device. (Some of this may be attributable to the source, which I haven’t read in twenty years.) As nearly all of the reviews have noted, there’s an imbalance built into the structure: both the Virginia Woolf sections (she’s writing a great novel!) and the contemporary Clarissa sections (she’s caring for her friend, a great poet dying of AIDS) have a drama that the 1950s housewife sections (she’s stymied! she’s sad!) don’t. To be clear: great art can be made of feeling stymied and sad, and Julianne Moore’s performance in the film was devastating—as was the image, my clearest memory of the film, of the son’s glance back at her as he’s driven away. The opera didn’t offer anything so moving.
I felt queasy from the first notes of the score, when the chorus started singing a nauseous little “flowers” motif that was pure bargain-bin John Adams. I guess we were meant to be in Virginia Woolf’s head as the first line of Mrs Dalloway bubbled up, or something—and even that gives a sense of the opera’s facility, the unthoughtful approach it takes to profound questions. (How do great novels get written? Not like that.) I know lots of people loved this show—my social media was full of people praising it—and I don’t mean to suggest that I was unmoved. I had feelings! But they were won cheaply, and so they made me feel cheap: the opera turned me into a mechanism with strings it could pull. Show me a man with AIDS throwing himself out a window, and I’m going to cry. Put a series of descending pedal tones in the brass, swell the strings, toss in some sweetly resolving suspensions, and my heart has no choice but to respond. It was all one long, I finally felt pretty cynical, manipulation.
Now, some people might argue that art is nothing but manipulation: that all art intends for us to have an emotional response, and performs certain maneuvers to elicit it. I guess I just don’t think this is true, finally; good art doesn’t treat us like mechanisms. This is something mysterious to me, the way that great art refrains from dictating our response, the way it respects our freedom—presenting us with something too complex to coerce an uncomplicated response. The greatest art, I sometimes think, has a kind of terrifying, sublime indifference to our response. I feel this about certain poems by Bishop or Geoffrey Hill, say. This isn’t coldness or a rejection of emotion; it’s emotion profoundly felt, emotion that has wrestled with itself.
Or maybe that’s not quite right. Maybe it’s emotion in which something is genuinely at risk. In the great operas, which so often are all about flooding us with emotion—Tristan, or the Inquisitor scene in Don Carlo, or Grimes’s madness—there’s a danger, a wildness, a teetering up to the abyss, that has something in it beyond manipulation because there is something in it beyond control. Call it the duende, maybe; whatever it is, Puts never comes close to it. He wants us to feel things, but only so far. That’s what makes his music feel so middle-of-the-road, so suburban, so cynical.
The production didn’t help: the weirdly puny sets, the stage hands swinging them about (there was at least one unfortunate collision in the performance I saw), the billowing fabrics and utterly gratuitous dancers, who spent much of the time lying about, dangling off platforms, representing I wasn’t sure what: the AIDS dead, maybe, or all the female geniuses crushed through the generations, in either case something exploitative and tawdry. And what was the countertenor John Holiday doing, a lone, unplaced figure wandering between the different times and worlds, vocalizing with the three divas? No idea! (He sounded quite good, at least.) I’m grateful that the most embarrassing moment from the concert premiere earlier this year in Philadelphia was cut from the staged version, a scene in which a writer named Michael appeared from the future to convince Virginia Woolf not to kill herself. Gay Jesus have mercy.
It was my first time hearing Renée Fleming in person. She’s my favorite soprano of her generation, an extraordinary, thoughtful artist, whose choices I relish even when I don’t agree with them. (I should mention, if only because I take every chance to mention it, that we studied with the same teacher at the Eastman School, John Maloy; his studio was strewn with photos of her.) I wish I could have heard her ten years ago. It’s not that she didn’t sing well: it is remarkable that at 63, after the career she has had, the voice is in such fine shape. But she was singing carefully, and the top notes don’t bloom anymore as they did earlier in her career. Even so, the voice is still beautiful, with its lavish cream texture, its gorgeous color clear even in the huge space of the Met. I have tickets to hear her in recital in the spring, in a smaller space; I can’t wait.
The real standout of the evening, as all the reviews have noted, was another singer I was hearing for the first time in person, Joyce DiDonato. She was the only one of the three divas who elevated the material, bringing a real sense of gravitas, even of otherworldliness. Playing Virginia Woolf helps, of course, but also I want to hear more of DiDonato to get a better sense of her effects; she sang with a remarkable range of colors, sometimes straightening her tone, sometimes singing just slightly out-of-tune, bending the pitch just a few cents up, in a way that was weirdly electrifying. At the top of her range her pressurized, slightly metallic timbre put me in mind of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, which is the highest praise. Alongside her and Fleming, Kelli O’Hara was less impressive: her voice is fine but not extraordinary; it sounded tired and small the night I heard her. I don’t doubt that she’s a great actress, but the production often placed her awkwardly—one of her scenes had her in bed, on an elevated platform in the rear of the stage, where both her voice and her physical presence were muted.
It was nice to see the Met, which has been half-empty for every other production, nearly packed, and the audience leapt up for the three ladies when they took their collective bow. I hurried out of the hall, feeling the melancholy of the stymied enthusiast.
There were some musical high points this month as well, like passing, last week, from Times Square’s World Cup madness to the tranquility of the Church of St Mary the Virgin on 46th Street to hear the remarkable vocal ensemble The Tallis Scholars. They sang their usual fare of Renaissance polyphony, punctuated by one contemporary work, a hymn by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt to the Virgin of Guadalupe. It’s called “Virgencita.” That might sound like a bad idea, and sometimes in general the idea of Pärt’s music—think plain chant with tone clusters—can seem a little embarrassing; but whenever I actually experience it I feel moved and overwhelmed. The Tallis Scholars were amazing, singing preternaturally in tune; listening to them you’re reminded that choirs are little dreams of sociality, proof of the possibility of human cooperation. Hearing them hit Pärt’s dissonances so fearlessly, the sound rolling through the beautiful old church, was my idea of a Christmas miracle. They sound very good in this video of the piece, which you should watch right now.
Probably the best thing I heard all month was Emanuel Ax playing Beethoven’s second piano concerto with the New York Philharmonic. Ax is another legend I was hearing for the first time, and he made the Beethoven—which I might have thought of as my least favorite among Beethoven’s concertos before his performance—remarkably vivid and playful, full of impish beauty. Ax’s playing was extraordinary, I thought, sharp and clean, with a sound that carried effortlessly through the hall, whatever his dynamic. How different from Víkingur Ólafsson’s performance of the Ravel concerto back in November, in which the sound seemed to collapse in on itself, as if every note were having a fainting fit. (I had dinner with a pianist friend the other night and asked him to explain this to me, how the same seemingly simple mechanism—a wooden hammer striking a string—can produce such radically different effects; I guess it’s complicated.)
Ólafsson is your other fave I was disappointed by over the past month. I’m sorry! The problem is that everything I’ve ever heard him play has sounded exactly the same, each note caressed to within an inch of its life, juiced for something that I guess some people think is loveliness. His sound in the Ravel was muddy and indistinct, I thought, and the opening of the second movement—which is always dangerous, so dreamily gorgeous it can easily tumble into schmaltz—was choked with honey. It’s never good to feel that a player is wallowing in the beautiful sensitivity of his own playing. Again, I’m sorry, my friends all love him, I’m sure the problem is me.
But Ax was the exact opposite: each phrase, each note, was distinct and full of character, and one felt that, though his playing was always beautiful, it had more important things on its mind than loveliness. (Not that loveliness isn’t important!) I want to write like that, I thought, hearing how fully realized each line was, how somehow Ax could change the energy of a phrase and still leave you feeling it was singingly coherent, that it carried you somewhere. It felt like listening to someone very brilliant very beautifully think. I would love to write sentences like that. If only the Philharmonic, under Rafael Payare, could have matched him; they were as heavy as he was light, as muddy as he was clear. But Ax carried the day.
Other Philharmonic experiences were more ambivalent. I wrote last month about seeing the extraordinary Hannu Lintu; this month I heard another Finnish conductor, Klaus Mäkelä, the 26-year-old wunderkind making his NYPhil debut. Apparently orchestras are fighting over him, and it’s easy to see why: he’s tall, lanky, handsome, blond; a development office’s dream. The Philharmonic’s players certainly seemed to be in love with him, and I was pretty amazed by how fully in control he was; there was nary a wobble in two hours of playing. He was kind of mesmerizing to watch, with a varied, fascinating language, his long frame hitched to the side like a towheaded bendy straw. He often leaned back with one hand stretched out along the podium’s rail, nonchalant, as though he could hardly be bothered to keep time. Replace his baton with a cigarette and he might have been starring in a Godard film, a gumby Jean-Paul Belmondo.
Fun to watch, and fine to listen to, but I found the interpretations very primary colors, extremely accomplished but a little by-the-numbers. I’m not hugely attached to the Shostakovich Sixth Symphony (this is ignorance, not a judgment), but there’s a special place in my heart for the other major piece he performed, Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique. (About the opener, by the young Peruvian composer Jimmy López Bellido, the less said the better.) The Tchaikovsky is so familiar, such a workhorse of the repertoire, but it has its depths and subtleties Mäkelä’s performance didn’t bring out. But he’s 26! He has decades to live with this music, and clearly talent and brilliance to burn. Certainly the audience ate it up: they leapt to their feet after every piece. I guess I’m a little suspicious of concerts that seem designed to make an audience leap to its feet.
Maybe the opposite of that kind of concert is something like Morton Feldman’s “For John Cage,” which I heard at the Jewish Museum last weekend. I love Feldman, a minimalist’s minimalist, who wrote music that unfolds slowly, meditatively, in evolving gestures that repeat and transform, are interrupted and then return. The performance was keyed to the Museum’s terrific exhibition, New York 1962-64, an exploration of the art scene in which Feldman—who was friends not just with Cage and Merce Cunningham but with artists like Philip Guston and Jackson Pollack—was a key player. “For John Cage” is an 80-minute duet for piano and violin, though it might be truer to call it a dialogue, or maybe a dialectic. Even in a decidedly sublunary performance (though the pianist, Karl Larsen, was very good, playing with character and intensity), I was moved by the piece as a meditation on what it means for two intelligences to collaborate and respond to each other, moving together and apart. It’s also a piece about frailty, I think. The violinist struggled the other night, sometimes painfully, but even in the best of circumstances the piece is brutally hard, leaving the players with nowhere to hide; every sour note, every botched harmonic, stands starkly out. I think it’s designed that way, to make even the world’s most virtuosic violinist stumble somewhere. There’s something moving in that, too: how, by building failure in, the piece challenges us to think differently, more amply, about what virtuosity and achievement are, and about what beauty can accommodate.
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Again I’ve written mostly about music, though I also saw a good bit of art over the month, and have been thinking a lot about Edward Hopper and Joan Mitchell. I still hope to write about them, but that will have to be for another month. It’s been a weird time for reading, both because I’ve been buried in students’ final portfolios, and also because I’ve been coming to the end of some long reading projects. I took two classes at the French Institute this fall, one on Illusions Perdues (which I loved) and the other on Mémoires d’Hadrien (which I didn’t), both of which came to a close this month; I also read along with A Public Space’s Villette book club; I also finished a long Hopper biography. Each of those is worth its own dispatch; maybe I’ll write about them, too, in a future post. In lieu of that for now, a quick plug for my Year in Reading over at The Millions, where I chronicled some of my favorite books from the year. And, to close, a final invitation to join me in March for the class on Alexander Chee’s Edinburgh.
Thank you for reading.
Reading your essay this morning sparked so much appreciation and thinking about books, music, art. I felt a zing of recognition in the sketch of my own dilemma—small town nature with big city art love. I'm still lifted by that perfection of "bloom in the high notes" re Renee Fleming....
This paragraph sums up my own reflections of art, which I'm unable to put together so eloquently and persuasively as you, dear Garth: "Now, some people might argue that art is nothing but manipulation: that all art intends for us to have an emotional response, and performs certain maneuvers to elicit it. I guess I just don’t think this is true, finally; good art doesn’t treat us like mechanisms. This is something mysterious to me, the way that great art refrains from dictating our response, the way it respects our freedom—presenting us with something too complex to coerce an uncomplicated response. The greatest art, I sometimes think, has a kind of terrifying, sublime indifference to our response. I feel this about certain poems by Bishop or Geoffrey Hill, say. This isn’t coldness or a rejection of emotion; it’s emotion profoundly felt, emotion that has wrestled with itself." Same about great literature, I would add. Also, I appreciated your perception of Ax. He plays all Beethoven concertos superbly, idiosyncratically, likely beyond the composer's intentions themselves.