April 24, 2006
Last word

"Dame Muriel Spark, 1918-2006: The novelist of identity," my obituary of the writer, is in this week's Weekly Standard:

MURIEL SPARK died April 13 in Tuscany, her home for the last 30 years. The Scottish novelist lived to the ripe old age of 88. But she had been thinking about death for years. It was the subject of one of her most accomplished novels, Memento Mori (1959). In this wildly funny black comedy, a group of elderly Londoners starts receiving anonymous phone calls with a very odd reproach: "Remember you must die." Each senior's reaction to the baffling calls--are they from some mysterious stranger, or from God Himself?--is different, revealing some fundamental aspect of character.

It was a strange book for a woman of 40, just three years into her career as a novelist, to write. But then just about every book Muriel Spark wrote was peculiar...

See more on Spark here.

April 21, 2006
Happy 80th Birthday

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"Like all the best families, we have our share of eccentricities, of impetuous and wayward youngsters and of family disagreements."

--Elizabeth II

April 18, 2006
Thought for the day

"It is precisely this hardness of mind which creates a gulf between Evelyn Waugh and most American readers. There is a fine edge on, and a perfect balance to, his every perception, and although he is scarcely what you could call unread in the United States, neither is he what you could call understood. When he is not being passed off as 'anachronistic' or 'reactionary' (an adjective employed by Gore Vidal and others to indicate their suspicion that Waugh harbors certain lingering sympathies with the central tenets of Western civilization), he is being fitted as a kind of trans-Atlantic Peter DeVries, a devastating spoofer who will probably turn out really to be another pseudonym for Patrick Dennis."

--Joan Didion

April 15, 2006
Muriel Spark, R.I.P.

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Muriel Spark died this week in a hospital in Florence. She was 88 years old. Dueling wire stories have different dates for her death--AP says Thursday, Reuters says Friday. Thursday seems to be the most-reported day. The Scottish novelist had lived in Tuscany for almost 30 years.

I was shocked when I heard the news from my cousin this morning. I've been reading Spark's work for years. But I'd been thinking a lot more about it in the last year. I just published a long essay on Dame Muriel in the Winter 2006 issue of Doublethink. I tried to provide a good introduction for the (too many) Americans who aren't familiar with her work. As I wrote then, "her lean, eccentric books with their uncomfortably aware voice are the antithesis of the Great American Novel." Scanning the piece again, my eye keeps catching my observation that Spark "is 87 years old but shows no signs of slowing down."

The world has lost a singular voice with the death of Dame Muriel. Her short, sharp novels are like those of no one else. Indeed, she changed notions of what the novel could be about. Of her first, The Comforters, she said, "Before writing a novel, I had to write a novel about what is a novel." The works that followed were often just as startlingly original.

Here is the last paragraph of my Doublethink piece:

Perhaps none of this analysis conveys the most important aspect of Spark's work--it is all deeply pleasurable to read. Spark's wit--always stark, never sparkling or light--can be brutal. But she is also a master at communicating the pure joy of being human, even with all its attendant complications. "How wonderful it feels to be an artist and a woman in the twentieth century," rejoices Fleur Talbot in Spark's roman ŗ clef Loitering with Intent. Indeed, and how wonderful it's been to have the gift of Muriel Spark in the century in which identity turned out to be paramount.

She was one of my favorite living writers (the other one that comes to mind right now is another Brit, Julian Barnes). It's been a long time since I felt so sad about the death of someone I didn't know personally. I had been looking forward to a day of fun (with, admittedly, some work thrown in) here in New York City. Ignoring recent attempts to eat healthily, I decided to go where I had wanted to, my favorite British joint in America, Tea & Sympathy, and had afternoon tea. It somehow seemed fitting.

Maud Newton who, like me, thought The Finishing School (now Spark's last novel) was one of the best books of 2005, has a nice round-up of quotes and articles.

Incidentally, I mentioned in my piece that the Scottish Arts Council had announced the Muriel Spark International Fellowship, which would fund a foreign writer's visit to Scotland to teach creative writing. Less than a fortnight ago, the Council named Canadian author Margaret Atwood the first recipient. It seems like a good fit. Atwood has spent much of her valuable time talking about the writing process and teaching others--including a group of Inuit women--about the craft.

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April 14, 2006
Decline and Fall, Part X

"Many young children are too heavy for standard car-safety seats, and manufacturers are starting to make heftier models to accommodate them, according to research on the obesity epidemic's widening impact.

More than a quarter of a million U.S. children ages one to six are heavier than the weight limits for standard car seats, and most are three-year-olds who weigh more than 18 kilograms (40 pounds), the study found."

--The Associated Press

Poetic justice

A federal judge ruled this week that a Reno freshman can recite W.H. Auden's poem "The More Loving One" at a national recitation contest. The poem was on contest co-sponsor National Endowment for the Arts' approved list. But Jacob Behymer-Smith's school tried to ban him from reciting the poem, objecting to the words "hell" and "damn." If only those were the worst words to which high school students are exposed these days. The poem contains the famous lines, "If equal affection cannot be / Let the more loving one be me."

April 13, 2006
Modern rock

My review of the Franz Ferdinand/Death Cab for Cutie double bill is in today's Washington Times:

Franz Ferdinand isn't a would-be ruler, like its namesake, but the Scottish band nonetheless is very good at giving people exactly what they want.

For the show at DAR Constitution Hall on Tuesday, co-headlined with Death Cab for Cutie, that meant sticking mostly to songs from the group's self-titled 2004 debut album...

April 12, 2006
Thought for the day

"If we are not careful criticism may become a mere excuse for taking revenge on books whose smell we dislike by erecting our temperamental antipathies into pseudo-moral judgments."

--C.S. Lewis

April 11, 2006
Canadian-influenced Americana

My review of Neko Case's Sunday night show with Martha Wainwright is in today's Washington Times:

The music of Neko Case doesn't sound terribly new. The alt-country chanteuse is more country than alternative on her new album, "Fox Confessor Brings the Flood." The band she brought to the 9:30 Club Sunday night, including double bass and banjo players, could have fit in easily at the Grand Ole Opry -- where they once played.

With a voice like hers, though, what else can she do?

Miss Case is compared frequently to legendary country singer Patsy Cline. There was ample evidence Sunday evening that the comparison is apt. Miss Case has an incredibly rich, twangy voice. It was made for the country-folk-gospel-blues mix in which she specializes.

It's big, too -- sometimes too big...

April 10, 2006
Thought for the day

"Courage is like love; it must have hope to nourish it."

--Napoleon Bonaparte

April 07, 2006
High School Noir

My review of the movie Brick, which opens this weekend, is in today's Washington Times:

Most teenagers these days have probably never heard of film noir, let alone seen an example of it. But it won't keep them from enjoying "Brick," a modern-day homage to the genre that saw its heyday in the 1940s and 1950s...

April 06, 2006
St. Martin at Strathmore

Iíve started this post at the Kennedy Center, killing time before this eveningís Yo-Yo Ma recital. But Iím thinking right now about the Music Center at Strathmore. I was there last week for the Peter Serkin recital (about which more later). The visit reminded me that I havenít yet written here about DCís newest major music venue.

The 1,976-seat concert hall opened a year ago in North Bethesda, Maryland. Its location just outside the Beltway makes it pretty convenient for both DC and Baltimore visitors--the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is the Center's resident orchestra. (A press release notes the BSO is now "the only major American orchestra to have year-round homes in two metropolitan areas.") The $100-million building is also serving young artists, with two big rehearsal halls, a large dance studio with a sprung floor, and various classrooms and practice rooms.

Iíve been there a couple times so far, and I quite like the Music Center, despite its prosaic name. The acoustics in the concert hall are wonderful. But it's the feeling it gives off that really makes it special. The pale shades of the birch, added to the maple and bronze accents, provide a real warmth. There are light fixtures all around--in a hint of Art Deco style--that give the hall a golden glow. Some of these are actually kept on during performances, which is helpful for newcomers trying to read the program notes and critics writing down their thoughts. Unfortunately, though, the light aubergine velour seats are already starting to see some wear. Overall, I find the Music Center at Strathmore a more inviting, warm place than the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. And it's free to park in the Strathmore garage--a much better deal than the Kennedy Center's $15.

There are many local arts organizations taking advantage of this new venue besides the Baltimore Symphony. The most notable is the Washington Performing Arts Society, which is responsible for many of the DC's areas best concerts each season. WPAS recently brought the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields with guest director and solo violinist Gil Shaham here for a sold out show at the Music Center at Strathmore.

As soon as the academy begins playing, you know you're listening to something very special. The level of mastery is quite extraordinary for an orchestra whose members are, to a great extent, quite young. They take themselve seriously, too. Bucking the trend towards casual dress, the players were all in black, with the men in jackets.

Gil Shaham joined the ensemble for Mozart's Fifth Violin Concerto, the "Turkish." The Israeli-American violinist is often seen with a smile on his face; he certainly charmed the Strathmore audience. His 1699 Stradivarius is an extraordinary instrument. And Shaham always has complete control over it.

But the other two pieces were no less inspiring. Bookending the Mozart, the ensemble stripped down to strings only for Anton Arensky's Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky and finally the Russian master himself. Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence might have been the evening's highlight. I'm not sure I agree with the program notes on this piece. It "has none of the gloomy, tortured music that Tchaikovsky wrote in his blackest moods," Eric Bromberger writes. "Instead, suffused with the golden glow of warm nostalgia, it offers some of his most good-natured music." Though the piece is by no means all gloomy, there is certainly something else there beneath the at times "sunny" exterior. The academy did a particularly lovely job with the final Allegro, bringing a wonderful night of music-making to a very rousing finish.

April 04, 2006
The reverberations of the Roaring Twenties

Today's New York Sun contains my review of Joshua Zeitz's new book Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern:

Pity, if you can, the young women of today. Is there anything left for us that's truly shocking? It's all been done before - provocative clothing, illegal drinking, dirty dancing, and, of course, sex. Blame the flapper, girls. That "notorious character type who bobbed her hair, smoked cigarettes, drank gin, sported short skirts, and passed her evenings in steamy jazz clubs, where she danced in a shock ingly immodest fashion with a revolving cast of male suitors," as Joshua Zeitz describes her, got there first.
Flapper is a lively history of what its author calls "America's first sexual revolution":
While girls were freed from the shackles of the parental home, they also lost its protection. Mr. Zeitz says men first began to expect sexual favors in return for an expensive night on the town during the roaring '20s. A larger-than-life woman like Coco Chanel may have effected a revolution in the way women dress. But when asked how she, a poor orphan, started an empire, she answered, "Two gentlemen were outbidding each other over my hot little body." The revolution only went so far. (She never seemed bitter. When friends urged her to pay her models a living wage, she refused, declaring in a familiar French formulation, "Let them take lovers.")
The Sun's full site is available only to subscribers. But it appears you can read the whole review if you click on it from this page.

April 02, 2006
Thought for the day

"No people can be great who have ceased to be virtuous."

óSamuel Johnson in "An Introduction to the Political State of Great Britain"