27 June 2009

Stonewall, 40 Years On

Some years ago, one of my godsons was assigned to write an essay on someone he knew who had been discriminated against. He chose me as his subject.

I was surprised by this, since I’m not in the habit of thinking of myself as a victim — at least, not in matters of civil rights. Nevertheless, Will laid out the case: I could not marry my boyfriend,* who had no right to visit me in the hospital if I were sick; in many parts of the country, I could be denied certain employment, and I could not speak or move openly without fearing for my physical safety; and so on. It was an uncomfortable list, all the more so because it had been compiled with the clear vision of a child.

Yet it was a demonstration of the wisdom that lies at the core of “coming out”: “They can’t hate us if they know us,” as Harvey Milk said, and in the forty years since the Stonewall riots, a couple of generations of openly gay Americans succeeded in making my godchildren’s generation more accepting than any that has preceded it. My godson and his sister have been active in their high school’s Gay–Straight Alliance — an organization I can’t even imagine having existed in my school.

That’s part of what’s being celebrated this weekend in Paris and in New York. We’ve come a long way. Too many of us are still discriminated against, too many of our civil rights are still denied us. Some other countries are more progressive than America (or France), while others lag far behind — most often excusing bigotry as God’s will. And yet the world is already a better place, just because some New York drag queens started to fight back, forty years ago.

Tree at (and on) the Stonewall bar

The Stonewall is my bar of choice in New York, though less for its historic significance than for the presence of Fredd Tree, my friend who tends bar there on weekends. Tree is a Stonewall veteran, arrested the first night of the riots (though he slipped free of the cops), and he knows many other veterans. Stroll around Greenwich Village with him, or hang out with him at a bar, and you’ll meet them, too.

They’re old now, most of them, and yet the stories they tell seem to come from an era much older than they, of lives that seem like fictions, impossible to believe, of places that seem like another world. They tell of violence and loneliness and pain. They tell of constant struggles but also of connections, both fleeting and enduring, and of community born of identity.

In 1969, I wasn’t aware of the Stonewall riots, and not really aware of homosexuality.** It took me a long time to understand that the gay rights movement might have anything to do with me — that it wasn’t limited to the fantastical creatures on parade but that its purpose embraced everybody, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered and straight. The benefits of a more just society must also fall to those who already had benefits to begin with.

It took me even longer to understand the significance of “Pride,” and to this day, the best I can do is grasp that it’s the opposite of shame. We are not ashamed. We will not be treated shamefully. While I accept this concept collectively, I’m still having trouble understanding it with respect to myself. Too much of my life is still spent in timidity or outright fear, too much of my behavior still stems from shame. Not all of this has to do with my sexual identity — but a lot of it does. I grew up in a different time, and it shows. That I have the luxury even to reflect upon such personal matters, and to do so openly, is another sign that the society in which I live has evolved: I can navel-gaze because I am not more occupied by fears of blackmail, beatings, and arrest.

My friends and I are free now to build lasting relationships, to take the energy that once would have gone to secrecy and stealth, repression and denial, and to channel it into open, productive behavior. To buy a house together, as Eric and Dan just did. To celebrate a partnership of 29 years, as Darren and Steven just did. To work side by side, as Wash and Richard do. To marry, as David and David did. To love and to live, to make our own choices — with pride — as I am trying to do.

Get used to it.

*He would not have considered marriage to me to be an attractive prospect. I drove him crazy. But it might have been salutary to know we had the option.

**TV in those days offered a few gay icons — Paul Lynde, Charles Nelson Reilly, Tiny Tim — but I didn’t understand them as gay. I just thought they were silly.

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25 June 2009

Human Nature

Those were long spring nights, and it seemed there was always a party under the moonlight. I thought I was in love with the girl — and she thought she was in love with me — but never at the same time, and as things turned out, we were both mistaken. And yet as we danced, she was a “P.Y.T.” — a Pretty Young Thing. The only happiness on earth, I believed, was centered in her smile and her shimmying body.

The tremulous alto that soared through the stereo loudspeakers gave voice to my feelings; the squeaking synthesizer, the thumping guitar and bouncing percussion merely echoed my pulse. His shrieks and howls were mine, uncontrollable, and it was a lucky break that his cries drowned out mine.

But the girl was no dummy. She never asked, “Why? Why?” Never needed to be told, “It’s human nature.”

No matter. So long as the album played, youth and love were ours; and now, years later, she’s still a P.Y.T. To see her smile is to hear the song again.

You have memories like these, too, and it will be easier now to think of the good times, when we think of Michael Jackson. The strangeness of his later years will seem less important. We’ll remember “I’ll Be There” and the Motown Reunion Special, and we will wonder that such a man once moonwalked among us.

Nevertheless, I can guarantee you, there will be a raft of “shocking revelations” and tell-alls for at least a couple of years to come. The horror show begins tonight. But no one will be able to explain to my satisfaction what went wrong. Some parts of “Human Nature” remain, after all, inscrutable.

So tonight, I reflect merely upon this: for a while, he made us happy — millions and millions of us, united.

A screen grab of Michael Jackson’s performance of “Billie Jean,”
from the Motown 25th-Anniversary Special.
If you weren’t watching, you can’t know what happened to America that night.
It was like nothing we’d ever seen — and we’ll never see again.
(And since YouTube took down the clip, you won’t see it now.)

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23 June 2009

Un Frisson Franco-Belge

Susan Graham, in a publicity portrait by Dario Acosta

In perhaps the most famous scene in the film This Is Spinal Tap (okay, apart from “Stonehenge”), Christopher Guest, as Nigel Tufnel, explains that the band has had all of its amps modified “to go up to eleven,” for those moments that require “that extra push” of intensity. It’s been my good fortune to witness classical singers who, without artificial amplification of any kind, can deliver a performance that is good, even great — when something else kicks in. Extra power, heightened sensitivity, sublime expression. Suddenly, they’ve gone to eleven.

Susan Graham went to eleven, and quite possibly twelve, at the end of her recital Sunday night in Brussels’ historic De Munt/La Monnaie theater. Following a program of French mélodies that drew on their recent recording, Un Frisson Français, Susan and pianist Malcolm Martineau offered as their only encore Reynaldo Hahn’s “À Chloris.”

She’s been singing this song for several years, and recorded it three times. And yet, though her interpretation was sublime from the get-go, she hasn’t stopped exploring the music. Each time she sings it again, I’ve made fresh discoveries, almost as if hearing it for the first time.

On Sunday night, her approach seemed more intimate than ever, almost conversational, and she began by leaning over the piano to look at Martineau, before turning to face us in the closing verses. Since intimacy is one of her special gifts — an ability to make a listener feel she’s singing for him alone, as if nothing on earth exists but two people and a song — she took “À Chloris” where few if any other singers could go. Scale back too far, and another singer would lose the audience. Not Susan.* So masterful was her control that you weren’t even aware of the sheer power she wielded: you never had to strain to hear her, yet you couldn’t help but lean forward.

And so, for the first time, I cried upon listening to “À Chloris.” After the recital, Susan told me that she had come close to crying, as well.

The Theater De Munt/La Monnaie, Brussels
While desperately seeking Susan after the show,
I got to run all over this place: backstage, onstage, out front....
Photo from Wikipedia by Luc Viatour

There were so many questions I wanted to ask her — and Malcolm Martineau, too, for that matter — about how they had arrived at this particular program, about how their interpretations had evolved. Malcolm told me that, though each composer in question was represented by a single selection, in a program spanning a century of music, he and Susan had given particular attention to crafting sets according to themes (nature, descriptions of animals, love songs). They also created an internal architecture, so that each number built on the one before it, and each set contributed to an overall arc. That said, it was a lot for a listener to absorb, and I was grateful when the audience succumbed to the temptation to applaud in the middle of a set, especially after humorous numbers. I didn’t want to see Susan and Malcolm lose their concentration, yet I sometimes needed to shift gears a little bit before listening to the next mélodie.

Was it easier or more difficult to perform these selections for an audience who understood the lyrics? Both, Susan said. On the one hand, she could play with the words more, and use subtler gestures to underline her point. Yet the possibility of making a mistake made her nervous. That’s never a concern, she says, when she’s singing Italian in Italy, or German in Austria, or English in the States.

French repertoire is a great fit for her (to state the obvious), giving as it does full vent to her wit, her sensuality, her passions. I was especially happy to share with an audience the fun of her comic numbers, such as Ravel’s “Le Paon,” which was downright hilarious, and more fun in a room crowded with strangers who were laughing, too. Susan knows just how far to push the jokes, and having heard too many recitalists who kill jokes by overplaying them, I admire her restraint and her flawless timing.

She explored dramatic territory, too, with an exuberant account of Bizet’s “Chanson d’Avril,” a heartbreaking “Au pays où se fait la guerre” (by Duparc), and a tour-de-force “La Dame de Monte-Carlo” (by Poulenc), which is really a seven-minute, five-act opera for solo vocalist. A good recitalist must be a great storyteller, and Susan and Malcolm easily surpassed that standard with every number.

Pianist Malcolm Martineau

I was seated in the second balcony, with a good view of Malcolm’s hands on the keyboard, and a gratifying reminder of the size of Susan’s voice. So often she makes me feel as if she’s whispering in my ear (and especially when I’m listening with a headset to her CDs), but she really does know how to fill the house with her voice. Even the softest, floated high notes hit their mark. They’re like moonlight that gives warmth.

On the way to Brussels, I’d wavered. The trip seemed so impromptu, so self-indulgent — hadn’t I just gone to hear Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet in Bordeaux? Hadn’t I just heard Joyce DiDonato in New York? Am I not dying to hear Ana María Martínez in Rusalka and Joyce Castle in The Consul this summer? How much music do I really need?

The answer is — a lot. The past several weeks have been a bit rough for me.

Beyond that, I tell myself, I’d be a fool not to take advantage of the opportunity to hear artists of this caliber in live performance. They’re worth going the extra mile — especially because they’re such cool people offstage, too. And until such time as I become the reincarnation of Ludwig II of Bavaria, it’s not as if I can invite them to my house to sing whenever I please. (The fear, though, is that I’ll turn into a smaller-scale Ludwig, like the hero of Satyajit Ray’s The Music Room, who also bankrupts himself with his hunger for art — then dies of it!)

The need for rationalization began to melt away as soon as Susan started to sing, and by the time we got to “À Chloris,” I knew why I’d come. She went to eleven, and quite possibly twelve — and she took me with her.

*NOTE: One key to Susan’s gift of intimacy, I’ve realized, is her ability to hold the stage. Once you look at her, you can’t look away — whereupon she’s free to do what she likes.

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22 June 2009

This Must Be Brussels

Roll out the carpet: The Grand Place
(The carpet of flowers is not a permanent feature;
when I’ve visited, there have been nothing but cobblestones here.)

Copyright (c) of the Belgian Tourist Office NYC/USA

Susan Graham’s recital Sunday night provided me with the opportunity to reacquaint myself with Brussels, a city I’ve visited only once before and still feel I haven’t got much of a handle on. As a tourist destination, it’s hardly the playground that other European capitals are: Brussels doesn’t boast a tremendous wealth of museums and monuments; outside the old quarter, it’s not particularly beautiful; and once you’ve seen the Mannekin-pis, you’ve ticked off nearly every must-see attraction the city has to offer. Yet it’s a nice place to visit, especially in good weather, when you can kick back and enjoy a beer in a café.

In a way, the Mannekin-pis strikes me as a fairly apt symbol of Brussels’ attitude toward tourism. “You don’t think we’re going to stop going about our regular business, just because you’re here, do you?” he seems to say. Yet he gives the visitor something to smile about, and how many other European monuments can say the same?

Copyright (c) of the Belgian Tourist Office NYC/USA

As the capital of Belgium (a relatively young nation, born in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars), Brussels unites the country’s two principal cultures, the French-speaking Walloons and the Dutch-speaking Flemish. The city is also the birthplace and testing-ground of the European experiment, first in the creation of the BeNeLux union (Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg), and later as the de-facto capital of the European Union. As Peter de Caluwe, general director of Brussels’ Théâtre de la Monnaie/De Munt, reminded me on Sunday night, these three attempts at political and socio-economic are closely linked; he believes that the fate of Belgium points to that of Europe as a whole. As he put it, “If we can’t make this work here, how can it work anywhere?”

Historically, the Walloons were bourgeois and prosperous, and they snubbed the Flemish whenever they could. Recent changes in the economy have meant that, for the first time, the Flemish are wealthier, yet this hasn’t reduced tensions between the communities — to the point that splitting the nation in two is a real possibility.

The Grand Place at Twilight
Copyright (c) of the Belgian Tourist Office NYC/USA

Predictably, language is the first frontline in the conflict between the cultures. Officially, Brussels, like all of Belgium, is bilingual, and de Caluwe told me that his theater, the nation’s principal cultural institution that is neither Walloon nor Flemish, rigorously observes the parity of the languages. One year, the theater will be publicized as “De Munt/La Monnaie”; the next, it’s “La Monnaie/De Munt.” Translations of the libretto are projected over the stage during opera performances, with screens precisely parallel. One season, Flemish will be on the left, French on the right. The next season, French goes on the left, and Flemish on the right.

Fluent in both languages (and in English, too), de Caluwe seems to enjoy the linguistic balance, but he notes that, historically, most of the Flemish had to learn French in order to make a living — whereas many Walloons could thrive perfectly well without learning any Flemish at all.

Guild Houses on the Grand Place
Copyright (c) of the Belgian Tourist Office NYC/USA

I heard lots of Flemish spoken in Brussels this weekend, and there were even a couple of occasions when I began speaking French (almost on auto-pilot), only to realize that the person I addressed was infinitely more comfortable in Flemish — or English.

Happily, the casual visitor to Brussels can stay out of politics and enjoy the scenery — and the food. It’s typically hearty stuff, but who doesn’t like moules-frites (mussels with French fries — which are really Belgian, by the way), with a good glass of Belgian beer? I even had some carbonnade (beef stew) and some anguille (eel), though I didn’t have time for any rabbit, a staple of Belgian cuisine.

One random cultural footnote: Brussels is the capital of ancient Brabantia, whose legendary heroine, Geneviève de Brabant, fascinated Offenbach as well as Marcel in À la Recherche du temps perdu, and whose heirs the Guermantes turned out to be.

NOTE: Photographs used here were taken from the website of the Belgian Tourist Office NYC/USA.

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21 June 2009

Au Bord de l’Eau Bordelaise

Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet’s concert with the Orchestre National de l’Aquitaine last weekend provided the impetus for something I’ve long desired to do: namely, to go to Bordeaux when I wasn’t simply visiting family (though I got the chance to do that, too) and to get a good look at the place.

It is, after all, an immensely appealing city, an inland port whose history of prosperity can be seen in row after row of immaculate limestone buildings along the riverfront and throughout the heart of town. Their neoclassical elegance is irresistible to me, really, and it’s led me to think of Bordeaux as la ville blanche, the white city — though Martine Michel informs me that a) it’s really dorée, or golden; and b) before a recent cleanup campaign, the town was pretty grimy and grey.

The Grand Théâtre

No matter: I like it, and one of the best examples of the 18th-century architecture is the Grand Théâtre, home to the Opéra de Bordeaux, where I caught a performance of Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea, with a terrific cast including Jérôme Varnier and Jean Paul Fouchécourt (the definitive Arnalta) in Robert Carsen’s staging.

But Bordeaux is an old city, and the heart of town has been beating in much the same spot on the banks of the Garonne for a couple of millennia. A few vestiges of the ancient Roman settlement of Burdigala survive, most notably the “Gate of the Rising Sun” of an old coliseum, known now as the Palais Gallien, or Palace of the Gauls: it happens to stand near Martine’s home. There’s fine medieval architecture, too, including the Cathedral of Saint-André, with its detached tower (something of a Bordelais fashion statement), the Porte Cailhau, and the Grosse Cloche.

The Porte Cailhau

The Musée de l’Aquitaine sets out to provide some context for all the city’s monuments, with artifacts dating back to cavemen, plenty of Gaulois pottery, a wealth of Roman bibelots, and castings of the tombs of two of the region’s most distinguished children, Eleanor of Aquitaine and Michel de Montaigne. (Eleanor never spent much time here, being distracted by her duties as Queen of England, but Montaigne was Mayor of Bordeaux for a while.)

Local girl, sorta: Hepburn as Aliénor

A temporary exhibition explores Bordeaux’s role in the slave trade: as the curators note, only a tiny percentage of the local economy was directly linked to transporting slaves, but a bigger chunk of income was derived from transporting products made by slaves, and helping to maintain French plantations and colonies. The willingness to look the city’s complicity in the face spoke well of the museum and of the city itself.

A harbor scene by van Mieghem (1875–1930)

The shipping theme dominated at the Musée des Beaux-Arts, too, where an exhibition of paintings depicted a variety of vessels and ports, storms and sailors, and more than a few prostitutes. Several works by Eugeen van Mieghem, previously unknown to me, impressed me profoundly; evidently, there was an exhibition of his works in New York last year, and I’m sorry I missed it. I didn’t have time to check out the Musée’s permanent collection — but its permanence suggests that I’ll have another opportunity, some other time, right?

Not a ship, yet a prow: The Tour Pey Berland, at the Cathedral of Saint-André

It was a short trip, really, but I had deadline pressures back on the home front, and in any case I didn’t want to exhaust Martine’s hospitality — after all, I want to come back. We had a terrific time at the Saint-Michel Market on Saturday morning and puttering around in the heat and sun before I headed back to Beynes, where the rain promptly began to fall.

NOTE: There is wine in Bordeaux, too, as you may have heard, and though I’ve made some forays into that territory over the years, I’m really waiting until Mark Dennis comes over here to guide me — then I’ll have something to write about!

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20 June 2009

Who Will Watch the White House?

Editors at The Washington Post this week decided to discontinue one of its best-read — and most controversial — blogs, “White House Watch,” and to terminate the contract of its author, Dan Froomkin. This is an alarming turn of events. Froomkin’s blog, a daily round-up of news reporting and analysis by other writers, accompanied by Froomkin’s own journalism, was relentless in its pursuit of accountability, not only for those in the Bush and Obama Administrations but also for those in the White House press corps.

Long before most of his colleagues, Froomkin sounded warnings on issues such as the buildup to the war in Iraq and the use of “extreme interrogation” (which the Post still refuses to describe as “torture” — thus affirming, inadvertently or not, the Bush Administration’s assertion that torture was not used). In recent weeks, Froomkin has scrutinized the disconnect between Obama’s public statements, both in the campaign and in office, on issues such as government secrecy, civil rights, and security. Though he’s liberal, he never made any secret of that: readers can make their own judgments because they always know where he stands. And he has shown no inclination to play anyone’s patsy.

For this reader, Froomkin’s blog has been a vital resource for the kind of information I need to remain a responsible American citizen while living abroad. If my country’s leaders are not being honest, I need to know that. It is the purpose of ethical journalism to question, investigate, and expose, and to represent the first and most constant step in the ongoing process of public accountability. When an administration acts on false pretexts or lies outright to the American people, it’s the duty of good reporters to speak out.

Gleaning material from dozens of publications and official documents, Froomkin regularly has done so — but he has also exposed just how often the Post’s reporters merely accept the White House positions at face value, even in matters of life and death, war and peace. The stakes don’t change merely because the leadership changes, and the risks are just as great when reporters fawn over Obama as when they jumped on Bush’s bandwagon to Iraq. The nation can’t ever afford a chorus of cosseted parrots on the White House beat.

Thus, Froomkin’s blog discomfited both the Administration and the press corps. By railing against the cozy symbiosis between official spin and complacent reporting (“I’ll give you access if you cooperate” / “I’ll run your statements if you cooperate”), he found few friends on either side. Even the Post’s ombudsman dissed him, in the Post’s own pages, after which the editorial board changed the name of his blog from “White House Briefing” (which they claimed sounded too impartial) to “White House Watch.”

The board now asserts that Froomkin’s readership has dropped off since Obama took office — though they have provided no figures to support that, much less any explanation why that would justify terminating a tough, independent column. (One that is, moreover, eminently readable and presumably cheap to produce.) The board’s decision speaks ill of its judgment, and of its commitment to good journalism.

“White House Watch” will continue for a few more weeks; if you are not already a reader, I urge you to become one. If you like what you see, write a letter of protest. The editors need to have a clear sense of what they’re losing.

After Froomkin leaves, I will not boycott the Post. I cannot afford to do so. For all its faults, the paper still provides too much valuable information to be disregarded. But I will make a point of following Froomkin to his next assignment — and I urge you to do that, too.

NOTES: Froomkin is also deputy editor at Nieman Watchdog, a newsletter of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University that raises “Questions the Press Should Ask.” It’s an impressive site, and Froomkin will continue to contribute to it.

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19 June 2009

Elie Kakou

Madame Sarfati: Que me vaut l’honneur de cette visite?

The tenth anniversary this month of the death of comic Elie Kakou has been the occasion of commemoration: a book, a “Best Of” DVD, a television documentary, many tributes, and in anticipation of all this, a truly spiffy official website, full of clips, quotes, and pictures. In short, nothing but reminders of his prodigious talent — and of how much more he might have achieved, if only he hadn’t died so damned young. I became aware of his work only a few years ago, appreciating not only his wit and his insight into the human condition, but also his uncanny ability to speak French in such a way that I understand everything he says.

Born in Tunisia to a Jewish family in 1960, Kakou grew up in Marseille. Like Lily Tomlin’s, his stage act consisted of a portrait gallery of brilliantly realized oddballs, and many of his characters sprang directly from his personal background: his best-known character, Madame Sarfati, a zaftig Jewish immigrant and housewife, was patterned after Kakou’s grandmother and other relatives; Les Professeurs, at once terrifying and ludicrous, reflected his high-school teachers; Le Kakou (photo at right) was a pint-sized Marseille tough, forever ready to “crrrrrrrush” those who give him trouble. Though his website cites first and foremost his use of costumes, those were in reality rather slapdash, and it’s Kakou’s observational gifts that brought these portraits to life. He captures the telling gesture, the turn of phrase, the emotional core of each character. You realize that he must have consecrated an enormous percentage of his too-short life to studying people, and the documentary confirms this.

He mixed the distinctive (and sometimes bizarre) with the universal, and perhaps no other character sums up that mixture better than Madame Sarfati. I haven’t known many Tunisian-Jewish immigrants in this country, but I have known plenty of mothers. As Madame Sarfati frets about her daughter, Fortunée — “35 years old already and still not married!” — and her wandering husband, too, I see real women I’ve known, and sentiments I’ve heard often, albeit seldom in heavily accented French with frequent interjections in Hebrew and Arabic. Heavily padded, too, she is nevertheless wonderfully graceful, like most of Kakou’s characters, testifying to his mime training and his love of dance.

In some routines, Kakou also portrayed Fortunée herself, an aspiring dancer of limited skill and the unfortunate heir to her mother’s generous hips. But she’s ingenious, ready to do whatever it takes to land a part. At one point, she tells a casting director that, if there’s anybody he wants bumped off, she knows where to find a hit man. Yeah, I’ve known a few actresses like Fortunée.

Le Prof d’Anglais: What is ze day, today?

Presumably employed at a parochial school, the Professeurs all wear the same hassock, looking (to their chagrin) like Gargamel in The Smurfs, but they’re clearly delineated according to the subject matter they teach. The Prof de Français is a wizened, nasty-tempered old tyrant. “Describe for me in a single word the character of Julien Sorel in Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir,” he says, before pointing to a female student, also played by Kakou.

“Well,” she replies hesitantly, “I think that Julien Sorel is the kind of person who — ”

“I said one word!” barks the Prof de Français. “Zero!”

The Prof de Sport is a harried fool who doesn’t know he’s got a paper fish stuck on his back (the French equivalent of a “Kick Me” sign). The Prof d’Anglais has pretty good grammar but a lousy accent, and some of the strangest language exercises you ever heard: “Repeat after me! Voulez-vous repeat after me? What is ze difference between a chicken and a house?”

One of the Profs interrupts himself at several points to deliver the following warning: “If I catch any one of you talking — whispering — chattering — I’ll send you STRAIGHT to the office of the principal, Monsieur Popp!” (He pronounces that name in something less than one syllable, by the way.) I never went to high school in France, yet I grew up with all these teachers.

L’Attachée de Presse: Just like a flower!
Pitching Plouf Detergent with Lemon — three slices!

My personal favorite is the Attachée de Presse, who reminds me precisely of a couple of real-life press attachés I’ve worked with. (No, not all of them, and no, I’m not telling which ones.) Blithe and bonny and not quite competent, she typically makes her appearances whenever Elie Kakou is ostensibly engaged offstage. Most often, she wants to locate any critics in the audience and to be sure they like their seats. She’s immensely impressed with her own importance — it is she, after all, who mailed out the press invitations — and she credits herself with launching several show-biz careers, though the only example she can cite is Casimir, the French equivalent of Barney the Purple Dinosaur.

She’s deeply interested in whether the audience is enjoying itself: “Ben alors, c’est un spectacle comique — faut rigoler!” (Well, it’s a comedy show — you have to laugh!) She admits, however, that she herself doesn’t like the show much. At times, she’s pressed into other duties: to deliver a commercial for Plouf Detergent (in English), or to offer up her imitation of Dalida. That particular spectacle comique typically ended with the entire audience joining in a chorus of “Gigi l’Amoroso.”

Madame Sarfati, in an e-card from the Kakou website.
Many of Kakou’s punchlines have become catch-phrases.

In all of his routines, Kakou demonstrated a genuine affection for the eccentrics he portrayed. Madame Sarfati and the Attachée are quite lovable, actually, and though we do laugh at them, there’s nothing mean-spirited about Kakou’s humor. It’s probably not an accident that he gave that Marseillais tough his own name: without humor and art to uplift him, Elie Kakou might have wound up like that little guy, ferociously defending his turf in some dive bar. A truly sympathetic portrayal.

Kakou had just launched a movie career at the time of his death, and his command of English makes one wonder if he might not have been able to translate that career to British or American films, as well. Time wasn’t on his side, however, and he remains one of the biggest what-ifs of French popular culture. We’re lucky for what we got of him, I know, yet like any great entertainer, he left us wanting more.

NOTE: His French audiences never seemed to have any trouble understanding the English portions of his act; I’d be fascinated to know how Anglophone readers fare, should you watch any of the clips on his website.

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18 June 2009

Oh, the ‘Pain’!

Scenes from a Gana bakery in Marseille.

The French take their bread very seriously — or used to, anyway. The hunger for bread was one factor in the buildup to the French Revolution, of course, and the language has so many words for different types of bread that the original formulation of “Let them eat cake” was actually “Let them eat brioche” — another type of bread. (Eggy, sweet, and fluffy, it’s close kin to challah.) I’m always struck that the French have separate words for the inside (mie) and the outside (croûte, from which comes our word “crust”) of the bread. Clearly, my neighbors have given the matter a great deal of thought. Linguistically and philosophically, what snow is to the Eskimos, bread is to the French.

Theirs is a glorious tradition, and the government has designed legal and tax structures to make it easier for small, independent bakeries to continue to do their old-fashioned business in the modern era. Stroll around the streets at the right hour in almost any community, and you can smell the yeast and butter — as you cannot, in other European countries. Yet as France comes more and more to look like the United States, with supermarkets, shopping centers, and fast-food chains everywhere you turn, it becomes more and more difficult to find good bread here.

A sign of changing times: The multi-grain Flûte Gana

The essence of good bread is a balance of tensions, first between the croûte, which should be crusty, and the mie, which should not. The mie should be dense, yet airy; chewy, yet not rubbery. If the airholes are all the same size, we are unhappy, for that’s a sure sign of pain industriel, or mass-produced bread. Unfortunately, that’s what you find now, in most places. Above all, bread should be fresh. Ideally, you buy your bread in the morning, and it’s still a bit warm at lunchtime. You do not eat indiscriminately, but slowly, savoring the bread and assessing its character with each bite.

The town of Beynes has had mixed luck with its bakeries. When I first started to visit here, there was a very good bakery just down the street, on the Place Saint-Martin, but the owner retired and sold the lease to a newcomer — whose bread was so bad that the locals pretty much ran him out of town, shortly after he arrived. Now the shop is a hair salon.

Nearby is a new shop, but they don’t do their baking on the premises: the bread each day arrives in a truck from a town down the road. Though the taste and price of this bread are commendable, its freshness inevitably suffers in transit. On the outskirts of the Bourg, another shop offers bread baked on the premises, but there’s a chasm between price and quality. The good stuff is excellent, and extremely expensive.* The reasonably priced stuff is characterless. In protest, I seldom go there. Weirdly enough, the local supermarket, part of the G-20 chain, does its own baking. It’s not outstanding, but it’s reliably pretty good bread.

I’m more than a little spoiled, because I spent so many formative hours at the table of Henri Boutrit, whose palate was so cultivated and so demanding. His bread of choice was the Flûte Gana, a more slender baguette carefully crafted and entirely respectful of proportion, balance, tension, and character. It’s somewhat more expensive than many other breads, yet you get outstanding value for your Euro.

The Flûte Gana is the hallmark of Bernard Ganachaud, whose flagship bakery is in Paris but who has made a franchise of his recipe, so that you can get a good Flûte in many parts of France — including Royan, where Henri bought his daily bread at the Marché Central. Alas, though we’re just snooty enough in Beynes to prefer and to pay for Ganachaud’s recipe, nobody in the area has bought into the franchise, and so we muddle along. Even in Paris, I have to travel out of my way (at least two Métro stops) in order to find a good Gana. I confess I don’t always make the effort.

Yet I’m struck that I, an outsider, seem to care more about French bread than many of the natives do. What business does an American have, telling a Frenchman about bread?

*Even the most expensive French bakeries seem cheap when compared with the $4 — and more — charged by Americans for better-quality bread. The Hastings-on-Hudson A&P is a prime offender. To the people of Westchester, I say: Aux armes, citoyens!

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12 June 2009

Things That Go ‘Wesendonck’ in the Night

JMC in Wagner’s Siegfried, with tenor Lance Ryan.
One of these days, Wotan willing, I’ll hear her sing this, too.

If I have any complaint at all about the career of soprano Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet, it’s the uncanny ability of her managers to schedule her choicest engagements at moments when I’m least able to hear her. With clockwork regularity, she sings wonderful roles precisely when I’ve got a deadline, in towns that are just beyond my reach. Not to be paranoid, but I’ve come to feel almost as if her managers were keeping me under surveillance.

That’s why I was so thrilled to learn, at the last minute, that Jeanne-Michèle was singing a program of Wagner with the Orchestre National de l’Aquitaine, in Bordeaux, this week. I was — believe it or not — in between deadlines of my own, and Bordeaux is quite easy to get to. Moreover, Jeanne-Michèle’s would perform the Wesendonck Lieder and the Death of Isolde, and after the retrograde weeks I’ve endured lately, I needed to hear that music. I was off like a rocket to the south.

As Isolde, in some other production I wasn’t able to see.
(That’s tenor John Treleaven as Tristan.)

This was the first time Jeanne-Michèle had sung the Wesendonck Lieder with full orchestra, she told me, though of course she’s sung Isolde all over the place: it’s one of her calling cards. I’d never heard her in any live performance of Wagner, so this was a rare opportunity on many levels.

The sheer power of her instrument is remarkable, like some tawny panther that leaps out at a listener, surging over the orchestra, prowling around the auditorium. In this case, the auditorium was the Palais des Sports — yes, an arena — where the Orchestre frequently offers symphonic concerts. (Whether this is a good idea on other evenings, I can’t say, but this time it worked. Jeanne-Michèle is a rock star, baby.) Give her the right material, such as the Wesendonck Lied “Im Treibhaus,” in which the instrumental component is a storm of moods and passions, and what you get is a double-whammy force of nature.

Yet she knows when to scale back, to caress a phrase with sublime tenderness, and these selections gave her plenty of opportunity to do just that. The wings of her “Der Engel” are like those of a butterfly. Just as I knew they would be.

Her connection to this music was demonstrated in visible ways, too, most tellingly during the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde, when she was seated onstage, next to conductor Kwame Ryan. As I say, she’s sung Isolde many times, and the music conjures very specific associations for her: as she listened, she saw people she cares about, so clearly that I could almost have drawn their outlines in the empty air before her.

Best of all, her appreciation didn’t spoil ours. I had my own visions, too, standing right beside hers.

Afterward, I had the great fun of introducing her to my sister-in-law, and of accompanying her to a souper hosted and attended by other really cool people. Is her life always like this? I hope so, for her sake. And as for my sake — she may make a Wagnerite of me yet.

Force of Nature: Really, she’s a Discovery Channel unto herself.

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11 June 2009

Madeline Kahn: Progress Report 4

This week I had the pleasure of an interview with Bill Cosby, star and executive producer of the sitcom (1996–2000) on which Madeline Kahn gave the final performances of her career. I call it an “interview,” yet it’s far more accurate to call it an hour-long monologue that began when I said, “Hello,” and ended when Dr. Cosby said, “Goodbye.”

I am by no means complaining. The gentleman has been delivering monologues for something like half a century, and on this occasion, he offered anecdote and analysis, poetry and laugh-out-loud comedy — in abundance — for me alone. (Ultimately, I’ll share it with you.)

In the aftermath of that interview, I’m struck by how many of Madeline’s colleagues in comedy have wielded an astonishing influence on our culture.

In Cosby’s case that influence seems to have been planned from the start. His standup routines, his sitcoms and educational TV shows, and even his TV commercials emphasized the themes that unite Americans, focusing on experiences common to most of us. Ethnicity had nothing to do with his humor — and yet it was ever-present, like the paintings in the Huxtable living-room. “Without denying who I am,” Cosby seemed to say, “I can prove to you that you and I are more alike than different.”

That stance wasn’t as revolutionary as Richard Pryor’s (to cite the example with which Cosby is most likely to be compared for all eternity), yet it has proved fundamental to the construction of a more equitable and ultimately more humane society in the United States. That isn’t to say that we don’t have a long way yet to go. But would we have gotten this far without Cosby? I sincerely doubt it.

It didn’t hurt that the material was awfully good, specific and sharply observed, and it holds up beautifully. In preparing for our interview, I went to YouTube to listen to a few of the old routines — many of which I knew by heart, because my cousin Paulie (Midwestern, suburban, blond) used to recite them all. And decades later, Bill Cosby is still “a very funny fellow,” as the title of one of his albums ran.

Another of Madeline’s colleagues, Lily Tomlin, has done something similar, slipping fairly subtle messages on feminism, sexism, and racism into her comedy. The beautiful “Tell Miss Sweeney Goodbye” monologue is tender and very funny, tapping into the fairly typical childhood experiences of classroom aspirations and humiliations while focusing on a young girl’s crush on her schoolteacher. Most people can identify with that, I think, yet the monologue is also a depiction of awakening sexuality — gay sexuality.

There are glimpses of a similar perspective on Tomlin’s second record album, And That’s the Truth, in which five-and-a-half-year-old Edith Ann has something very like a crush on her neighbor, a working single woman named Lily.

Lily Tomlin raised my consciousness in other ways, too. She was the first person I was aware of to use the term “Ms.” (Somebody had to be the first, after all.) Offstage, she was a model of strength, intelligence, and compassion, and she remains that, while onstage she can summon the power to populate a whole city with distinctive characters. There’s a reason that we use the word “omnipotent” to describe her, and it’s not only because that’s how Ernestine used to describe the phone company. And a woman’s power is what feminism is all about.

I arrived at the work of Mel Brooks a little late to be affected by him as profoundly as I was by Tomlin and Cosby, yet as an adult I have seen that his films are infused with a highly developed political consciousness. Very often, his crudest jokes force us to confront unpleasant truths about our society and about ourselves. As a result, the power of certain stereotypes is diminished.

Blazing Saddles is a perfect example: over the course of the film, the “N-word” loses its power to offend, and Mandingo-like notions of black men’s sexuality are turned on their heads. (Brooks does something similar with Madeline’s character in Young Frankenstein, a stereotypical Princess.)

I spoke with Brooks on Inauguration Day, when I observed that it was entirely possible that America might not have a black President, if Brooks hadn’t first offered us a black sheriff. And I’m far from the first person to observe that many Americans have responded to Barack Obama as if he were a kind of updated, political Cliff Huxtable.

It’s been exciting — a privilege — to speak with these people. They helped to create the cultural values with which I live. They were the kinds of artists, the kinds of adults I wanted to grow up to become. Our conversations helped me to focus on their influences and the manifold meanings of their works, and to appreciate them better. (Just as my conversations with Betty Aberlin have helped me to understand her work, and Fred Rogers’; my conversation with Hal Prince made me realize how much he has shaped my ideas of theater, too. And the list, I’m pleased to say, goes on.)

Moreover, those conversations have served to remind me that these are real people, not just images on a screen. They are men and women doing a job, teaching us, and somehow that makes them even more extraordinary.

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06 June 2009

My Program Era

Low Library, Columbia University:
No book of mine is contained within its walls.

The June 8 issue of The New Yorker contains a lengthy, thoughtful essay by Louis Menand, “Show or Tell: Should Creative Writing Be Taught?” Menand uses a new book, Mark McGurl’s The Program Era (which I haven’t read), to examine creative-writing programs and their influence, how they alter the expectations of academic institutions, of young writers, and of readers, how they have changed literature itself. Among the questions raised by Menand’s essay are whether writing actually can be taught, and whether the programs themselves are a good thing. The answer in both cases is a down-to-the-finish, highly qualified, perhaps reluctant “yes.”

The answer came as a relief, almost. I could easily wish for a ringing endorsement, a hearty slap on the back that getting a degree in creative writing — such as the one I earned at Columbia in 1991 — is a good idea. As Menand surveys the development of writing programs, weighs their merits against their faults, and traces the pedigrees (Writer X studied with Writer Y, who studied with Writer Z), I’m struck by how little thought I have put into my graduate education. In recent years, I’ve become almost afraid to ponder what I got out of it, or whether I made a mistake in applying.

Writing programs rely heavily on workshops, where, as Menand observes, the student writer is judged and advised by other student writers, who presumably have no more idea how to write than any other amateur would. And when I attended, the Columbia workshops were poorly constructed to benefit the aspiring novelist. One could submit at most two chapters per semester, and unless one had just begun a new work, it was therefore almost impossible for any but the most intuitive classmates to divine the narrative arc or character development. (I’m told the fiction workshops have been restructured.) The most successful novelists in my class have been Alisa Kwitney and Scott Smith, neither of whom could be said to write “program” prose — and Dale Peck, who dropped out of the program.

Professor Towers: He tried to warn me.

Though the chairman of the department, Robert Towers, informed us at the start of classes that writing cannot be taught, we forged onward, and we wasted a lot of workshop time in argument over matters of style. It’s only in reading Menand’s article that I understand, for the first time, that many of my troubles in workshop stemmed not merely from a preference for Henry James, but also from James’ lamentable failure ever to attend a creative-writing program. Indeed, none of my favorite authors are alumni of any writing program, whereas all of my classmates revered such workshop deities as Joyce Carol Oates, Raymond Carver, and Mona Simpson. That difference of opinion should have told me something, not only about my classmates, but also about why I was studying to write like people whose work did not appeal to me.

Only those professors who were able to read more than a few chapters of my novel were able to offer any insight into it, and in the case of Mary Gordon, I refused to listen. She tried delicately to address “my narrator’s level of diction,” to which I stuck stubbornly nevertheless, in the belief that it revealed his character (and not my own): a pretentious young dilettante, out of his depth among genuine artists. Only years later did I see that Ms. Gordon was right, when my target audience, my godfather, read the book and howled, “What the hell’s wrong with your narrator? He sounds like he has a stick up his ass!”

Mary Gordon: She tried to teach me.

My godfather has no degree in creative writing, yet his criticism was far more effective than anything I heard in two years of workshop. If the purpose of the program was to make professionals of us, to prepare us to be published authors, then it failed in this regard, where I’m concerned: my novel (by now my graduate thesis) emerged unready for the marketplace, and even after revisions, it failed to sell. Since those revisions did not include correcting the narrative voice, I’m almost grateful for the failure. Almost.

What the program did succeed at providing us with (at least briefly) was a captive audience of readers, classmates with the time and inclination to pore over our every word with the utmost seriousness. That’s a rare blessing, as it happens. Go out into the real world, and you will not easily find anyone who cares to read, much less to reread, the chapter over which you’ve struggled.

Even as he warned us about the impossibility of being taught writing, Professor Towers expressed the hope that we’d form a community of writers — which includes not only sympathetic shoulders to cry on but also people to read your revisions. I did make a few friends at Columbia, but nothing like the community he envisioned. That’s probably less the fault of the Writing Program than of CBS News, which whisked me away after graduation.

So what did I get out of my two years in the program? The literature courses were pretty good: I read Madame Bovary for the first time, and a little of Updike and Mailer, and E.B. White’s work for grownups, with good professors to guide me. Eudora Welty came to speak on campus, and I got to meet her. I taught for a year, which proved tremendously rewarding and which meant I didn’t have to pay tuition the last year; teaching is not part of the program’s regular curriculum, however.

My teaching experience and my degree impressed Dan Rather, and I returned to CBS on something like a triumphal chariot, but to date that’s the only professional advantage I’ve been able to detect in my degree. The kind of log-rolling Menand describes (young writers are taught so that they can get teaching jobs themselves) are unavailable to me, because without publication credits, I can’t get hired at the college level.

I surely benefited from being able to devote myself to my writing for such an extended period, yet my work saw greater improvement later, when I was at CBS, unable to focus on my fiction but required to churn out copy on deadline.

So did I make a mistake? I think not — but it’s a closer call than I’d like. I remain an unpublished novelist with an expensive degree.

NOTE: For another view, you may want to read this essay by my classmate from Brown, Rick Moody, who attended the Columbia program before I did. The article appeared in The Atlantic in 2005, when it stirred up quite a controversy.

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01 June 2009

Life on Mercury

An ex-colleague of mine used to announce, each time things went wrong at the office, that Mercury was in retrograde. This was her confident, near-constant explanation for those pile-ups of misfortune that sometimes made the Book of Job out of the job: when trains were missed and flights were cancelled, phone calls unreturned, bosses implacable, deadlines moved up, chores multiplied, equipment unresponsive, and all at once. Mercury rules travel, communication, and commerce, you see, and when the planet is in retrograde, it necessarily stands to reason that those realms will be troubled. Though I don’t ordinarily give much thought to astrology, I found the explanation comforting. We weren’t imagining the improbable synchronicity, and neither were we to blame for it. Even our implacable bosses could be excused. In time, we began to say, “Oh, Mercury must be in retrograde,” whenever any single thing went wrong. The phrase became our personal gallows humor, a little joke to boost our morale.

I began to say it again recently, when the hard drive on my laptop ceased to function, smack in the middle of my most arduous laboring over the book proposal for the biography of Madeline Kahn. I said it more often, as I reached New York, ostensibly to meet with editors but really to sit by a phone that didn’t ring. And as other woes beset me — no need to enumerate them now — I learned that Mercury was, no joke, in retrograde. The wayward phase began on May 7, the day my laptop made its first of four trips (so far) to California for repair, and also the day my agent began sending out the proposal; the phase ended May 31, just in time for an Air France plane to take off from Brazil.

I am reminded by this experience that computers are Evil, and the proof lies in Terry Gilliam’s film, Time Bandits. The following exchange between Evil (portrayed by David Warner) and one of his henchmen is revealing:
Evil: When I have the map, I will be free, and the world will be different, because I have understanding.

Robert: Uh, understanding of what, Master?

Evil: Digital watches. And soon I shall have understanding of video cassette recorders and car telephones. And when I have understanding of them, I shall have understanding of computers. And when I have understanding of computers, I shall be the Supreme Being!

Allow me to say right now that there is no chance whatever of my becoming the Supreme Being.

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