Wednesday 25 January 2017

Spaces of Blue Week Four: Courageous responses to Cold War Hysteria

“The test of civilization is not the consensus, not the size of the cities, nor the crops – no but the kind of man the country turns out.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

We may be likened to two scorpions in a bottle, each capable of killing the other, but only at the risk of his own life.”

—Robert Oppenheimer, Foreign Affairs, 1953

"It's a very important thing to learn to talk to people you disagree with."
—Pete Seeger

 "We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. When the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it."
Edward R. Murrow

Robert Oppenheimer
Robert Oppenheimer, one of the scientists who authored the atomic bomb was chastened by the human costs. He opposed the building of the "super" or hydrogen bomb, That opposition and his past associations led to a hearing that deprived him of his security clearance and working for any government agency. Yet he demonstrated courage and integrity and was later vindicated.
"As the Cold War boundaries solidified around the globe, and the moral distinctions between good and evil crystallized in the 1950s, Oppenheimer's chess diplomacy landed him in trouble with the security agencies in search of communist witches, and his testimony in the hearing cost him his security clearance, and with that his place on the world stage as a player."
Michael Shermer writing in Scientific America

For a tribute to Seeger's life and career, you might wish to read Susan Green  in Critics at Large

We will be showing clips from the 2007 documentary Peter Seeger: The Power of Song

Roger Ebert says that the film is a tribute to the legendary singer and composer who thought music could be a force for good, and proved it by writing songs that have actually helped shape our times ("If I Had a Hammer" and "Turn, Turn, Turn") and popularizing "We Shall Overcome" and Woody Guthrie's unofficial national anthem, "This Land Is Your Land."

Edward R. Murrow
In Good Night, and Good Night, Director, George Clooney, pays homage to one of the icons of American broadcast journalism, Edward R. Murrow, in this fact-based drama. In 1953, Murrow was one of the best-known newsmen on television as host of both the talk show Person to Person and the pioneering investigate series See It Now. Joseph McCarthy, a U.S. senator from Wisconsin, was generating heated controversy in the public and private sectors with his allegations that Communists had risen to positions of power and influence in America. Among them was an Air Force pilot, Milo Radulovich, who had been cashiered out of the service due to McCarthy's charges that he was a Communist agent. However, Radulovich had been dismissed without a formal hearing of the charges, and he protested that he was innocent of any wrongdoing. Murrow decided to do a story on Radulovich's case questioning the legitimacy of his dismissal, which was seen by McCarthy and his supporters as an open challenge to his campaign. McCarthy responded by accusing Murrow of being a Communist, leading to a legendary installment of See It Now in which both Murrow and McCarthy presented their sides of the story, which was seen by many as the first step toward McCarthy's downfall. Meanwhile, Murrow had to deal with CBS head William Paley, who was supportive of Murrow but extremely wary of his controversial positions, while Murrow was also trying to support fellow newsman Don Hollenbeck, battling charges against his own political views, and working alongside Fred Friendly

Sunday 22 January 2017

Post-Revolutionary Aristocrat: Amor Towles' A Gentleman in Moscow

This review originally published in Critics at Large is reproduced on this site because in That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden (Encompass Editions, 2013) I devoted several chapters to exploring the many facets of  Stalinism.

Amor Towles’ astonishing new novel, A Gentleman in Moscow (Viking, 2016) about a former aristocrat, now a Former Person, who spends over thirty years of house arrest living in the Metropol Hotel is sui generis, one unlike any other novel or memoir of the Stalinist era that I have ever encountered. Classic novels such as Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon, Alexander Solzhenitsyn's The First Circle and the more recent The Stalin Epigram by Robert Littell about the poet Osip Mandelstam, or the powerful memoirs, Into the Whirlwind and Within the Whirlwind by Eugenia Ginzburg, or the superb Man is Wolf to Man: Surviving the Gulag by Janusz Bardach are chock-a-block with deprivation, terror, cold, hunger and the threat of death. By contrast, Gentleman is about a prisoner steeped in elegance and civility living in a bubble seemingly out of place and time.

Wednesday 18 January 2017

Spaces of Blue Week Three: The Nourishment of the Human Soul Through Art under Stalinism

 "There is no feeling,except the extremes of fear and grief, that does not find relief in music."
George Eliot (1819-80)

  " A Russian who had absorbed  Akhmatova's poetry or Shostakovitch's music could not be turned into a robot."
 Fear and the Muse Kept Watch: The Russian Masters under Stalin
Andy McSmith

For anyone interested in reading my review of McSmith's monograph :

 Anyone interested in reading a compelling novel on the preparation for and the conducting of Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony might first wish to read my review 
of Sara Quigley's The Conductor.

monograph In a recent review, I wrote: "Julian Barnes's The Noise of Time is a masterful example of a new hybrid form, the fictional biography in which there are no imagined characters; the novelist confines himself to the historical record, but enters into the consciousness of his subject. Barnes’s subject is the Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich and his ghastly “conversations with power.” Barnes limits himself to three major episodes in the composer’s life: the period during the Great Terror of the 1930s when the composer confronted the possibility that he would be sent to the Gulag or shot after Stalin wrote a blistering editorial condemning his opera,
Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District; after the war ,when he was blackmailed into attending a propaganda tour in New York to deliver a series of speeches denouncing his own work; and, provided in the third section, a 1960 snapshot of an elderly Shostakovich, sitting in the back of a chauffeur-driven car, during the reign of “Nikita the Corncob” in which he is forced to join the Party that has humiliated him throughout his professional life. There is little action as the composer waits; memories surface that in turn give way to rueful reflections. Yet the novel is one of the most insightful about the difficult role of the artist in a police state."


Osip Mandelstam

Unlike composers the art of poetry does not easily lend itself to coded messages that can protect the artist. Osip Mandelstam courageously recited to a small group of trusted friends in his own home, one of whom betrayed him, leading to his subsequent arrest in May 1934 for his savagely satirical lampoon that characterizes Stalin as a “murderer and peasant-slayer” with “cockroach whiskers” and “fingers as fat as worms” who surrounds himself with “fawning half-men for him to play with.” Mandelstam, who possessed granite-like integrity in his frail body received a temporary reprieve through the intervention of Bukharin, and was sent with his wife into internal exile. Hoping to save himself, he expressed a willingness to atone for his lese majesty and write poems in praise of Stalin. But as the terror deepened and enveloped millions by May 1938, he was rearrested after the dreaded knock at the door, and dispatched to the camps where he died of malnutrition and a heart attack in transit.

Although Mandelstam’s voice was stilled, his friend and fellow poet, the gifted and enormously resilient Anna Akhmatova, felt the need to continue the tradition of earlier poets and assume a moral responsibility to be the voice of memory by bearing witness to these ghastly times. Between 1935 and 1940, although she dared not speak it aloud because she was under conspicuous surveillance by the NKVD, who clearly intended to intimidate her, Akhmatova ended her silence by sculpting in words a memorial to the victims of the Stalinist terror, Requiem (not published in Russia during her lifetime) that expressed with searing emotional clarity what others could only feel. It was written on scraps of paper, a fragment read silently by a friend who committed it to memory and burned the paper. Grounded in personal experience, she stood in a prison queue with a food parcel for her son, after he (who was arrested repeatedly), and her lover were arrested within a couple of weeks of each other primarily as hostages to ensure her compliance. Standing in that line with women also desperate for news of their loved ones, Requiem is a testament to their suffering and by extension the anguish of a whole people. 

I review Amor Towles astonishing new novel, A Gentleman from Moscow.

 "Revolutions are made by fanatical men of action with one-track minds, men who are narrow-minded to the point of genius. They overturn the old order in a few hours or days…but for decades thereafter, for centuries, the spirit of narrowness which led to the upheaval is worshipped as holy." 
Dr. Zhivago, Boris Pasternak
Pasternak and Olga Ivinskaya


"And here was Pasternak giving a representative for the Milanese publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli the manuscript of Dr Zhivago – a love story he knew the Soviet authorities would never allow to be published because it didn't "conform to official cultural guidelines".
For one thing, Dr Zhivago had nothing positive to say about the new Russia. As the editors of the literary journal Novy Mir told him, they couldn't possibly print extracts from it because of its "non-acceptance of the socialist revolution". For another, the novel was, like all love stories, – indeed, like all but the most manically modernist fiction – premised on the idea of the individual human consciousness. Post-tsarist Russia, on the other hand, was centralised and collectivist and anti anything that spoke to what it saw as the bourgeois fantasy of the self and its essences."
From a review in the Guardian by Christopher Bray of The Zhivago Affair by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée. To read the complete review, click on the following link:
Within the Whirlwind
Within the Whirlwind is a relatively conventional biopic, but one done with immaculate intelligence,  plenty of creativity and the kind of good taste that seems to know innately what and what not to stick up there on the screen. Written by Nancy Larson, from Ginzburg's own memoir, the film tosses us, almost from the first, into the paranoid purges of Russian dictator Joseph Stalin and his apparatchiks. We quickly learn that Evgenia's husband is going to be of little help.  Whether he is frightened for his own skin or that of their children, Evgenia is soon on her own.  Few of the Russian intelligentsia of the time escaped these purges. Imprisonment was preferable to death, and Ginzburg manages to survive the Siberian gulag.

For a film that deals mainly with a time of captivity in a place of wretched deprivation, the film manages to show us a fair amount of small, kindsometimes quite surprisingmoments.  From a bowl of raspberries handed by a peasant girl into the boxcar in which the prisoners are being shipped to a dinner in the home of Russian camp commandant and the many acts of kindness between the women prisonersone of whom steps in front of a guard's rifle to protect her friendthese tiny fragments build slowly, helping the women to survive. Ginzburg is also nourished by the love of a German doctor and the solace of poetry.

Wednesday 11 January 2017

Spaces of Blue: Week Two When Angels Fooled the World

"Even in the worst of times, there are people who care."
—Ervin Staub, The Roots of Goodness and Resistance to Evil

"The duty of Christians requires acts of resistance through weapons of the spirit.”
  —André Trocmé, Protestant minister at Le Chambon

"The following traits are commonly found in the majority of interviewed rescuers: a nurturing, loving home where children are taught caring values, altruistic parents or a caretaker as a role model for altruistic behaviour, tolerance for people who are different, independence, self reliance, self confidence, moderate self-esteem, a history of giving aid to the needy, a belief in common humanity, and the ability to act to act according to one's own values regardless of what others do."

    Patrick Henry, We Only Know Men: The Rescue of Jews in France during the Holocaust, The Catholic University of America Press, 2007.

Le Chambon sur Lignon

For my reviews of the nonfiction, The Cost of Courage and the television series, Un Village Francais
 see the French Resistance and the compelling novel The Nightingale

Defying the Nazis traces the path of Waitstill and Martha Sharp, a Unitarian minister and his wife and—not so coincidentally—Artemis Joukowsky’s grandparents. In 1939, the couple was dispatched by the church to Europe, where they risked their lives to save others, perhaps most notably when Martha accompanied a boat full of refugee children across dangerous waters to safety in the United States.

See the Charlie Rose  interview with Joukowsky and Burns  

Oskar Schindler, who surfaced from the chaos of madness, spent millions bribing and paying off the SS and eventually risked his life to rescue the Schindler-Jews. 
He miraculously managed to do it and pulled it off by using the very same talents that made him a war profiteer - his flair for presentation, bribery, and grand gestures. 
To more than 1200 Jews Schindler was all that stood between them and death at the hands of the Nazis. A man full of flaws like the rest of us - the unlikeliest of all role models who started by earning millions as a war profiteer and ended by spending his last pfennig and risking his life to save his Jews. An ordinary man who even in the worst of circumstances did extraordinary things, matched by no one. He remained true to his Jews, the workers he referred to as my children. In the shadow of Auschwitz he kept the SS out and everyone alive.
Schindler and his wife Emilie Schindler were inspiring evidence of courage and human decency during the Holocaust. Emilie was not only a strong woman working alongside her husband but a heroine in her own right. She worked indefatigably to save the Schindler-Jews - a story to bear witness to goodness, love and compassion.
Today there are more than 7,000 descendants of the Schindler-Jews living in US and Europe, many in Israel. Before the Second World War, the Jewish population of Poland was 3.5 million. Today there are between 3,000 and 4,000 left.

A memorial concert reawakens the story of an artistic uprising in the Nazi concentration camp, Terezin, where a chorus of 150 inmates confronts the Nazis face-to-face and sings to them what they dare not say.

"Defiant Requiem is an incredible story of the Nazi concentration camp at Terezin, wherein many talented Czech artists were imprisoned – and it specifically tells the story of one Czech composer, Raphael Schächter, who's idea it was to lead a performance of Verdi's "Requiem" inside the camp. And it tells the parallel story of music conductor Murry Sidlin who decades later went back to Terezin with the Orchestra of Terezin Remembrance, specifically to perform "Requiem" again, quite beautifully, this time with survivors from the camp. I don't really have the words – let me just say this story was completely new to me and had a profound impact on me, particularly the incredible interviews with the survivors.

When the film was over, the whole crowd stayed still and silent all the way through the final credit, before breaking out in applause. It was such a profound experience to be educated on something completely new relating to the Holocaust, and for the subject matter to be told with such depth and compassion, but also restraint. The story was sensational enough, the filmmakers wisely chose not to be manipulative (which would have been easy in this case) – they just told you and showed you this story with honesty, clarity and genuine beauty….This is what true documentary film making should always be like." A film-goer's review.

Sunday 8 January 2017

Spaces of Blue: Moments of Humanity in a Troubled Century Week One

In addition to other postings, I will be using this site for ten weeks to provide weekly overviews for a course I am teaching for Learning Unlimited in Etobicoke in the west end of Toronto.

Gate by Jim Hodges
 Week One: Thematic Overview: Reconciling Spaces of Blue with our Better Angels of our Nature

"In the eye of the hurricane the sky is blue...The eye of the hurricane is in the very middle of a destructive power, and that power is always near, surrounding blue healthy and threatening to invade it...

In a world of moral hurricanes, some people can and do carve out rather large ethical space. In the natural world and social world swirling in cruelty and love we can make room. We who are not pure ethical beings can push away the choking circle of brute force that is around and within us. We may not be able to push it far..., but when we have made us as much room as we can, we may know a blue space that  the storm does not know."
Philip Hallie, 1986                                                    

  "Man cannot do without beauty."
 —Albert Camus

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
 —Abraham Lincoln

“Only the willfully blind can ignore that the history of human existence is simultaneously the history of pain: of brutality, murder, mass extinction, every form of venality and cyclical horror. No land is free of it; no people are without their bloodstain; no tribe entirely innocent. But there is still this redeeming matter of incremental progress. It might look small to those with apocalyptic perspectives, but to she who not so long ago could not vote, or drink from the same water fountain as her fellow citizens, or marry the person she chose, or live in a certain neighborhood, such incremental change feels enormous.”

 —Zadie Smith, New York Review of  Books, December 22, 2016i

In Bridge of Spies, James Donovan (Tom Hanks) is essentially forced to take on the job that no one wants — defending Rudolph Abel, whose capture takes place in a suspenseful, near-wordless opening sequence in which the seemingly innocuous older man is revealed to be picking up coded messages while painting by the water. No one expects or, really, wants James to do more than the bare minimum, but he does, and for his diligence he’s sneered at and harassed, his house getting shot up while his wife (Amy Ryan) and children are inside, terrified.
Anyone interested in my review of Bridge of Spies can be found in  Critics at Large

Spotlight tells the riveting true story of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Boston Globe investigation that would rock the city and cause a crisis in one of the world's oldest and most trusted institutions. When the newspaper's tenacious spotlight team of reporters delves into allegations of abuse in the Catholic Church, their year-long investigation uncovers a decades-long cover-up at the highest levels of Boston's religious, legal, and government establishment, touching off a wave of revelations around the world. Directed by Academy Award-nominee Tom McCarthy, Spotlight is a tense investigative
dramatic thriller.

 wllfully blind 

an ig
Shawshank Redemption explores what happens to a banker named Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins)who is convicted in 1946 of a double murder, even though he stubbornly proclaims his innocence. He's sentenced to a life term at the Shawshank State Prison in Maine, where another lifer, Ellis "Red" Redding (Morgan Freeman), gradually befriends him.The ugly realities of prison life are quickly revealed as Andy is harassed and beaten. But Andy’s perseverance and his smarts allow him to prevail behind bars. Quiet and introspective, he uses his banking skills to win favor with the warden and the guards, doing the books for the warden's illegal business schemes and keeping an eye on the investments of most of the prison staff. In exchange, he is able to improve the prison library and bring some dignity and respect back to many of the inmates, including Red. Although the film is a gritty drama, it also shows inmates forming a community of friendship and support despite oppressive conditions.

Saturday 7 January 2017

A Year of Reading: My Favourite Books of 2016

This review originally appeared in Critics at Large and is reproduced on this site because several of the books commented upon explore the dark side of transgressing boundaries.

Author Julian Barnes. (Photo: Graham Jepson)

As many have also said, 2016 has been a terrible year. One of my consolations has been deriving pleasure from reading, and offered here are some of the best books I have read. One criterion for inclusion on this list is whether they stayed with me long after I read them. In some of the following, that quality became more important than literary excellence. – Bob Douglas