Tarragona’s Amphitheater

Grove Koger

Tarragona’s Roman amphitheater is remarkable not only for its position overlooking the blue waters of the Balearic Sea but also for the fact that much of it was carved in situ out of the existing bedrock. The structure is 427 feet by 335 feet in size, and, at the time of its completion in the early second century CE, when the city was known as Tárraco, could accommodate an audience of some 12,000. In its early years, the amphitheater was the scene of the usual array of cruel Roman spectacles, and was renovated during the reign of Roman Emperor Heliogabalus (204-222).

Heliogabalus made quite a name for himself—briefly. According to historian Edward Gibbon, he “abandoned himself to the grossest pleasures and ungoverned fury” and was assassinated at the age of 18. So black was his reputation that he was then subjected to damnatio memoriae—the erasure of all references to his existence from the historical record. (The fact that such a practice actually had a recognized name tells us a lot about the time.) Nevertheless, archaeologists have discovered traces of his memory in the inscription celebrating the amphitheater’s renovation. It seems that they found key letters on scattered fragments of marble, allowing them to piece together what would have been a reference to the hated emperor.

Tarragona’s mayor asked modernista architect Josep Maria Jujol to undertake the amphitheater’s restoration in the mid-1920s, but nothing came of the project, and it would be the middle of the century before any serious work was done. Decades later, in 2000, the amphitheater was designated as one component of a UNESCO World Heritage Site—the Archaeological Ensemble of Tárraco.

When Maggie and I are in Tarragona, we stay in a small, family-run hotel a short bus ride up the coast from the amphitheater. After an afternoon of swimming on Savinosa Beach and a light dinner at a chiringuito (beach bar) called Pepe’s & Lugano Restaurant and Chill-out (that’s transcribed correctly, by the way), we can enjoy the view above from our hotel balcony.

RLS as Inland Castaway

Grove Koger

Today’s post from my book When the Going Was Good describes what is probably the best-known travel book by Robert Louis Stevenson, who was born November 13, 1850.

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Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes (London: Kegan Paul, 1879)

Robert Louis Stevenson was born into an Edinburgh family famous for building harbors and lighthouses, and although he studied engineering and law, he was drawn to the bohemian world of literature. He also suffered from respiratory illness from an early age, and much like D.H. Lawrence (see my Septemnber 10, 2019 post) would travel frequently in search of a congenial climate. Like Lawrence too, he came to delight in “travel for travel’s sake.”

During September and October of 1878, Stevenson made a twelve-day walking tour through the Cévennes Mountains of southern France. (It was the same area, by the way, in which Vincent d’Indy was to hear the folksong that inspired his famous Symphony on a French Mountain Air.) Stevenson’s sole companion was the donkey of the title, a remarkably stubborn, “mouse-coloured” pack animal named Modestine. Anticipating that he might not always find inns (or even villages) in this little-traveled region, Stevenson carried a “sleeping-sack,” and in one of his book’s finest scenes awakens outdoors one morning “not knowing north from south, as strange to my surroundings as the first man upon the earth, an inland castaway.”

Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes was Stevenson’s third book, and is based upon a journal that he kept during his walk. Modest and intimate, it is a revelation not only of the bucolic Cévennes but also of Stevenson himself, a “novice” at the beginning of his journey but wiser in the ways of man and beast at journey’s end. Although he came to appreciate Modestine, he clearly pined for female company of a different sort, and admitted to a friend that much of the book was “mere protestations” to his wife-to-be Fanny. Inspired by the work’s sweet character, numerous readers over the years have retraced Stevenson and Modestine’s footsteps through the French highlands.  

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There are a number of good editions of Travels with a Donkey available: The Century edition (London, 1985) includes an introduction by Penelope Chetwode. The Chatto & Windus edition (London, 1986) includes an introduction by Robin Neillands. The Oxford University Press volume Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes, and Selected Travel Writings includes an introduction by Emma Letley. The Marlboro/Northwestern edition (Evanston, Ill., 1996) includes an introduction by John Manchip White. The 2019 Dover Thrift Edition (whose cover is reproduced at the top of the post) also includes An Inland Voyage, Stevenson’s account of an earlier canoe trip in France and Belgium, and Forest Notes, an essay inspired by his visits to the Forest of Fontainebleau near Paris.

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Stevenson was a highly accomplished writer in a variety of genres, but if you want to read the rest of his travel works, there are several more available. These include An Inland Voyage (1878); Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes, with Etchings (1879); The Silverado Squatters (1883); Across the Plains; With Other Memories and Essays (1892); A Footnote to History: Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa (1892); The Amateur Emigrant from the Clyde to Sandy Hook (1895); A Mountain Town in France: A Fragment (1896); In the South Seas (1896); Essays of Travel (1905); Silverado Journal (1954); From Scotland to Silverado (1966); Travels in Hawaii (1973); The Amateur Emigrant with Some First Impressions of America (1976–77); The Cevennes Journal: Notes on a Journey through the French Highlands (1978).

Arnold Bax: Privilege & Passion

Grove Koger

In my post for April 5, 2018, I mentioned that I once began writing a series of articles called “Counterpoint” for my city’s alternative newspaper, the Boise Weekly. As it turned out, however, the publisher wasn’t interested in anything that wasn’t local, and the series ended after only two installments. This piece on the great British composer Arnold Bax, who was born November 8, 1883, was the first, and appeared in the April 13, 2005, issue of the paper.

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Can you be too lucky?

Arnold Bax was born into a wealthy English family in 1883 and never had to work for a living. He was so talented a pianist that he could play the most difficult score at sight. He wrote music and poetry and short stories and an autobiography.

It’s entirely fitting, given his emotional makeup, that Bax started composing at the age of thirteen–in other words, at about the age of puberty. In later years his love life was messy and his home life just about nonexistent. As an adult he seldom had a settled abode, as they said in those days, putting up instead in hotels and inns, staying with friends.

Many of Bax’s influences turned out to be extra-musical. He fell in love early on with the Celtic world, declaring that the works of Irish poet William Butler Yeats “meant more to [him] than all the music of the centuries.” He spent much of his life in Ireland, losing several Irish friends to English firing squads after the abortive Easter Rising that preceded the Irish War of Independence. In “A Dublin Ballad 1916,” Bax wrote the sweeping lines: “Never before had such a song been sung, / Never again perhaps while ages run / Shall the old pride of rock and wind be stung / By such an insolence winged across the sun, / So mad a challenge flung!”

Later Bax turned his attention to Scotland, on whose wild western coast he spent most winters (yes, winters) from 1928 to 1939. By 1941 he had pretty much burned out, retiring “like a grocer” to spend his final days in an unheated room above a pub in staid, bucolic Sussex. Significantly enough, he called his autobiography Farewell, My Youth.

The gale of the world blows through Bax’s music. He called himself a “brazen romantic” and dismissed some of Bach’s compositions as “sewing machine music.” It’s a remark that, if I were to make it, would brand me a fool, but, coming from as great a figure as Bax, ought to make us sit up and listen. For Bax was great, the last significant figure in the romantic tradition that stretches back to Beethoven.

Bax wrote in almost every musical genre, but his very best works can be found in his seven symphonies (composed 1921-1939), his tone poems and a couple of almost-concertos for piano.

Bax’s First Symphony is a dramatic opening salvo, a gesture that the still, somber conclusion of the Second only partially allays. His Third is hauntingly lyrical, his Fourth languid and honey-golden, but with the Fifth and Sixth the drama returns with a vengeance. These are among the best orchestral works of the twentieth century, elemental pieces that (if we choose to hear them as autobiographical) reflect the windblown coast of Scotland where Bax spent those winters with the last great love of his life, Mary Gleaves. The Seventh Symphony, on the other hand, is a cloudless sunset of a work, a serene confession of all passion spent. Each symphony is cast in three movements with a brief, dramatic coda attached to the final one.

The best performances to date of Bax’s symphonies appeared in 2003 in a five-CD set from Chandos, with the late Vernon Handley conducting the BBC Philharmonic. Handley throws in a vigorous reading of the tone poem Tintagel, which evokes the coast of Cornwall and its heroic past; the premiere recording of the extrovert Rogue’s Comedy Overture; and a CD’s worth of interview and discussion. Bax orchestrated heavily, and slower performances are liable to bog down. Handley, I’m glad to say, pushes the composer to the limit.

If you don’t care to invest in the Chandos package, budget label Naxos offers perfectly good performances by David Lloyd-Jones and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. And if Bax turns out to interest you, be sure to investigate his tone poems. Besides Tintagel, look for the sea-drunk Garden of Fand and the windswept November Woods, both available on Chandos and NaxosAnd listen to his Symphonic Variations and Winter Legends. As performed by pianist Margaret Fingerhut with Bryden Thomson conducting the London Philharmonic on Chandos, they show Bax at his passionate, melodic best.

(I should add that since I wrote about Bax in 2005, YouTube has helped engineer a revolution in the music world, for better and/or worse. That means that you can sample Bax (or virtually any other composer) with a quick keyword search. For instance, here’s a link to Handley’s recordings of the symphonies, movement by movement: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NAkytB04Aic&list=PL1YmMcEN_TABh4LNziuHS8Q8kf92IzYSq.)

If you’d like to know more about Bax, the biography by Lewis Foreman pictured above appeared in 2007 in a third, expanded edition (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell P).

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The 1926 portrait of Bax at the top of the post is by Elliot & Fry and is reproduced courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery under a Creative Commons License (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/legalcode).

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Joan Perucho’s (Un)Natural History

Grove Koger

Natural History: A Novel, by Joan Perucho; trans. from the Catalan by David H. Rosenthal. New York: Knopf, 1988.

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Quick! Can you name a Catalan writer? Until a few years ago, I couldn’t either. But somehow I ran across what I called, in a piece for the Boise Weekly, a “lively Catalan historical novel”—Les histories naturals, or, in English, Natural History. Its author was one Joan Perucho (zhu-WAHN peh-ROO-choh), who died October 28, 2003. Given the fact that it’s also a vampire novel—of sorts—it’s a good choice to post within a few days of Halloween.

My curiosity may originally have been piqued by a profile of Perucho in the May 1987 issue of Catalonia.  The piece mentioned his interest in American supernatural writer H.P. Lovecraft (an influence that has proven deleterious in the case of many other writers), South American Magic Realism, Pop Art, science fiction, and so on. The profile’s author, Julià Guillamon, went on to mention that Perucho was a gastronome and art critic whose works included studies of renowned Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí (see my post of October 7, 2019).

Les histories naturals was published a year after the appearance of the profile, and appeared in English translation the year after that. It’s set in Catalonia during the time of the First Carlist War (1833-1840), the first of a series of chaotic conflicts of potentially befuddling complexity to non-historians. As translator David H. Rosenthal helpfully explains, the war was “a struggle between liberals and constitutionalists aligned with the regent Maria Cristina and her daughter Isabella II, on the one hand, and Catholic reactionaries and absolutists devoted to the pretender Charles V on the other. In Catalonia, the liberals’ center of power was the coast, including Barcelona, while the Carlists … were strongest in the mountainous interior.” The parallels with the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39 would not, of course, have been lost on the novel’s Catalan readers, whose province had suffered terribly at the hands of the fascist troops under the command of General Francisco Franco. 

In this setting, Perucho has placed a young, scientifically-minded liberal, Antoni de Montpalau, who is pursuing what is clearly, to us, a vampire, Onofre de Dip, who has made the (real) mountain village of Pratdip the focus of his predations. Opposing the would-be vampire slayer is General Ramon Cabrera, who, despite being a Carlist leader, recognizes Montpalau’s nobility of spirit and befriends him. Strengthening his regard for Antoni are the facts that Cabrera has been bitten by the vampire and that his new friend is the only person capable of saving him.

For most novelists, this material could have been fodder for realistic descriptions of vicious conflicts, sinister landscapes, and scenes of frightening supernatural horror. But in Perucho’s hands, it’s a phantasmagoric tapestry of the weird and the wonderful, a lighthearted Surrealist romp through Catalonia in which such luminaries as composer Frederic Chopin and his writer/mistress George Sand make brief appearances.

I’ve always felt that every novel deserves some sort of apparatus—an index, perhaps, or a series of maps, or (especially) a dramatis personae. Perucho has done just that with a helpful if playful “Index of Proper Names” that includes, for instance, the Avutarda geminis, a “mysterious beast that fascinated and perplexed naturalists for years” before “it suddenly disappeared from the face of the earth.” Another entry is devoted to a Flying Reptile, described as a “survivor of prehistoric times. Talked like a parrot. Slow and dreamy, it frightened dogs.”

“Étonnez-moi,” Russian impresario Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev once admonished young French writer Jean Cocteau—“Astonish me.” In Natural History, Joan Perucho does just that.

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The cover illustration at the top of the post is by American artist Frederic Amat. It’s a striking image, but I have no idea what it has to do with the novel.

To read all of my Boise Weekly article about vampires, “Suckers,” go to https://www.boiseweekly.com/boise/suckers/Content?oid=927138.

Flying with Beryl Markham

Grove Koger

As I expand and update When the Going Was Good, I’m posting revised entries from the first edition. Today’s deals with a memoir by Beryl Markham, who was born on October 26, 1902.

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West with the Night (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1942)

Born in England but raised from the age of four in the colony (later nation) of Kenya, Beryl Markham grew up a member of the privileged British ruling class of East Africa. Like her father, who taught her to ride, she became a noted breeder and trainer of racehorses, but actually seems to have excelled at everything she turned her hand to. After being introduced to flying by big game hunter Denys Finch Hatton in 1931, she went on to become the first woman in Kenya to earn a commercial pilot’s license. Among her many other friends in Kenya were planter and writer Isak Dinesen and Dinesen’s husband, Bror Blixen.

Markham wrote West with the Night in California, where she had moved in 1939. A bestseller upon publication in 1942, it earned the rare praise of Ernest Hemingway, who had known Markham in Africa. “She has written so well, and marvelously well,” he admits, “that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer.” The book was reprinted in 1983 to even greater acclaim, by which time Markham had returned to Kenya—to raise horses once again.

West with the Night opens with a series of chapters recalling Markham’s experiences as a bush pilot.  Others deal with her younger years, when, unlike the Masai girls she knew, she was allowed to take part in hunting warthogs. She writes of course with particular insight of horses, “as much a part of my life as past birthdays.” Soon after she began taking flying lessons, her lover Finch Hatton was killed in a crash—a wrenching event that Isak Dinesen, similarly involved with the man, would also describe in Out of Africa. Yet Markham was undeterred, and went on to become first to cross the Atlantic nonstop from east to west, the accomplishment that gives her graceful, effortlessly evocative memoir its title.

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The Virago edition (London, 1984) includes an introduction by Martha Gellhorn. A later Virago edition (London, 1989) published as The Illustrated West with the Night is abridged and contains an introduction by Elizabeth Claridge, but the Welcome Enterprises edition (New York, 1994) published as The Illustrated West with the Night contains the complete text.

If you’d like to know more about Markahm, see Ulf Aschan, The Man Whom Women Loved: The Life of Bror Blixen (New York: St. Martin’s, 1987); Mary S. Lovell, Straight on till Morning: The Biography of Beryl Markham (New York: St. Martin’s, 1987); and The Lives of Beryl Markham: Out of Africa’s Free Spirit and Denys Finch Hatton’s Last Great Love (New York: Norton, 1993).

Touring the Adriatic with Mr. Jackson

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Grove Koger

Frederick (Frank) Hamilton Jackson was born in Islington, London, in 1848 and died on October 13, 1923. I know about him only because I own two of his books, The Shores of the Adriatic: The Italian Side; An Architectural and Archaeological Pilgrimage, and a companion volume, The Shores of the Adriatic: The Austrian Side; The Küstenlande, Istria, and Dalmatia. Both were published by the geographically minded firm of John Murray, the former in 1906 and the latter in 1908.

Although completely forgotten today, Jackson was, according to his obituary in the Times, “well known as a designer, painter, and writer, and was a frequent exhibitor at the Royal Academy, as well as in the provinces.” He had won a first-class medal from the Royal Academy Schools, and went on to become “a master in the Antique School at the Slade.” Jackson helped found and frequently served as an officer in a number of artistic organizations, including the Society of Designers, the Royal Society of British Artists, the Art Workers’ Guild, the Society of Miniature Painters, and so on. As his obituary further explains, he “was the author of books on the architecture of South and South-East Europe and of handbooks on decoration and mural painting.” On top of everything else, according to the estimable Who’s Who for 1907, he enjoyed gardening.

Jackson presents an extraordinary amount of information in his volumes about the Adriatic Sea, but his prose, I have to admit, is pretty … prosaic. The photographs, which were “taken specially for” the books, presumably by someone else, are about what you’d expect for the first decade of the twentieth century, but the books’ real value lies in their line drawings, which are Jackson’s own careful work. They’re outstanding examples of their medium, and deserve to be shared and admired. I included two in my July 17, 2019, post about the Croatian port of Split, and plan to use as many more as I possibly can in the months and years ahead.

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The title page for the Italian volume shows a lion’s head from a bronze door in the southern Italian town of Troja made by Oderisius of Benevento in 1126. That for the Austrian volume depicts a knocker at the Rector’s Palace in Ragusa (Dubrovnik).  

Barcelona’s Magnificent Basilica

Grove Koger

Every city seems to want an icon, and in the Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família, to give the building its Catalan name, Barcelona has found a truly extraordinary one.

The Asociación Espiritual de Devotos de San José undertook a campaign for a church dedicated to the Holy Family in 1866, but it was only in 1882 that its cornerstone was laid. The architect at that time was one Francisco de Paula del Villar y Lozano, but he was replaced soon afterward by the young Antoni Gaudí i Cornet, and the stage was set for building what would turn out to be one of the most unusual religious structures in Europe.

Gaudí had studied architecture at Barcelona’s Higher School of Architecture and would make a name for himself with such projects as the ornate Art Nouveau Casa Vicens, on which he had begun work in 1883. In time he would be recognized as the most original figure of the Catalan Modernisme movement.

Thanks to an anonymous donation, Gaudí discarded his modest plans for the Sagrada Familia and developed a vision for a much grander structure. Over the following years, he and his team worked on the Sagrada as well as a number of other projects in the Barcelona area, including the Casa Calvet, the fantastic Park Güell and the sinuous Casa Milà, After 1914, however, the architect devoted himself entirely to the basilica.

At the time of Gaudí’s death in 1926—he had been struck by one of Barcelona’s trolley cars—the basilica was unfinished, and while it remains so to this day, there’s been a push to complete it by 2026. During our recent visits, cranes have been in competion with the building’s towering spires. If all goes according to plan, the Sagrada’s tallest one will be topped with a giant cross, making it an astonishing 560 feet high.

Opinions of the Sagrada Familia differ. In describing Gaudí’s work in an article in the Summer 2019 issue of Art Patron, I pointed out that the architect “based the elements of his style directly on natural forms and textures—caves and mountain crags, trees and animals. Combine this insight into the organic world with a deep religiosity and a preference for such architectural elements as the catenary arch, and you have a style that remains radical, even jarring.” He himself remarked that “nothing is art if it does not come from nature,” and ornamented the basilica’s facades with sculptures of such animals as snails, turtles, dogs and ladybirds. Praised by such architects as Louis Sullivan and Walter Gropius, the structure nevertheless has had its outspoken critics. George Orwell, who saw it when he was fighting with nationalist forces in the Spanish Civil War, called it “one of the most hideous buildings in the world.”

And the controversy continues, with some critics arguing that the basilica should be left uncompleted. Adding ammunition to their argument is the fact that sculptor Josep Maria Subirachs, who has been hired to design one of the structure’s remaining facades, has departed from Gaudí’s own style.

Beautiful or hideous, complete or not, the Sagrada Familia must be seen to be believed.

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To read my article “Barcelona & Beyond” in Art Patron, go to https://art-highlights.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/Art-Patron-Summer-2019-reduced.pdf, pages 32-35.

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The photograph at the top of the post is from our 2010 visit to Barcelona. The portrait of Gaudí dates from 1878 and is by Pau Audouard, while the photo below shows the basilica as it looked in 1915.

Craxton before Greece

Grove Koger

John Craxton was born in London on October 3, 1922, and as a young man studied art in Paris, but with the approach of World War II he returned to the United Kingdom for further study. During 1943 he visited the county of Pembrokeshire in southwest Wales with artists Graham Sutherland and Lucien Freud, and a few years later began a series of travels on the Continent, eventually settling on the Greek island of Crete.

Greece seems to have come as a revelation to the young artist. His mood and his palette both brightened, and his work took on a kind of luminosity, although his landscapes are more successful than his fey depictions of animals and people. Then, in the mid-1950s, Craxton befriended Patrick Leigh Fermor, who would in time establish a reputation as one of the most esteemed travel writers of the century. (See my posts for 2/11/18 and 2/18/18.) The meeting took place on the island of Hydra, where Fermor and his wife, Joan, were staying in the ancestral home of Greek painter Niko Ghika. The visit led to Craxton’s designing the cover for Fermor’s book Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese and, subsequently, a number of Fermor’s other works.

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However, the place to begin an appreciation of Craxton’s work is with the lithographs and decorations he prepared for the 1944 anthology Visionary Poems and Passages; or, The Poet’s Eye, edited by Geoffrey Grigson. The works show the clear stylistic influence of Sutherland, and are a vivid evocation of the Welsh country- and seaside that Craxton had encountered in 1943.

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The three images in today’s post are lithographs from my collection that Craxton made for Visionary Poems and Passages.