City Lights

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Grove Koger

From 1987 through 1991, I worked as Contributing Editor for Books at Boise Magazine. Besides assigning new books to be reviewed, I wrote occasional reviews and book-related pieces myself, one of which, from the May/June 1990 issue, I’m reprinting below in a revised version.

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However much we may value wilderness, our civilization is defined by our cities. What critics regard as the twentieth century’s two “big” novels—Joyce’s Ulysses and Proust’s In Search of Lost Time—are city novels, and they’ve set an example for a host of other works. These are some of my favorites:

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Thornton Wilder’s modest first novel, The Cabala (1926), recreates the Rome of the 1920s through the eyes of a naïve young American. The secret society named in the title is a band of world-weary Romans whose real nature is revealed in a surprising final chapter. Older but wiser, our protagonist forsakes Europe for “the new world and the last and greatest of all cities.”

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You’ve seen Cabaret, but you probably haven’t read the works that inspired it, Christopher Isherwood’s “Berlin Stories”—a loosely organized sequence that includes a novel-length portrait of a scoundrel, The Last of Mr. Norris (1935), and five additional pieces published as Goodbye to Berlin (1939). Isherwood lived in the German capital during the 1930s, and describes its tawdry charms in clear-eyed prose.

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Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet (1957-59) is an interlocking series of four novels—Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive and Clea—set in the Egyptian port one character calls “the great winepress of love.” Durrell ’s Alexandria is a grand, vividly colored creation that, judging by the guidebooks, far outstrips so-called reality.

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Eduardo Mendoza’s City of Marvels (1986) is a celebration of Barcelona told through the life of Onofre Bouvila, a poor young man who makes his fortune in the city through a picaresque life of crime and deceit. Opening as Barcelona prepares for its World Fair of 1888, the novel closes during the World Fair of 1929 as the unscrupulous Bouvila stages a truly fantastic getaway.

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Michael Moorcock’s exuberant Mother London (1989) celebrates life in the English metropolis from the frightening anarchy of the Blitz through the dry rot of the 1980s. Yet behind the details of those decades lie millennia of English history and tradition. For “by means of our myths and legends,” writes Moorcock, “we maintain a sense of what we are worth and who we are.”

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The image at the top of the post is a map of Athens from the 1911 edition of Baedeker’s Mediterranean. (Notice the Acropolis at the bottom of the map!) The cover of The Berlin Stories reproduces a photograph by Dolores Gudzin of a scene from the Living Theatre’s 1960 production of Bertolt Brecht’s In the Jungle of Cities. And the cover of The Alexandria Quartet reproduces a watercolor by David Gentleman of a tower attached to the city’s Villa Ambron, where Lawrence Durrell lived during World War II. Sadly enough, the building was demolished in 2017.

 

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Barbara Hepworth in St Ives

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Grove Koger

One of our most memorable experiences in the little Cornish port of St Ives in 2016 was our visit to the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden. The complex is devoted to the life and work of Dame Barbara Hepworth, who was born January 10, 1903, and who spent the most productive years of her life in St Ives.

Hepworth studied at the Leeds School of Art and the Royal College of Art, and had begun to make a name for herself as a sculptor by the time she met painter Ben Nicholson in 1931. The two married in 1938 and, at the beginning of World War II, moved to Carbis Bay near St Ives. Hepworth drew inspiration from the primal, windswept landscape of Cornwall and its ancient monuments, and she and Nicholson both became vital forces in the growing community of modernist artists living in St Ives.

In 1949 Hepworth bought a stone-built studio in the port, a “magic” place where, she said, she “could work in open air and space.” She continued to live there after she and Nicholson divorced in 1951, laying out a garden on the grounds and placing her small and large abstract sculptures in carefully considered positions within it. In the bitterest of ironies, she died in the studio when it caught fire in 1975.

Following the instructions in Hepworth’s will, her family reopened her studio as a museum in 1976, and today it’s run as the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden by the Tate. Maggie and I enjoyed our time in the museum so much that we paid it a second visit, and got to hear a lively lecture about the sculptor by Tate assistant Andrew Jackson a second time.

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For more information about the museum, see https://www.tate.org.uk/visit/tate-st-ives/barbara-hepworth-museum-and-sculpture-garden. And to learn a little more about St Ives in particular and Cornwall in general, read my article “Taking the Lay of the Land” in Laguna Beach Art Patron Magazine for Spring 2017 at https://issuu.com/scottamcpherson/docs/2017_spring-_laguna_beach_art_patro. Finally, I provide more information about Cornwall’s megaliths in my blog for February 6, 2018.

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Unfortunately, I’m not able to share images of the museum’s interior or its garden online, so I’ve settled for a photograph of the sculpture you see at the top, Dual Form, which stands some distance away in front of St Ives’ Guildhall.

The Albatross Modern Continental Library

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Grove Koger

In my post for November 11, 2018, I discussed Tauchnitz Editions—a series of paperback books aimed at English-speaking travelers but distributed outside the British Empire and the United States. Tauchnitz had this rather specialized market to itself for nearly a century, but in the early 1930s a new firm, the Albatross Modern Continental Library, overtook the older firm in sales.

Founded in 1932 in Hamburg, Albatross followed the same distribution model—“not to be introduced into the British Empire or the U.S.A.”—but modernized its books in terms of size, design and typeface. Whereas Tauchnitz Editions were uninspiringly squat, Albatrosses were taller, approximating the pleasing golden ratio of 1.618. Unlike its predecessor, Albatross bound its books in brightly colored covers according to genre. Thanks to this innovation, potential buyers at a busy train station could quickly pick out a volume of short stories (orange), a book of travel (green), or a mystery (red). The books’ typography was more elegant, and the simple, evocative image of the far-ranging albatross that appeared on their covers surely appealed, perhaps subconsciously, to those who thought of themselves as cosmopolites.

Then too, at a time when Tauchnitz championed what were once called middlebrow books, Albatross signed contracts with forward-looking writers, many of them modernists who still rank high in the pantheon of twentieth-century authors. Joyce’s collection Dubliners actually appeared as Volume 1 of the Albatross Modern Continental Library in 1932, and the company even published an edition of his controversial novel Ulysses the same year, although for safety’s sake it appeared under the imprint of the Odyssey Press.

Albatross’s attractive line caught on so quickly that the firm actually bought Tauchnitz in 1934, although the older line remained in production—eventually fitful production—until the mid-1950s.

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As war approached, Albatross forged partnerships with other publishers in Europe and even the United States. And, very occasionally, it produced books in different formats. I own a soiled 1947 hardbound, dust-jacketed Albatross copy of Frederic Prokosch’s first book, The Asiatics, published in partnership with the Norwegian firm of H. Aschehoug & Co. Although it’s a novel, its theme of travel earned it a green cover.

Like Tauchnitz Editions, the Albatross Library ceased publication during the mid-1950s, but I ran into used copies of its books frequently in Europe in the 1970s. They made unusual souvenirs, and even now are readily available through online dealers.

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If you’d like to know more about the Albatross Modern Continental Library, see https://paperbackrevolution.wordpress.com/albatross/ and Strange Bird: The Albatross Press and the Third Reich by Michele K. Troy (Yale University Press, 2017).

Three Cheers for Chocolate

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Grove Koger

Earlier this century, I wrote and copy edited for Boise Journal, its successor Boise, and several spin-offs. Besides being a genial group, the publishers and editors knew that the city’s readers had inquiring minds, and as a result I had an opportunity to write about a wide range of subjects, from history and literature to music and food. “Three Cheers for Chocolate” originally appeared in a somewhat different form in the Winter 2010 issues of Boise and Boise Home & Design. 

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It was Linnaeus who gave the cacao tree the name Theobroma, “food of the gods.” The great Swedish botanist must have been a chocolate lover.

Bite into even the most ordinary bar—let’s say Hershey’s Milk Chocolate in the iconic brown and silver wrapper—and it’s hard to disagree. The smooth texture, the extraordinarily rich and complex flavor, the subtle but very real sensation of wellbeing that follows—yes, this is what the food of the gods must taste like. But it’s a long journey from the tropical forests to that seemingly simple bar, and if you were to bite into a cacao bean instead, you’d be bitterly disappointed. Literally.

Strange Trees

Theobroma cacao, to give the species its exact name, probably originated in the Amazon basin, but today experts distinguish between three varieties grown in various parts of the tropics, generally within 10 degrees of the equator. Criollos are deemed the best, while forastero cacaos are hardier but of lower quality. The third variety, trinitario, may be a cross of the other two. Yet in the world of chocolate, that’s just the beginning. Just as identical varieties of grape take on different characteristics from locale to locale, so do cacao trees.

(The term cacao, by the way, is usually applied to the tree and its seeds, or beans. After those beans are subjected to a long series of operations that I’ll describe below, the result is chocolate. The removal of the “butter,” or fat, from the chocolate leaves—finally—cocoa. The difference in spelling between cacao and cocoa is apparently the result of an eighteenth-century error.)

Cacao trees are too fragile to be climbed, so cultivated specimens are pruned to 20 feet or so. Pruned or not, however, they look decidedly strange. The flowers grow on the trees’ trunks, to be succeeded by waxy red or yellow pods that can approach the size of footballs. The trees bear flowers and pods at the same time, but are not terribly prolific, with the average tree producing about 30 pods a year.

Workers split the pods and scrape out the pulp and beans. Next they spread the beans in the sun to “ferment,” a process in which cacao’s rich flavor begins to develop. By the time the beans have dried, that average tree’s yield has shrunk to only one or two pounds for export.

Some History

In one form or another, cacao has been consumed for at least three millennia in Mesoamerica. The oldest find so far involves traces of an alcoholic beverage fermented from cacao pulp and found in pots dating to between 1400 and 1100 BC. Somewhat later, bowls holding a form of chocolate were buried with important Mayan individuals, and bore hieroglyphics we would translate as ka-ka-w. We also know that Mayans flavored their chocolate with other substances such as vanilla and chili—a seemingly unlikely combination that you would do well to remember.

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Columbus captured a Mayan canoe carrying cacao beans in 1502, but it’s unclear that he knew what he had found. However, Cortés and his Spanish troops did, and despite the various concoctions’ extremely bitter taste, the soldiers came to be “addicted,” as a killjoy contemporary observed. (A clue to that addiction lies in the fact that cacao contains phenylethylamine, or PEA, a chemical that our body manufactures when we fall in love.) Cacao beans reached Spain in 1544 and the rest of Europe soon after.

With the introduction of cane sugar production, the sweet forms of chocolate that we know today became possible—at least for those who could afford them. And with growing demand, the tree’s cultivation spread throughout the West Indies and then to West Africa. Spanish colonists transplanted cacao seedlings in 1590 on Fernando Pó, an island known today as Bioko, but it would be more than two centuries before the Portuguese followed suit on the nearby islands of São Tomé and Principe.

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Until the end of the eighteenth century, Europeans drank chocolate much as the Mesoamericans had, but some far-reaching changes were on the way. A Dutchman named van Houten developed a method of removing much of the fat, or “butter,” from the product, producing cocoa. (This process is still known as “Dutching.”) Next, experimenters found that they could mix the excess cocoa butter with ground beans, with the result that the British firm of Cadbury Brothers was turning out blocks of chocolate by 1842. In 1876 Daniel Peter of Switzerland developed milk chocolate—an invention picked up and manufactured in quantity by Henri Nestlé.

The Twentieth Century & Beyond

By that time, São Tomé and Principe were on the verge of becoming the world’s most important source of cocoa beans. In the early twentieth century, however, it was revealed that the Portuguese were practicing the equivalent of slavery, and Cadbury and most European firms stopped buying the islands’ beans. Fortunately, the cultivation of cacao trees had spread by then to the West African mainland, a region destined to become the world’s largest producer.

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It’s no exaggeration to say that chocolate conquered the world in the nineteenth century. Much more recently we’ve seen the rise of artisan chocolates—bars and candies made with organic, single-origin beans and often eccentric flavorings. In addition, the percentage of cacao in many chocolates has risen, making for more intense flavors. (Of course, prices have gone up accordingly.) In the early twenty-first century, this food of the gods ranks as the third most valuable foodstuff in the world.

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Maggie took the photo at the top of the post on our visit to Kauai in 2009, while the second image is an Aztec depiction of a ceremony involving a pitcher of cocoa. The postage stamp was issued in 1948 for use in the Portuguese colony of São Tomé and Principe, and the wrapper near the bottom is from a bar produced by the Barcelona firm of Blanxart.

Barril Beach and Its Cemetery of Anchors

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Grove Koger

Until a few decades ago, tuna fishing was a key component of the economic life of the Algarve, Portugal’s southernmost region, and Tavira Island’s Praia do Barril, or Barril Beach, was the site of a seasonal community of tuna fishermen and their families.

These men once set up enormous almadravas (or armações—fish traps) in the waters off the island, stretching their long nets open with cables and holding them down with hundreds of anchors to cover the sea floor and enclose three sides of a loose square. When the industry was at its height, the men of the Algarve netted some 20,000 bluefin tuna per hear, but overfishing and changing migrations patterns eventually put an end to the practice. The last effort, in 1972, netted just one fish.

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Visit Barril today and you’ll see dozens of large rusting anchors—the Cemitério das Âncoras—set up in rows in the dunes above the beach as a striking memorial to the vanished industry and the way of life it supported. One of the community’s surviving buildings has been turned into a museum, and the well from which the fishermen once drew their fresh waster has also been preserved. Simple bars and cafes serve the thousands of swimmers who now throng the long beach in the warmer months.

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Barril is just one stretch of Tavira Island’s sandy six-mile Atlantic shore. A pedestrian bridge links the island to the mainland, and a tiny train carries visitors across the low island, which is nearly at its widest here. When Maggie and I swam at Barril in August 2017, the water temperature was in the low seventies but the sun was bright and hot, and we couldn’t have asked for a more exhilarating experience.

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For more on Portugal, see my posts for 12/31/17, 2/26/18, 3/19/18, 4/20/18, 5/23/18 and 7/9/18.

Messiaen’s Challenging Masterpiece

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Grove Koger

From 1991 through 1996, I reviewed classical CDs for Disc Respect, a magazine published by the Record Exchange of Boise and edited by Will Spearman. It was a lively little operation, and I felt relatively free to tackle whatever struck my fancy. The review below appeared in the Fall 1992 issue, and I’d like to think that at least one or two readers were moved to buy this recording of a challenging but hypnotically listenable work.

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Olivier Messiaen: Turangalîla-Symphonie. Myung-Whun Chung, Bastille Opera Orchestra. Deutsche Grammophon

Any list of the twentieth century’s most revolutionary musical works would have to include Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and something by Béla Bartók, maybe his Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. Now we have a brilliant new recording of a symphony that—who knows?—may in time outshine them both.

French composer Olivier Messiaen wrote his immense Turangalîla-Symphonie for the Boston Symphony in the late 1940s. It runs to nearly 80 minutes in performance, and, to use Messiaen’s own labels, its orchestration is “monumental” and “unusually varied.” There are 68 strings, as opposed to the 42 to 62 in standard orchestras. The similarly large brass section features a piccolo trumpet (a new instrument to me), while the percussion section includes such exotica as a glockenspiel, a vibraphone, Chinese blocks, Turkish and Chinese cymbals, a Basque drum, a celesta, a Provençal tambor (tambourine)—you get the idea. A piano figures prominently, and that marvelous electronic instrument, the ondes martenot, lifts the entire production through the roof.

I could go on to talk about the incredibly complex and even jazzy rhythms Messiaen marshals throughout his work’s ten movements, and about his interest in birdsong and Hindu music, and about his devout Catholicism. But I’d be drawing further and further away from the experience of the music itself, not to mention cribbing Messiaen’s own detailed liner notes. Whatever means the man used to liberate his creativity, the result is deeply moving—the aural equivalent of a night at sea beneath the northern lights.

And what about the title? “Turangalîla” combines Sanskrit terms suggesting love, play, movement, and so on, all on the widest and most exalted scale.

Messiaen died in April 1992, but not before making some small revisions to his masterpiece. He was present at this recording, and pronounced it the definitive account, full of the “right joy.” I’ve heard two other performances on CD versions: Seiji Ozawa’s on RCA, which still stands up to the one, and Esa-Pekka Salonnen’s on CBS, which does not.

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If you don’t care to buy a recording of Turangalîla-Symphonie, you can watch Myung-Whun Chung conducting a 2008 performance with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8PjyCpRKDrk&t=2271s&index=13&list=WL. Valérie Hartmann-Claverie plays the ondes martenot, and Roger Muraro the piano. It’s an excellent production (although I’ve noticed a couple of “jumps” in the video), and if you’re like me, you’ll enjoy watching the musicians. I don’t find mention of a second piano in discussions of the piece, but there definitely is one—an upright—behind Muraro’s concert grand.

Conrad’s Young Seaman

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Grove Koger

As I’ve mentioned previously, I’ve been working for several years on a readers’ guide to maritime literature—novels, stories, plays and poems about naval life, the sea, the seaboard and islands. I plan to call it “Sea Fever,”a title borrowed from a short poem by John Masefield. One of the entries I’ve completed is devoted a story by Joseph Conrad, who was born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski on December 3, 1857, in Berdychiv, a city that was once in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, had become part of the Russian Empire by the time of Conrad’s birth, and is now in northern Ukraine.

Conrad grew up speaking Polish and was fluent in French by the time he traveled to Marseilles in 1874 to sail in the French merchant marine. After some four years, he joined the British merchant marine and began to learn English, writing his first story and becoming a British citizen in the same year, 1886. By the time he quit the sea in early 1894, he had spent more than a decade aboard ship, and by the time he died three decades later, his acute moral vision and rich style had earned recognition as one of the greatest writers in the English language.

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“Youth” (Blackwood’s Magazine, 1898)

“Youth” involves a number of firsts for Conrad. It was his first important work as well as his first use of the character Marlow, whose account of his voyage aboard the barque Judea and his first, unforgettable sight of the East are recounted by another, unnamed, narrator.

Marlow unfolds his story, which is set more than two decades in the past, before a small group of friends, all of whom have experienced the sea. “You fellows know,” he points out, that “there are those voyages that seem ordered for the illustration of life, that might stand for a symbol of existence.” The trip Marlow describes can indeed be read as an “illustration”—of, among other matters, the utter obstinacy of the physical world. The Judea is an aging hulk scarcely fit for the task that she and her captain, himself an aging hulk, have been given: to carry coal to the Siamese (Thai) port of Bangkok. The ship is beset by a series of calamities: it’s caught in gales, its ballast shifts, it’s rammed by another ship in port, and, once at sea again after repairs, its rotten hull begins to disintegrate, necessitating a return to port and another maddening series of repairs.

When, finally, the Judea makes a successful run down the Atlantic and into the Indian Ocean, its cargo begins to smolder, nearly suffocating its crew. The men believe themselves rescued when another ship offers to tow them, but they must cut the rope when their increased speed fans the hot embers into flame. Eventually they abandon ship for three smaller boats, one of which Marlow counts as his first command (!), and manage to reach an unidentified port in the East Indies in the middle of the night. Marlow awakens the next morning to a “crowd of attentive faces” and a “blaze of vivid colour—the water reflecting it all, the curve of the shore, the jetty, the high-sterned outlandish craft floating still.”

In Conrad’s hands, the voyage aboard the Judea also serves as an illustration of the rapture of youth and its blithe indifference to disaster, as Marlow exults in his strength and endurance “like a conqueror.” The story can also be read as a straight piece of autobiography, for it’s virtually a transcription of Conrad’s own experiences as second mate aboard the barque Palestine in 1881-82. And finally, “Youth” can be read as a piece of Orientalism (to use the term popularized by Edward Said), one in which a Westerner encounters a stereotypically unfathomable East, although I think that the power of Conrad’s vision renders such a reductionist approach inadequate.

“I have known its fascination since,” declares Marlow near the end of his account: “I have seen the mysterious shores, the still water, the lands of brown nations, where a stealthy Nemesis lies in wait, pursues, overtakes so many of the conquering race, who are proud of their wisdom, of their knowledge, of their strength. But for me all the East is contained in that vision of my youth. It is all in that moment when I opened my young eyes on it. I came upon it from a tussle with the sea—and I was young—and I saw it looking at me. And this is all that is left of it! Only a moment; a moment of strength, of romance, of glamour—of youth!… A flick of sunshine upon a strange shore, the time to remember, the time for a sigh, and—good-bye…!”

Conrad writes in one of the most expressive styles in the English language, and when he is at his best, as he is here, his sentences flow on as powerfully and serenely as swells upon the sea.

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The biographical and critical literature on Conrad is voluminous, but I recommend starting with Joseph Conrad: A Life by Zdzisław Najder (2007) and The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World by Maya Jasanoff (2017). For information about his East Indian voyages and works, Conrad’s Eastern World by Norman Sherry (1966) is indispensable.

Conrad Sherry