The Road to the Open

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The Road to the Open

By Arthur Schnitzler

Translated by Horace Samuel

With a Foreword by William M. Johnston

Northwestern University Press, 1992

ISBN: 0810109964

The Road to the Open

The keynote of Schnitzler’s great novel of turn of the century Vienna is anxiety, an anxiety centred on the future.

Its main character is George von Wergenthin, an aristocrat, musician and composer, and we follow his life for a period of about a year. The crucial question is whether he will amount to an artist of substance or remain forever a dilettante; and it is uncertain to the last. Somehow, he is unable to bring artistic projects to a satisfactory completion and his private life is a mess: he has a child with a woman that he doesn’t intend to marry. Most of George’s friends and acquaintances – writers and artists, students and political activists – are Jewish and the so called ‘Jewish question’ is a central issue here, as in no other city. (at this time the mayor of Vienna  is Karl Lueger, an anti-Semite much admired by Hitler.) It is another source of anxiety, to add to the rest. At one tense gathering George listens to two of his Jewish friends, Leo and Heinrich, discussing their lives and has a premonition of the difficulties that lie ahead:

He saw for the first time the designation Jew, which he himself had often used flippantly, jestingly and contemptuously, in a quite new and at the same time melancholy light. There dawned within him some idea of this people’s mysterious destiny, which always expressed itself in every one who sprang from the race, not less in those who tried to escape from that origin of theirs, as though it were a disgrace, a pain or a fairy tale that did not concern them at all, than in those who obstinately pointed back to it as though to a piece of destiny, an honour or an historical fact based on an immovable foundation.

His Jewish friends have different fates. For some (including Leo) Zionism, emigration to Palestine, is the only answer; while another (Oskar) converts to Catholicism (as did the Wittgenstein family, incidentally). Then there is another path that many took, socialism or communism, with its promise (not entirely fulfilled, as we know) to melt all ethnic and national identities in the furnace of history. As for Heinrich, probably George’s closest friend, he doesn’t journey along any of these paths, and nor does he choose assimilation or integration into the life of Vienna. Rather he plumbs in the end for a kind of abnegation, a clear-headed lonely existence, proud and dark:

He needed acquaintances to go walks and excursions with, and to discuss all the manifold problems of life and art in cold shrewd fashion – he needed women for a fleeting embrace; but he needed no friend and no mistress. In that way his life would pass with greater dignity and serenity. He revelled in these resolutions, and felt a growing consciousness of toughness and superiority. The darkness of the forest lost its terror, and he walked through the gently rustling night as though through a kindred element.

There is much to enjoy and appreciate in The Road to the Open, perhaps Schnitzler’s most accomplished work of fiction. You have the innovative use of interior monologue and the way the perspective constantly shifts from character to character (it is not only George’s story), creating a rich, multi-layered, social world that is both personal and political. These people let us into their lives, share their thoughts on love and suicide, science and music, identity and guilt (and for George at the end there is a need or obligation to feel guilt). That Schnitzler drops a lot of place names – there are references to churches and coffeehouses and landmarks in the city centre, the Riesenrad in the Prater, Sievering and Sophienalpe in the Vienna woods – also made the novel come alive for me, since I know these places. Incidentally, it is hardly a coincidence that a lot of the action is set in the Vienna woods, with the characters walking or bicycling down various Wanderwegs: it chimes with the original German title, which is Der Weg ins Freie.

We all have an Elsewhere (or several), a place we can escape to, and for many that is ‘Vienna 1900’: The art of Klimt and Schiele, the architecture of Otto Wagner and Adolf Loos, the fiction of Zweig and, yes, Schnitzler. The Secession, Jugendstil, the Wiener Werkstatte and all of that. The Road to the Open is contemporaneous with this glorious period (it was written between 1902 and 1908, and published in the same year that Klimt completed Danae) and shows us something we likely always knew: There is no Elsewhere that can insulate us from life, no time and place where people were free from foreboding or fear for the future. At one point in the novel Heinrich speaks of anxiety as ‘a perfectly legitimate daughter of reason’ – it is a consoling thought, kind of.

The publisher’s description of The Road to the Open is here.

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Alfred Seiland @ the Albertina

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Alfred Seiland

Curated by Prof Dr Klaus Albrecht Schröder

Albertina, Vienna

13 June – 7 October 2018

Alfred Seiland | Wildwood, New Jersey, USA, 1983 | The Albertina Museum, Vienna © Alfred Seiland

Alfred Seiland | Wildwood, New Jersey, USA, 1983 | The Albertina Museum, Vienna © Alfred Seiland

This retrospective exhibition of work by the renowned Austrian photographer Alfred Seiland was a highlight of our annual visit to the Albertina.

At its heart was an early series, East Coast – West Coast (1979–1986), which featured photographs of America. However, these were not photographs of iconic American landmarks or cities. Instead, you would typically see automobiles (real gas-guzzling machines), looking now as antediluvian as mainframe computers, as ill-designed and ill-adapted as the platypus. They would be parked outside motels or flimsy-looking apartment buildings, below neon signs, or sitting on vacant lots, idling in the streets of small towns arising out of an oppressive desert landscape.

To begin with, the photographs look like a charming slice of late twentieth century Americana, landscapes you would like to step into. You think of TV cop shows, neo-noir films, the novels of Elmore Leonard, Richard Stark and Newton Thornburg. But then you think: No, I would feel hopelessly uprooted and lost here. Look at the buildings: they are makeshift, impermanent, not built to last. There is no recognisable sign of history, a lack of human attachment or atmosphere (or rather: that is their atmosphere). Placid yet precarious. Treacherous. Alien, even.

Included also are some photographs from a campaign that Seiland did for the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung between 1995 and 2001. Typically, you would have a famous person (a small figure in a larger landscape) reading the newspaper, their face obscured. So you do have to take it on trust that it is who they say it is. It had its moments, notably one with Helmut Kohl ensconced on the good ship Europa, entering choppy waters, then as now. Klaus Maria Brandauer, the great Austrian actor who starred in The Magic Flute in Salzburg over the Summer, was in one of these photographs too. (That trio of films he made with Itsvan Szabo, above all Mephisto, will undoubtedly stand the test of time.)

As well, there are a bunch of photographs of Austria and a selection from another series, Imperium Romanum, focusing on the territory of ancient Rome; Don McCullin recently hit upon this as a subject too. This latter batch shows cities and urban spaces in the Middle East, taken often with the desert as a backdrop. All look somehow unsustainable and at risk: an eerie aura here.

If I had to explain why I was so fascinated by Alfred Seiland’s outwardly unpretentious pictures, I would say it is because they seem to show the faultlines of a society within an ordinary milieu. They don’t show violent crimes or even awful accidents but they suggest how such accidents might happen and escalate. You don’t see doom-laden catastrophes or tragic incidents but its clear that, with just a slight push here or there, such incidents could occur, spiral out of control and cause harm. Within all these landscapes there is a muted dynamism coupled with a lack of care – an absence of attachment and investment to a particular place and time – which means that if and when something goes wrong, it will go very badly wrong indeed. What is to stop it?

When we left the Albertina (eventually) the sun was scorching in the city, as everywhere this past Summer. So we went to Heiner’s for lunch, where I had a large glass of chilled soda-water followed by a ham roll and salad and a cherry crumble cake, one of their celebrated Fruchtkuchen, to end: good Viennese fare.

The exhibition features around 80 photographs by Alfred Seiland and is showing until 7 October. Details here.

War Diary

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War Diary

By Ingeborg Bachmann

With Letters from Jack Hamesh

Edited and with an Afterword by Hans Höller

Translated by Mike Mitchell

Seagull Books, 2018

ISBN:9780857425324

War Diary

This short book is best viewed as a package, so let me begin by enumerating its contents.

There is, to start with, a diary (or some extracts from a diary) kept by Ingeborg Bachmann and covering the period from about September 1944 to June 1945. In these pages she mentions her friendship, probable romance, with a British soldier named Jack Hamesh. She is able to discuss literature, politics and the like with him. Like her, he is Austrian. Unlike her, he is Jewish. In 1938 he had escaped from Vienna to London via Kindertransport, later enlisting in the British Army.

As well as the diary, the book contains several letters from Jack to Ingeborg, with these letters dating from Easter 1946 to July 1947, so a few years after the diary entries and their first meetings. The letters are intimate and candid about Jack’s feelings – it is clear that he loved her – and they clearly meant much to Bachmann: else why would she have kept them? His last letters are written from Tel Aviv, where had gone to live after the war, knowing that Ingeborg could not follow him. Vienna was over for Jack, his life there had ended in March 1938. The city was a deceitful dream. In one letter to Ingeborg he writes:

Remain my dear friend whom I need so badly and love very, very much and cannot forget.

Following the letters, there is an Afterword by Hans Höller, though in truth it is rather more than that. For Höller provides an overarching narrative that allows the reader – even one largely unacquainted with Ingeborg Bachmann’s work – to place the diary and letters within the context of her life, and Jack’s too, to some extent. One key sentence stands out and is worth quoting in full:

In her description [in the diary], the end of the 14 June [1945] meeting is like a dream picture of a new coming together after the catastrophe, like a picture Chagall never painted: after a Jew, driven out of Austria in 1938, has kissed her hand, the eighteen-year-old daughter of a Carinthian Nazi family climbs up into an apple tree that night and cries, thinking she never wants to wash her hand again.

Indeed, what was Ingeborg to do with her burden, her share of guilt and shame? Her family had embraced Nazi ideology (as did much of the Austrian populace) and although she rebelled against it (but how strongly?), Austria’s compromised history was hers too. She muses about the impossibility of betraying one’s own family yet could not fully accept them (their beliefs and deeds) either. Alone, she had to forge her own path.

We know of Ingeborg Bachmann’s close friendship with Paul Celan through their letters, dramatized in Ruth Beckermann’s film The Dreamed Ones, but it seems as though her relationship with Jack Hamesh, a Viennese Jew who emigrated to Palestine, was if anything even more intense.

Then we come to the last, the final item. There is a further note by Hans Höller, written after the publication of the first German edition, where he gives some information that had come to light regarding the life of Jack Hamesh. He lived in Israel until 1987, the year of his death, and his name there was Jakob Chamisch. Tellingly, we learn that among his effects was a signed photo of Ingeborg Bachmann dated 23 June 1946.

As I said: the book is a package. There are fragile items, surviving only as fragments (the diary is incomplete, we don’t have Ingeborg’s letters to Jack), but from them we can piece together an important friendship in the lives of two young people, both floundering in the violence of their shared history, each striving in their own way to make sense of themselves and their fractious times.

The publisher’s description of War Diary can be read here.

Sunrise

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Sunrise

Directed by F. W. Murnau

USA, 1927

RNCM Concert Hall, 8 June 2018

Sunrise

Sunrise is unquestionably a masterpiece of world cinema and Thierry Escaich’s live organ gave F. W. Murnau’s silent film a renewed vitality.

There is a love triangle – a country marriage fractured by the arrival of a temptress from the city – but it is resolved in time, as two become one again. It is Adam and Eve reconciled, having made up and mended. Genesis with a happy ending. Paradise Regained.

Such beautiful images and visions throughout. The city with its speedy locomotions and neonlit funfairs and fancy restaurants and elegant dances. As the orchestra play, the couple in love do a peasant dance. Meadows sunlit and Arcadian yet, elsewhere, tenebrous lakes where night creatures lurk. Nascent horror.

We have the birth of a new art form, cinema, an emergent medium founded on the realisation (discovery?) of how rich and multiple and strange the world is. Then sound came in and that was, if not exactly spoilt, obscured.

Mind, I wonder whether Hitchcock made reference to this idyllic country couple in The 39 Steps in the scene where Robert Donat goes into a Scots farmhouse and finds the wife drowning in domestic drudgery while pining for the city, dreaming of the bright lights.

A true classic.

Leave No Trace

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Leave No Trace

Directed by Debra Granik

USA, 2018

HOME, 1 September 2018

Leave No Trace

This one is about a father and daughter living rough.

As we learn soon enough, he is damaged by the experience of war (he receives drugs for PTSD but doesn’t take them because they do no good, just sells them on) and the girl goes along with him, tries to care for her dad as best she can. While he wants away from people, and the modern world generally, she (sometimes, anyway) wants to connect: and that is the faultline that unravels their bond, strong as it is.

When the two fall into the hands of the authorities (they are picked up by forest rangers) the girl is advised to fill in a form in a certain way, else it would not be read by the computer. And that small moment is telling, an inkling of the petty tyranny they are seeking to escape from, which we all live under now, and more of which can be expected in the future when automation becomes more widespread.

The family escape from the authorities – the father is always running – and they find a place. America is vast, an ’empire wildreness’ in Hart Crane’s sublime oxymoron, and you can still lose yourself in it. There are hobo jungles and boxcars like as in Jim Tully’s day, uncharted communities and verdant forests. That is one solace the film offers, yet on the downside America continues to damage her people in wars overseas.

A poignant film, with a wonderful performance by Thomason Harcourt Mackenzie as the daughter, well worth seeking out.

Cold War

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Cold War

Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski

Poland, 2018

HOME, 2 September 2018

Cold War

The acclaimed Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski presents us with a grand love story set against the backdrop of – yes, you guessded right – the cold war.

Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is a musician working out in the field, researching traditional Polish folk songs. Then he starts an academy-cum-company to get young people performing these songs before large audiences. And that he how he meets Zula (Joanna Kulig), the love of his life – he, of hers too. Their love is temptestuous and is compromised by the iron curtain. It takes them to Paris and back to Poland, where Wiktor is interred in a labour camp. It ravages them sorely, costs them dear.

A beautiful film, perceptive and astute (for example, in the communist attitude to the Roma: one commissar complains about a girl with dark hair and says that the dance troupe should have a pure, Slavic look), suffused (as was Ida) with  a Catholic sensibility. And the ending wryly comments on the relationship between art and life (or, perhaps, life and death). Excellent all around.

The Fishermen @ HOME

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The Fishermen

By Chigozie Obioma, adapted for the stage by Gbolahan Obisesan

HOME & New Perspectives Theatre

HOME, 24 July 2018

Valentine Olukoga (Obembe) and Michael Ajao (Ben) in The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma, adapted by Gbolahan Obisesan for New Perspectives, in association with HOME (19-28 July 2018). Photo by Pamela Raith

Valentine Olukoga (Obembe) and Michael Ajao (Ben) in The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma, adapted by Gbolahan Obisesan for New Perspectives, in association with HOME (19-28 July 2018). Photo by Pamela Raith

Two actors can contain multitudes.

Here Michael Ajao (as Ben, principally) and Valentine Olukoga (as his brother Obembe) took to the stage in Gbolahan Obisesan’s thrilling adaptation of Chigozie Obioma’s fine novel. They played the brothers at various stages of their lives, and diverse other characters also (their parents and older brothers, a policeman, the odd cantankerous elder…) and, as the play went on and you became irresistibly drawn into a compelling tale of misadventure and crime, the stage seemed to alter also, expanding outwards to encompass Nigeria, that vast nation of millions of souls, and the world beyond it (one brother sees migration to Canada as his future). It too possessed multitudes.

The action was often frantic and violent, yet there were intimate, earnest conversations too. There was atmospheric horror and terror as well as a clear-eyed view of the complexities and contradictions of modern-day Africa. This is the crux: the brothers break a taboo, but they do so in a world where taboos, the social compact that once held all together, are broken anyway. You can attribute this to various forces, among the usual candidates being colonialism, globalisation, corruption, poverty… But no matter, the brothers’ predicament remains the same: what are the rules in a world with no rules? And that is our predicament too.

The Fishermen delivers everything you could possibly want from modern theatre; it is a perfect gem. The play is at HOME until 28 July. Details here.

Ex Libris: The New York Public Library

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Ex Libris: The New York Public Library

Directed by Frederick Wiseman

USA, 2017

HOME, 19 July 2018

Ex Libris: The New York Public Library

Clocking in at over three hours, this is a documentary of Tolstoyan dimensions.

As with Frederick Wiseman’s other films, there is no voiceover narration, which is not to say that his camera simply observes. Rather the camera is an intelligent device which picks up on each tiny, telling detail; a consciousness ‘on which nothing is lost’, in Henry James’s famous formulation.

So we look in on managerial meetings where funding priorities and direction of policy are debated and decided. We spy a homeless guy (and not only one) fast asleep before a book. We listen to authors (Richard Dawkins, Patti Smith) talk before a genteel audience of likeminded souls, while a reader’s group lays into Love in the Time of Cholera: the book is not so much dog-eared as voraciously dog-chewed, metaphorically speaking, at the end. Nor do we evade the contrast between the grand library building in the centre of New York City and the homely, run-down branches in the wider community. Mind, the range of activities and resources we are presented with – dance classes, concerts, lessons in mathematics and programming (boys manipulating robots), facilities for research, usable archives, the provision of e-books and internet – is impressive.

Overall, Ex Libris is a very fine, very full portrait of an invaluable institution that serves its community, its various users and stakeholders (not least children), well.

Racer and the Jailbird

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Racer and the Jailbird

Directed by Michael R. Roskam

Belgium, 2018

HOME, 19 July 2018

Racer and the Jailbird

This is a curious, though it has to be said effective, hybrid of heist thriller and tragic love story.

Gigi (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a guy who robs banks with a gang of mates he has known since childhood. Of course he presents himself to the world as legit, a businessman who imports and exports cars. Bibi (Adele Exarchopoulos) is a young woman who works for her father (it’s a job) but otherwise relaxes by racing fast cars around a track. That’s how Gigi and Bibi meet. And fall in love.

It is an unexpected, unsettling journey with a lot going for it, and well worth the price of the ticket. You get exciting set-pieces: the gang storming into a bank, later holding up an armoured car. You get beautiful Belgium: gothic churches, streamlined buildings, verdant countryside. And beyond this, for the film is not simply a series of cinematic postcards, the cruel economic landscape of a New Europe where business deals segue into extortion and corruption. And somewhere in all of this there are two damaged people, Gigi and Bibi, attempting to forge a life together.

What I especially like about this film is that it is slick but not superficial: a difficult trick to pull off.

The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick

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The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick

Directed by Wim Wenders

Austria, 1972

HOME, 18 July 2018
The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick

It is a truth universally acknowledged that all goalkeepers are crazy, bonkers, mad as the proverbial hatter.

And no wonder, for just consider their predicament. For most of a football match, they stand between their goalposts, far from the action. Watching the on-field players on the ball, in the thick of the action, while they are unable to intervene. Goalkeepers become detached from the goings-on that embroil the supporters (how could they not?), yet always they must be alert, for if the opposing team should score, the responsibility, the the final crucial mistake (even if initially it was the flashy striker, dizzy from a goal celebration or a hangover of the night before, who gave away the ball at the other end) belongs to them alone. They will be the guilty party in the eyes of the supporters. Goalkeepers are on edge all the time, aware of a ball (a fatal, game changing shot) that is mostly absent.

This early Wim Wenders / Peter Handke collaboration places a down-at-heel goalkeeper in the world (to be precise, in Vienna and Lower Austria: there is a nice shot of the Reisenrad in the Prater, perhaps the young Wenders’ homage to Orson Welles) and the result is a film that looks a little like an adaptation of Albert Camus’ The Outsider, with a smidgen of Frenzy, late Alfred Hitchcock, thrown in. Joseph Bloch (Arthur Brauss), the goalkeeper, is not a team player in life, to say the least. His capacity for empathy, fellow feeling, is severely limited. He is a danger to himself and others.

An intriguing early effort by both Wenders and Handke, there is plenty here to keep you interested. It is pretty patchy, mind, not at all a masterpiece. Still, you can glean themes that will recur in both artists’ later work.