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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Franzen's Freedom: What the heck bird is that on the cover?

What the heck bird is that?
There's incredible variation in
Birding Field Guides when
you go to seek answers.

By Hugh Gilmore
October 20, 2010

First things first, even in the presence of the mighty.  I'd been waiting quite a while to get my hands on Jonathan Franzen's new novel, "Freedom," but when it finally came to hand, it arrived "wrapped in a mystery" (literally) that needed solving first.  
   Though I was eager to read this book, I didn't want to buy one if I could borrow a copy from the Library.  
   But by good luck, at the Fall for the Arts Festival I ran into Ann Demilio, co-manager of Maria's Ristorante On Ridge Avenue in Roxborough (and daughter of Maria). Ann loves reading literary fiction. Our "Hi's" are usually followed by "What are you reading lately?" And this time, at once "Freedom" came up. She had just finished her copy, did I want to borrow it? Does a bear read in the woods?
            I picked it up at the restaurant on Tuesday after enjoying a delicious dinner made doubly delightful by the heft (651 pages) of the much-anticipated book I carried out with me. I returned home at 7 p.m., fully intending to start reading that night.
            But I couldn't, because of the bird on the front cover of the book's dust jacket. Against a background image of a pond in a Northern spruce forest at sunrise (twilight? the colors seem deliberately ambiguous), a bird's head projects in profile (superimposed?) from the edge of the cover. The bird seemed familiar, but slightly off, as though it were a variant of a bird I knew well -- a Cerulean warbler. I'd just take a minute to verify the identity of this freaky little avian creature. Then I could start reading. Being of an old-fashioned nature bird-wise I went to my Peterson Eastern bird guide.
            The Cerulean warbler, indeed. Now I could begin reading. I carried the book over to my favorite chair and sat down and adjusted the lamp.
            Except the cover bird, on second sight, seemed grayer than the bright blue one in Peterson, and its bill was a bit thicker. So was its throat. And the thin ring around its neck, where it should have been black, was bluish gray.
            Oh, so what? I resettled in my chair.
            No, that's lazy. Maybe the bird on the cover, rather than being a slightly off rendering of a Cerulean, was an excellent drawing of a bird I didn't know. Maybe I should look in Peterson's guide to the birds west of the Mississippi. I found it on the shelf and turned to warblers. As I suspected, the only bluish warbler with a white throat is a Cerulean. Case closed. I started back to my chair.
            Unless Peterson missed the mark on this bird. I went to my bird reference shelf and took down Kenn Kaufman's "Field Guide to Birds of North America." Again, the only blue warbler with a white throat is the Cerulean. But Kaufmann's version shows a bird that's colored a deeper, almost purplish blue. ("Cerulean" means sky blue, but we all know the range of variation that can mean, depending on time of day and latitude and ambient pollution at work any given day.) And his bird has a very short, almost sparrow-like, stubby bill.
            Okay, let's get the "Stokes (SIC) Field Guide to Birds." The Stokes use photographs rather than drawings and their Cerulean warbler exemplar is pitifully lacking in color and detail. The black chest ring for example is not visible. Nor is the slight contrast that should be evident between the face and cheek of the bird.
            I really should have been reading, but out came the National Geographic guides, then "The Sibley Guide to Birds" and the old Audubon Society guides. Everything was off.
            Then: bing! I remembered reading a report by Franzen in the New Yorker about songbirds in Europe. Maybe the bird on the cover of his book, "Freedom," was a European bird. That would explain the variation.
            I went online and reread the article from last July 26, "Emptying the Skies: Songbird slaughter in the Mediterranean." The article describes the destruction of millions of songbirds, especially Blackcap warblers, to serve as food delicacies in Italy, Malta and Cyprus." Very depressing.
            I had an old guide to the birds of Europe, part of the Peterson Field Guide series. I'd consult that book and then, if necessary, go online to search, including perhaps a brief run through YouTube. (No run through YouTube is ever brief.) As I walked to the shelf for the European field guide, my wife, Janet, looked up from reading her own book and said, "Maybe there's a cover art credit on the dust jacket flap."
            Yes. The back flap credit reads, "Jacket Art: Cerulean Warbler by Dave Maslowski." Maslowski is a noted wildlife photographer. The book jacket designer then reworked the colors of the warbler to make them fit the overall tone of the cover.
            And below that: "Landscape: 2009 - Heikki Salmi/Getty Images." (And a quick trip to Flickr.com revealed that the background photo shows Heikki Salmi's parents' summer cottage at sunset -- in Finland!)
            Okay, pretty dumb, in a way. I wasted my time chasing down a "fact" that was easily available. On the other hand, I learned a lot about variation in birding guides. In the past I had often needed to look at several field guides to identify a bird I wasn't sure of. But I had never before compared drawings and photos of a bird I thought I knew. The range of difference among them was remarkable.
            I didn't get to begin reading "Freedom" that night, but would you say the way I spent my time was an "Enemy" of reading? When I finished my armchair birding I was certainly eager to know what that strange little bird had to do with the story.


Running with Hemingway's Bull, Part One

        February 24, 2011

          I've never quite figured out why, but I spent much of last year obsessed with Georges Bizet's opera "Carmen." I read the original novel by Prosper Mérrimée (1845), Bizet's adaptation of it (1875), and then viewed about two-dozen complete recorded performances. Still hungering, I scoured YouTube for every clip I could find. Every night, from January 1 to mid-July, I watched at least one act of the opera (joined, luckily, by my wife -- otherwise I would have driven her crazy with "the same music" night after night).
            About halfway through this mania last year we wrote separate articles for the Chestnut Hill Local about the experience. Mine was titled "What being with Carmen nine times has taught me" (April 14, 2010 ... in the Local's archives, or e-mail me for a copy... or see this blog's archives).
            One fascinating reaction I received came from a local reader who is a world-level expert on "Carmen." This gracious and erudite lady, who chooses to remain anonymous, (we'll call her "Célestine," after the actress who first played Carmen) specializes in "the changing image of Carmen over time." And Madame Célestine also collects Carmen imagery -- playbills, postcards, and cabinet photographs, for example, and recorded performances. Would we like to see her collection?
            Would we? Oh, my. As soon as we could we spent a wonderful evening, first having dinner, and then spending hours looking through the albums she's built over the years. What a thrill that was, and what an education I received.
            I shall return to Madame C in a moment, but must now describe another endeavor that grew out of my "Carmen" interest last year. An idea came to me one evening.
            Some background in case your memory needs refreshing: two characters dominate this French opera that is set in Spain. Don José is a naive country boy who loves his mother and is betrothed to a sweet girl from back home. He has joined the army and is stationed in Seville. La de da. He meets the cigar factory worker, Carmen, when she teasingly throws a flower at him, hence offering him a chance to experience what men call the Gypsy's Curse (... to obsessively love, crave, desire, need a woman because she's made you experience the greatest man/woman thrills you've ever known, or could hope to know -- combined with the feeling [sort of like the way heroin or opium are described] that you'll never feel this way again if she leaves you ... thus leaving you torn between feeling like you're either the earth's greatest stud or the world's most helpless child-about-to-abandoned-by-mommy -- the source of nearly all domestic violence).
            The other major point of view in this opera belongs to Carmen. Carmen is a walking, talking, singing, dancing libido. She is also beautiful, which makes the fact that she is almost immaculately selfish all the more frightening. And admirable. Her innate honesty will not allow her to lie. Her need for independence will not allow her to back down to threats of any kind.
            She wants Don José. He falls for her. He has her for a brief while. Conflicts arise. He has thrown over everything in his life for her. She meets Escamillo, a famous matador, when he stops by the local tavern and sings "The Toreador Song."  She falls for him, he for her. She stops loving Don José. José stalks her. She remains defiant. He kills her, and sings the opera's last words, "Ah! Carmen! ma Carmen adorée!"
            During the scenes where Don José fights to hold on to her, he argues, he demands, he threatens, he pleads, and he sings some of the most beautiful, heart-rending songs ever heard by the human ear. "Carmen" fans sit almost breathlessly waiting, hoping, all through the performance, for the moment when Don José will sing the flower song, where he tells Carmen of how he sat in jail, having sacrificed himself so she could escape imprisonment, looking at the flower she'd thrown at him, cherishing it more every day. How deeply he loves her.
             In the end, those two points of view, that of the downhearted ruined country boy and that of the admirably honest, enchanting gypsy woman, dominate the opera. Everyone else, even those who get several solos (Escamillo the toreador, and Michaela, the sweet 'n' pure girl from back home), is secondary to these two great characters.
            But ... but, what if ... I thought one night last June, what if Don José is not tragic. What if he's a nut? What if he's a typically abusive perpetrator of domestic violence? Like one of those stalkers who waits in the parking lot, a gun beside him, for his girl friend, or ex-wife, to get out of work so he can shoot her? Another case of "If I can't have you, no one can."
            And what if Escamillo really loved Carmen? What if she was not just another woman to him. What if, for the first time in his life, after so many conquests (conquests? Hah! The other women threw themselves at him), he'd found the one woman who put his soul to rest?
            And what if, just as true love came into his life, a tragic twist emerged to ruin his dream: a deranged ex-lover murdered the love of his life. Would that not be sad? Would it not be moving -- to see him again in late middle age, still trying to deal with the memories, trying not to be bitter, trying to retain whatever good had come to him from knowing her?
            I decided to write a novel from Escamillo's point of view. It brewed and stewed within me all through the summer and fall. I decided to pretend that Carmen and Don José and Escamillo and Michaela and all the others had been real people and had received lots of tabloid coverage back in the 1870s. And that Georges Bizet had read those newspaper stories and had written his 1875 opera about them. And that, after avoiding the opera for a while, Escamillo, now-retired from the bullring, finally goes to see a production. I became very excited, and curious, to know what his reaction would be.
            I started writing this novel on January 1st of this year. In two weeks I wrote two chapters, surprised by what was coming out of me.
            Then I happened to re-meet Madame Célestine, the Carmen expert, one afternoon while I was out buying dinner wine. We had an interesting conversation. 

To be continued ...

Running with Hemingway's bull, Part 2: A chance meeting with Mme Celestine.

A Chance meeting with Madame Celestine made me
wonder if I'd been a bit too impulsive about this
Escamillo thing.
            Appropriately enough, the cashier had just bagged my bottle of Rioja at the Flourtown wine store when the very person I needed to see, Madame Célestine, walked in. She's an expert on the opera "Carmen," and probably knows more than anyone about the character of Carmen herself. I'd just started writing a novel based on a twist I wanted to give that story.
            I paid for my wine and hurried over.
            After our mutual, respectful greetings, I asked her if she might be a consultant for my project. I wanted to rewrite "Carmen" from the torero, Escamillo's, point of view. I wanted to treat the original doomed hero, Don José, as a demented soul who'd killed the only woman Escamillo had ever loved. Yes: loved. He loved her. She wasn't just a pit stop on the Andalusian Trail for him. He adored her.
            Madame C is pleasant and polite at all times and she stood there with quiet aplomb, but with her mouth slightly open, and for a moment I thought I might have turned into a talking frog. I felt foolish, and possibly offensive, for messing with the great "Carmen" canon. But at least she hadn't walked away. Yet.
            I said, "I wondered if you knew of any other attempts to take this point of view?"
            "No, nothing like that. You're talking about quite a departure from the story."
            "It get's worse," I said, "I'm pretending that all the events in Bizet's storyline actually happened in 1870 in Seville. They became newspaper-scandal fodder. Then Bizet created the opera and it debuted in 1875. In my version, Escamillo resists seeing it for a while, but then goes to a performance. It repels him -- his life and love portrayed that way."
            Madame C held her faint smile, but furled her brow slightly, before saying, "Did you know that its 1875 debut happened in Paris?"
            "Oh," was all I managed.
            "And the opera did not come to Spain until the 1880s. 1881 in Barcelona and, I believe, 1887 in Madrid."
            "Oh-oh," I said.
            The Spanish, she told me, found the whole thing ludicrous, though the rest of the world -- Vienna, Stockholm, St. Petersburg, London, New York, even Philadelphia, was pretty taken with it by then.
            Oh no, the dreaded word "Research," breached my mind's horizon. Research: that awful, time-consuming, all-absorbing, sucking maelstrom that draws you down, down, down into your subject so far, so deep, there never comes an end, a time when you might break back to the surface and cry, "Enough! Enough already! I now know Everything! and can get on with my blankety-blank story!"
            "Ah," I said.
            "Where did you plan to have Escamillo see the opera?" Madame C said?
            "Uh? Well, eh ..." I stuttered, "He could possibly have heard so much about it that he traveled to another city to see it. That might help him slip in the back without being recognized. He'd probably feel some shame if caught seeming interested, so he'd want that anonymity."
            "That's possibly true," C granted me. "I have some very interesting material on the initial Spanish reaction to "Carmen." One particular essay, from the Cambridge Opera News might be of help. It's called, "Confronting Carmen Beyond the Pyrenees." I'll see if I can dig it up for you."
            "Oh," Thank you.
            "You realize that Escamillo is presented differently in each production of "Carmen," don't you?"
            "Yes, but I don't feel obliged by that. I want to write about a real person, a man who worked as a bullfighter. But bullfighting, the 'corrida,' was not his whole existence. He had family members. He had his own needs for the female of the species and not all those needs were physical. Perhaps the best way to think of him was the way we think of modern athletes -- physically gifted persons who are quite simple in some ways, but unexpectedly complex in other ways."
            "Do you know much about bullfighting? I suppose you'd have to learn something about that?"
            "Oh, yes, of course. That's on my to-do list."
            "And you've read the Mérimée novel version, I suppose?" I nodded yes. She continued, "In that version, the bullfighter's name was Lucas. Bizet changed it to Escamillo. And Lucas was a picador, not a matador. Bizet coined the word "toreador." It's never used by the Spanish." 
            My head was spinning in the familiar kind of whirl that said I'd once again bitten off more chorizo that I could chew. The most famous opera song in the world, "The Toreador Song," always sung so knowingly by everybody, is an ode to a non-existent occupational title!
            With a promise to help me when needed, Madame C glided away, my own personal Glinda/Billy Burke, with a shopping cart.
            Many weeks later, after reading many books about "corridas" and "toreros" and "traje de luces" and "ferias" and "veronicas," I finally dared take down and begin to read the one book I'd been most dreading: Hemingway's "Death in the Afternoon."
            Was I man enough to enter Papa’s woodshed?
 To be continued....