Homage to Granada

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I visited Granada at the end of spring when the drifting pollen of its olive trees was triggering severe asthma. Some unfortunate locals were forced to wear allergy masks out in the sunbaked streets. But luckily I had no asthma and ample time to sit in the shade with friends enjoying beer and tapas. For me, it was pleasure to stop and take a breath in the city.

Granada’s air was also filled with musicmostly frequently the hit ‘Despacito’. It took me several days of scouting to find quality flamenco. I finally discovered El Tabanco del Tío Gregorio on the edge of Albaycín, the old Moorish quarter. Unlike the tablaos aimed at tourists, El Tabanco is a modest and inexpensive peña flamenca designed for intimate recitals. Obviously run by true believers, it can accommodate no more than twenty-five listeners, who sit on tiny wooden stools that wobble on the smooth stones cemented into the floor. We drank beer and ate cheese, pickled carrots, and bullet-shaped crackers. María García Toque, a young dreadlocked singer, introduced her fandangos and ferrucas with courtly grace and sang with fire. She was accompanied by a suited, ponytailed guitar player named Pablo Giménez.

Later, out on the descending cobblestones of Cuesta de San Gregorio, the smell of jasmine travelled with the breeze. A cross-legged busker was playing two hang drums in the moonlight. Surprisingly, these drums do not originate in, say, ancient Persia, but are recently invented and catching on with hippies everywhere. A hang looks like a upside-down wok that has been attacked by a man with a hammer. The drums are permanently tuned. People were sitting on the stones in rapt contemplation of the melancholy and resonant timbre. Without discounting the skills of the percussionist, I wondered if musical profundity should be harder earned.

After some manoeuvrers, I snared a ticket to wander through the Nasrid Palaces of the Alhambra, the last reconquered site in Muslim Spain. In The Buried Mirror (1992), Carlos Fuentes wrote, “Perhaps only a people who had known the thirst of the desert could have invented this extraordinary oasis of water and shade.” I also come from a desert country, so maybe that explains why I was so awed by this voluptuous monument to flowing water. Back outside, I was also awed by the view from the gardens of the Generalife. Looking down at the neighbourhoods of Sacromonte and Albaycín, I contemplated the high-leaping dark-green poplars, the narrow streets notched into the hills, the terracotta roofs and interior patios of the white houses. The hazy air above the city beautifully diffused the sunlight. It wasn’t always that way. Inscribed on the wall of the Hall of Two Sisters: “Never have we seen a palace so exalted, with so clear and broad a horizon.”

A less exalted palace is that of Charles V, an ugly Renaissance addition to the Alhambra, the Spanish reconquistadores metaphorically pissing on the site to mark their reclaimed territory. A few years ago its open-air patio was the stage for a summer concert by Jordi Savall, the Catalan musical archaeologist, viola da gamba player, and cultural impresario of boundless ambition. He attempted to use music and texts to narrate the history of multi-faith, medieval Granada. I was curious about the pre-flamenco musical traditions of this great and ancient city, so I bought the recently released recording of that concert, Granada 1013-1502 (Alia Vox). The performers are Hespèrion XXI and La Capella Reial de Catalunya, with a number of solo instrumentalists and singers.

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This is not the first time Savall has created early music programs centred on cities with shared Jewish, Christian, and Islamic histories. There is one on Jerusalem (subtitled The City of Two Peaces: The Celestial Peace and the Earthly Peace) and two on Istanbul (The Sublime Gate 1430-1750: Voices of Istanbul and Dmitrie Cantemir 1673-1723: The Book of the Science of Music and the Sephardic and Armenian Musical Traditions).

Savall’s laudable purpose goes beyond the merely musical and historical. When Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in Seville, it was an idealistic political gesture: to have Jewish and Arab musicians playing music together in defiance of the political stalemate and apartheid in Israel and the occupied territories. Still, the West-Eastern Divan play music in the European classical tradition. I saw them perform Pierre Boulez with formidable panache at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires.

Like Barenboim, Savall is also engaged in defiantly humanistic political gestures, reassuring in this era of rising European nationalism and Islamophobia. But Savall not only brings together musicians of different religious or ethnic backgrounds; he also juxtaposes different musical traditions within his narrative programs, a timely reminder that Europe has always been multiculturalalthough rarely peaceful.

A terrifically prolific recording artist of dauntless ambition, Jordi Savall calls the more lavishly-packaged recordings ‘CD-Books’, but that still does not indicate the idealistic scope of these multilingual, multimedia musical-historical projects. In fact, Granada is one of his more modest presentations. In the past I have contemplated Erasmus of Rotterdam: In Praise of Follysix hybrid CDs/SACDs containing two alternate versions of the same musical program (with French narration or without) and a heavily annotated hardback book in multiple languages with glossy colour illustrationsbut quickly put it down in total intimidation.

Lest we allow the evocative music to simply inspire Orientalist fantasies, Granada comes with a full-colour 280 page booklet with numerous illustrations, photographs, and dense explanatory texts in six European languages. (Strangely, considering its focus and idealism, there is no Arabic translation.) I had to set aside an hour or so to come to terms with this project’s scope. Unfortunately the method of annotation is inconsistent, forbiddingly pedantic yet without precision, a hurdle to be jumped by those unacquainted with early music performance conventions. What exactly is this music? Who were the composers and who are the performers? How did these pieces survive centuries to be performed today?

The English text of Savall’s essay is a slog through translatese. The text is pointlessly repetitivewe’re told twice in successive paragraphs that ‘Garnata al-Yahud‘ means ‘Granada of the Jews’. Spellings are inconsistent, too. Is the Arabic musical genre called ‘muwashshah‘, ‘muwashah‘, or ‘muwassah‘? Somebody should decide, or else stick with ‘موشح‎‎.’ Definitions of unfamiliar terms arrive paragraphs after they have already been used. There are also confusing leaps back and forth in time as Savall attempts to explain historical cause and effect. (Comparing the printed booklet cover and the one on the Alia Vox website, the title of the disc is not even consistent. Does this story end in 1502 or 1526?).

The show is presented chronologically with bridging passages narrated in Spanish. We start a thousand years ago in the time of the city’s founding as a Moorish kingdom on the site of the ancient Garnata al-Yahud (which means ‘Granada of the Jews’, in case you’ve already forgotten). We pass through dynasties, wars, massacres, and persecutions until Isabella and Ferdinand take the city in the fateful year of 1492 and decree the expulsion of the Jews. Muslims are forcibly converted.

Jewish, Christian, and Islamic medieval music is reconstructed from disparate sources, and performed with elements of improvisation. The Visigoths had been in Spain before the Moors, and influenced forms of Christian religious music that continued to be practiced in what became al-Andalus; this is now called ‘Mozarabic’ music. Savall includes prayers from the Mozarabic repertoire, songs from the famous Cantigas de Santa Maria and the Codex Las Huelgas, and other surviving ballads and villancicos. Much early Christian music was preserved in imprecise and difficult-to-decipher forms of musical notation, but Savall makes an attempt to interpret these scores.

The Jewish pieces are settings of Hebrew texts by medieval poets, by the rabbi Maimonides, and from the Song of Songs, performed in the traditional styles of the Sephardic diaspora, specifically in communities that endure in Morocco and Thessaloniki. The Israeli singer Lior Elmaleh is prominently featured in these pieces. The Muslim segments include muwashshahs and improvisatory maqams, texts and poems, and dances surviving in Muslim communities in North Africa and the Middle East. I’m sceptical that these musical forms have endured essentially unchanged after half a millennium, but I guess that’s a question for the musicologists.

It is difficult to encompass five hundred years of a city’s history in any sort of dramatic narrative. Instead there is a parade of historical figures and wavering levels of religious tolerance and persecution leading to the fall of Granada. It must have been serious stuff in the stifling air of a summer night, but the music is evocative and beautifully performed by the solo singers, the choir and an embellished ensemble that stretches from Savall’s viola da gamba to the ney, the oud, and the kanun. Putting the heavy scholarship aside, the recording works as a perfect stimulus for anybody who wants to drift into dreams of this glorious and tragic city.

Edinburgh, September 2017

 

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Lester Goran: Wiseguy

LESTER GORAN: WISEGUY

Lester Goran? I’m going to steal one of Saul Bellow’s opening pitches:

Sure, I knew the guy. He was wonderful.

Lester was only an occasional writer of comic fiction, but that’s what I read first—one of the funny books. As a result, his big kindly grin in person didn’t surprise me at all. And yet, practically beatific as he drove me around Miami, Lester said he considered William Trevor and Joyce Carol Oates his two best living writers. Okay, LG, but not really wisecrackers. Worlds of grimness!

“Yeah, they play it pretty straight,” Lester said.

Lester had grown up poor in Pittsburgh and read the proletarian fiction of James T. Farrell (vintage grimness). Then he’d joined the army, gone to university on the GI Bill, written his thesis on Henry James. It was an unlikely identification—the underclass tenement kid and the aristocratic expatriate. “I was here and James was there…and yet we both saw the world very much the same way: greed, manipulation,” Lester told me. “His eye was so cold.” He didn’t think middle-class critics could grasp James’ writing about loneliness.

I figured he liked Chekhov, too.

“Oh, yes,” Lester said with reverence.

Now, I can’t think of a writer who doesn’t revere Chekhov, but with Lester Goran the influence seems unavoidable. The unsentimental compassion for the small and large tragedies of ordinary people, of lives blighted by loss or mere lost opportunities. What sustains Goran’s characters through the darkness is the hope of transcendence through acts of imagination, no matter how pathetic or bizarre or borderline crazy—a corset with magical properties; a romance with the ghost of an Episcopalian preacher; aiding and abetting ‘Pretty Boy’ Floyd. For most of his writing life Goran bound himself to the honorable task of sketching the lives of humble Pittsburghers—the underclass of the Hill District (disguised as ‘Sobaski’s Stairway’) and the Irish working class of Oakland—restricting his prose to what he called the “earnest expression of the consciousness that my characters are capable of.”

He published nearly a dozen books in this mode. But let’s not forget the rare funny books—what Lester called his “wiseguy” comedies—which gave him a chance to display the dexterity of his prose and his considerable comic abilities.

I discovered one of these comedies by accident in a thrift shop in Sydney, Australia, in the early 2000s. (I think Lester liked the idea of his books scattered around the world from Australia to Iran, emissaries on patient standby.) The book was The Keeper of Secrets (1971). The price: $1. What stood out was not the author’s name—I’d never heard of this Lester Goran—but the Portnoyesque typeface on the plain off-white dust jacket. Its lurid swashes evoked the first Nixon administration and an oppositional attitude embodied not only by Philip Roth but by Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer, Leonard Michaels, J. P. Donleavy, Terry Southern, Robert Crumb, Frank Zappa, Sam Peckinpah, Robert Altman, Elliot Gould, Jack Nicholson, and the ghost of Lenny Bruce: liberated heterosexual mischief fuelled and given moral dignity by outrage at American injustice. Men collecting the late fee on overdue freedom in a frequently hilarious, masculine, virile, sweaty, occasionally misogynist Great American Fuck You.

Of course many books were sold with a Portnoyesque dust jacket around 1971. In the case of The Keeper of Secrets, I guess the designer recognised a few affinities—Jewish irony, a schlemiel with a roster of ex-wives, (slightly) bawdy comedy—and tried to hitch it to a passing mood. But it doesn’t really fit in.

The Keeper of Secrets is Shimen Groff, a mess of a human being but a Nobel Prize contender if only his epic long-in-progress novel, scattered in manuscript across the United States among ex-wives, can be collated and published. It’s the set-up for a road story and riotous farce. Goran freely moves between third and first person to distinguish Shimen’s ideal and actual selves. Ideally Shimen is “dapper, clean, resolute, entirely admirable”; in actuality Shimen proves a slob, unreliable, wilfully obscure, a betrayer—”a forest fire,” Lester told me. But we can hardly hate him. After all, we need novelists. Lester said he was interested in how “the writer draws the conclusions to all of the uncorrelated parts of experience that are moving in so many directions.”

The dust jacket for Goran’s earlier comedy The Candy Butcher’s Farewell (1964) is also a lazy period piece, illustrated in the style of a cheap morning cartoon like Roger Ramjet. Again it fails to communicate uniqueness.

I think Candy Butcher is his best novel, the one most deserving of rediscovery and republication. A ‘candy butcher’ is a seller of sweets at an Atlantic City burlesque house. The titular narrator is Henry Sneffer, Jr., plucky, hopeful, enthused—“Count me in!” is the novel’s first sentence. Henry is born to an absent father and a ‘nurse’ he calls Big Sister with whom he travels across the United States in the 1930s. When Big Sister dies Henry is sent to live with his Uncle Jonas and Aunt Alma in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania. He eventually flees to Atlantic City after discovering that Jonas has committed arson at one of his slum properties and has no remorse about the death of a little black girl.

In Candy Butcher the pull between Goran’s ambitions—almost a question of loyalties—is explicitly referenced. Henry, a budding writer, says he “kept one of Uncle Jonas’ rent lists, thirty-six gray names, thinking I would one day write a story about every gray name behind every one of Uncle Jonas’s gray doors. I lost the names with a collection of Unknown Worlds and Amazing Stories, science fiction that Aunt Alma sent to a trash collector for the worth of the paper. I’m sure that, except in the aggregate, none of those 36 names would make anything but bad news as they hanged themselves or slashed with a razor their own image in someone else. They would probably have made…a failure of a book for any young writer dumb enough to try them.”

And yet in his future books Goran repeatedly came back to the gray names, risking novelistic failure for the greater cause of reimagining lost Pittsburgh. He wrote about the sort of people who not only rarely appear in novels, but rarely even register on the consciousness of society. He told me he wanted to return to the subject of burlesque in an altogether darker mode—a novel imagining the life of one of the Green River Killer’s victims. What astonished him was that “most of these women were so anonymous nobody even knew that they were gone.”

Goran greatly admired Bellow—the admiration was apparently reciprocated—but didn’t recognise what he called Bellow’s working class “Delphic expressionistic people” who toss arcane philosophical debates back-and-forth like baseball raps or tabloid gossip—wiseguy gab applied to the cosmic. For Bellow, living in a modern city like Chicago stirs and demands contemplation, prompts the Big Questions. His leading characters may be emotional disasters but they are all questing and curious—protagonists with a vengeance—and are surrounded by characters on the make, schemers for success, money, women. Perhaps Goran’s bravest act as a writer was to take his characters as he knew them from the streets of Pittsburgh—often paralyzed, wounded, bewildered, timid, or passive; people haunted by grief, guilt, fantasies, and visions. Sometimes Goran risked inscrutability by this act, his surrender to inwardly directed subjectivities. But damn the consequences—this was Lester’s universe.

As he wrote in the introduction to Tales from the Irish Club (1996):

“No one except a fiction writer would want to perpetuate a cast of all the unremembered delegates from an abandoned time.”

That said, I considered it great news when Lester resurrected his comic mode forty years after Keeper of Secrets in the sequel, Unnatural Expectations, and in a short story cycle about the ‘Air Man’ A. C. Laredo, based on the life of Goran’s immigrant father. I was honoured to be able to publish excerpts from both as-yet-unpublished manuscripts in my capacity as the editor of Contrappasso.

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The Keeper of Secrets marked the end of Lester’s first period, an impressive run of six novels in a dozen years. Then there was a long silence of more than twenty years broken only by the indie appearance of the historical novel Mrs. Beautiful (1985) and his collaborative translations of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s late stories (I’m discounting the two paperback ‘saga’ novels Goran wrote for money). The intensity of Goran’s second period of publishing activity is extraordinary: five books published between 1994 and 1999. These are a memoir of Singer, the novel Bing Crosby’s Last Song, and three collections of short stories focusing on the denizens of Oakland’s Irish Club (a fourth collection was mooted but never appeared). Suddenly Goran, in his late sixties, had a critically-acclaimed corpus of fifty stories. His earlier novels entirely out of print, he was now best known as a short story writer. This was unusual because he hadn’t concentrated on stories in the past nor sold these ones individually to magazines and journals.

But bibliographies are misleading. Like any writer attempting maneuvers without ever having the good fortune of penning a bestseller, Goran’s published work—twelve books—is merely what he was able to smuggle out to the world as he moved from publisher to publisher. He enjoyed two brief periods of regular publication in a career of more than fifty years. I don’t believe he ever stopped writing. He told me his archives held many other manuscripts, including a novel that was supposed to be published following The Keeper of Secrets but was cancelled.

Although he surely promoted his work to agents and publishers when necessary, especially in the early days, it is difficult to imagine Lester as a hustler. That would indicate a need for outside affirmation. In the brief time I knew him, Lester seemed eminently self-sufficient, a modest man rather chuffed by where he’d found himself. He’d come a tremendous way from his slum youth, but he said the biggest leg of the journey was from the 5th to the 4th Ward of Pittsburgh. He never betrayed a sense of injustice that his work remained largely unknown.

He continued to teach and write into his mid-eighties. He confidently expected to follow his brother’s lead and live to a hundred. His emails to me as he worked on the Shimen Groff sequel and ‘Air Man’ communicated an undiminished glee in the simple act of writing—again, transcendence through imagination. Swapping reports of our respective novel writing, Lester wrote to me on February 16, 2012, in his standard telegrammic style:

“Revived work on Shimen mss., should be done well before 21st century ends. All very exciting. Fun like all hell. Happy to hear you are in throes of creation, all there is between artist and lunacy of the world. Best and thanks. LG.”

Buenos Aires, July 2014

Presented at ‘Goran’s Gifts: A Tribute to Creative Writing Professor Lester Goran’, University of Miami, 24 October 2014; Originally published in Mangrove (Fall 2014)