Swans Commentary » swans.com July 30, 2012  



Special Summer Issue: Books, Music, Films


Read, Watch, And Listen


by Gilles d'Aymery



Fundraising Drive: Dear readers, here is a summer special edition on books, music, and films, which was imagined, organized, and put together by Manuel García, Jr. -- with the help and guidance from Swans editors. We hope you enjoy the result and have an enriched and peaceful summer. But keep in mind, to maintain Swans with the quality and dependability you have grown used to over the years we need financial help. Ask yourselves the value of our work, and whether you can find a better edited, more trenchant, and thoughtful Web publication that keeps creativity, sanity, and sound thoughts as first priorities. Please help us. Donate now!



(Swans - July 30, 2012)   Evidently, any short selection is highly subjective. The format requested by our master of ceremony (Manuel García, Jr.) -- be short and to the point -- did not allow for much explanation. In the past year I have spent much time around my French past, so I have chosen to focus on French works, both for the books (mostly historical and political with the addition of a philosophical tale and a novel) and the films (all about the author and director Marcel Pagnol). For the music, I went more afar, highlighting violin, piano, and opera, ending with la môme Piaf.




•   La Trahison des Clercs, by Julien Benda, Grasset, 1927, translated by Richard Aldington in 1969 as The Treason of the Intellectuals (W.W. Norton & Company)

An ageless treatise written by a great though modest French intellectual in which the author denounces the political passions of intellectuals who advocated the notions of race, nationalism, anti-Semitism, warmongering and militarism, ideologies from the right and the left, instead of being faithful to Plato (Pláton), the eternal values of disinterested abstractions. This book should belong on the bookshelf of any thinking person...and be read.


•   L'Opium des intellectuels, by Raymond Aron, Calmann-Lévy, 1955, translated by Terence Kilmartin in 1957 as The Opium of the Intellectuals, (Secker & Warburg)

Aron took over where Benda left off, but wrote during the height of the Cold War. He wrote a devastating critique of French radicals (e.g., Jean-Paul Sartre, his petit camarade) who for the sake of an ideology would espouse and advocate political fantasies going all the way to excuse violence and extremism. Aron was a very prolific writer and a bit of a conservative thinker. This book, in my opinion, is his masterpiece.


•   Mèmoires de guerre, by Charles de Gaulle. Three separate volumes: L'Appel, 1940-1942 (1954), L'Unité, 1942-1944 (1956), and Le Salut, 1944-1946 (1959), translated by Richard Howard in 1998 in one volume entitled "The Complete War Memoirs of Charles de Gaulle" (Carroll & Graf Publishers)

I have become a great admirer of the Général de Gaulle, his thoughts, his vision, his belief in France's destiny and greatness. He begins these memoirs thus: "All my life, I've had a certain idea of France..." And what a superlatively brilliant idea he had! He wrote the three volumes long hand, by himself. The style is phenomenal, the prose worthy of the best novelists of his time. Whoever has an interest -- curious, intellectual, cultural -- in France should read these outstanding memoirs. There is also a three-volume biography written by Jean Lacouture -- 1) "The rebel," 2) "The politician," and 3) "The ruler" -- that I highly recommend to those interested in France and the legacy of de Gaulle.


•   Camus à Combat: Editoriaux et articles (1944-1947), translated by Arthur Goldhammer, edited and annotated by Jacqueline Lévi-Valensi, as Camus at Combat: Writing 1944-1947, Princeton University Press, 2006

Here are 165 articles and essays that show Camus's intellectual evolution away from ideological extremism, right and left, and the development of his deep-seated humanism -- something we all think about with great humility.


•   Le Petit Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, 1943, translated in 250 languages and dialects, known in English as "The Little Prince" (six different translations)

"Men have no more time to understand anything. They buy things all ready made at the shops. But there is no shop anywhere where one can buy friendship, and so men have no friends any more." ... "It is only with the heart that one can see clearly; what is essential is invisible to the eye." ... "You are responsible for your rose..." This is not just a poetic tale, it is a philosophy of life that at 62 years of age I keep reading at least once a year to resource myself in the limpidity of what's really important for the time we spend on this earth. Children, young adults, and adults should read this gem time and again.


•   Belle du Seigneur, by Albert Cohen (1968), translated in English under the same title in 1995

Let me end with a novel. I could have chosen any one of Cohen's novels -- Solal, Mangeclous, Le livre de ma mère, Les valeureux, Ô vous, frères humains... Yes, any one of them. Cohen, like Julien Gracq (Rivages des Syrtes) has had a huge impact on me. A paroxysm of words that none of us can challenge. Simply magnificent.


Having reached my limit of six entries, let me nevertheless mention three authors who wrote novels focused on societal issues: Honoré de Balzac (la Comédie humaine); Victor Hugo (Notre-Dame de Paris and Les Misérables); and, of course, Émile Zola (the remarkable 20 volumes of Les Rougon-Macquart). These are chef d'œuvres that will show you that our current socioeconomic and cultural predicaments are phenomena far from new -- all translated to English (check Project Gutenberg and Wikipedia).




•   Trilogie marseillaise (Marius, Fanny et César) known in English as "The Fanny Trilogy"

These three films, two of them adaptations from the theater, are a cinematographic chef-d'œuvre. They were produced between 1931 and 1936. It's a story about love, friendship, voyage, sadness, and love again, in the city of Marseille. Raimu, an actor that Orson Welles called "the greatest actor in the world," is the central figure of this trilogy. The films, in black & white, are in French with English subtitles. Unfortunately, the subtitles do not reflect the slang and regional dialect spoken at that time. Still, a chef-d'œuvre that everybody should watch.


•   La Femme du boulanger or "The Baker's Wife"

Produced in 1938, directed by Marcel Pagnol, with once again Raimu as the main actor, this film is based on a Jean Giono novel (Jean le Bleu). It's about a baker's wife leaving her husband (Raimu) for a younger man. The baker goes on strike. The village searches for the bitch, finds her, and brings her home. Bread is baked again. It's a wonderful movie. The subtitles are fine.


•   La Fille du puisatier or "The Well-Digger's Daughter"

Produced in 1940 by Marcel Pagnol with (again) Raimu and the genial Fernandel... It's a story about a daughter getting impregnated, a father's ire, and a jolly good end. Subtitles are fine.


•   La Gloire de mon père and Le Château de ma mère -- in English: "My Father's Glory" and "My Mother's Castle."

Directed and produced by Yves Robert in 1990, these two films retrace Marcel Pagnol's childhood in Marseille and the hills of Provence. They are based on Pagnol's Childhood memories (1957) -- his memoirs. The films are in color, the subtitles excellent. Don't miss these two films.


•   Jean de Florette and Manon des sources -- in English: "Jean de Florette" and "Manon of the Spring"

These two movies were adapted by Claude Berri in 1986, based on Pagnol's 1963 novel, L'Eau des collines. Here again, pain, sadness, love, and joy are part of the ploy. But what a picture of a France that no longer exists! Beautiful movies with superb acting (Yves Montand, Gérard Depardieu, Daniel Auteuil, Emmanuelle Béart) and unimaginable twists; good subtitles.




Well, almost each evening I do listen to classical music. Violin, piano, and opera lead me to sleep. And, of course, there is Edith Piaf, the voice of Sainte Thérèse, or the voice of god, if he exists...


•   Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61 (1806), by Ludwig van Beethoven

Sublime violin. My favorite recording is that of Sir Yehudi Menuhin and conducted by Otto Klemperer, performed in 1966 at Kingway Hall in London.


•   Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, op. 23 (1875), by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Simply grandiose. Perhaps the most famous interpretation is that of Vladimir Horowitz conducted by his father-in-law Arturo Toscanini in 1943. I also have a more recent version performed in 1990 at Walthamstow Assembly Hall (London) with Mikhail Petnev (piano) and Vladimir Fedoseyev (conductor). Listen to the concerto before going to bed and you'll have a sound and happy night.


•   The Köln Concert (1975), by Keith Jarrett

What to say about this solo live improvisation performed at the Cologne Opera House in 1975? Jarrett may be the greatest pianist still alive. He could play, and has played, Bach, Handel, Mozart, and Shostakovich, but his own work beats them all. You must listen to the Köln Concert (I do regularly). It's the most amazing piece of music you'll ever hear.


•   Madama Butterfly (five versions between 1904 and 1907), by Giacomo Puccini (libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa)

There is no music without opera and there is no opera without Puccini. I could have chosen Tosca, La bohème, or Turandot (with its famous "Nessun dorma"), but the romanticism of Madama Butterfly is hors pair, and listening to the arias "Un bel di vedremo," "Una nave de guerra," and above all "Coro a bocca chiusa" -- which I can listen to time and again -- touches the deepest of one's sensitivity. The interpretation I have is that of Mirella Freni and Luciano Pavarotti, conducted by Herbert Von Karajan, recorded in Vienna (Austria) in 1974.


•   Carreras, Domingo, Pavarotti in Concert, conducted by Zubin Mehta (Terme di Caracalla, Rome, 7 July, 1990)

Talking about "Nessun dorma," one has to listen to the magnificent interpretation by Pavarotti during that famous concert. I'm aware I am going to shock the purists. After all, it was not real opera and, worse, it was evidently a commercialized event, not worthy of true opera lovers. Indeed, and I beg forgiveness from the purists for this choice. This said, to have Plácido Domingo, José Carreras, and Luciano Pavarotti gathered in the same arena was an exceptional event in and of itself. It also happens that these three tenors did more to introduce opera to the masses than anyone else (this concert holds the Guinness world record for best-selling classical music). And, anyway, I am not a purist, just a music lover. Jan and I enjoy sitting on the deck in the summer evenings, sipping some elixir, and listening to the three tenors.


•   Edith Piaf

How to write in a few words about the sublime? Her voice was indeed sublime, far above Mado Robin or Maria Callas. One of her signature songs was La vie en rose, which has been performed by countless other singers -- the best interpreters being: In English, Aretha Franklin and Louis Armstrong; in French, Mireille Mathieu, Céline Dion, and Marlene Dietrich -- all extraordinary performers, but none equaling the voice of la Môme Piaf, a voice that went up there, all the way to the heavens. For English listeners, I recommend to buy the DVD "Edith Piaf, a Passionate life." French listeners ought to buy "La Môme Piaf, La légende." You'll learn about the life of one of the most talented singers in history. And you'll learn that Edith Piaf, c'était l'amour ("it was love") pure and crystalline as ever, love we all want to give and receive.


So, here is the end of my subjective selection. I wish people will read, watch, and listen to each of them. I trust their lives will be enriched by the quality of this list. Perhaps next year we will all go through the same exercise if Manuel is up to putting it together again. This has been a compelling task, digging deep within one's consciousness to come up with these offerings, knowing that one has to choose among hundreds of cherished works. May you enjoy this selection.


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Published July 30, 2012