I recently came across these two short films by the French director Chris Marker (1921-2012) from Bestiaire (1990). The first one is a cat sleeping on a piano. And the second a series of owls, mostly swivelling their heads rather amazingly.
Looking at the cat, I realised for the first time that sleeping can be an art form.
Also, the next time I find it hard to sleep I am going to try to imagine being that cat and see what happens. (I shall stop short of lying down on top of the piano keyboard, however).
The owls go through a range of motion which is so far beyond our abilities as to seem aliens or objects (periscopes, perhaps).
Also, there is something about these films which seems to belong to another time, although though they are quite recent. Perhaps it is just the fact that they seem completely separate from our new multi-tasking customs. Marker focuses on one thing and doesn’t get distracted.
Chat écoutant la musique
An owl is an owl is an owl
If you have now become curious about how far an owl can swivel its head, look at this:
If you have watched any royal ceremonies involving the Queen of England, you may have noticed that she is the only person who doesn’t join in when “God Save the Queen” is sung. She can’t, of course. It would make no sense.
But I am sure that there have been times when she has sung it in private. How could one resist it? When she’s really worked up about something or, almost unthinkingly, in the shower. She would still need to change the words, though. This is what I think she sings:
“God save my gracious Me, Long live my noble Me, Go-od save Me!”
And, perhaps, people would enjoy it more if they too could sing those words instead of the standard version. In this selfie-littered age of self-display and ceaseless selling, this should, really, become everybody’s personal anthem.
Some people (I call them explaneedfuls) need an explanation for everything and often an explanation of the explanation as well. A long time ago I met one of them. I was asked to go to a TV studio in Italy to assist the host of a programme covering the Oscar awards ceremony. I thought I was going to be there to interpret, which is what I usually do, but it turned out that the core of my job was to make sure the Italian host understood the jokes people made during the ceremony.
Jokes are definitely one of the hardest things to translate but in this case the real problem was that the person was devoid of any sense of humour and the more one took the pieces of the witticisms apart and described how they were supposed to interact the more bewilderment descended on his features. I began to wonder whether he was actually an alien from a race with no jokes who had infiltrated our society to spy on us. They had managed to copy all our bodily components perfectly but they had no idea on how to instil humour into a fake human.
I’m sure you’ve met at least one explaneedful person. I sometimes think about them when I read haikus.
When I look at of the books in my library, the only thing I can remember in most cases is whether I have read them or not. Books in the second-largest category trigger one single anecdote or image and nothing else. One image which has been in my head for decades now comes from a book by Alberto Savinio (the brother of the painter Giorgio De Chirico), who was a fine writer and music critic, but of whom the only thing I recall is this passage he wrote about Gioacchino Rossini:
When, in Rossini’s symphonies, the allegro theme with the repeated little notes starts up, followed by one of his famous crescendos, I close my eyes and I see an ancient train with the steam engine in front, an ostrich-neck smoke stack with something like a pasta colander on top and the open-sided carriages behind, the curtains flapping and all full of fat Rossinis, paunchy and chuckling, who blow kisses to the crowd and shout out witticisms. The train starts giving off slow puffs, which then pick up pace, until they reach a steady, blistering speed, and the train races through the countryside, which is green with astonishment.
I often think about that when I hear Rossini’s music. Here are some of his famous crescendos. Try and see the train going by. Or get on and stand behind all the Rossinis as you go through the greenly astonished countryside.
Rossini retired from writing operas when he was 37. He wrote some other music, including some pieces which he called “Old Age Sins”, one of which is about peas (Ouf, les petis pois!).
He was famous for his witticisms. Just like the images from my books, I recall one in number. It’s about Wagner (look away now, Wagner fans):
“Mr. Wagner has some wonderful moments, but some awful quarters of an hour.”
My novel Vinylia, set in a not-too-distant future, is mostly about new breeds of humans, collectively known as Vinylics. The story starts when some genetic material is spilt on a vinyl record of Il Trovatore in a poultry laboratory and operatic chickens are accidentally produced.
Further research leads to the development of a new variety of humans who eat sound. Later, it is discovered that many interesting new properties can be obtained by soaking vinyl records in various mixtures of material (known as “mulches”) before the genetic material is deposited.
After some time, a company called Transvinylia Ho! is founded in Kampala by a woman called Octavia Absson, which focuses on producing interesting new breeds. Salamshaloms. are the first new group of people the company produces. The goal which they hope Salamshaloms will contribute to is that of removing friction between the monotheistic religions. Most new breeds don’t have the expected effect and Salamshaloms are no exception. Read on for some extracts from Vinylia about Salamshaloms. Read more…
Giacomo Leopardi is generally described as the greatest Italian lyric poet but you don’t really need to know anything about him to appreciate his poem L’Infinito. I see the title often translated as The Infinite, but I am not sure that means anything in English, so I am going to opt for Infinity. Here then is my attempt at rendering some of its sound and meaning in English.
I always have felt fondness for this lonely hill
and for this hedge which screens off
such a large part of the furthermost horizon.
But as I sit and gaze, in my thoughts I envisage,
beyond it, boundless space and utter silence
and deepest still, so that it almost makes
my heart take fright. And as I hear
the rustling of the wind among these plants,
I start comparing that unending silence
with this noise and I am reminded of
eternity, and seasons gone and dead and
of the season now alive and of its sounds. And so
in this immensity my thoughts sink and drown
and shipwreck feels sweet in this ocean.
When I was in my twenties, I used to live in Bologna in a 6th floor flat together with 5 other people. The flat was on the outskirts of town and I remember you could see a football pitch, a roller hockey rink, the motorway, the railway and just beyond it the airport and all the planes landing. The biggest room in the flat had a huge window which looked over all this civic activity and at night if you turned the light off, and in particular if you put the right music on (I especially remember one instance when Bach’s St. Matthew’s passion was playing), and watched the cars, the trains and the planes, it felt like you were on a spaceship.
One Friday I was alone in the house. Perhaps it was on the eve of a holiday, everyone else had gone back to their homes. I was up till late reading. The book I was reading was Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, which was made famous by the film adaptation which the great Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky made from it. Read more…