Friday, July 31, 2020

"Journey by Moonlight" by Antal Szerb (review)

Journey by Moonlight (NYRB Classics)Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This beloved classical novel, written in 1937, follows Mihály, and his new bride, Erzsi, on their honeymoon in Italy. Mihály possesses a romantic and poetic nature and has lived a wild youth with his four friends János Szepetneki (a sort of conman), Ervin (who wanted to devote his life to religion), Tamás (a friend who suffered from life and has committed suicide) and Éva Ulpius (the type of the femme fatale, who was involved with the suicide).

To please his conservative father, Mihály has now resigned himself to a bourgeois existence: he has taken a position in the family company and married Erzsi, a practical woman (although with one complicating factor; Erzsi is using Mihály as a tool for her own liberation, she wanted to get out of her first marriage that was suffocating to her). But Mihály is unable to shake off the nostalgia for his bohemian youth, and his romantic feelings are aroused by the towns and countryside of Italy, a country he visits for the first time.

Unfortunately, Italy also calls up the death-haunted and erotic elements of Mihály's past. Not surprisingly, Mihály manages to "loose" his bride by missing the train at a small provincial station and then sets out on a hallucinatory and bizarre journey through Italy that will eventually make him rejoin the three surviving friends from his youth - and also face something hidden deeply in his psyche, an erotic death-wish connected with the friend with whom he is secretly in love, Éva Ulpius.

At the same time, the novel also follows his wife Erszi on her own journey to Paris. Finally, both Mihály and Erszi will have to make the choice what to do with their lives. A beautiful, poetic novel about vacillation between the expectations of society and their incompatibility with our youthful ideals.

Antal Szerb (1901-1945) had a Jewish background, although he was baptized as a Catholic. He was a great scholar, who studied Hungarian, German and English and established a formidable reputation with his studies on Blake and Ibsen. He also lived for five years in France and Italy, and one year in England. In 1933 he was elected as president of the Hungarian Literary Academy and later became professor of literature at the university of Szeged. In 1941, he published his magnum opus, a huge history of world literature, which remains authoritative even today. He also wrote about the history of Hungarian literature and the theory of the novel. His own first novel was published in 1934, The Pendragon Legend, followed in 1937 by his best-known work, Journey by Moonlight (Utas és holdvilág). Despite antisemitic persecution, Szerb choose to remain in Hungary, although his third novel, Oliver VII, had to be passed off as a translation from the English. In 1944, Szerb was incarcerated in a concentration camp, where in early 1945 he was beaten to death, at age 43.

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Thursday, July 30, 2020

"Embers" by Sandor Marai (review)

EmbersEmbers by Sándor Márai
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This novel written in 1942 is very much like "La Valse" (the symphonic poem by Ravel), an expression of profound nostalgia for the destroyed multi-ethnic and multicultural society of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire which went down in 1918. There is a clear link with the work of Joseph Roth such as The Radetzky March. The Hungarian title (A gyertyák csonkig égnek) means "The Candles Burn Down to the Stump" and that is what literally happens in the novel, during the night-long conversation between a seventy-five year-old general (Henrik) and the man who used to be his closest friend (Konrad), whom he now meets after the passage of forty-one years.

The mournful glamour of the lost Habsburg empire is called up in the secluded woodland castle of the general, where time seems to have stopped. The novel is a duel in words and silences between host and guest, where the general gives a long monologue, a sort of rant, accusing the guest, who mostly answers by acknowledging silences. The back story is only gradually revealed. Henrik and Konrad were close friends from their school days on, despite their difference in status and wealth. They were inseparable as brothers and it was Konrad who introduced Krisztina, who became Henrik's wife.

The three often meet together and the reader will already guess what happened - something the general also realizes when at a hunting party he sees Konrad point his gun at him (without being able to pull the trigger), before leaving without saying goodbye for a far-away, foreign destination. Searching for Konrad, the general visits his apartment where to his shock he meets his wife Krisztina, who only speaks one word, referring to Konrad: "Coward." After that, the life of the general falls to pieces. He never speaks another word to his wife until she dies eight years later, living apart in the hunting lodge.

Now, so many years later, Konrad who has made his fortune in the colonies, has briefly returned to Hungary and takes the opportunity to meet his old friend. The general wants Konrad to confess not only his own guilt, but also that of Krisztina, whom he suspects of having enticed Konrad to kill him. But Konrad meets his long accusations with silence, because, after all, Henrik already knows perfectly well what happened on that day, forty-one years ago, when something was lost forever. During their conversation, the candles have burned down, just as the candles of their lives have almost burned down to the stump, and just as only embers are left of the glory of the empire they once served. An exquisite structured novel about the disillusion that life inevitably brings, told with melancholy grandeur.

Sándor Márai (1900-1989) was born to an old Hungarian family in a part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire that is now Slovakia. He traveled in his youth and lived in Frankfurt, Berlin and Paris, and even considered writing in German. But in 1928 he settled in Budapest and chose his mother language. He was active as a journalist, critic and author, and became known for his clear realist style. Márai wrote more than 40 novels and was one of the most influential representatives of Hungarian literature during the interbellum. Although Márai was highly critical of the Nazis and known as antifascist, he remained in Hungary during the war, but was driven away by the Communist regime that seized power after WWII. He left Hungary in 1948 and after a brief stint in Italy, settled in San Diego in California. Cut off from his own culture, he sank in depression and finally died by his own hand in 1989. He was only discovered as a great European author in the 1990s, when the first translations of his work appeared in French, and then in many other languages as well.

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Tuesday, July 28, 2020

"The Red Redmaynes" by Eden Philpotts (review)

The Red RedmaynesThe Red Redmaynes by Eden Phillpotts
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Edogawa Rampo was Japan's greatest horror and detective fiction author. It is interesting to check out what his favorite mysteries were. In "Geneijo" 幻影城〈江戸川乱歩全集 第26巻〉, a collection of essays in which his postwar writings on crime novels were collected, he has published a list of his “ten best” mystery novels (dating from 1947). Although this selection is heavily focused on the Golden Age detectives (not so strange, as due to the war, Japan had been cut off from new foreign fiction from the late-1930s on), it does give some insight into which novels exerted influence on Japanese mystery writers. To my surprise at the top of his list I found a book I had never heard of, "The Red Redmaynes" by Eden Philpotts.

I learned from Wikipedia that the author Eden Philpotts was a fertile English author  who produced more than 250 books of fiction, plays and poetry in a very long life. Many of his novels are so-called “regional novels” set in Devonshire / Dartmoor, but he also wrote in the mystery and fantasy genres.

"The Red Redmaynes" (named after a family in which three brothers all have flaming red hair) is novel of identity and impersonation, of the kind Ranpo himself loved, for example his The Black Lizard / Beast in the Shadows. Half set in Dartmoor and half at Lake Como, it is an atmospheric novel with a dark psychology.

There are two detectives, one from Scotland Yard and, in the second half, also a very experienced sleuth from the New World, who demonstrates to the Brit what he is doing wrong: most of all, falling in love with one of the characters concerned and so losing his neutrality.

The book is a bit long in places, such as in the explanation at the end, but doesn't at all deserve the total oblivion in which it has fallen, on the contrary, it was a very engaging story.

Ranpo also made an adaptation of it, published as "The Demon in Green" (緑衣の鬼〈江戸川乱歩文庫〉, Ryokui no Oni, 1936).

P.S. Another fan of this novel was Jorge Luis Borges.

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Monday, July 27, 2020

"Newcomer" by Higashino Keigo (review)

Newcomer (Detective Kaga, #2)Newcomer by Keigo Higashino
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Besides individual, non-serial novels, Keigo Higashino has also written two loose series where we meet the same protagonists: the Galileo series with Dr Yukawa, a scientist who helps his friend police detective Kusanagi with difficult cases (so far 9 volumes, of which 3 have been translated), and Police Detective Kaga, who by now has filled ten books with his adventures (of which two have been translated).

Higashino wrote his first book about Kyoichiro Kaga already in 1986 ("Graduation," when Kaga was still at university, so rather different from the other books in the series) and the last one dates from 2013. As Higashino has said, "Kaga is a person who has a solid character." Higashino therefore often relies on him "when writing challenging, experimental works" different from what he has undertaken so far.

That is certainly the case in "Newcomer" (Shinzanmono) from 2009, No 8 in the series. A woman in her forties living alone in Nihonbashi Kodenmacho has been strangled. Kyoichiro Kaga, who has just started work at the Nihonbashi department, walks around the streets of Ningyocho, an area unknown to him, and visits families and shops that may have some relation to the case.

In fact, the novel consists of a series of short stories - each short story becomes a chapter - and each time there is another protagonist; in each short story Kaga (who is not the central character) solves a small mystery or human relations problem concerning people who have some connection with the victim or incident. The stories are also interrelated, we go back and forth in time and place, and in the later stories learn more about events in the earlier stories. On top of that, going around in a sort of concentric circles, we gradually approach the central case and learn more about the murder and its possible solution.

The short stories are set in Ningyocho, part of downtown Tokyo ("shitamachi"), where you won't find any traditional architecture - it has been filled with square blocks of concrete office buildings - but where, in between the modernization, some old human feelings survive, especially in the traditional shops, such as a rice cracker shop, a ryotei restaurant, a shop selling pottery, another one selling (and repairing) clocks, a shop selling old-fashioned toys, etc. etc.

The title "newcomer" refers not only to Kaga, who has been transferred to a new district, but in the first place to the murder victim, a woman who has separated from her uninterested husband and egoistic son, and has started a new, independent life in this old neighborhood, but who also had a particular reason to start living here...

The murder case is neatly solved, although there are no fireworks or double tricks. The book is focused on life as lived in an old downtown part of Tokyo, and on the altruism of detective Kaga, who, while solving the larger mystery, also finds time to help the people he meets with their daily problems. For non-Japanese, this book is especially interesting as a window on life in Japan.

In a Japanese survey held some years ago, "Newcomer" scored fourth place among all novels by Keigo Higashino (The Devotion of Suspect X was not unexpectedly No 1), which is quite high. I give 4 stars, as for me it is the best book by Higashino.

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Sunday, July 26, 2020

"The Three Coffins aka The Hollow Man" by Dickson Carr (review)

The Three Coffins (Dr. Gideon Fell, #6)The Three Coffins by John Dickson Carr
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Also published under the UK title "The Hollow Man," this was my first Dickson Carr novel. Coming from the cosmopolitan, intellectual atmosphere of Van Dine (The Benson Murder Case), I had to get used to the Gothic, 19th century mood of this book (although written in 1935), behind which the shadow of Charles Dickens looms large (not my favorite writer, to say it politely). Other reviewers have pointed at the influence of G.K. Chesterton, whose physical appearance is borrowed by Carr for his detective Doctor Fell – a huge and rather noisy man who is constantly harrumphing, wheezing, blowing his nose and waving his two walking canes around (all characters in this book are often angry and upset - I much prefer the serene Philo Vance). Amateur sleuth Dr Fell assists his friend CID Superintendent Hadley in difficult cases.

Carr has been celebrated as the iconical "locked room" mystery writer and here we get even two such mysteries (one in a closed room, the other in an empty street) - and as additional bonus also Dr Fell's famous lecture on types of locked rooms. That lecture is quite interesting (and fits the story) and divides locked rooms into the following types:
- Not a murder, but a series of coincidences ending in an accident looking like murder.
- It is murder, but the victim is forced to kill himself or crash to an accidental death.
- Murder by a mechanical device already planted in the room.
- Suicide, which is intended to look like murder.
- Murder which derives its problem from illusion and impersonation.
- Again an illusion, but this time the victim is presumed to be dead long before he actually is.
- Murder which, although committed by somebody outside the room, nevertheless seems to have been the deed of somebody inside (the "long distance" or "icicle" crime).

The second crime in the book, in which a man is apparently shot at close range by nobody in an empty, snowy street, is ingenious and also plausible. Chapeau! The first murder in the locked room is a bit more problematical. The killer, a visitor wearing a mask, literally seems to have vanished into thin air. Without giving away the plot, I can say that some kind of illusion is at work here, but by the addition of a (difficult to understand) trick with a mirror, Carr makes it too complex for its own good. It is a series of tricks that in the end doesn't convince - although the central illusion is again a nice idea.

These two murders (the first one of a foreign professor interested in witchcraft living in London, the second one of an illusionist who had threatened him) play our against a back story set around 1900 in Transylvania, about three brothers and three coffins, a daring escape from prison and cruel double-dealing. The story fits well in the overall spooky atmosphere of the novel.

That being said, there are also several problems with this book. I don't know why it was necessary to include the two characters of the American Ted Rampole and his wife Dorothy (friends of Dr Fell), as they have no function at all - Ted is not even a Watson-type. Their ratiocination about the crimes is rather superfluous and leads to the only boring parts in the short book.

The other problem is the forced, narrow-minded coziness. Yes, this novel was written by an American, but, spending most of his working life in London, Carr had become more British than the English themselves. London is described as a cozy Dickensian paradise that never changes. The only danger comes from the outside: those bloody foreigners who start killing each other (Romanians, in this case - to stem their influx, 80 years later Britain would foolishly leave the European Union). British coziness is a form of nationalism, and nationalism was the scourge of the first half of the 20th century - and again of our own troubled times.

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Saturday, July 25, 2020




(also called tsukuri  作り or tsukurimi 作り身 in the Kansai)

Sliced raw fish

"A cardinal principle of Japanese cuisine is that any seafood fresh enough to be eaten raw, should be served raw" (Richard Hosking, A Dictionary of Japanese Food)

"Raw fish" is the common translation for "sashimi," but it is not entirely correct. In the first place, besides fish, also other seafood as shellfish and crustaceans is regularly used; and in certain regions, even raw meat. The second thing is that it must imply slicing (as the Japanese characters above indicate) - Japanese cuisine is not built on "cooking" and "heating" as the Western one, but on the skillful use of the cook's knives (hocho). In other words, raw oysters are not considered as sashimi, but raw slices of scallops are included. The role played by human intervention is also clear from the term used in the Kansai for sliced raw fish: tsukuri means "made, created" and also includes an aspect of "skill." This means that the preparation of sashimi is the preserve of professionals such as sushi chefs, as they are the only ones who possess the necessary experience and skill to use the high-quality knives, and have been trained in how to cut (which parts, which direction the knife should be moved, which type of knife should be used, etc.).

Sashimi is a key component of formal multi-course meals (kaiseki), where it is usually the second course, after the initial appetizers - this to prevent that its sensitive flavors become unintelligible to tongues spoiled by strong simmered or grilled dishes. It is the dish in which the chef demonstrates his skill with the cook's knife. Sashimi also figures regularly on the menus of sushi restaurants.

A special way of eating sashimi in specialized restaurants is ikizukuri, in which the fish is sliced while still alive. The sashimi is arranged artistically on the body of the fish, between the head and tail, and may be served in an ornate manner, for example on a wooden boat-shaped dish. The restaurants usually have a fish basin or tank from which the fish is caught immediately before preparation. In sharp contrast to the refrigerated sashimi from the supermarket, sashimi in ikizukuri is still warm when eaten. Ikizukuri is a common way of offering sea bream (tai).

Most often, however, sashimi is simply arranged on a dish with garnishes typical of the season. Commonly used types of fish are tuna (maguro), sea bream (tai), yellowtail (buri), octopus (tako - always first boiled) and squid (ika). Eaters dip the fish into strong shoyu (tamari-joyu) containing wasabi and benitade (water pepper), and eat it with the garnishes on the dish like thinly sliced strips of raw daikon and aojiso (green beefsteak plant).

Eaten at home it is a small luxury which is usually bought prepared by the fishmonger, or nowadays more often the supermarket. Also at home, it is eaten at the beginning of the meal with a dip of soy sauce and grated wasabi, possibly with the addition of benitade.

A special form of sashimi is tataki (たたき, "pounded"), which is lightly seared on the outside, leaving it raw inside. Katsuo (skipjack tuna) is often served in this way.

As mentioned above, sashimi can also refer to thinly sliced raw meat (carpaccio-like), such as horse meat, beef, chicken and whale, but these dishes are extremely rare and limited to local cuisines, such as basashi (raw horse meat) in Kumamoto. Moreover, raw meat is dangerous as it can lead to fatal food poisoning.

Infinitely more healthy are vegetables used as "sashimi" - these can be anything from avocado to bamboo shoots, but the most interesting one is konnyaku, cut into short thin strips, which is for example popular in Shiga prefecture. Konnyaku sashimi is served with vinegar and miso.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

"The Benson Murder Case" by S.S. Van Dine (review)

The Benson Murder Case (A Philo Vance Mystery #1)The Benson Murder Case by S.S. Van Dine
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is a mystery why S.S. van Dine, the creator of Philo Vance and one of the most successful writers in the detective genre, has fallen so completely from grace. He was enormously popular between 1926 and 1936, something which is also demonstrated by how quickly Hollywood adapted his novels for the screen with such famous actors as William Powell. How is it possible that the most influential mystery writer since Doyle became just a dusty name in the history of the detective genre?

The clue to the mystery may well be the character of Van Dine's detective, Philo Vance. Vance is a wealthy aesthete and connoisseur of the arts, a genuine intellectual. Is that perhaps why modern readers don't like him? We live in sadly lowbrow times, in which intellectuals and experts feel forced to hide their light under the bushel. In contrast, Vance, who is an authority on every subject imaginable, shares his vast knowledge at every opportunity, without any sense of shame, but also without arrogance. He is not afraid to show that he is an intellectual and I love his character for that. Vance doesn't mind being an outsider.

One of the funniest scenes in the present novel comes when a police sergeant asks Vance, who is looking at some cigarette stubs perhaps related to the murder, with ill disguised sarcasm: "Tobacco expert?" "Oh, dear no." Vance’s voice was dulcet. "My specialty is scarab-cartouches of the Ptolemaic dynasties."

"S.S. Van Dine" is actually the pseudonym of Willard Huntington Wright (1888-1939), who in real life was an important art and theater critic who moved in avant-garde cultural circles in pre-World War I New York. Besides several books on art, and many articles of literary criticism, he also wrote about philosophy in an introductory study about Nietzsche. Between 1926 and his death, he wrote 11 detective novels and novellas, of which the first six are generally considered as the best. "The Benson Murder case" was his first novel, written when, while recovering from an illness, he was not allowed to do any exhausting work.

"The Benson Murder Case" shows how Philo Vance first became a detective. The police - including his friend Markham, the district attorney, who has asked for his help - still have to get used to his personality and to collaborating with him. Vance argues convincingly that alibis are useless and also demonstrates how dangerous it is to trust circumstantial evidence. Interestingly, the whole first chapter is devoted to a description of Vance's collection of world art.

As the first novel in the series, "The Benson Murder Case" is focused on the reasoning mind of Philo Vance, at work in solving the mysterious death of a stockbroker, who is found in his brownstone mansion with a bullet through his head. By the way, all the Philo Vance novels are set in central New York and give a nice picture of Manhattan in the late 1920s.

One of the greatest things in Van Dine's novels is his magnificent and sometimes ornate English prose style. This style is radically different from the plain (and often simplistic) vernacular used by other detective writers as Agatha Christie and may be a second reason for Van Dine's present neglect. But I love the rhythm of his sentences - detective novels usually don't get beyond the B-level, but Van Dine writes on a decided A-level. Another feature I admire is the fine characterization and interest in psychology.

The following aspects of the Philo Vance novels became "classical" and were often imitated by other detective writers:
- The fair play puzzle plot: the detective reaches the solution based on clues provided also to the reader - different from for example the Sherlock Holmes stories and most other, older detective fiction; in 1928, Van Dine formulated his famous "20 rules for writing a detective novel."
- The use of elaborate diagrams and maps, which are meant to give a realistic, "documentary" quality to the story.
- To give the name of the author "S.S. Van Dine" to the first-person narrator of the books (usually called "Van" by Philo Vance). This trick would later be be copied by Ellery Queen (and Japanese Shin Honkaku writers like Alice Arisugawa and Norizuki Rintaro).

Van Dine indeed exerted much influence on later writers as Ellery Queen, John Dickson Carr, and Agatha Christie. One element not copied by them and rare in detective fiction is Van Dine's copious use of footnotes, which often have a role in the novel as well (I am very fond of footnotes - one of my favorite novels is Nabokov's Pale Fire, which consists of a poem and footnotes in which a novel is hidden).

Van Dine's clever plots are still fascinating, as are his strong sense of place and time - plus the excellent style of writing. Although I object to too fanciful puzzle plots (as in my review of Murder in the Crooked House), Van Dine is very different: his puzzle is perfectly realistic (it is not a closed room mystery here - although he would write a very good one in The Kennel Murder Case) and he doesn't include a childish "challenge to the reader" as Ellery Queen did. He had exactly the right idea at the right time, but fell out of favor when the "hard-boiled" school of detective fiction became the dominant type in the 1930s. And as he died at a rather young age, he unfortunately didn't have the opportunity to adjust his writing to the new times.

I love S.S. Van Dine’s detective stories with their imaginative and elaborate problems. Above all, in these novels Van Dine proved himself to be a cultured cosmopolitan.

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"A Midsummer's Equation" by Higashino Keigo (review)

A Midsummer's Equation (Detective Galileo, #3)A Midsummer's Equation by Keigo Higashino
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Higashino Keigo has overreached himself in "Midsummer's Equation," the third novel in the Galileo series (in Japan it is Part 6, but that is because he has also written three volumes of short stories which are of a rather different character compared to the novels). The setting is nice, for once not in Tokyo but in Hari Cove, a sleepy former resort town. Mineral deposits have been found offshore and Dr Yukawa has been invited by the company seeking to develop the find as an independent expert (a bit strange because he is a physicist and not a mineralogist or biologist). He has to testify at hearings to be held with a group of local environmentalists who are against the development as it may destroy the seascape. That night, the only other guest staying at the decaying inn he has selected (refusing the accommodation offered by the company as he wants to remain independent) dies in what seems an accident (a fall on the rocks). Soon it comes out that the man in fact died from carbon monoxide poisoning and was a former policeman from Tokyo. As appears gradually, he was looking into an old crime in which the owners of the inn and their daughter (now a fierce environmentalist) are implicated. So cops from Tokyo get involved, including Kusanagi who has frequent telephone contact with Yukawa to get his take on things.

Now the problems of this book:
- The story of the mining company and the environmentalists has been set up with a lot of fanfare (and a lot of space) but is halfway discarded like a bag of refuse - the reader expects a link with the main plot, but it has just been "filling."
- There are too many persons in the novel, from environmentalists (friends of the daughter) to the 12-year old nephew of the inn keepers and the large number of policemen, local and from Tokyo; and in combination with Higashino's rather rudimentary characterization skills, this leads to confusion. The novel "sprawls" too much, there is no clear focus.
- I won't spoil the fun by revealing details about the old and the new murder, but only say that the motivation is implausible - on the one hand the extent of altruism of one person is unbelievable, and on the other hand the circumstance lying at the base of all crimes would only be considered a problem in an old-fashioned 19th century novel, not in our modern times (also not in Japan).

So from The Devotion of Suspect X to Salvation of a Saint to the present novel, there is a decided sliding scale in the Galileo series.

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Wednesday, July 22, 2020

"Salvation of a Saint" by Higashino Keigo (review)

Salvation of a Saint (Detective Galileo, #2)Salvation of a Saint by Keigo Higashino
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Keigo Higashino followed up his million-seller The Devotion of Suspect X with "Salvation of a Saint," another mystery featuring police detective Kusanagi and scientist Dr Yukawa. The Galileo series in fact consists of nine books (so far), of which "The Devotion of Suspect X" is the third and this the fourth. But English readers don't miss anything, because the first two books are short story collections ("Detective Galileo" and "Foreseeing Dream" respectively; a third story collection, "The Agony of Galileo" appeared at the same time as the present novel), of a rather different character than the novels: the stories concentrate on scientific puzzles as the solutions for crimes with (seemingly) supernatural overtones. Of course, Dr Yukawa ("Galileo") can't be missed here as Kusanagi is helpless on his own. But the stories are very short and offer nothing besides the puzzles (which, by the way, I would not call "honkaku" as it is not possible for the reader to solve them, if only because Higashino doesn't play fair), so they are on a very different level compared to the novels.

Now to "Salvation of a Saint." Higashino apparently wanted to do something a bit different from "The Devotion of Suspect X" so here we have three women in the main roles. On the other hand, like the previous novel, this is again an inverted detective story, i.e. we know from the start who the culprit is, and the book focuses on how the detective breaks her alibi (howdunit instead of whodunit).

Ayane is the wife of Yoshitaka Mashiba, a freak who regards women mainly as "baby machines." When he married her a year ago he told her that she must have a child within a year, otherwise he would divorce her. Now one year has passed and, as she is still without baby, he announces the divorce to her. She then decides to kill him (this is not a spoiler, but written black-on-white in the first pages of the novel).

That weekend Ayane visits her parents in Hokkaido; when leaving, she hands the house key to Hiromi, her assistant at the patchwork class she teaches - and also the mistress of Yoshitaka, who apparently can't wait until being divorced before attempting to produce a baby with another woman (the irony is that he succeeds, but won't live to enjoy it). That Saturday, Hiromi shares the bed with Yoshitaka, but she doesn't stay the night; when she returns on Sunday morning, she finds Yoshitaka dead, poisoned by arsenic-laced coffee. Besides babies, Yoshitaka was also very particular about his coffee, which he wanted made by drip and with pure water.

Ayane is the obvious suspect, but she was more than 800 kilometers away at the time of the murder. Police Detective Kusanagi refuses to believe that she could have had anything to do with the crime, and instead focuses on Hiromi. But his assistant, Kaoru Utsumi (who plays a larger role in this novel than Kusanagi), is convinced Ayane is guilty. To prove that her intuition is right, she calls in the help of Dr Manabu Yukawa.

And that is where the story gets a bit boring: Yukawa suspects there is a scientific / engineering trick to how the poison could get into the coffee, and he time and again visits the kitchen of the Mashiba house or does experiments in his lab. It feels as if one of the short stories about Galileo mentioned above has been blown up with a lot of padding to novel size. And that, while we already know who the murderer is...

The character of Ayane is by far the most interesting here (no wonder that Kusanagi falls a bit in love with her), but as it is a mystery story, it is not developed to its full potential. Higashino neglects her character and motivation, so that it is difficult to imagine how an intelligent woman could marry such a baby-freak while in her right mind - especially as she already knew she would be unable to have children. Out of disappointment, I tried to imagine how I could rewrite the novel, and tell it from the perspective of Ayane...

So this is not a very satisfying book, and I can only give it 2 stars.

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Tuesday, July 21, 2020

"The Ginza Ghost" by Osaka Keikichi (review)

The Ginza GhostThe Ginza Ghost by Keikichi Ōsaka
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Keikichi Osaka (1912-1945) was born too late. He wrote his first detective story in 1932 (published thanks to the help of established detective author Koga Saburo), but in 1937 Japan entered the war and society started frowning upon Western-style detective stories as undesirable. Osaka had to switch to spy stories and comical stuff, and was unable to write anything of value. On top of that, he was drafted in 1943 and sent to the Philippines where he succumbed to disease under harsh circumstances (for an impression of those circumstances, just read Fires on the Plain by Shohei Ooka). So he only wrote detective stories for a short five years and was forgotten after his death. Happily, we now see a re-appreciation of his work which foreshadows the puzzle mystery boom from just after the war. We even have a volume of his stories in English, for which translator Ho-Ling Wong is to be applauded.

The book contains 12 stories, in a representative selection (modern Japanese editions contain together about 30 stories, which is probably all there is). When you have seen other reviews by me about Japanese detective stories (such as Murder in the Crooked House), you know already I am not a great fan of pure puzzle mysteries, but happily Osaka rises above that limitation.

The earliest story in the collection - and the first one published by Osaka - is "The Hangman of the Department Store," and there we still find the kind unrealistic solution that is typical of so many puzzle stories. But all other stories are better, with the sole exception of "The Hungry Letter-Box," which is one of the comical spy stories written in the late 1930s, and indeed negligible. The title story, by the way, rests also on a trick (of the way of looking at things in a different manner) and is not as strong as the following stories which are my favorites:

By far the best story in the book is "The Mourning Locomotive," a story which has nothing to do with puzzles or "honkaku." It is a sad and tragic tale, without a crime, but it contains a mystery behind which we find deep human feelings. The story is set in a railway depot, where the workers have to clean up the trains after deadly accidents have happened by running over suicidal people. They are surprised when at a given time the trains start running over pigs, always at the same location, and with the same driver. Their search leads them to a shop selling funeral wreaths and a mysterious girl peeping through the doors at the back of the shop...

Very good is also "The Three Madmen", seemingly a traditional whodunit, but which by playing with notions of sanity and insanity leads to a great surprise at the end.

I also liked Osaka's final story "The Demon in the Mine," set inside a coal mine with very harsh working conditions. When one miner is sacrificed in the name of safety for the others, it seems as if his ghost is killing those who have sealed him up inside a tunnel...

Impressive is also "The Monster of the Lighthouse," in which a series of baffling happenings seems to point at something supernatural, but there is of course a logical explanation. Although this one is rather unrealistic, the story thrilled me because of the painful human drama.

Another eerie take is "A Cold Night's Clearing," set on a snowy night. The ski tracks leading away from the house where a murder has happened, gradually disappear, as if the murderer had flown up to the sky. The fate of the child in the story is heartbreaking...

The best of Osaka Keikichi's stories have an unusual atmosphere and even hallucinatory quality, but the strong point - in marked contrast to much (Shin) Honkaku fiction - is that he doesn't need any weird-shaped mansions or desert islands, but sets his stories in our unremarkable, daily-life world where his imagination finds weirdness behind the veil.

There is a good introduction by Taku Ashibe (writer of Murder in the Red Chamber).

An excellent book which fully deserves four stars.

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Monday, July 20, 2020

"The Tokyo Zodiac Murders" by Shimada Soji (review)

The Tokyo Zodiac Murders (御手洗潔 #1)The Tokyo Zodiac Murders by Sōji Shimada
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In my review of his second novel, Murder in the Crooked House, I have introduced Soji Shimada and the renewed interest he generated in Japan with his books in the genre of the puzzle detective in the style of Ellery Queen and Dickson Carr. I will not repeat here what I have written in that review about the puzzle detective in Japan (called "honkaku," about which many misunderstandings exist), but only add that in the late 1980s Shimada became the mentor of a group of young writers from Kyoto who also put the puzzle – mostly a closed room mystery – central, thus creating a trend. And that meant all spotlights were aimed at his first novel, "The Tokyo Zodiac Murders."

In that same review, I have also given my reasons for not being very fond of exclusive puzzle detectives: they may be good as puzzles (sometimes), but characterization, motivation, narrative and plausibility go out of the window.

That is also the case in “The Tokyo Zodiac Murders.” Shimada starts by forcing us to read the testament of a lunatic painter who plans to murder his six virginal daughters and nieces and cut off their body parts as head, shoulders, chest, hips, thighs, and lower legs to fashion these together into what he calls one perfect woman, Azoth. His confession is larded with astrological nonsense which makes it a rather hard read. There is a brief “ero-guro” suggestion that the man is a doll lover and once fell in love with a mannequin in a show window, but that avenue is not pursued - it could have been a more interesting story than what we have now (in fact, Ian McEwan has written such a story called "Dead as They Come" in his collection First Love, Last Rites).

The painter cannot execute his plan: on a snowy night he is murdered in his studio in what seems a perfect locked-room mystery. All the same, a month later the six young women disappear and their mutilated, cut-up bodies start appearing in various parts of Japan. On top of that, another daughter of the painter, who had been married and was excluded from the Azoth set-up as she was no virgin anymore, is murdered and raped in her house. The police suspect that the (third) wife of the painter is somehow involved in the series of crimes, but she never confesses and the murders remain unsolved.

That was in 1936. The novel takes place 40 years later when astrologist Kiyoshi Mitarai and his Watson-like sidekick Kazumi Ishioka try to solve the by now notorious mystery after receiving a new clue. Mitarai is one of the most unlikable and arrogant detectives I have ever come across. Ishioka is a blank sheet, for his character is never filled in, but he must be a masochist as he can bear to be in the company of Mitarai.

But if you expect the novel to get underway now, you will be disappointed, for we get endless pages of explanation and speculation in which the friends discuss the 40 year old murders. There is a lot of astrological hogwash again, about the latitudes and longitudes where the bodies were buried, about certain metal mines in the vicinity, and how the body parts for Azoth were determined by the stars. The only positive thing is that all this nonsense doesn’t play any role in the solution of the crime, so it doesn't matter if you skim through these sections…

When we are about halfway in the book, Mitarai and Ishioka finally do some detection work by going to Kyoto to follow-up a clue. But they come across a number of red herrings and the detection peters out. Mitarai disappears and Ishioka mainly spends his time sightseeing. Finally, when it is almost time to return to Tokyo, Mitarai by chance finds the solution in a flash of insight, but a trip to Kyoto would not have been necessary for that…

The explication of the locked room he discovers is rather unspectacular after all the noise about it - this in contrast to the solution of the main mystery of the dismembered virgins. I will only say that there is a real nice trick here which probably will make puzzle lovers enthusiastic, but which leaves us others who are mainly interested in a good story rather unsatisfied, as motivation is completely inadequate.

Shimada imitates Ellery Queen by pausing the story twice and challenging the reader, a breakdown of the “fourth wall” which is also a rather unnecessary copycat action.

I do like strong plots in detective novels, but my objection against exclusive puzzle mysteries is that such elements as narrative, characterization, motivation and everything else that makes a story interesting as a story, as literature, are either missing or too weak. When you want to solve puzzles, why not pick up a computer game or do a traditional crossword puzzle? Well, I should probably pick up Nabokov, Proust or Thomas Mann instead of a detective...

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Sunday, July 19, 2020

The Violin Sonata (1): 17th-18th c.

The Violin Sonata (1): 17th-18th c.

In the Baroque period, the violin consolidated its position as expressively the most wide-ranging of non-keyboard instruments. This was the age of the great violin makers, like Amati and Stradivari.

We see two lines of development which together lead to the mature violin sonata:
  • The sonata for violin and continuo. The violin here is the principal melodist; it is given harmonic support through a prescribed figured bass played on the harpsichord, a small organ or a plucked string instrument as the archlute; the bass line can be further strengthened by a low string instrument as gamba or cello. The sonata of this type first emerged in Northern Italy, then moved to Austria and Germany, and later to France. Principal centers of activity were Venice, Bologna, Vienna, Dresden, Hamburg and Paris, cities where patronage and publication were easily found. Gradually this sonata developed into two types: the sonata da camera ("chamber sonata") which was in fact a suite of stylized dances, and the sonata da chiesa ("church sonata") which had no link with dances and was usually divided into four movements slow-fast-slow-fast.
  • The accompanied sonata (second half 18th c.). Here the violinist served in a subordinate position to an obbligato keyboard. This type of sonata challenged the sonata with basso continuo and finally superseded it, leading to the true dual sonata for two equal players.
In the Classical period, we see the flowering of that second type of sonata, the accompanied sonata, in the hands of composers like Johann Christian Bach and Johann Schobert, until and including the early works of Mozart (surprisingly, Haydn did not write any important violin sonatas). This was the period of the transition from the violin sonata with continuo to the violin sonata with keyboard obbligato. But due to the atrophied violin part, the accompanied sonata is not great music - when listening to this type of music, one continually has the feeling something important is lacking. The reason for writing such works was that music had moved to the home, where daughters received a thorough education in piano playing, while the sons studied the violin, but with much less thoroughness. So the violin part had to be much simpler than the piano part in order to make music making in the home possible. It is in the later works of Mozart and those of Beethoven that we finally find complete equality between violin and piano (these works were of course not written for the home, but for professional performers or expert amateurs). In this period composers also began to assign their works to a specific melodic and keyboard instrument instead of leaving that open to the performer. 

In the early Romantic period, finally, the sonata (for violin and other solo instruments) played a secondary role to the concerto, owing to the emphasis on virtuosity and brilliance of that time.

[Based on Robin Stowell (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to the Violin, p. 168 f.f.]

1. Biagio Marini, Sonata quarta "Per il violino per sonar con due corde" from Op. 8 (1626)
Italian violin music led to the rise during the 17th c. of instrumental music as an independent genre. As the "king of instruments" the violin was considered equal to the voice in its ability to run the gamut of expression, from sadness to joy. The earliest known sonatas for violin and bass (unfigured) appeared in Cima's Concerto Ecclesiastici of 1610, but more important were Biagio Marini's (1594-1663) "adventurous essays in the genre." The second collection by Marini (Opera Ottava) is an instrumental book with everything from dances to sonatas and symphonies, for one to six instruments, "all curious and modern inventions." The violin sonatas from this book are characterized by spectacular idiomatic writing (double and even triple stops). Marini greatly expanded the performance range of the violin. He was also among the first composers, with Marco Uccellini, to call for scordatura tunings. In this way, Marini moved the violin sonata genre away from the flexible-instrumentation style of his predecessors. He made contributions to most of the genres of his time and investigated unusual compositional procedures. What survives of his music exhibits great inventiveness, lyrical skill and harmonic boldness. Marini's music was printed and influential throughout the European musical world. He traveled extensively and by "court-hopping" occupied posts in Brussels, Neuburg an der Donau, Düsseldorf and many Italian cities (Padua, Parma, Ferrara, Milan, Bergamo and Brescia). Marini also served under Monteverdi at St Marks in Venice.
[Performance listened to: Monica Huggett and Galatea Ensemble on Stradivarius]

2. Marco Uccelini,  Sonata over Toccata V, "detta La Laura rilucente", Op 4 (1645)
Marco Uccelini (1603-80) was another key figure whose output of mainly secular music for solo violin further developed the resources of that instrument, and helped the rise of independent instrumental music. Uccelini's positions included that of choir master for the Este court at the cathedral in Modena. He composed operas, ballets and instrumental works but none of the first two genres survive; the instrumental works include sinfonias, sonatas, and dances and are contained in seven different collections. His publication Sonate over canzoni (1649) is reckoned as the first publication devoted solely to music for solo violin and continuo. Along with Marini, Uccelini developed an idiomatic, virtuosic approach to violin writing in which he aspired to emulate the expressive range of the human voice.
[Performance listened to: Romanesca (Andrew Manze) on Harmonia Mundi]

3. Johann Heinrich Schmelzer, Six Sonatae Unarum Fidium (1664)
After the pyrotechnics of the early Italian violin masters introduced above, the history of violin music next turns to the Austro-Germans. Johann Heinrich Schmelzer (1620 or 1623 – 1680) was the first "home-grown" Kapellmeister to be appointed at the Viennese imperial court. Schmelzer was one of the most important violinists of the period, and made substantial contributions to the development of violin technique, promoting the development of sonata and suite forms in Austria and Southern Germany. Schmelzer was able to distill Italian rhetorical brilliance into a stable sonata form. Schmelzer and other Austrian virtuosi like Biber are also known for their use of pictorial and imitative music. The six sonatas from 1664 have their share of virtuosity, but they also contain a new lyricism. This is clear in the Fourth Sonata where intricate figurations in the violin unfold above a recurring bass pattern. The "Unarum Fidium" in the title translates as "for one violin," with the overtones of "a single loyalty."
[Performance listened to: Romanesca (Andrew Manze) on Harmonia Mundi]

4. Heinrich Biber, The Mystery (or Rosary) Sonatas (1676)
Although in the 17th c. Italy was the center of instrumental prowess, the finest of all virtuosi was Heinrich Biber, who spent most of his working life in Salzburg. Born in Bohemia, he trained under Schmelzer in Vienna. Biber is generally considered as one of the most important composers for the violin in the history of the instrument. As Wikipedia states, "his technique allowed him to easily reach the 6th and 7th positions, employ multiple stops in intricate polyphonic passages, and explore the various possibilities of scordatura tuning." During Biber's lifetime, his music was known and imitated throughout Europe. He also wrote one of the earliest known pieces for solo violin, the monumental passacaglia in G minor that closes the Mystery Sonatas. These Mystery Sonatas are fifteen sonatas portraying the life of Christ and the Virgin Mary - they may have been used in traditional Rosary devotions in which the faithful processed around a series of paintings placed in a church. In the original edition, each piece is accompanied by a small engraving depicting the mystery it portrays. The first five sonatas set the "Joyful Mysteries:" Annunciation (in this sonata one can hear the fluttering of angelic wings), Visitation, Nativity, Presentation in the Temple and Finding of Jesus in the Temple; the next five the "Sorrowful Mysteries:" Agony in the Garden, Scourging, Crowning with Thorns, Carrying the Cross and Crucifixion; the final set consists of the "Glorious Mysteries:" Resurrection (the rising of the sun is vividly portrayed), Ascension, Descent of the Holy Spirit, Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin. The work is rounded off with the above mentioned passacaglia for solo violin, usually known as "The Guardian Angel." Biber's music is not programmatic but rather evokes the proper devotional mood, by the use of stylized dance forms and variations. Except sonatas 1 and 16, all sonatas have different forms of scordatura (unconventional tuning), with an especially complex arrangement of crossed strings prescribed for No. 11. This means that for a continuing performance, at least three violins have to be prepared in advance. This sequence of sonatas is a great symbolic enactment of faith and meditation.
[Performance listened to: FranzJosef Maier on Deutsche Harmonia Mundi]

5. Arcangelo Corelli, Twelve Sonatas Op 5 (1700)
Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713) represents an early peak in the development of the violin sonata. Although instrumental music was becoming increasingly important in his time, it is unusual that he wrote absolutely no music for the voice. All his output falls into the three genres of trio sonata, solo violin sonata and concerto grosso. Corelli was a perfectionist and his published works are small in number, but his influence was enormous. He is one of the few early composers who always has remained in the repertoire. Educated in Bologna (at a time when something of a reaction had set in against the extravagances of the early virtuosi, with Bologna as an important center for the development of more serious instrumental music), Corelli's later working life was mainly based in Rome, where he had important patrons. His violin playing was known for its pathos and elegance. The twelve solo sonatas Op 5 are a distillation of Corelli's understanding of the best qualities of the instrument. The violin technique is brilliant, but always in the service of the music. The collection consists of eleven violin sonatas, six of the sonata da chiesa type and five sonata da camera; the twelfth work is a series of twenty-three variations on the popular dance tune ‘La Follia.' This collection was extremely influential - by the end of the century it had appeared in more than 40 editions. Corelli’s consolidation of violinistic and compositional conventions brought the genre of the violin sonata forward into the eighteenth century Galant style, and set the standard for the next 100 years. Corelli's teaching also initiated the first major school of violin playing. His many pupils helped further spread his influence throughout Europe.
[Performance listened to: Elizabeth Wallfisch on Hyperion]

6. Antonio Vivaldi, Twelve Sonatas Op. 2 (1712-13)
Despite its misleading early opus number, the Opus 2 set of 12 violin sonatas is very much the work of the mature Vivaldi (1678-1741). It is in fact his most significant set of violin sonatas, in which he also pays homage to Corelli's Op. 5. The first edition appeared in Venice. Vivaldi's sonatas for violin and continuo are in a composite church-chamber mold, in which the chamber elements are predominant as is clear from the many dance movements. The style of Op 2 is brilliant. Every sonata begins with a prelude and every prelude has a different style one from the other. The prelude of the second sonata, for example, is a cappriccio in concertante style, while the prelude to the fourth sonata is a restrained andante. Vivaldi's violin sonatas possess a clear architecture, as well as lively and always new rhythms, a simple tonal harmony and are full of invention.
[Performance listened to: Jacques-Francis Manzone and Martine Raibaldi on BNL Production (Auvidis)]

7. Johann Sebastian Bach, Sonatas for violin with obbligato keyboard BWV 1014-18 (1719)
The six sonatas for violin and obbligato harpsichord by Bach are in trio sonata form, with the two upper parts in the harpsichord (right hand) and violin over a bass line supplied by the harpsichord (left hand) and an optional viola da gamba. The first five sonatas are in four movements in the conventions of the sonata da chiesa, while the sixth sonata is in five movements. Unlike baroque sonatas for solo instrument and continuo, where the realization of the figured bass was left to the discretion of the performer, the keyboard part in these sonatas was specified by Bach. They were probably written around 1719, when Bach was employed by Prince Leopold of Cöthen. At that time he had access to an excellent German-made harpsichord, which led to his increased interest in the instrument. These sonatas are thus early examples of equality between violin and keyboard. They are warm and expressive works, with soulful slow movements and appealing fast ones. Melodic invention is at a very high level. With the solo cello suites and the solo violin sonatas, they show us Bach at his most concentrated and intimate.
[Performance listened to: Sigiswald Kuijken & Gustav Leonhardt on Deutsche Harmonia Mundi]

8. Johann Sebastian Bach, Sonatas and partitas for solo violin BWV 1001–1006 (1720) 
This marvelous set consists of three sonatas and three partitas for unaccompanied violin and served as the archetype of unaccompanied sonatas for later generations of composers. Bach wrote the autograph in 1720 in  Cöthen, but some pieces may go back to his Weimar period. It is not known who performed these magnificent works (a possibility is Johann Georg Pisendel), but publication had to wait until 1802. One expects that a stringed instrument can only play a single line of music, without harmony or counterpoint, but Bach proves that is very different: through the spreading of the component notes of a chord (and of course also double and triple stops) Bach implies harmony and counterpoint in such a way that it is sometimes difficult to believe you are listening to only a single violin! This is especially the case in the second movement of each sonata which is a fully realized fugue (the fugue of the third sonata is especially complex, derived from the chorale Komm, heiliger Geist, and employing such contrapuntal techniques as stretto, inversion and double counterpoint). The first movements are preludes; the third movements are lyrical and the fourth and final movements have the structure of a typical binary suite movement. Unlike the sonatas, the partitas make use of the usual Baroque stylized dances of allemande, courante, sarabande, and gigue, with the addition of new elements. Famous is the extremely virtuoso chaconne of the D minor partita, which Yehudi Menuhin called "the greatest existing structure for solo violin." But this is Bach, so the technical virtuosity is never a surface matter, and the music abounds with vivid melodies of a deeply emotional quality.
[Performance listened to: Sigiswald Kuijken on Deutsche Harmonia Mundi]

9. Johann Georg Pisendel, Sonata for Violin Solo in A minor, JunP IV.2 (around 1720)
Johann Georg Pisendel (1688–1755) was a German Baroque musician, violinist and composer who, for many years, led the Court Orchestra in Dresden. He was friends with Bach and Telemann and also knew Vivaldi personally. Pisendel was the foremost German violinist of his day and as he met Bach in Weimar, he is sometimes named as the performer of the solo violin sonatas by that composer. He wrote very little music himself, but everything is high in quality and his influence was great. All of his surviving works are instrumental and include ten violin concertos, four concertos for orchestra and two sonatas for violin. His major work is the Sonata for Solo Violin in A minor, which has been suggested as an influence on Bach’s solo violin writing. It is in four movements, the final one a set of variations.
[Performance listened to: Thomasz Aleksander Plusa on Brilliant Classics]

10. Georg Philipp Telemann, Violin Sonata in D minor from Sonate metodiche Op 13 (1728, 1732)
Although Bach is now held in the highest esteem, in the 18th c. it was Telemann who was widely regarded as Germany's leading composer. Much of his instrumental music promoted music-making at home. The title "Sonate metodiche" ("Methodic Sonatas") sounds didactically dreary, but in fact these twelve sonatas for violin or flute (or oboe) and continuo are full of invention and expressive charm. They were published in two sets of six, and were meant to assist performers in the art of embellishment. The "methodical" or instructive intent of the collection is provided in the suggested written-out melodic elaborations of the opening movements of each sonata. The first six sonatas are in the strict four-movement form, the second set is much freer (and in five movements).
[Performance listened to: Boston Museum Trio et. al. on Sony]

11. Jean-Marie Leclair, Sonata No 4 in B flat major from Troisieme Livre de Sonates Op 5 (1734)
Jean-Marie Leclair (1697–1764) is considered as the founder of the French violin school. Leclair was born in Lyon, but studied the violin in Turin. After that, he mainly worked in Paris, for example at the Concert Spirituel and at the court of Louis XV, but he also was five years at the court of the Princess of Orange in the Netherlands. As a composer, Leclair successfully drew upon all of Europe's national styles. Typical about his style are the well-balanced phrases with small, detailed ornaments. Another element are the solemn textures that often open a work. The sarabande of Sonata No 4 shows a classical French balance of phrases and a lyricism with detailed nuances of melody and ornament (John Butt in sleeve notes of Hyperion recording).
[Performance listened to: Elizabeth Wallfisch & Convivium on Hyperion]

12. Pietro Antonio Locatelli, Sonata No 6 in D major from XII Sonate a violino solo a basso da camera Op 6 (1737) 
Locatelli (1695-1764) studied and worked in Rome, after which he traveled through Italy and Germany from 1723 to 1728. In 1729 Locatelli moved to Amsterdam, where he stayed until his death. He published (or re-published) most of his music in Amsterdam and took great care to present flawless editions. Like Locatelli's Violin Concertos Op. 3 with their associated Capricci, the Violin Sonatas Op. 6 were standards for virtuosos and made him famous throughout Europe. These are modern sonatas written in a progressive harmonic idiom and mostly in three movements instead of the traditional four. They announce the new galant style that was just coming into fashion in the 1730s.
[Performance listened to: Elizabeth Wallfisch (Locatelli Trio) on Hyperion]

13. Franz Benda, Violin Sonata in F minor, L3.73 (1740-45)
Benda (1709-86) was a Bohemian violinist and composer, who worked for much of his life at the court of Frederick the Great in Berlin. Benda was a master of violin playing, the mellow sweetness of his highest notes was reportedly unequaled. Benda composed 17 symphonies, numerous concerti and sonatas for violin, and other chamber works. Benda is a typical representative of the galant style; his cantabile composing style allowed space for elaborate ornamentation during performance (freely added by the performer) which was the height of fashion in this period. The violin part is a far cry from the big sound one usually hears nowadays; in the sleeve notes, Glen Wilson speaks of a silvery tone "like the fluty warbling of the nightingale." In Benda's time, the sonata had dropped the initial slow movement and grown into a three-part structure. The music for the accompanying instrument was generally written out, doing away with the flexibility of the continuo.
[Performance listened to: Hans-Joachim Berg & Naoko Akutagawa on Naxos]

14. Francesco Maria Veracini, Sonata No 12 in D minor from Sonate Accademiche a violino solo e basso Op 2 (1744)
Florence-born Veracini (1690-1768) worked as violinist and composer in Venice, Dresden and London. Veracini's music stands out for its brilliance, clarity and diversity. He wrote violin concertos, orchestral suites and recorder music, but is best known for his sets of violin sonatas. One of these is the Sonate Accademiche, a title which should not be taken in the sense of "academic," for meant are "musical societies." Veracini was one of the greatest virtuosi of his time. He played in great centers of music as Dresden, London and Venice. His contemporaries looked upon him as an "encyclopedia" of violin technique. He was expert in the art of increasing or diminishing tone and a whole range of bowing techniques. In his violin compositions, exceptional virtuosity is also demanded from the violinist's left hand. Veracini's expertise in the field of vocal music is revealed in his slow movements, which have a true Italian "cantabilita." But above all, it is said, his music demonstrated the cosmopolitan experience he had acquired in the course of his travels throughout Europe. The 12th sonata in D minor consists of the movements Passagallo, Capriccio cromatico, Adagio and Ciaconna. The opening Passagallo has an almost Northern restraint and is marked "Very broad and just as it is, but with grace" - in other words, Veracini wants the melody to be payed sweetly and elegantly, but without superficial ornamentation or outpourings.
[Performance listened to: Fabio Biondi et al on Opus 111]

15. Giuseppe Tartini, Violin Sonata in B-flat major Op 5 No 6 B.B5 (late 1740s)
Giuseppe Tartini (1692-1770) was a composer of great significance and also an excellent performer, pedagogue and theoretician. In his youth he led a nomadic life in northern Italian towns as a violinist - Veracini's playing was a great inspiration for him. From 1721 he became leader of the orchestra of St Anthony's Basilica in Padua, although his appointment also allowed him to travel. Here he founded his famous violin school, which attracted pupils from all over Europe. He also wrote several treatises and other theoretical works on the violin and musical theory in general. Tartini was a prolific composer for the violin: more than 130 violin concertos, about the same number of violin sonatas and about 40 trio sonatas. Many of them were published in Amsterdam, London or Paris. In that last city his Op 5 appeared in an elegantly engraved edition in the 1740s. It is said that Tartini's style changed around 1744, from extremely difficult to graceful and expressive. The Op 5 sonatas belong to both styles; the sixth sonata in B flat major is an early work which contains lots of virtuoso passage work. It is in three movements with a slow opening movement followed by an elaborate Allegro. The last movement, in the rhythm of a minuet, is a set of variations of increasing complexity.  
[Performance listened to: Elizabeth Wallfisch et al on Hyperion]

16. Georg Friedrich Handel, Sonata in D major Op 1 No 13 HWV 371 (1750)
Handel's sonatas have always been popular with violinists (they have been performed uninterruptedly since the 1730s) and are as it were miniatures of his style that usually found utterance in grander structures. The problem with Handel's violin sonatas is authenticity - historically, there has been something of a muddle and great violinists like Kreisler used to perform certain sonatas which now are considered as spurious. Modern scholars are in broad agreement that five genuine sonatas exist, based on detective work in paper types and handwriting. These are the sonatas in D minor, G minor, D major, G major and A Major HWV 361. On top of that, Handel's work was often pirated, and some of the violin sonatas appeared in editions for oboe or flute, undoubtedly without Handel's consent. The genuine D major sonata HWV 371 was not published during Handel's life time - although it is now considered as his masterpiece in the genre. It dates from around 1750, so very late in Handel's career - in fact, it was the last piece of chamber music he wrote. In four movements, this sonata is characteristic Handel. The opening Affettuoso is deeply expressive like an opera aria. This is followed by a brilliantly virtuosic Allegro. The Larghetto is darkly colored. The closing Allegro is lively with a dance-like feel.
[Performance listened to: Andrew Manze on Harmonia Mundi]

17. W.A. Mozart, Violin Sonata No 33 in E flat major K481 (1785)
In addition to his genius as a composer and pianist, Mozart was also an accomplished violinist and violist. This is especially clear from the Violin Sonata in E flat major, one of the most mature works in Mozart's chamber music catalog and also a marvel of well-balanced and well-crafted construction on every level. The opening Molto allegro is in sonata form, but has three clearly outlined subjects, which all reappear in the recapitulation. Despite the expansiveness of the material, Mozart introduces a new idea in the development section, a four-note motif that he also used as the main subject of the "Jupiter" Symphony’s finale; it reoccurs in the coda of the first movement. The central Adagio is an idiosyncratic mix of rondo and variation, and the finale is a set of variations on a theme of twenty bars, culminating in an animated figure. Mozart finished this sonata just days ahead of his Piano Concerto 482 in the same key; in the last variation of the sonata’s finale, the "hunting" style echoes the concerto’s concluding rondo.
[Performance listened to: Szymon Goldberg and Radu Lupu on London]

18. Hummel, Violin Sonata in D Major Op 50 (1810-14)
Hummel (1778-1837) was Mozart's piano pupil and he carried his teacher's classical style into the 19th century - his music stands at the transition from the Classical to the Romantic era. His main oeuvre is for the piano, on which instrument he was one of the great virtuosi of his day. He wrote eight piano concertos, ten piano sonatas and much chamber music which also features the piano. He only wrote a few violin sonatas, of which this is the latest and most enjoyable, cast in three movements. It was written when Hummel was in his thirties and at the height of his fame. The Allegro con brio starts with a breezy and carefree theme in the violin, which is then taken up by the piano. The ensuing Andante is relaxed and playful, though concise. The Rondo Pastorale finale offers some catchy music, with a memorable main theme. In the middle section, the violin introduces a "gypsy theme." The writing in this sonata is full of color and excitement for both instruments. As Richard Burnett writes in his sleeve notes, "A composer at his best in extrovert untroubled music is a rare phenomenon. [...] A blend of sophistication and innocent gaiety is the hall mark of Hummel's finest compositions..."
[Performance listened to: Ralph Holmes and Richard Burnett (original instruments) on Amon Ra]

19. Ferdinand Ries, Violin Sonata in F minor Op 19 (1810)
Ferdinand Ries was Beethoven’s student, friend and biographer. He was a gifted and prolific composer whose works, like those of many other composers of his time, were largely overshadowed by Beethoven’s all too giant presence. Ries’s music was widely known and admired in his lifetime, and his 18 Violin Sonatas are models of the Viennese classical style established by Mozart. The Grande Sonata in F minor, Op. 19, published in 1810, is a large-scale work in both structure and content. It has been linked with Beethoven's Appassionata Sonata on the basis of the dramatic urgency of its main theme and identical tonality. In the Allegro Agitato first movement the feverish piano accompaniment expresses a mood of foreboding. The second theme turns to a major tonality, but the mood of urgency remains. The Andante movement is one of Ries’s loveliest creations, with simple but expressive themes and a flowing triple meter. The breathless Rondo finale returns to the mood of the first movement, but at the same time conveys a playful feeling rather than a dramatic one. The rondo theme is a quirky staccato figure in the piano, followed by a lyrical legato melody in the violin.
[Performance listened to: Eric Grossman and Susan Kagan on Naxos]

20. Beethoven, Violin Sonata No. 10 Op. 96 (1812, published 1816)
The loveliest of Beethoven's violin sonatas, written nearly ten years after his second-to-last. In four movements, it was written for the renowned French violinist Pierre Rode, who disliked too much virtuosity and resounding finales, which may have influenced the calmness of this sonata. Indeed, although somewhat subdued, it possesses true ethereal beauty. It belongs to Beethoven's more lyrical "Middle Period," following closely after the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies. The sonata was dedicated to Beethoven's royal pupil Archduke Rudolph, who gave the first performance together with Rode at a private concert. In this sonata violin and piano are absolutely equal partners. The first movement begins with a delicate trill, opening hesitatingly, with short figures passing between violin and piano before the first subject is fully stated. The movement is pervaded by shimmering trills, symmetrical arpeggios and seamless exchanges between piano and violin. The moving Adagio second movement is at first quiet, but builds up slowly to an emotional peak. The brief but energetic Scherzo has a highly contrasting trio. The Poco allegretto fourth movement (a concession to Rode?) is a set of variations on a gentle theme, a light and bright finale that suits the sonata admirably.
[Performance listened to: Itzhak Perlman and Vladimir Ashkenazy on Decca]

Friday, July 17, 2020

"The Devotion of Suspect X" by Higashino Keigo (review)

The Devotion of Suspect XThe Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Keigo Higashino is a first-rate bestseller author in Japan and other Asian countries. I have a hearty dislike of so-called bestsellers as these are usually mediocre (after all, they have to please the crowd according to the most common denominator), but there are several things that win me over for Higashino, who at present is probably the most important living author of mysteries and detective stories in Japan. The first of these is that Higashino doesn’t write overblown thrillers with loads of violence and cruelty, but his mysteries center on quiet detection – they are almost serene (in the U.S. his type of work is apparently so rare that in some reviews it is compared to Columbo – which is not very helpful as Columbo is the sort of strong character you won't find in these Japanese stories).

Higashino mostly writes about ordinary people in ordinary situations and recognizable Japanese locations. Although he is sometimes mentioned together with the Shin Honkaku writers who tried to revive the 1920's Anglophone puzzle detective in 1980's Japan (and won the Honkaku Mystery Award of 2006 with the present novel), nothing could be farther from the truth. Except in a number of short stories, puzzles are not central to Higashino's books, but he focuses on human beings. He doesn't need the trappings of weird mansions or deserted islands for his mysteries, which is a definite plus. In fact, the false idea that he writes traditional puzzle mysteries and should be judged according to the rules laid down by S.S. Van Dine for such books, has led to annoying misunderstandings – I saw at least one foreign reviewer who blamed Higashino for not being “fair” to the reader by giving enough facts to be able to solve the mystery, something which is wholly beside the mark as Higashino writes a different kind of books. On top of that, the present novel is an inverted detective story: we know the murderer from the start and the emphasis is on the battle of wits with the police. Higashino has said himself that his greatest example is Matsumoto Seicho, who also wrote about the lives of normal people.

Higashino has written more than 80 novels and short story collections, and many of his books have been filmed. His most famous novel is the present “The Devotion of Suspect X,” written in 2005. Former bar hostess Yasuko Hanaoka is a divorced single mother who works in a shop selling bento lunch boxes. Tetsuya Ishigami is a highly talented but reclusive mathematics teacher, who lives in the apartment next door to Yasuko and her middle-school age daughter Misato. When Yasuko's abusive ex-husband Togashi shows up one day to extort money from her, the situation escalates into violence, and the extortioner ends up being killed by mother and daughter, though they were mostly acting in self defense. Overhearing the commotion through the thin apartment walls, Ishigami, who is secretly in love with Yasuko but has never told her so (on his way to work he every morning goes to buy a bento at her shop), offers his help, disposing of the body and step-by-step plotting the ingenious cover-up of the murder.

Police detective Shunpei Kusanagi is unable to solve the case and brings in his acquaintance Dr. Manabu Yukawa (know by his nickname “Galileo”), a physicist who frequently consults with the police. Interestingly, Dr Yukawa, who figures in eight more novels and story collections by Higashino, also happens to be an old college friend of Ishigami. This leads to a battle of wits between Yukawa and Ishigami, the one trying to out-think and outmaneuver the other, although it must be said that in the end Yukawa remains loyal to his friend. Things get complicated when Yasuko meets an old customer from her hostess period, a company president who recently has been widowed, and shows herself receptive to his advances – she appreciates Ishigami’s help, but doesn’t see him as “a man” and a possible partner at all. Despite that, Ishigami will show his devotion to her in a most radical way, and there are some interesting unexpected plot developments waiting for the reader.

When you close the book you realize you have been reading a love story, a strange story of one-sided love...

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"The Letter Killers Club" by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky (review)

The Letter Killers ClubThe Letter Killers Club by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

You may well think: KRZH-what? This difficult to pronounce name is Polish, our author Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky (1887-1950) was born in Kiev to Catholic Polish emigrants and was a writer under the Soviet Union. But the story is even stranger than the name: it is about a club of writers who have condemned the manuscript to death.

The club (or rather, secret society) consists of seven men and they meet every week on Saturday evening in a fire lit room lined with empty black bookshelves. They are writers who do not write things down, they only imagine things, for letters kill ideas. Books are seen as a way of confining ideas, not of spreading them. 

So these men – who are observed in the story by an unnamed narrator – are “conceivers” and “imaginers” rather than writers and every week they communicate their new stories orally to each other. They have abandoned letters in an effort to liberate ideas from confinement in ink. Once distinguished literati, they have vowed to give up reading and writing and to keep their own ideas firmly in the realm of pure thought.

They are not known by their own names or even normal pseudonyms – after all, names also convey meaning and that is not allowed. They therefore use nonsense syllables as Zez, Rar and Mov. When one member tells his story, the others immediately offer their suggestions and criticisms and these are instantly implemented at the order of the chairman. On the spot the stories are changed, plot-lines are reworked, different characters are introduced and new themes emphasized. Sometimes, too, everything has to be discarded.

Ideas have to be liberated from books – isn’t that a typical idea that could only occur in the Soviet Union where ideas and books both were subject to heavy censorship? By not writing, by only telling virtual stories, one can also not be censored. The novella is thus a reflection of the stifling world in which Krzhizhanovsky lived. But even non-writing does not seem to offer enough safety: the members of the club are strangely mistrustful of one another, and the chairman is a despot - there is no telling, in the end, just how lethal the purely conceptual may be...

The novella contains five examples which all have to do with the relationship between conceptions versus letters, abstract versus manifest forms, self versus body. In the first story an actor in Hamlet vanishes with his role, thereby obstructing the rehearsal. In another story, based on dystopian science-fiction, a strain of bacteria seals of the mind from the body, which is then manipulated by the State with a radio transmitter. In a third one, a priest whose clothes are stolen looses his office and dignity as without his vestments, nobody believes he is really a priest.

This unusual novella (really a cycle of stories) was written in 1926 but did not make its way into print until after the fall of the Soviet Union, nearly half a century after Krzhizhanovsky’s death in 1950.

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Thursday, July 16, 2020

"Solaris by Stanislaw Lem (review)

SolarisSolaris by Stanisław Lem
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A troubled psychologist is sent to investigate the crew of an isolated research station orbiting a bizarre planet, whose ocean functions as a huge, fluid-like brain. This "brain" may be responsible for the mental disruptions the crew members experience - it apparently gives life to the contents of the unconscious mind. In the station, the psychologist meets his deceased wife, with whom he had a passionate relationship before she committed suicide. It is of course not really his wife - she is an amalgam of his memories of her that have taken physical shape. But our memories of even those closest to us are never the complete, other person - we always know others only partially, and on top of that, through our own prejudices. The wife is suicidal, she complains, because that is how her husband views her. The psychologist struggles with his memories and his feelings of regret and tries to find an opportunity for a second chance. A sharp and incisive exploration of the unreliability of reality and the power of the human unconscious.

Screen adaptations by Tarkovsky (1972, a legendary film) and Steven Soderbergh (2002).

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Tuesday, July 14, 2020

"Bruges-la-Morte and The Death-Throes of Towns" by Georges Rodenbach (review)

Bruges-la-Morte and The Death-Throes of TownsBruges-la-Morte and The Death-Throes of Towns by Georges Rodenbach
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A man is obsessed with the memory of his deceased wife and tries to mold a dancer, who uncannily resembles her, after his wife. "Bruges-La-Morte," by the Belgian Francophone author Georges Rodenbach (1855-98) is a melancholic novel about an obsessive love, a love both for a beautiful dead wife and a beautiful dead town. It is the novel of a poet, in which almost nothing happens, the reader is as it were incarnated in the lonely soul of the protagonist.

"Bruges-La-Morte" is the iconic Symbolist novel. The movement (officially promulgated by critic Jean Moréas in his "Manifeste du symbolisme" of 1886), in poetry, music and visual arts, mainly in France, the Low Countries and Russia, developed by Stephan Mallarmé and Paul Verlaine, centered on the idea that the truth in art could only be represented indirectly (thus discarding Realism and Naturalism). This could be done by writing in a metaphorical and suggestive manner, thus endowing particular images or objects with symbolic meaning. It is an art which is elusive and shuns direct utterance. It seeks half-tones rather than strong colors. But it is also characterized by a certain mysticism and a preoccupation with death, with swans and lilies, and an obsession with woman’s hair (as in the Symbolist opera Pelléas et Mélisande by Debussy, where Mélisande’s abnormally long hair, longer than her whole figure, is fetishized).

The main character in the novella is Hugues Viane, a middle-aged widower who, distraught at his wife's death several years before, has moved to Bruges. Bruges (in Flemish: Brugge), once the major trading city of Belgium (and today a bright tourist attraction), in the 19th century had become a dead town, dreaming of the past amid the mystic peace of its churches and cloisters, and for Hugues the desolate cityscape with its dark and stagnant canals symbolizes his own mood. He lives (or rather, sits brooding) among the relics of his beloved dead wife – her clothes, her letters and portraits, and most importantly, a length of her long blond hair kept almost religiously under a glass cover. In this way, he has erected an altar of sorrow and remembrance to his wife. Hugues has no occupation and rarely leaves the house. His only activity is a daily walk through the deserted and dusky streets of the old town, under the shadows of the ancient walls, listening to the old bells of the many churches, sometimes stepping into a church to see the sculptures on the ancient tombs (such as those of Charles the Bold and Mary of Burgundy), often longing himself for death, hoping to meet his beloved in a new life beyond the grave. It is a situation halfway between reality and dream. The memory of his wife monopolizes his every thought and deed. In fact, Hugues is in the thralls of a morbid and unwholesome cult.

Then, one day, on his walk Hugues receives an enormous shock: he catches sight of a woman who bears an uncanny resemblance to his dead wife, in every least detail of her appearance – especially her long, yellow-gold hair. He follows her, into a theater where Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable is being performed. He then finds out that she is one of the girls dancing in the ballet: as a nun who rises from her tomb – although this is not a divine scene but a satanic Bacchanal where a disciple of the Devil calls up the souls of nuns who have died in sin. Hugues now seeks contact with the dancer (who is called Jane Scott) and is surprised to discover that even her voice is similar to that of his deceased wife. Confused, Hugues transfers the feelings for his dead wife to the new Jane, and dreams to renew an ideal union. He imagines that the dancer has been brought to him by the intervention of supernatural forces. He courts her and is briefly happy, although his romance with Jane is in fact bizarre and scandalous.

Jane is only described from the outside, through Hugues, we don’t even get to hear her speech until the end of the novella. It may therefore seem that she rather too easily gives in to Hugues wishes: she becomes his kept mistress, and he rents a room in the suburbs for her where he pays daily visits; he also has her give up her profession. But in the 19th c. operatic dancing girls were virtually prostitutes and therefore it is highly probably that Jane would not be averse to a settlement where a gentleman would keep her in comfort. Rodenbach doesn't address this point – it was too sensitive for his bourgeois readers who anyhow understood the situation and valued discretion.

But of course, no two people are similar and Hugues soon discovers that the character of the new woman is very different from that of his deceased partner: for one thing, being who she is, she is far coarser. There is for example grotesque humor in the scene where Hugues persuades Jane to put on his dead wife’s dresses, and is mocked by her for their being out of date. His infatuation also has become the scandal of the town and sets numerous tongues wagging. Finally, his devoted servant Barbe also leaves him.

The final scene plays out in Hugues house. An annual religious procession, the Procession of the Holy Blood, will make the rounds of Bruges and also pass by Hugues windows, so Jane begs to be allowed to visit his house to watch the event. Jane comes for the first time to his house, and is interested in the portrait of his wife (“She looks like me”), without realizing what she is seeing. When finally she dares touch the precious coil of hair, just when the procession is passing, and jokingly winds it around her own neck, laughing scornfully, Hugues in a frenzy strangles her.

Almost nothing happens in this novel, that is focused on the description of a human being in a state of radical introspection. That makes the novel very modern – it is a mystery why it has been forgotten.

Something else that is very modern is that this is the first novel to incorporate dozens of black-and-white photographs (as for example contemporary author W.G. Sebald has done). The photos show mostly deserted streets and canals. Although they are an integral part of the novel, most modern editions leave them out – the English translation below has replaced them with new photos. Only the original images, however, have a truly haunting quality (they can be accessed at

This old Bruges somehow reminded me of Leiden, the Dutch town where I went to university in the 1970s, and which at that time also looked decayed and run-down, with dead, black water in the numerous canals (now, like Bruges, it has received a face-lift thanks to tourism and renewed economic activity).

Bruges-la-Morte enjoyed considerable success in its time. Rodenbach’s prose is beautiful and refined, it is a novel with a considerable literary quality. The novel led to something like a “Bruges cult”, as a place that was silent, melancholy and lost in time. This was not something appreciated by the inhabitants of Bruges, who were just then seeking new commercial life by the opening of the nearby port of Zeebrugge; after Rodenbach died, the citizens refused permission for a memorial statue in the town.

In 1920 the novel inspired Erich Korngold’s opera Die tote Stadt, which thanks to a Korngold revival in the 1990s, is again periodically staged in opera houses today. It has beautiful, elusive music and does full justice to the poetic qualities of the novel. It was the supreme masterwork of the then only 23-year old composer Erich Korngold (1897-1957), who wrote the libretto with his father, the music journalist Julius Korngold. The opera was a great hit, and it made a triumphal tour around the world – until the Nazis forbade it as Jewish music, while the immediate postwar generations were only interested in twelve-tone music. The lavish Straussian music brings out the tension between sexual desire and ideal aspiration, decay and death, and shifts from gloomy orchestral interludes to high-soaring song. The names were changed in the opera (Hugues is now Paul, Jane is Marietta and the deceased wife has become Marie) and the new character of a friend of Hugues is introduced. In the opera we see a sort of struggle between the dancer and the dead wife for the soul of Hugues/Paul, and most of the second and third tableau are presented as a dream vision – also the murder of the dancer takes place in this dream and after that, Paul wakes up cured – he will leave Bruges and stop with his morbid cult of the dead.

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