Tuesday, September 30, 2014

We all knew that the instrument was sacred. It was not to be touched

When I was six years old, I would sometimes sit, utterly silent, behind my best friend as she played her piano. The sound of her music fascinated me to such a degree that I begged my parents to enroll me in piano lessons, too. Being sensible, they decided to take my aspirations one step at a time. So instead of a grand piano, they bought me a piccolo, and started me off in a class where thirty kids puffed, wheezed and blastedmore or less at oncethrough their wind instruments with various degrees of success, producing a hilarious cacophony that had little to do with music. This ended my artistic ambitions right there and then, validating my parents’ decision to exercise caution with what I had said I wanted.
Then, I introduced a white piano into my novel Apart From Love. It belongs to Ben's mother, Natasha. This is her signature piece, even as she starts descending into the depth of her infliction with Alzheimer's.

By the time I turned sixteen, mom had developed an unexplained fear, a fear of getting lost, which was quite pronounced, even as she headed out for a short walk, such as to the grocery store on Wilshire Boulevard, not more than a couple of blocks away. She seemed to rely, with an increasing sense of anxiety, on the familiar, and would become ferociously shaken if a chair was accidentally moved out of position. We all knew that the instrument—which was only hers, because I had stopped playing by then—was sacred. It was not to be touched. 

And so, too, was she. 

The mere presence of this instrument in the apartment suggested to me a variety of scenes, such as the musical duet between Ben and his father's new wife, Anita. Now, how would you go about writing a duet, when your knowledge about playing the piano is nothing but a faint memory from the age of six? 

I found several ways of learning the intricate details. First, I watched numerous videos, the most entertaining of which is this one, showing Fran & Marlo Cowan (married 62 years) playing impromptu recital together in the atrium of the Mayo Clinic. Then I read numerous articles, like this three-step instruction about singing duets, which taught me that eye contact and exchanging nods between the two players is at least as important as striking the right notes. Next, I selected a piece of music, The Entertainer, and learned more than you ever wanted to know about every note of it, and how it should be played. I did it, among many other ways, by watching instructional videos like this one. Finally I had to fold in the difference in both musical education and temperament between Ben and Anita. 

So here is an excerpt from the way it plays out in the end:
And before this phrase fades out Anita straightens her back, and places her hand on the keys. Then, to my astonishment, she plays the next phrase of music, this time with raw, intense force, which I never knew existed in her, bringing it to the verge of destruction, making it explode all around me. And I, in turn, explode with the following one, because how can I let her outdo me? I am, after all, The Entertainer... 
Here I come! Here I drum! No more woes. Let me close! Let me in, hold me tight! Don’t resist me, do not fight—
At this point Anita kicks the bench back, and I tip it over behind us. She sways her hips to the beat, and I tap the floor. And we find ourselves bouncing there, almost dancing in place, playing the piano side by side: she on the high notes, I—on the low. 
From one musical sequence to another, the music sparkles between them, in spiteand maybe becauseof the fiery contrast between the two. Which brings me to believe that my musical aspirations at the age of six may not have been a total waste, after all.
Sometimes I find myself having to take my hand away, so she can play the same key immediately after me. On some notes, my right hand crosses her left hand, in an exchange that is wild and fiery—like no duet I have ever seen, or listened to! One way or another it blends, it mixes into a sound, which you might call a crude, unruly, unrestrained racket. But to the ears of a madman, it can be called music.

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Monday, September 29, 2014

After You're Gone

Written by my father
Translated by me

Somewhere at night a string sings out
All's dark, silent, filled with doubt
I'm alone, and you?
Out there, in the cold, a string sings out

Forgive me ma, that under your wing
A poet grew, only to sing 
Forgive me ma, I knew no way but run
I was a defiant son!

In your life I sang you no songs, but now I miss—
Forgive me ma, that I wiped off your kiss
Which you gave me, thinking I were asleep...
Now, after you're gone, I confess and I weep

I loved no one like you!
After you were gone, I knew
I had travelled to a place so alien, so cold
How bitter it had felt, to you I never told.

How you waited to receive a word from me, a letter,
How I missed you! Only now I know better
No longer am I ashamed to say, to try:
Forgive me ma, now at last I am allowed to cry.

This is a watercolor painting--the largest I have painted--of my father. Measuring 40" x 30", this is called 'Silence of the Bard. Why a Bard? Because even though my father never played a musical instrument he composed beautiful images using the music of words. This is why the impression of the strings extends out into the landscape, which becomes a melodically conceived universe. 
And, why Silence? because he never shared his last body of work with anyone. It is not been read by others, until now, until I published this book in his tribute: Home.

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Saturday, September 27, 2014

What happened today behind closed doors between Amnon and Tamar should be blotted out

Sitting down I lay my head upon the desk. By the touch I know: here is my daughter’s face, which my child, Amnon, carved into the wooden surface years ago, when she was a newborn baby. Perhaps this scar is all that remains of a happier time. Perhaps this is all there is.
One thing is obvious: what happened today behind closed doors between Amnon and Tamar should be blotted out. 
I must instruct my court historians to avoid investigating it, let alone writing it. This story should remain out of their records. But why, then, do I feel compelled to sharpen my quill? I have no answer, except this: if I write everything down, and then read it back to myself, perhaps I will find a way to make sense of it all. 
Confusion makes me uneasy. Then again, in this case it may be less painful than clarity. Perhaps it is better to knock the inkwell upside down, and let the ink bleed across my characters, obscuring them completely. 
Of its own, the tip of my feather hovers over the blank sheet, and it starts its journey on the slant of the first letter, writing:

So Tamar went to the house of her half-brother Amnon, who was lying down. She took some dough, kneaded it, made the dumplings in his sight and cooked them. 

I imagine she could feel the obsession, the weight of his gaze at her back, as he was following every single one of her movements. As tension grew between them, she must have spotted the glint, the flareup of lust, escaping from the corner of his eye every now and again. 
Still Tamar resisted the urge to leave, because she respected my command, and made up her mind to be brave, even to her own detriment, and obey it. Besides, she figured that Amnon was of no danger, because he was sick. And as long as there were servants around her Amnon would have to restrain himself. 
At least for now, she was safe.

Then she took the pan and set it before him, but he refused to eat.
“Send everyone out of here,” Amnon said. 
Faithfully did Jonadab do his bidding.. “Out, all of you!” he shouted, avoiding to look at Tamar, who turned pale.
And so, everyone but her left the chamber. 

I imagine that she asked herself if she should leave, too, but held herself firm. Still, she respected my command. 

Amnon and Tamar
Ian Steen

Amnon and Thamar 
Niccolò Renieri (Nicolas Regnier) (1591–1667)

Curing an invalid: study for ´Amnon feigning illness in order to rape Tamar´
Maerten van Heemskerck

The rape of Tamar by her half-brother Amnon is a seminal event in the life of their father, David, as it starts off a chain of calamities that tests his control of the family and later, the nation. In my upcoming book, The Edge of Revolt, he will discover how it happened and tell it in his voice.

The rape inspired many artists to depict it, before, during, and after the deed. The first painting here is by Ian Steen. It shaw Amnon lying lazily upon his bed, his shirt dropping off his shoulder, feigning sickness so his sister would come to cook for him and feed him, which is when he can get close enough to rape her. His servant already holds Tamar in a disrespectful way, while she is shown pleading with him.

The second painting is by Niccolò Renier, and he chose to explore the aftermath of the rape. While Tamar is weeping into her handkerchief, lamenting the loss of her innocence, Amnon is in rapture, concentrating on the satisfaction he got through his brutality. He looks away from her and even shoves her away.

The Third is a study by Maerten van Heemskerck, who chose to depict the hustle bustle in Amnon's house while Tamar is still in the process of cooking for her seemingly sick brother. The place is full of color, with the exception of Amnon who is shown to be purposely white, and lying still on his bed, hiding behind all the commotion. By his side are attendants, servants, and even a doctor who stands by the window, lifting a glass container to the light, examine the sick person's urine.  

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Thursday, September 25, 2014

The line reaches the margin, where it is punctuated by a red stain

"And then she left him.
He looks at the line. It is written in blue ink, pressed into the sheet of paper—vigorously here, faintly there—with his usual stroke, a stroke that drives through the spikes and valleys in the shapes of the letters at a steady slant. The line reaches the margin, where it is punctuated, unexpectedly, by a red stain. 
Blotting it is bound to leave fingerprints, and so Mr. Schriber  decides to leave it alone. He lifts the paper by its corner—and a drop bleeds down; he lays it down on the desk—and the stain goes on spreading. Going back to his writing, he applies too much pressure on the pen—and the pointed nib digs into the paper. Taking a deep breath, he tries to compose himself. The pen is his weapon. The simple act of pulling it over the soft, white surface has never failed to calm him down. Letter by letter, mark by mark, it will soon draw him into a different state of mind."

So starts a short story titled And Then She Left Him, in my book, Home. Mr. Schriber tries to sort out his life, and to understand the reason why his wife has left him, by writing about their relationship. This story is great opportunity for me to capture some of my own thoughts about the process of writing, and the art of it.

It is only towards the end of this story that he begins to understand her point of view, and accept it:

But somehow his confusion starts to clear up. Now he knows, deep inside, how she must have felt all these years. Confined. Caged. He has a sudden sense of her anguish. No longer does he wonder why, why she would wish to hurt him. To his surprise, he finds himself coming, at long last, to accept her way of looking at things. He embraces what she has been giving him. He takes it in, her hate.
Is it too late for him? Too late to turn a new page? Can he hold on, just long enough to try, try to tell her he is sorry? At this point Mr. Schriber grips the arms of the chair and with great effort, lifts himself into it. Then he leans over his desk, feeling tired, and older than he ever felt before. From time to time he presses one hand to his temple, where a sharp pain shoots through him. His other hand clutches the weapon: his pen. 
He can tell, there is not much time. The ending has come to him at long last; and so the battle between the writer in him and the editor, the battle that has been waged inside his mind, turns easy all of a sudden, and the triumph—joyous. 
The pain recedes, and now he pours his heart out, filling one sheet of paper after another with his bold, fluid stroke, a stroke that drives through the spikes and valleys in the shapes of the letters, at a steady slant. In this landscape of blue ink, he writes without stopping, without editing or crossing anything out. He feels the urge. Time is running out.
Then Mr. Schriber lays his head on the wooden surface of the desk. Time to give up control. Time to give up... So he listens to the pen rolling softly away from his fingers, farther and farther out of reach, until there is nothing there, nothing but silence. He lets his eyes fall shut and at long last, falls asleep. 
In his dream he views this last sheet of paper. Its texture, seen at an extremely close range, is that of crushed, flattened pulp. He notes each and every fiber. Yes, he imagines can tell them apart by the subtle changes in direction, and in the shades of their whiteness. The paper carries a faint but indelible imprint, a stain that has, by now, seeped through the entire stack. But if you passed a finger over it, it would feel dry to the touch.
At this moment the stain seems to have changed colors; it has turned dark brown, even inky in places. And here, close to the edge you could find a fingerprint. This is the writer’s signature, this and no other, because sleep came abruptly, before he had time to spell out his name. And there—scribbled with a strained gesture, directly above this signature—are these last words:
She said, Time to go. He asked her forgiveness, and then she left him.

My watercolor and ink painting, Untitled

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With a last-gasp effort I go on blowing until all is lost

Over a year ago I wrote a short story about a twelve years old boy coming face to face, for the first time in his life, with the sad spectacle of death in the family. In it, Ben watches his father  trying to revive his frail grandma, and later he attempts the same technique on the fish tilting upside down in his new aquarium.
"Before I know it my hand cuts into the water; it comes out dripping, with the fish lying there, helpless, between my fingers. 
It seems to be gulping for air. Maybe it forgot how to breathe. I know I can fix it. First I rub the mouth, delicately, with my finger. Then I try to massage the entire body. I am doing my best, my very best to be gentle—but in the end, some scales tear off the body, and a tiny fin flakes away. 
At this point, I must do something, and fast. Just like dad: he did what he could for grandma, and blew his breath into her; and his breath was magical, because it lasted in her, somehow, for the next two weeks. I can do better than that for this little body, even with a few scales or a fin missing. So, I take a deep breath, put my lips to the fish—but then the smell, the touch... It makes me pause for a minute. 
Still, I cannot give up: I must be brave, just like dad—or else, the spell may be broken. So again I gasp, and with frantic hope, I give a full-blown puff. The red eyes seem to be looking at me, and the tail is hanging over my finger, and it looks limp, and a bit crumpled. 
I cannot allow myself to weep. No, not now. So I wipe the corner of my eye. Now if you watch closely, right here, you can see that the tail is still crinkling. I gasp, and blow again. I blow and blow, and with a last-gasp effort I go on blowing until all is lost, until I don’t care anymore, I mean it, I don’t care but the tears, the tears come, they are starting to flow, and there is nothing, nothing more I can do— 
Then I feel mom, the smell of her skin. Here she is, wrapping her arms around mine. Softly, gently, she releases the fish, and takes me to their bed, and dad says nothing but makes room for me, and I curl myself in the dent between them, and it feels so warm here and so sweet that at last, I can lose myself, and I cry myself to sleep." 
My watercolor painting, Floating

I set the story aside, thinking I was done with it. But the character of the boy, Ben, came back to me and started chatting, chatting, chatting in my head. It became the seed of my just-published novel Apart from Love

In writing it I asked myself, what if I ‘aged’ him by fifteen years? Where would he be then? Would he still admire his father as a hero, or will he be disillusioned at that point? What secrets would come to light in the life of this family? How would it feel for Ben to come back to his childhood home, and have his memories play tricks on him? What if I introduce a girl, Anita, a redhead who looks as beautiful as his mother used to be, but is extremely different from her in all other respects? And what if this girl were married to his father? What if the father were an author, attempting to capture the thoughts, the voices of Ben and Anita, in order to write his book? 

So the process of writing became, for me, simply listening to the characters and trying, as fast as I could, to capture their thoughts. My role as an author was merely suggesting a place, coming up with the stage set and illuminating it as appropriate for the time of day, and allowing the characters to describe what they see and to act out their passions and fears. 

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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

#ShanaTova Happy New Year!

To my Jewish friends, and to all of us, I wish you a happy new year!

The background for this Shana Tova card is my 'still-life' painting, and the letters are done with Pomegranate seeds, a fruit that is a symbol of a time of plenty

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Playing David and every one of his wives, advisors, and enemies

Justin Harmer is playing David, and every one of his wives, advisors, and enemies, in the audiobook edition of A Peek at BathshebaWant to know why I chose him? How could I not, with this audition?

A long time ago I used to think that my youth was to blame for failing to understand my wives. No longer can I use that excuse, because I know all too well, there is no youth in me anymore. Which leaves me as baffled as ever, especially when it comes to the one woman I adore: Bathsheba. 
When I catch her scent, or even when I imagine it, something in me turns to liquid. Then, trying to harden my heart and remove her from my mind I find myself confused, and the rage in me intensifies, perhaps because I cannot remember the last time I have seen her. Alas, the distance between us seems to expand in so many ways with each passing year. 
So imagine my surprise this morning, when I wake up to the soft sound of her footfalls, which makes me turn my eyes to the wall to try, to catch sight of her reflection. There it is, moving fluidly across the blade, the wide, polished blade of Goliath’s sword which is hung in my chamber, right here over my head. 

David in A Peek at Bathsheba

When I first heard Justin Harmer, I googled his name and found this wonderful video, where his voice simply blew me away. Here he is, as the vocal soloist for Lord God of Abraham from Elijahan oratorio written by Felix Mendelssohn. 

The photographer of this video must have been blown away by the range and musicality of his voice, which you can tell by the shaking of the camera. It does not detract from the experience, though.

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Is there sorrow in her? Is there hope?

"She is looking out the window. 
Perhaps she is immersing herself in the grays and purples quivering there, on the other side of the glass, reaching a blur in the cold October sunlight. Perhaps, with great patience she is waiting there, waiting for the night, for the darkest hour, which is when her image may finally appear. It will come to the surface in front of her as if it were a sunken spirit, rising from the deep. Out of nowhere. 
For now she seems lost, searching for something—perhaps her reflection—in vain. 
I worry about mom, about the little things, which to someone else—someone who does not know her as I do—may seem trivial, insignificant. I worry she is missing her pearl earrings. I must find them for her. The little hole in her earlobe has shrunk away, turning somehow to flesh. 
In a whisper I say, “Mommy?” and wonder how the air vibrates over the tender membrane of her eardrum, how it changes into noise, how she gets it when pitch rises, when it falls. 
Can she sense the change? 
At what point does it translate, somehow, into meaning? By what path does it penetrate, going deeper? Does it excite the nerves, fire signals up there, between regions of her brain? Does it make some sense, at least at times? Is there any point in talking to her? Is she listening? Can she detect the thin sound—scratched like an old, overused vinyl record—which is coming faintly from behind, from the far end of this space? Can she understand the words? Is there sorrow in her? Is there hope?"

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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

What about your little trunk, full of gold coins?

I can hear her letting out a a sigh.
“Oh, Isaac,” she sighs. “What will I do without you?”
She must be extremely sorry to let him go, for her sadness seems as pressing and as urgent as her need for a proper will. 
At first, my father is unmoved. “Oh, Becky,” he says. “Don’t start.”
“Without you, I will be lost.”
“Please, not that again.”
Her voice trembles a little as she carries on, “Please, Isaac: What will become of me?”
“You have two sons—”
“Neither one of them will be here to help me, in my hour of need.”
This gives him pause; after which he says, “What about that gift I gave you, long ago, that goatskin coat; do you still have it?”
“Why,” she says, and I know she is a bit startled. “But of course—” 
“You never wear it. I was just wondering.” 
“It has a sleeve that needs mending.”
“So then, in your hour of need, just put it on the auction block,” he suggests, half-seriously. “It will fetch a small fortune!”
“Talking about a small fortune,” she counters, “what about your little trunk, full of gold coins?”
“Being of a sound body and mind,” he says, “I spend it all.”
“On what, in heaven’s name?”
“What! On what, Becky? Here I go, heaping all those bracelets, all those nose rings on one woman, and one woman alone, only to find out, in the end, the real extent of her gratitude!”

This is my charcoal on paper drawing of Rebecca, strong-willed and eager to get what she wants.

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