Mayor Michael Bloomberg declared last week (April 30th through May 6th ) PEN American Center Week in New York City! And well he should do this as the week-long annual literature festival, PEN World Voices, aims to introduce numbers of “compelling” writers from all corners of the world – from Russia and Germany; Mexico, Spain, and Denmark; to Switzerland, Bosnia, Israel and Mexico (and all points beyond) – and their books to all of us. PEN also aims, of course, to reinforce “the importance of the premise that freedom of expression is the foundation of meaningful existence …” and it ensures that we are all “better equipped … to comprehend, defend and advance the importance of freedom of expression.” In short, PEN protects writers everywhere, publicizes and preserves their books, involves readers of every stripe, and focuses on reading in a wide variety of contexts – aesthetic, entertainment, political, and informational.
All of this sounds a bit lofty and abstract, but I assure you that the PEN Festival is always enjoyable, provocative, rich, and diverse … and lots of fun, as well! This year, I was fortunate enough to attend three events, two at the New School (both free!) in the West Village and a third at The Museum of Jewish Heritage, downtown in Battery Park.
The two panel-discussion events held at the New School focused on “translation matters” – such interrelated topics as contemporary literature in translation, the nature and practice of translation, reviewing translated works of fiction, and developing and solidifying both international and local audiences. The “Best European Fiction” panel – introduced and moderated by the very likable, low-key Bosnian-American novelist, Aleksandar Hemon (The Question of Bruno, Nowhere Man & The Lazarus Project) – included fiction writers from Slovakia, Switzerland & Liechtenstein reading passages from their work in their native languages (followed by readings of the material in English) and, prodded by Mr. Hemon, sharing information about their reading and writing habits, linguistic & cultural perspectives, and personal goals and habits. The three European writers on this panel – Patrick Boltshauser, Rober Gal & Noelle Revaz – have each written short fiction that appears in the anthology, Best European Fiction 2012 , edited by Hemon & Nicole Krauss and currently in the 3rd year of the series.
The panel dedicated to the work & recognition of translators and the review of translated fiction – “Reviewing Translations” – was equally enriching and entertaining, and comprised translators, editors & writers. The questions that tended to dominate (even vex) panel participants (including Ruth Franklin of The New Republic & Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review) and moderators, Eric Banks (President, The National Book Critics Circle) & Susan Bernofsky (MFA Program, Queens College; Chair of the PEN Translation Committee) consisted in the following: (1) When a translated work is under review, what, exactly, is being “critiqued”? AND (2) Do book reviews tend to focus on the work itself or reflect on the quality of the translation? The discussion proved lively, with input, too, from the Austrian novelist & playwright, Julya Rabinowich, but, in the end, not all that much was, summarily, agreed upon!
On Sunday afternoon, down in Battery Park, at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, the PEN session we attended – “A Place Out of Time: The Bukovina Trilogy“ – featured the writings of Gregor von Rezzori, novelist and memoir writer and “chronicler of the fading [now long-faded] Austro-Hungarian Empire.” Von Rezzori’s celebrated trilogy (he wrote, in fact, considerably more!) was discussed and examined, with key passages read aloud and annotated, by the writers Deborah Eisenberg, Edmund White, Michael Cunningham, and Daniel Kehlmann. Edwin Frank, editor of NYRB Classics (from The New York Review of Books), introduced the proceedings, placed von Rezzori’s work into historical context, and moderated the discussion. Indeed, thanks to my brother, Robert, I had become acquainted with two parts of von Rezzori’s Bukovina trilogy – Memoirs of an Anti-Semite (Viking, 1981, 1st American ed.) and The Snows of Yesteryear (Knopf, 1989) – some 30 (+) years ago. He would be glad to know that, finally, the rest of the world has caught up.
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Have you had the good fortune to attend an SOB (that’s the String Orchestra of Brooklyn) concert? Fortunately for us – and inspired to come to Brooklyn by our good friend and orchestra violinist, Olivia Stockard – we did, in fact, venture over the Bridge to Brooklyn Heights this past Saturday evening (May 5th) and joined the audience for an all-Beethoven evening consisting of three major works from his early and middle periods. The program included remarkably solid performances of Symphony No. 1 (Op. 21) and Symphony No. 7 (Op. 92), with its celebrated 2nd movement (the Allegretto), the orchestral dirge made even more memorable on exhibit in the recent Academy Award winning film, “The King’s Speech” (with, you might recall, Geoffrey Rush, Colin Firth & Helena Bonham Carter).
The evening’s piece de resistance, however, was Beethoven’s Piano Concerto, No. 4 (Op. 58) which centered emphatically on the precision keyboard skills of the young pianist, Mr. David Kaplan. He was positively brilliant, playing with both a deeply emotional sense and superb technical skill. And the crisp, light, orchestral accompaniment – driven by Eli Spindel, the SOB’s equally young conductor/artistic director – showcased the soloist with balance, appropriate emphases, and obvious (mutual) professional respect.
For a simply glorious & complete evening of music in the Beethoven sphere, kudos must go to Mr. Spindel and to the outstanding musicians of the SOB. (I won’t soon forget the magical talents of the chief oboe & principal flute on display at key moments throughout the evening!) If you are an aficionado of classical music, you need to attend an SOB concert …
While venues alternate for SOB concerts ($10.-15/ticket, and very much worth the price of admission), this event took place at St. Ann & the Holy Trinity Church (@ 157 Montague St.) where the acoustics were perfectly wonderful, the sounds clear, rich & pristine, and the audience extremely receptive and involved. Beethoven, you could tell, was in the proverbial air, all around us!