30 April 2010

Prince Igor

The Polovtsian Dances is one of the best known selections from the Prince Igor, an opera composed by Alexander Borodin at the end of the nineteenth century.
This is a sound of true Russia, which includes the silences echoing from Siberia (that 'ocean of snow') and the poetry of Pushkin. Pushkin, who was of African (Abyssinian) descent on his mother's side.

29 April 2010

Babi Yar

No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone.
I am afraid.
Today, I am as old
As the entire Jewish race itself.

I see myself an ancient Israelite.
I wander o'er the roads of ancient Egypt
And here, upon the cross, I perish, tortured
And even now, I bear the marks of nails.

It seems to me that Dreyfus is myself.
The Philistines betrayed me - and now judge.
I'm in a cage. Surrounded and trapped,
I'm persecuted, spat on, slandered, and
The dainty dollies in their Brussels frills
Squeal, as they stab umbrellas at my face.

I see myself a boy in Belostok
Blood spills, and runs upon the floors,
The chiefs of bar and pub rage unimpeded
And reek of vodka and of onion, half and half.

I'm thrown back by a boot, I have no strength left,
In vain I beg the rabble of pogrom,
To jeers of "Kill the Jews, and save our Russia!"
My mother's being beaten by a clerk.

O, Russia of my heart, I know that you
Are international, by inner nature.
But often those whose hands are steeped in filth
Abused your purest name, in name of hatred.

I know the kindness of my native land.
How vile, that without the slightest quiver
The antisemites have proclaimed themselves
The "Union of the Russian People!"

It seems to me that I am Anna Frank,
Transparent, as the thinnest branch in April,
And I'm in love, and have no need of phrases,
But only that we gaze into each other's eyes.
How little one can see, or even sense!
Leaves are forbidden, so is sky,
But much is still allowed - very gently
In darkened rooms each other to embrace.

-"They come!"

-"No, fear not - those are sounds
Of spring itself. She's coming soon.
Quickly, your lips!"

-"They break the door!"

-"No, river ice is breaking..."

Wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar,
The trees look sternly, as if passing judgement.
Here, silently, all screams, and, hat in hand,
I feel my hair changing shade to gray.

And I myself, like one long soundless scream
Above the thousands of thousands interred,
I'm every old man executed here,
As I am every child murdered here.

No fiber of my body will forget this.
May "Internationale" thunder and ring
When, for all time, is buried and forgotten
The last of antisemites on this earth.

There is no Jewish blood that's blood of mine,
But, hated with a passion that's corrosive
Am I by antisemites like a Jew.
And that is why I call myself a Russian!

This is Babi Yar (in original Russian: Бабин Яр), a poem by Yevgeni Yevtushenko, a monument made of words to the victims of Babi Yar.

28 April 2010

Return from Siberia

This arresting painting, titled 'They did not expect him', was painted in the period between 1884 and 1888 by the Russian painter Ilya Repin.

27 April 2010

Russia and ME

Russia has granted freedom to thousands and thousands.
It was really a terrific thing to do,
people will never forget it.
But what I did was take off my shirt
and all those shiny skyscrapers the strands of my hair,
every pore
in the city of my body,
broke out their banners and flags.
All the citizens, all the men and women
of the government of ME,
rushed to the windows of my thousand-windowed hair,
all those Igors and Olgas
and nobody told them to do it,
they were ecstatic at the sunshine
and peeked through my skin.
The Bastille of my shirt has fallen!
And all I did was take it off.
I have granted sunshine to the people of ME!
I stood on the beach with no clothes on,
that's how I gave freedom to my people
and suntans to the masses.

This poem, 'Russia and ME', is by the Russian poet Velimir Khlebnikov. The photograph, 'To the construction of the capital', was taken by the Russian photographer Arkadi Shaikhet (1927).

26 April 2010

Dumka, Op. 59

Dumka, Op. 59 (for piano) is a 9-minute - small, yet epic - masterpiece by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1886).
"I love our Russian countryside more than any other, and for me the Russian landscape in winter has an incomparable charm," wrote Tchaikovsky in a letter while composing. "It's a marvelous day, sunny, the snow is glistening like myriads of diamonds and is thawing slightly, my window gives me a wide view right into the distance. It's wonderful and spacious, you can breathe properly in these immense horizons."
Dumka is less known by its subtitle, Rustic Russian Scene.
The paintings featured in the video are by the Russian painter Marc Chagall.
On piano: the superb Vladimir Horowitz.

23 April 2010

Scarapola: Rags to Riches Tales

'Architect's Brother' photo series, by Robert and Shana Parkeharrison

The tales sleuth

It is only fitting that the tales themselves, as a concept, date back to once upon a time age. Or, as Armenian storytellers would open a telling:
There was a time and no time when fairy tales...
There is a persistent claim that fairy tales are 'pure lore', folk tales rather than literary (authored) tales. As such, they must be appropriated carefully in order to remain 'uncontaminated', a 'genuine' and 'pure' soul of a nation.
Indeed, the Grimms laboured with their collection for 'German national unity'. They were after the truly German folk tales. Ironically, they for the most part collected tales that originated elsewhere. The Jew in the Brambles, and a few other anti-Semitic tales in the Grimms' collection, may be the few tales originating from Germany.
France is also not that distant land, hidden behind the thrice nine mountains, from which the archetypical European fairy tales originated.
Instead, the European fairy tale as a genre seem to have originated from medieval Italy of the 16th century. It all began with one Zoan Francesco Scarapola, who collected seventy-three tales in 'Le Piacevoli Notti' ('Peaceful Nights', often translated as 'Facetious Nights'). This collection of two volumes was published in 1551 and 1553 and with it Scarapola introduced his fairy tales through a Boccaccian frame story. Narratives were written as storytellings taking place during an intellectual thirteen days long party. Many of Scarapola's plots came from earlier Italian collections, but some stories were invented by Scarapola (among them, arguably, 'Constantino Fortunato' - the first 'Puss in Boots').
Fairy tales as a genre are not to be confused with 'folk tales'. Folk tales are indeed as old as language. They don’t involve magic: instead they indulge in humour and wit. Rather than focusing on the joys of getting married, they crudely expose the reality of being married. Folk tales also don’t often let their heroes get off with a happy end.
The mysterious and intriguing 'Little Red Riding Hood' – a primal folk tale – must be as old as our imagination, and finding its origin seems senseless.
Fairy tales – a rather small group within the tales of magic – are much younger. Each is someone's literary masterpiece.
In medieval Europe, before Scarapola's time, this was the tale of its day: a fallen nobleman regains his rightful position through magic. Scarapola invented a new formula with the 'tales of social rise' (in the words of Ruth B. Bottigheimer). From rags – to magic – to marriage – to riches. There are two general variations of this formula.
In the first variation, a poor male protagonist rescues a princess from danger (or undergoes dangerous tasks) in order to wed into the royal house.
In the second variation, a poor female protagonist is through magic able to marry the prince, while undergoing trials laid down before her by jealous mothers, stepmothers, sisters, stepsisters, mothers-in-law and (other) witches.
Scarapola's tales are far more magical than its imitations, and well worth your effort.

To end this at the ending... From the sky fell three apples. One to me, one to the author of the tale and one to the person who entertained you.

22 April 2010

Il Pentamerone

On the second day, the blear-eyed Paola told this eighth tale:

The Young Slave

In days of yore, and in times long gone before, there lived a baron of Serva-scura and his unwedded sister of uncommon beauty. The sister came to be with child and she gave birth secretly to a lovely baby with a face like a moon in its fourteenth night. She named the baby Lisa and sent her to be brought up in secrecy by the fairies.
Each of the fairies gave a charm to the child upon her birth, but one of them twisted her foot on the way and cursed Lisa to die in her seventh year, as a result of a deathy comb left in her hair by her mother. This came to be as foretold. The despairing mother of the dead child ordered seven crystal chests one within the other, and Lisa was placed into the seventh innermost chest. The chests were then placed in the most distant chamber of the palace. Heartbroken, the mother became ill after that. On her deathbed she pleaded with her brother to swear that he would never ever open the forbidden chamber. The brother swore to that and never broke his promise.
Life went on, and as four seasons went by, the baron of Serva-scurva took a wife. When he left her alone in the palace for the first time, the baron begged the baroness not to open the forbidden chamber. But the baroness, once alone, grew more curious by the minute. Then she grew suspicious and finally she grew jealous. And so there was really only one thing for her to do: she opened the chamber. As she stood before the seven crystal chests, her eyes fell upon Lisa. Lisa was then no longer a child of seven. In the intervening years she had grown into a beautiful and shapely girl. The baroness was faint with rage. But just as she pulled Lisa’s hair with all her might, the murderous comb slipped off.
“O mother mine, O mother mine,” cried Lisa as she came to life.
“I'll give thee mama and papa,” thundered the baroness. She cut off Lisa’s hair at once, trashed her for good measure and dressed her in rags. The baroness then made Lisa her slave. The baron was told that the slave girl came as a gift, albeit with the instruction of the donors to treat her harshly for her wickedness and perversion. The mistreatment continued and Lisa grew paler and paler and weaker and weaker by the day.
It so happened one day that a fair came to a nearby town. As the baron was getting ready to go and attend it, he asked every scrub girl in the palace what they would like him to bring them from the fair. When it came to Lisa's turn, she replied that she should like to have a doll, a knife and some pumice-stone. The kind baron heeded her wish and brought her such objects upon return.
As soon as Lisa was all by herself in the kitchen, she put the doll before her and began to weep and wail. For the first time, she relayed her sad story, and then to a static and silent doll. In her despair, Lisa sharpened the knife on the pumice-stone and cried: “If thou wilt not answer me, I shall kill myself, and thus will end the feast.” And so each day the doll came to life anew to listen.
A few days went by in this manner. On the seventh day since the fair the baron stood near the kitchen, admiring his particularly agreeable portrait. It was then that he heard the weeping and the wailing. He bravely put his eye to the key-hole and on the seventh day since the fair Lisa relayed her story to the hidden barron. Just as Lisa threatened the doll, the baron kicked down the door and embraced his tormented niece.
The baron then arranged for Lisa to be nurtured back to a healthy body and a cheerful mind. At her healthiest and cheerfulest, Lisa was wedded Lisa to a handsome and worthy husband.
As for the baroness... The baroness and her shame were sent back to her family. For the baron, a kind and progressive man, took a severe disliking to death penalty.


This story, as here retold by gem, is taken from The Tale of Tales (orig. Lo cunto de li cunti overo lo trattenemiento de peccerille), a collection of fifty Neapolitan fairy tales assembled and rewritten by one Giambattista Basile. The collection was published in two parts in 1634 and in 1636.
It is indeed extremely unfair that we today associate the most notorious fairy tales of Western lore with the Grimms or Perrault. The plots of Cinderella, Rapunzel, Puss in Boots, Sleeping Beauty, Hansel and Gretel and Snow White all come from The Tale of Tales.
Giambattista Basile's collection even had a much more innovative structure than later collections. It is due to its structure that it came to be known as Il Pentamerone: this was a storytelling collection. This is a tale about how these tales came to be, about how the ten selected storytellers performed in total fifty fairy tales, in five days, before Taddeo and the slave-princess. The trickery of the slave-princess is revealed in the ultimate story. Taddeo and the bushy-haired princess, far less progressive than the kind baron and Lisa, condemn the slave-princess to be buried alive up to her neck.

The photograph, titled Snow White, is from a fairy tale photography series by Miwa Yanagi (2004).

21 April 2010

Lo cunto de li cunti

I wonder. Have you ever heard this (once upon a time notorious) tale? The original tale is here retold by gem.

The tale of tales

This is a tale of all tales. At its heart lies a black slave who wanted to wear a crown on her head. This happened nine times nine centuries ago, in a kingdom that flourished exactly where, ages and ages later, the Roman Empire would come to be.
In this kingdom lived a melancholy princess who was never seen laughing, until one day, when she saw an old woman’s rage and found it funny. And the woman grew angrier yet and she thus proclaimed: "May you never have the least little bit of a husband, unless you take the Prince of Round-Field."
The Prince of Round-Field was Prince Taddeo from a distant land called Round-Field, who was rumored to lie there in enchanted sleep. It was told that the enchantment would be broken by a woman who would fill a whole pitcher, in three days, with her tears. Upon learning this, the princess who laughed once took leave from her father and went on her way. It took her seven laughless years (and a little help from the fairies) to find Round-Field, and once there, she began weeping into the pitcher at once.
For two days, she wept beside the tomb of Taddeo, and all the while a black slave girl was watching her from afar. At the end of the second day of weeping into the pitcher, the princess fell asleep. The pitcher was now almost full. The black slave girl silently took the pitcher, weepie-weeped into it
and the pitcher was filled to the brim. The enchantment was broken, and Taddeo embraced the black slave girl, and he carried her to his palace, and he took her for his wife. The princess who laughed once was in tearless despair. She took up residence opposite the palace, staring at the couple and longing, longing for the prince.
At the palace, life went on. The slave-princess became pregnant with a child. And so it happened that one day she called Taddeo and demanded: “Bid some storytellers come and tell me stories.” The order was immediately carried out and ten storytellers, all women, were brought before the slave-princess and Taddeo. These were: the bandy-legged Cecca, the wen-necked Meneca, the long-nosed Tolla, the humpbacked Popa, the bearded Antonella, the dumpy Ciulla, the blear-eyed Paola, the bald-headed Civonmetella, the square-shouldered Jacova and the bushy-haired princess who laughed once. Cecca told the first story, and the bushy-haired princess told this last story.

20 April 2010

Le Petit Chaperon rouge II

The stills were taken by Sarah Moon, and they are featured in Le Petit Chaperon Rouge - Perrault et Sarah Moon (1983).

Le Petit Chaperon rouge

"At that, the wicked wolf threw himself upon Little Red Riding Hood and gobbled her up too."
200 years before the Grimms' collection, this is how this tale was told as having ended by Charles Perrault in his collection The Tales of Mother Goose (1697).
The here featured still was taken by Sarah Moon. From Le Petit Chaperon Rouge - Perrault et Sarah Moon (1983).

19 April 2010

The Grimmest Fiddler

The tale below, retold and shortened, is a German fairy tale that was recorded by the brothers Grimm in the collection for young readers (1812).
There was once a high spirited servant attending to the estate of a rich and unfair man. The first year of his position, the servant was not paid at all in wages. When the second year passed, he was again left with nothing. And at the end of the third year, he asked to be rewarded for his efforts.
The rich man readily paid the servant, a penny for each year. And the servant, who knew but little about money, was happy and went, a free man - a carefree man - on his way.
And along the way he came across an elderly gnome and in feeling sorry for him he gave him all his pennies. The gnome, who was a magical creature (even if one in need of three pennies), rewarded such kindness by way of granting the man three wishes; one for each penny.
The man's first wish was for a bird gun that would never miss. Then he wished for a fiddle that would make everyone dance. Finally, he wished that he could always ask a favour of anyone, and noone would be able to refuse him.
In high spirits, the man went on. The next creature he came accross was not a gnome, but a Jew.
This Jew had stopped to listen to a song of a bird. "What a divine creature," the Jew cried out. "That little bird has such an awfully loud voice! If only it belonged to me! If someone could just catch it for me!"
"If that's all you want," snorted the servant. "I'll bring that bird down in no time."
And so he did, just like that. For his first wish was granted.
"You dirty dog," the man then swore at the Jew, "go get that bird for yourself now."
"If you drop the "dirty"," replied the Jew, "then the dog will go fetch it. You did hit the bird and I'll go retrieve it."
As the Jew went into the brambles, on all fours, the servant took the fiddle and played a tune. The Jew had to dance amidst the brambles. The brambles almost scratched the Jew's coat off his body, and he begged the fiddler to be released.
But the man continued fiddling, until the Jew gave him a sack of money.
From a safe distance, the Jew called the man names and then fled to report the robbery to a local judge. It was not before long that the fiddler was found and brought before the court.
The man pleaded innocent and denied all charges. The Jew, he claimed, gave him money out of free will, so that the man would stop playing the fiddle.
"No Jew would do that," the judge said.
And so the man was sentenced and he was to be hanged. It was then that the servant asked the judge to grant him a favour: to be allowed to play his fiddle one last time.
The Jew pleaded with the judge to refuse this wish. To no avail, as the man's third wish had also been granted. And within moments, the fiddle took over and everyone was dancing. The Jew danced, and the judge danced, and the spectators danced, and the dogs, too. It was not until the judge offered to spare his life, that the man ceased playing.
"You scoundrel!" the servant then swore at the Jew. "Now just admit where you got that money or I'll get my fiddle out and start playing again."
"I stole it! I stole it!" cried the Jew. "And you earned it honestly!"
And so the Jew was sentenced to be hanged, and hanged.
This fairy tale is titled The Jew in the Brambles. In order to keep authenticity of the story intact, all dialogues are transcripted verbatim from the original tale as published in The Annotated Brothers Grimm, by Maria Tatar (2004). For the rest, the story is retold and shortened by gem. The full text can also be found here.
The above featured photograph, Grandfather and Granddaughter, was taken a century later in Warsaw (1938). Photographer: Roman Vishniac.

18 April 2010

My last

The tale is over; I cannot lie any more.
-- A narrative ending to many Russian tales

16 April 2010

Wilde end

"For the future let those who come to play with me have no hearts," she cried, and she ran out into the garden.
-- Oscar Wilde, The Birthday of the Infanta (published in the 1892 collection titled "A House of Pomegranates")

The opening line has to arrest the reader, seduce him enough to continue reading. By the time the reader is at the ending sentence, however, the author already has the reader hooked.
The ending sentence, when viewed on its own and outside its context, will often sound ordinary. In its context, however, the same sentence will enchant, dazzle, mesmerize, exhaust, break you. In fact, I encountered but few sentences that make an impression on their own. They will then themselves appear as tiny tales:
Is it possible for anyone in Germany, nowadays, to raise his right hand, for whatever the reason, and not be flooded by the memory of a dream to end all dreams? - Walter Abish, How German Is It? (1980)
While the opening sentence is at best love at first sight, the ending sentence (or, indeed, the ending paragraph or the ending chapter) can be a very emotional experience. Many readings are lovely one-night stands, but a few can be a lasting love, a break-up, a breakdown; any of these, and more.
It is not until the end that the wretched words will let you know whether you are headed for one or the other.

15 April 2010

A wake

A way a lone a last a loved a long the
-- James Joyce, Finnegans Wake (1939)

This is one of the more experimental endings: experimental already in word play, this unfinished sentence continues as an opening sentence of the same novel.

14 April 2010


My story's done. See a mouse run. And whoever catches it can make a great big furry hood from it.
-- Can you guess which is the fairy tale that ends like this?
As for the happy end in yesterday's post, I took it from the Grimms' recording of Snow White. In the last paragraphs, the wicked stepmother - still completely in the dark about Snow White's resurrection - is getting dressed for the splendid wedding taking place in the neighbouring kingdom. Further to her (daily) request for confirmation, the mirror this time reveals that the young queen-to-be from the neighbouring kingdom is "a thousand times more fair". Arrested by fear, yet enviously curious, the wicked stepmother travels to attend the wedding and to see the one, the thousand times more fair one, for the first time. The rest, as they say, is history.
"When she entered, Snow White recognized her right away. The queen was so terrified that she just stood there and couldn't budge an inch. Iron slippers had already been heated up for her over a fire of coals. They were brought in with tongs and set up right in front of her. She had to put on the red-hot iron shoes and dance in them until she dropped to the ground dead."
Someone invited the wicked stepmother and ordered the hot iron slippers to be ready.
And meanwhile, amidst the red and the hot and the dancing, Snow White held court while referring to her mirror.

13 April 2010

Happy end

She had to put on the red-hot iron shoes and dance in them until she dropped to the ground dead.
-- The ending of which fairy tale?

12 April 2010


It was a fine cry -- loud and long -- but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.
Toni Morrison, Sula (1973)

09 April 2010

On the set of the Wild West

If film noir is all mood, westerns are all about the set. Far from being an indoor drama, the western is set in grand canyons and valleys of the North America. And of these, it is Monument Valley (Utah) where the majority of westerns were shot (among them also The Searchers and Stagecoach).
This was probably on its own a good enough reason for Americans to detest European westerns. European westerns – typically produced by Italians and for that reason popularly labeled as spaghetti westerns - were for the most part shot on the semi-desert locations in Spain.
Despite all that, it so happens that the best western made – judging by public polls worldwide – is in fact a European rather than an "authentic" western.
The film in question is Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), directed by Sergio Leone and starring Henry Fonda in the role of the steel-blue-eyed villain. Charles Bronson appeared in the role of the troubled and avenging hero.
Leone wanted to make a film that would be an ultimate reference – and hommage – to westerns as a genre. He enlisted help from Bertolucci and Argento to turn this idea into a film.
The film that came out of this idea - Once Upon a Time in the West - was a complete financial flop in the United States, and that despite the fact that the film was in part shot also in Monument Valley. In Europe, on the other hand, it immediately clicked with audiences to such a degree that "authentic" American westerns seemed like references to Once Upon a Time in the West rather than the other way around.
In the post above, the various sets of the film are revisited. Please beware of spoilers.

08 April 2010

Wild West music

The iconic opening music score for Hombre, a western directed by Martin Ritt and starring Paul Newman (1967). Composed by David Rose.

07 April 2010

Badges? We ain't got no badges!

A famous monologue from Treasure of the Sierra Madre that must be among the most frequently (mis)quoted lines on and off screen. Directed by the legendary John Huston and starring Humphrey Bogart (1948).

06 April 2010


A scene from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, an American Western about two partners in the enterprise of bank-robbing (1969). Directed by George Roy Hill.