Booknotes, Footnotes and Loose’s Notes

Writer, Thinker, Mensch: David Grossman. Photo by Victoria Looseleaf.
By Victoria Looseleaf

One of Israel’s finest writers, David Grossman, was in the City of Angels the other night to talk about, read from and – sell and sign – his latest work, To the End of the Land. Recently translated by Jessica Cohen and released by Knopf, the book has been the recipient of more great press than Michelle Obama (her all-girl vacation to Spain aside). In this case, the hype is true, with an in-depth New Yorker profile also offering plenty of insight into Grossman the man and author.

Having been to Israel twice in the last 18 months, I fell in love with my spiritual homeland, and am beseeching those interested in fabulous contemporary Israeli literature to get a copy of Grossman’s novel. NOW. It’s a fascinating read, each page a gift. To the End of the Land plumbs the universal themes of love and loss, as well as offering astute views on the state of Israel today, its ongoing conflicts and the quest for peace.

Alas, while peace may seem elusive, books are tangible and this fall has given us an array of wonderful ones: I just finished Sjeng Scheijen’s glorious bio, Serge Diaghilev, A Life (Oxford Press), another translation, in this case from the Dutch. As a professor of dance history – and a dance critic for publications including the Los Angeles Times and Dance Magazine – I love the Ballets Russes period (1909-1929).

It was then that Diaghilev brought together the greatest choreographers, composers, artists, costumers and dancers of the 20th century – hello, Sacre du Printemps – with Igor Stravinsky’s score to Vaslav Nijinsky’s outre choreography causing a riot at its 1913 Paris premiere. I was also intrigued to discover Scheijen’s revelation debunking the notion that Nijinsky was seduced by Diaghilev. He writes, instead, that one of the world’s greatest dancers pursued the impresario. In addition, there are loads of luscious pictures and heretofore unpublished letters, all giving a genuine feel for the era.

Igor Stravinsky’s grave at San Michele, Venice. Photo by Victoria Looseleaf.

Diaghilev was also superstitious, especially fearing water. When a gypsy told him that he would die on or near same, this actually came to pass, with Diaghilev passing away in Venice in 1929. His colleague, the incomparable composer Igor Stravinsky, is also buried in the small island cemetery of San Michele (next to his beloved wife Vera). When in Venice two years ago, I took a vaporetto to this lovely burial site, where, curiously enough, the poet Ezra Pound also rests for eternity, as does the Russian-born poet and essayist Joseph Brodsky.

But back to the tomes: On the subject of dance, I must also give props to Jennifer Homans’ Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet (Random House), a scholarly work that reads like a novel. Homans, a former dancer, captures the most ethereal of art forms in what The New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier calls, “an enlightenment…a remarkable feat of scholarship and sensibility.” (But don’t get me started on Homans’ recent essay mourning the death of ballet. The art form is alive and kicking, though its high ticket prices and built-in snob factor, alas, are still part of this rarefied world.)

The Royal Ballet’s Apollo, choreographed by George Balanchine, featuring Carlos Acosta.

Also on the bio front – and because John Cage was big in the dance world as well as the musical sphere (he was the partner, both professionally and personally, of Merce Cunningham) – is Begin Again, A Biography of John Cage, by Kenneth Silverman (Knopf). Cage is the genius behind 1952’s groundbreaking work, 4’33″. This opus consists of the performer sitting at the piano for the appointed time of 4’33”, without playing a note. A radical notion then, perhaps even more radical now. (An aside: On both my albums, Harpnosis and Beyond Harpnosis, I play Cage’s In a Landscape, having asked him for the rights. Talk about an angel!) That said, check out one of the last century’s true originals, John Cage.

Finally: Jonathan Franzen’s brilliant novel, Freedom (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) is also worthy of its bestseller status. A long time coming – The Corrections was published nine years ago – Freedom was worth the wait. So, pull yourself away from your flat screens (I gotta admit, though, Boardwalk Empire rocks), turn off your iPhones and start reading a book, physically, one with real paper and beautiful print. Talk about a radical notion!