Thursday, 28 September 2017

Heather Rose's The museum of modern love: What is art, what is love?

We met this month at Muse Restaurant/Bar/Bookshop. As we did last year, we started an hour earlier than usual, dined first, then discussed the book, and followed that with coffee and dessert. Nine attended, and although noise (to which we contributed!) was a concern early on, the evening went well. We appreciated Muse staff's considerate service in organising for us to dine upstairs in the restaurant and then move to a circle of chairs in the bookshop for our discussion.

So now the book, Heather Rose's The museum of modern love. It was inspired by performance artist Marina Abramović, and particularly her 75-day performance piece at MoMA, The artist is present, and its narrative comprises two main parallel strands. One features the real artist Marina, and the other the fictional composer Arky Levin, who is at a crossroads in his professional and personal life.

We started with everyone sharing their overall impressions:
  • Most loved the book, one calling it fabulous.
  • A couple took a while to get into the writing, but enjoyed the different voices, the description of the various sitters, and the characters and their relationships.
  • One launched into reading without having read the blurb, and wondered initially what it was all about: was it about the purpose of art or perhaps about Levin's journey?
  • Those who had seen the documentary film, Marina Abramović: The artist is present, before, during or after reading the book, found that it enhanced understanding. For one it pretty much reversed her assessment from initially seeing performance art, particularly Marina's, as narcissistic, sado-masochistic, exhibitionist, to being something of interest and value.
  • One said that for a book with no real plot, it was fantastic, and enjoyed the way Rose presented the parallel lives of Marina and Arky Levin.
  • Several had little experience of performance art and/or found it confronting, if not stomach-turning, but enjoyed Rose's exploration of art (of all sorts, including music), and her analysis of people's feelings (including the conversations among the observers at The artist is present.)
  • One was fascinated by the whole "business" of art, and the number of people who "feed" off the artist's work.
  • One saw Marina as fragile, until she saw the documentary showing her to be a strong, powerful woman.
  • One commented how privileged we are to be able to spend time discussing such issues as art and love.

What is it about?

Having said all this, was there anything more to discuss? Surprisingly, yes! There were the themes. Is the book is essentially about the meaning of art. Some felt it was a major theme, others less so.

The meaning of art?

We talked about how Marina's performance art pares art down to its very minimum. What does this mean? We shared different ideas about art as presented in the book, including that art:
  • gets to "the heart of life",
  • is about being able to see the world differently, 
  • is about making connections, 
  • needs to be about changing ideology, and
  • explores what it means to be human. 
The book explores all of these, through a wide variety of art forms - performance, music, architecture and of course fiction.

This led, naturally, to some discussion of the artist, which both Marina and Arky Levin represent. For a performance artist, they are the work. In The artist is present, Marina is the connection, the focus. She wants, we felt, to be loved (see next theme!!), has a big ego, which is something we agreed you probably need to be an artist. Artists can't get bogged down in daily life, but need to be selfish. There is an irony here because to create great art you have little time for love, but without love you (and your art) can be empty. Is this the choice Levin must make at the end?

The importance of love?

Given the title, the book is clearly about love. We talked about Arky Levin and his wife Lydia, about how hopeless/weak Levin seemed to be. His daughter Alice is disappointed that he passively accepts Lydia's instruction - her court order - that he not visit her once she enters the final stages of her hereditary blood disease. However, some argued that while he does seem passive, it's also clear that Lydia liked to be in control. Regardless, we agreed that Levin is stalled, and needs to do something.

Romantic love (of which there are several examples in the book) is not the only type of love explored. Other forms include mother love. Marina's mother, Danica, appears in the book in ghost form. We thought Rose was courageous (see next theme!) to throw in a ghost. Rose suggests that this very tough mother did love Marina (in her own way). We also discussed the fact that, while Marina probably got her spiritual/emotional side from her grandmother, Danica's harsh treatment likely gave her the discipline and endurance she needs for her art! (Is the pain of a harsh childhood worth the art though? An age-old question.) 

We discussed the open ending. What does it say about love versus art? Does it mean that love has triumphed over art? Or something more complex about the relationship between love and art? In the final paragraphs Levin, in choosing his love for Lydia, embraces uncertainty and 

his heart responded to the blank canvas.


Another theme is courage. It is also the subject of Part Six, which starts with the ee cummings epigraph: 

It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.

Many characters display courage, from Marina's doing what she does to Levin's having to make a decision, from those who choose to sit opposite Marina to others, like the warm-hearted Jane who doesn't sit but nonetheless makes her own decision at the end. 

We felt that Rose, the author, was also courageous in choosing to write about a living character, and that Marina was courageous in giving Rose unconditional permission to write about her. (We would expect nothing less of Marina though, having seen the documentary.) 

And the writing

We all enjoyed the writing, from the opening sentence:

He was not my first musician, Arky Levin. 

Not only is it attention-grabbing but it suggests an intriguing narrator, who turns out to be a sort of artist's muse, a "good spirit, whim ... House elf to the artists". Another courageous act on Rose's part, but it works. This narrator is not overdone, becoming less visible through the middle part of the novel, and reappearing near the end to guide us to the conclusion.

The main narrative is carried by the various characters - Arky Levin; the (loved-by-us-all) recently widowed Jane who comes to New York and is quickly captivated by Marina's performance; art critic Healayas; Dutch PhD student Brittika; and a host of others. Between them they tease out ideas about art and love, and they create a vivid picture of The artist is present and what it meant to those who were there. It clearly was something! We all wondered whether we'd have been brave enough to sit (as over 1500 people did, including Heather Rose) or just been one of the 850,000 spectators!

Such a beautiful book - to read and discuss. We all learnt something.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Pachinko: gripping Korean family saga

The book for this month: Pachinko, by Min Jee Lee was recommended by a member who unfortunately couldn't get to the group. The 6 members there all enjoyed it immensely. The story of a Korean family living in Japan, began in 1910 concluding in the 1970's. Initial comments said they could not put the book down, describing it as a superb epic covering the tragedy and heart breaks of Koreans who lived in Japan since the 1920's. The characters were engaging and very believable. It was told in clean simple prose, a lot of the action happened off camera. While it focussed on the resiliance and gutsiness of the characters it was not melodramatic.

Anne told the story of visiting Korea and visiting the demilitarised zone. South Korea has one of the lowest birth rates in the world. There is a lot of prejudice towards North Korea.

A couple of members had read the interview with Min Jee Lee: she was inspired to write the story by hearing a lecture of the story of the Korean diaspora in Japan, and specifically the story of a young Korean student who had suicided following his bullying by his Japanese peers.

The main character in the book is Sunja, a woman from a small village, not a great beauty, but hard working honest family woman. Hansu, the yakuza (Japanese gangster) is attracted to this classic Korean woman. We loved seeing Sunja negotiating with the pawnbroker to sell her watch, and repay the debt for Yoseb. She was tough and determined. Her marriage to Isak saves her, but results in her living in Japan.

There are a number of marriages in the story, and the women play a key role. Parent child relationships are key in this book too, with a lot of emphasis on education for the next generation. The sacrifice of the parents to build a future for their children, is a classic migrant tale. Some of these relationships are challenging, such as Etsuko and her wayward daughter Hana. The challenge of keeping families together grows as the young generation becomes more mobile.

The themes identified by Min Jee Lee are forgiveness, loss, desire, aspiration, failure, duty, faith. Forgiveness was one we could identify. Noa for instance was unable to forgive his mother that his biological father was Hansu. He wanted to be Japanese, to overcome his Korean heritage. However, he could not match his ideals with reality. He was imbued somewhat with the 19th century novels he studied at University. His reading tastes were similar to those identified by the author.

The notion of home was very important in the book. One of the two epigraphs was by Charles Dickens:
'Home is a name, a word, It is a strong one; stronger than magician ever spoke, or spirit answered to, in strongest conjuration.'
Home often being a construct, especially for these people who cannot go back to their own country. A number of characters in the book had returned to North Korea, but were not heard off again; the worst was feared. The fate of immigrants is to try and create a home in an alien environment.

We wondered how the Japanese would see the book. In Japan the acknowledgement of Korean comfort women was very controversial, so acknowledgement of the poor treatment of Korean citizens would be unlikely. Citizen registration for 'Koreans' in Japan continued til 1993.

Title : Pachinko: life like the game, looked fixed, but really chance and it's stacked against you. It's interesting that gambling is technically illegal in Japan, but the Pachinko Parlours get around this by offering prizes which can be exchanged elsewhere for cash. Pachinko parlours and associated businesses are one of the few ways Koreans can get ahead. And most of the family end up working or being supported by this shady business. Kim collects rents for Hansu, who describes him as 'clean wrapper for a filthy deed.'

So there was a lot to like about this epic novel, leading us into a world very few of us knew about. It was a life project for its author Min Jee Lee who has crafted a very readable and thoughtful novel, based on her interviews, research and family experience. It has one of the best opening sentences we have come upon:
'History has failed us, but no matter.'
Highly recommended.