Is April really the cruelest month? The description T. S. Eliot summoned to back up the accusation—‘breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain’—sounds almost temperate, describing a welcome change, an unfurling or an awakening. In the band of the globe where April summons spring, we suffer the month’s squalls for the new shoots they coax towards the light; it is a time of growing pains. Southwards, it brings chill air, a welter of vividly hued leaves and the promise of fireside contentments to come. The pleasures and pursuits we recommend this transitional month accordingly mingle the bracing and the contemplative. Out of doors, the patient, attentive cloud-gazing of the pioneering scientist Luke Howard inspires us to look heavenward and take a moment to notice the various cirrus, stratus and cumulus forms as they morph and recombine into shapes as individual as snowflakes, while the Neolithic stone circles and communal tombs of Orkney, Scotland, startle us in their immensity (it might surprise you to learn that the Ness of Brodgar temple complex predates both Stonehenge and the pyramids of ancient Egypt). The punishing lives of farmers are unforgettably rendered in Alice Rohrwacher’s film Happy as Lazzaro. Should Lazzaro’s story move you to find a happiness all your own, might we suggest a heart-rate-raising boogie ’round the living room to the big-band tunes of Big Heart Machine? Masterful, intelligent and eminently danceable, it’s the perfect soundtrack to the herky-jerky tenderness of early spring—or the crisp touch of autumn.
The English chemist and meteorologist Luke Howard (1772–1864) was largely self-taught, and fascinated by the weather from an early age. As a schoolboy, he caught a rare glimpse of the aurora borealis in British skies, saw the Great Meteor of 1783—a spectacular comet—streak across the heavens, and was intrigued by the Great Haze (also of 1783), during which the sun disappeared for weeks as a result of volcanic activity in Iceland. Howard commuted to his day job in the pharmaceutical industry by horse and carriage, which gave him ample time to study the sky. In 1802, he presented a paper on cloud classification to the Askesian Society, a non-conformist debating club interested in natural and experimental philosophy. The paper became part of his masterpiece The Climate of London (published in 1818 to 1820 and expanded and updated in 1833). Howard was the first to propose that clouds appeared in three distinct forms, which he named cirrus, Latin for ‘curl’; stratus, for ‘layer’; and cumulus, for ‘heap’. The nimbus subcategories of cumulus and stratus clouds he identified as portending precipitation. Describing the movement of clouds between these different ‘modifications’, Howard linked their shapeshifting to all kinds of weather. While not the first to name the clouds—Jean-Baptiste Lamarck had come up with a vaguer descriptive terminology in French—Howard was the first to see his terms widely adopted. He used Linnean principles of natural-history classification to capture their ephemerality, finding a neat solution to the challenge of naming forms in transition. With his wife Mariabella, Howard painstakingly recorded weather conditions from his garden in London, and was an early chronicler of the various microclimates created by the built environment. Howard’s taxonomy was said to have inspired a number of artists and poets of the day, among them John Constable, John Ruskin, Percy Shelley and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who dedicated a series of poems to Howard. ‘But Howard gives us with his clear mind / The gain of lessons new to all mankind; / That which no hand can reach, no hand can clasp / He first has gained, first held with mental grasp.’
The Japanese floral calendar celebrates plum blossoms in January, camellia in February, peach flowers in March and cherry blossoms in April. The sakura, or flowering cherry, tends to hog the spotlight—hanami is the widely practised viewing of cherry blossoms (and picnicking underneath them). But many cherry blossoms actually bloom in late March; by late April, wisteria wins the day, even if it is May’s official flower. At the Kawachi Fujien Garden in Kitakyushu, the last week of April and first week of May give visitors the chance to stroll elongated passageways, domes and trellises draped extravagantly with wisteria blooms, feeling like a kawaii princess. Part of the pea family, wisteria is a graceful ornamental vine that is hardy enough to have some practical utility: softened wisteria fibres were once a popular source of fabric for clothes. The vines reach maturity in just a few years, yielding gorgeous, fragrant racemes of white, pink, mauve and lavender flowers. Established in 1977, Kawachi Fujien boasts 150 vines and 20 species of wisteria in its extraordinary bowers. Fuji Matsuri (the Wisteria Festival) is a well-loved event, and if you’re visiting the garden to catch it, try to book your time slot well in advance. The next flower on the calendar is June’s hydrangea, closely associated with the rainy season.
Sylph Editions’ Cahiers Series, published in collaboration with the American University of Paris, showcases new writing, new translations and ‘the areas linking these two activities.’ Edited by Daniel Gunn, a professor at AUP whose areas of expertise include Shakespeare, Proust, Beckett, the novel of the French revolution and the post-war fiction of Britain, France and Italy, these elegant cahiers can be bought individually or in a boxed set of six. Marlene van Niekerk’s The Swan Whisperer, translated from the Afrikaans by Marius Swart and the author herself, tells the story of a fretful creative-writing student named Kasper Olwagen and his encounter with a mysterious figure whose unintelligible mutterings draw forth swans from Amsterdam’s canals. The text is accompanied by beautiful black-and-white prints of birds, mammals and human figures by William Kentridge. In The Tilted Cup: Noh Stories, Paul Griffiths turns eleven Japanese Noh plays, full of spirit beings, lost lovers and dormant dreams, into vivid short stories in English; ten photographs of contemporary Japan by John L. Tran accompany the text. Nine short pieces by Muriel Spark, assembled by Gunn and Penelope Jardine, make up the cahier Walking on Air: a smattering of Spark’s notes, dreams, diary entries, stories, a translation and a photograph she took in 1988. Other titles feature work by Anne Carson, Lydia Davis, Kirsty Gunn (no relation), László Krasznahorkai and Paul Muldoon. The volumes in this series are delicate, deliberate and wholly absorbing.
Maeshowe, a massive Neolithic chambered cairn thought to have been constructed sometime around 3000–2800 BCE, is located in the Stenness parish of Orkney, Scotland. Its name means ‘Meadow Mound’ in Old Norse, and the structure is visible from miles away, the large grassy mound looking rather like a pyramidal hillock. The long passage leading to the cairn suggests that the site was once a passage grave. It was first excavated in 1861 by the antiquarian James Farrer, who found the entrance blocked and decided to dig through the top of the mound (to the dismay of later archaeologists). The government took over the site in 1910 and put in a concrete roof to cover the cavity made by Farrer. Like many other Neolithic structures, Maeshowe is beautifully illuminated during the winter solstice. The main chamber’s corners feature stone buttresses that at one point supported a corbelled roof. An engraved dragon and the largest single grouping of runic inscriptions in the world can be seen on the walls of the main chamber, thought to be graffiti left by a band of twelfth-century Norsemen sheltering in the cairn during a winter storm. (The American light and space artist James Turrell’s Roden Crater, a much-anticipated installation piece and celestial observatory formed out of the bowl of an extinct volcano in Arizona’s Painted Desert, was inspired by Maeshowe as well as Newgrange in Ireland and Abu Simbel in Egypt; under construction since 1977, the site is set to open to the public within the next few years.) In 1999, Maeshowe was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. A further enticement to the region is its distinctive cuisine, which includes seaweed-tinged mutton and peaty single malts. Brig Larder in Kirkwall, a twenty-minute drive from the cairn, carries some of the finest picnic provisions in Orkney.
An Orchestra of Minorities, the Nigerian writer Chigozie Obioma’s second novel, tells the story of Chinonso, a young poultry farmer who intervenes when he sees a woman about to jump to her death from a highway bridge. They fall in love, but the woman’s family objects to the union because Chinonso is uneducated. He ends up selling everything he owns to afford tuition at a small college in Cyprus. Obioma based the story in part on his own cultural and educational experience in Cyprus: he’d dropped out of university in Nigeria and was keen to re-enrol abroad, this time to study English rather than economics. ‘My visa application to the UK had been rejected, and so I found my new destination, a university in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. It was a nation few people seemed to know much about. It was, and still is, without international recognition’, Obioma writes in a candid, searching and funny essay in The Paris Review Daily. If he expected a warm welcome from the ten or so other Africans on campus, he doesn’t get it. Instead they convey that he has made a very big mistake in coming here. It’s not just the food—‘the thigh of a half-simmered chicken [that] steadily oozed pink blood’, ‘something that looked like chicken shit but had the smell of nzu, the white chalk found under certain bodies of water in Igboland. Months later, I would learn that this was called hummus’—that alienates him. He and his African cohort, he discovers, are constant targets of stark, almost cartoonishly ugly racism. When a new friend, Mehmet, invites Obioma to spend the summer at his parents’ home in mainland Turkey, Obioma warily agrees to go. The visit goes better than expected, despite further instances of astonishing ignorance (when it comes from a family friend’s young son asking whether Obioma looks the way he does from eating tons of chocolate, the author is more patient, and treats his questioner gently). The title of the essay is ‘The Desire to Unlearn’, and that desire arises when Obioma realizes that, almost against his will, he has begun to understand Turkish. Mehmet’s mother spoke to Obioma only in Turkish, and now he finds that he can discern the vicious things that are being said about him, rather than guess at them from gestures and context. ‘While my friends saw a utilitarian purpose to my knowledge, I began to see it as a curse. They felt that it had given me an edge, and yet, every day, I went about craving a lobotomy… I craved the immunity of ignorance, but there was nothing I could do now.’
Through 27 April at the National University of Singapore’s Centre for the Arts, new work by the multimedia artist Yeo Shih Yun takes glorious shape in the exhibition ‘Diaries, Marking Time and Other Preoccupations’. Yeo’s practice frequently employs Chinese ink, a medium whose history she honours even as she finds dazzling and unusual ways to use it. The accidental—brushwork that emerges from the movements of tree branches or toy robots—often features in a work’s conception; then Yeo finds a way to fix and transfer her exquisite chaos to a different surface, often using silkscreening or other print techniques. In Diaries, the processes of the studio become their own artworks. ‘One day’, Yeo says, ‘I was looking at my studio floor and I had a light-bulb moment—there is this gold mine right there, all eight years of marks accumulated on a single surface ready to be tapped!’ She does all her painting and silkscreening work on the floor, and ‘can relate to what Jackson Pollock describes: “On the floor I am more at ease. I feel nearer, more a part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting.”’ To prepare for the work Marking Time, Yeo scoured the floor for marks she found especially interesting and marked them off with masking tape. She planned to scan and recompose them in Photoshop, then print them on a substrate that resembles paper; after many technical difficulties she succeeded, and the marks were eventually reproduced on gesso boards. (Extra)ordinary resulted from another of Yeo’s ‘happy accidents’: she had been using a curtain from her former studio to clean Chinese brushes, which left light-grey ink stains on the cloth. Later, leftover blue paint on brushes and rollers stained the cloth blue. Over time, the rag picked up stray silkscreening paint, and Yeo noticed that the saturation of marks made it possible to see colour from both sides of the fabric. ‘I was attracted to the translucent quality of the piece and decided to work on it. I poured ink and paint on the cloth and let it seep through.’ The concrete floor’s texture also transferred to the cloth. Extra(ordinary) calls to mind Helen Frankenthaler’s colour-field paintings; Yeo calls it the exhibition’s dark horse.
Happy as Lazzaro, a 2018 feature directed by Alice Rohrwacher, is a bewitching and mysterious pastoral fable whose surreal elements are used sparingly and to great dramatic effect. The film opens in a dim, rustic Italian kitchen teeming with generations of people wearing stained linen clothing. Their poverty is underscored by the single light bulb that gets shared around. No matter how diligently they till the rugged countryside for tobacco, lentils and chickpeas, they’re forever in debt, ‘modern’ Italy’s permanent sharecroppers. They are ruled over by the cruel ‘Queen of Cigarettes’, the Marchesa Alfonsina de Luna (Nicoletta Braschi), and cheered up by the pure-hearted Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo), who goes above and beyond to keep his kinfolk content. The feudal order of this village, called Inviolata, seems, well, inviolable. Yet midway through the film, Rohrwacher takes a magical-realist turn. A plot twist involving the marchesa’s spoiled son, Tancredi (Luca Chikovani), sees Lazzaro conscripted into staging the nobleman’s own kidnapping. And then, suddenly, the inhabitants of Inviolata are eking out an existence in an unnamed Italian city at some unspecified point in the future, free of the demands of the land and their overseer but still enmeshed in a cycle of poverty and the broad oppression of capitalism. The now-weary Lazzaro and his people no longer congregate in a homey old kitchen; they live in an inhospitable water tower and scrounge for work in an urban environment that is indifferent to their quality of life. In Rohrwacher’s bleak yet enchanting tale, Lazzaro is the moral compass, an oasis of strength and decency in a world that treats its labourers with all too little respect.
Last year’s Big Heart Machine, the vivacious debut album of multi-instrumentalist Brian Krock’s big-band jazz ensemble of the same name, features 18 instrumentalists plus Miho Hazama as conductor. Krock himself plays clarinet, flute, recorder and saxophone, backed up by four bandmates on similar instruments. Four others play trumpet and flugelhorn, four play trombone and the rest pitch in on piano, synth, drums and percussion, electric and upright bass, vibraphone and electric guitar. The effect is that of a richly orchestral rock band. Standout tracks include the suite ‘Tamalpais’, featuring lovely woodwinds and bass that segue into a saxophone solo (given the two parts titled ‘Stratus’ and ‘Cirrus’, it seems Krock may share something of Luke Howard’s fascination with clouds). Part four has a prog-rock flavour, while part five returns to the opening theme. The album’s penultimate and final tracks, ‘Jelly Cat’ and ‘Mighty Purty’, have a classic, rousing big-band ring to them. This is a warm-hearted album that is lively with fresh ideas. Keep an ear out for Krock’s smooth saxophone solos—he’s equally comfortable orchestrating from the sidelines as he is taking a star turn.
‘The Imagination is not a State: it is the Human Existence itself.’