Saturday, July 21, 2012

Toni Morrison’s “Pierrot Lunaire” Moment

The latest issue of The New York Review has a review by Christopher Benfey of Toni Morrison’s new novella, Home. He quotes a passage in which one of the protagonists, Frank, escapes from the psychiatric ward of a hospital: “maniac moonlight doing the work of absent stars matched his desperate frenzy.” Since this is the centennial year of Arnold Schoenberg’s Dreimal sieben Gedichte aus Albert Girauds ‘Pierrot lunaire’ (three times seven poems from Albert Giraud’s “Pierrot Lunaire”), first performed on October 16, 1912, I found it hard to resist the connection to Giraud’s surrealistic turns of phrase. Of course, it is not just the phrases that are weird.

Each poem in the set is strictly structured as thirteen lines with a four-four-five grouping. The first two lines recur as the seventh and eighth lines, and the first line appears again as the last one. That quote from Morrison could easily be the translation of one of those opening couplets, with that reference to “maniac moonlight” returning in both the seventh and thirteenth lines.

I have no idea if Morrison is familiar with either Giraud or Schoenberg. All I know if that she definitely has a command of imagery that chills through its bizarre qualities. My guess is that there is no real connection to Giraud in her words, but it is a clear case of how one good linguistic turn deserves another!

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