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Posts Tagged ‘Albania’

Talk About Beauties

September 22, 2014 | by

The lost recordings of a phantom musician.

Alexis_Zoumbas_Watercolor

Alexis Zoumbas, illustrated by R. Crumb.

The text printed on the label of the Greek 78-rpm disc translated as “Alexis Zoumbas ~ violin, accompanied by young men of the Epirot village of Politsani.” Its significance, and the meaning behind its very existence, stymied all speculation. No one had heard what was etched into these grooves since they’d been pressed—the Greek title for the song was untranslatable, and the recording itself was undocumented, hushed into being for no perceptible reason other than to come into my possession.

A week before this record arrived at my post office, I’d finally untethered myself from Zoumbas and his recorded legacy. After two years of focused inquiry, I’d finished work on Alexis Zoumbas: A Lament for Epirus, 1926-1928, a collection of his recordings. I’d let go. But any comfort I found in that was lost when this disc came into my life.

The 78 rpm record was the dominant medium of auricular permanence and commerce for more than fifty years. These fragile vessels of sound are coveted by collectors who, like myself, have developed a precise yet vaguely sexual phraseology to describe their physical condition. This Zoumbas disc, for instance, was in excellent condition, but with a tight hairline crack and a slightly enlarged spindle hole.

And what of its artist? Alexis Zoumbas was a phantom musician, a violinist. Born in the hinterlands of Epirus, Greece, in 1883, he immigrated to New York City in 1910 and died practically unknown in Detroit in 1946. The myth surrounding his life maintained that he’d fled Greece after murdering his landlord, and that he himself had been gunned down by a jealous lover. Drawn in by his music and intrigued by these stories, I become obsessed with his life. I traveled to his home village, Grammeno, to interview his two surviving nephews, Michalis and Napoleon Zoumbas, both retired musicians in their eighties. In Ioannina, the capitol of Epirus, I unearthed biographical documents; in the U.S. I found immigration and naturalization papers, as well as a draft card and a death certificate. This trail of evidence, dispersed across continents, corrected the narrative of this powerful musician’s life. He did not kill his landlord, and he wasn’t offed by a jilted lady friend—those were apocryphal stories created to elevate his musical status and cultural legacy. Zoumbas had entered into the elite mythical realm reserved for more well-known American prewar musicians like the Delta bluesman Skip James and the Appalachian banjoist “Dock” Boggs, majestic artists surrounded by imaginary rows of corpses, stacked like cordwood, coolly dispatched in their dreams and in the stories told about them. Read More »

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Luljeta Lleshanaku, Kruja, Albania

February 1, 2013 | by

A series on what writers from around the world see from their windows.

Luljeta Lleshanaku

I usually prefer to write in my bedroom at my childhood home in Kruja. Traces of the old living style are in the yard in the front of window: the sheets hung for drying; the terracotta jars, or magrips, sixty-year-old objects once used by my grandfather as olive oil containers and now cut at the throat, transformed as flower vases; the ruined walls which once fenced in the tomato garden; the alembic, or lambik, which served, in the absence of running water, for washing hands after work. But also present is the invisible, the unseen: the erased objects and the missing human beings; the cut plum tree where my sister and I used to climb up during those beautiful summer mornings; the loud voice of my mother when coming back exhausted from her work; the mulberry tree which brought the insects and the good odor of pegmez, the syrup of condensed fruit; the liming thresholds before holidays; my uncles, my cousins, all those portraits and gestures which once populated this yard.

On this inescapable, familiar stage, I can focus on the pelagic depth of a single and bounded situation. In my case creative freedom doesn’t necessarily mean hunting for a new landscape. This environment leads me toward something unmistakable, which is a kind of freedom, too. —Luljeta Lleshanaku

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The Aristocrats

February 22, 2012 | by

Let it be known that Lady Fiona Herbert, the eighth Countess of Carnarvon, occasionally answers her own phone. When I call the Countess’s office to discuss her new book, Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey, I am unusually anxious; it’s not every day I speak to a member of the British aristocracy. “Hello?” answers a startled-sounding voice. I nervously ask if Lady Carnarvon is available. “This is Lady Carnarvon,” the voice replies, erupting into hearty laughter—which, happily, is not directed at me. The Countess had been reaching for the phone just as it rang and was caught off guard. “I’m completely useless as a receptionist,” she says.

For a woman who lives at Highclere Castle, one of Britain’s most impressive “family piles,” as well as the primary setting of the spectacularly popular PBS costume drama Downton Abbey, Lady Carnarvon is surprisingly warm and unpretentious.

She projects an image of slightly disheveled glamour: her household is not a well-oiled machine, but something more akin to a living archaeological site, where one might just discover a decades-old scrapbook while foraging through an out-of-use desk drawer. “We found a staircase recently. That was quite exciting,” she tells me.

Downton Abbey isn’t Highclere’s first brush with fame—parts of Eyes Wide Shut were filmed there, and British tabloid curiosity Jordan celebrated her 2005 wedding at the castle, arriving via a pumpkin-shaped carriage—but the phenomenal success of the series has thrust the Carnarvon family’s ancestral home into the spotlight like never before. It’s also spawned a cottage industry of Downton Abbey tie-in books, including two competing biographies about Almina, the colorful and controversial fifth Countess of Carnarvon. Read More »

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Francine Prose on ‘My New American Life’

May 13, 2011 | by

Photograph by Stephanie Berger.

Francine Prose is a pleasure to interview. She is quick-witted and gracious, and there is this way that she says my name—“Oh, Thessaly, that’s an excellent question”—that makes me feel, for a split second, as if I’m the award-winning novelist that has something interesting to say. Her latest novel, My New American Life, is about a young Albanian immigrant named Lula, who is working as a nanny for a teenager in a quiet, New Jersey suburb. Her boss has offered to help her get a green card, so Lula waits and waits, until one day, three visitors, unannounced, knock on the door. Will Lula be deported? Are they long-lost Albanian family? Through Lula’s eyes, we see the promise of the American dream as well as the ways it might never come true. Prose and I spoke on the telephone not long ago.

Your protagonist is a twenty-six-year-old Albanian immigrant named Lula who lives in New Jersey. Why Albania?

If you are going to write a novel, I would not suggest that you pick an Albanian unless you are an Albanian. I was writing about immigration, and I wanted to pick someone from the most psycho-isolated Eastern-bloc country. If you go to the Czech Republic now, it is deceptively easy to forget what happened there. But if you go to Albania now, you are not going to forget it— you just can’t; then is now.

In a strange way, the novel began ten years ago, when I was staying at this really crappy Hilton in Tampa, Florida, for a weekend. We got there and there was a plate of food outside someone’s door in the corridor. It was there when we got there and it was there when we left, and I thought, This is just like Eastern Europe, because no one really cares if you ever come back again. In the late eighties, I went with my family to former Yugoslavia. We showed up at some restaurant, ordered dinner, and the waiter came back two hours later and said, “What? I had to eat my dinner.” End-stage capitalism and Eastern-bloc communism have a lot of things in common, as Lula discovers in the course of the book.

So you visited Albania?

I did. I got about forty pages into the novel and I couldn’t go any further. It turns out that you can’t find out about Albania on YouTube as much as one might like to. I mean, you can learn about people’s vacations and weddings and so forth, but not much more. So I went on a trip with the State Department. I was there for about two weeks and I just loved it.

Do you think one has to acquire experience to be a novelist?

Well, I would, because nothing has ever happened to me. I had to go to Albania; I couldn’t make it up. It more often happens the other way around. It is not as if you go around saying “I think I will have a love affair, and then I will write about one.” It’s more “Blah-blah broke up with me and said the most cruel thing,” and ten years later you find a way to put it into a book.

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