Monday, October 26, 2009

Restoration by Rose Tremain

If I finish a book and declare it to be one of the best I have ever read, I normally wait a few days before writing a review. If my opinion hasn’t changed by the time I take up my pen, I restate the opinion. It doesn’t happen often. Rose Tremain’s Restoration remains one of the best books I have ever read.

It’s a book with everything a good novel should have. There’s a thoroughly endearing, involving and interesting central character. There’s a wonderful backdrop in mid-seventeenth century England. There’s intellectual pursuit, carnal knowledge, earthy lifestyle, religious revelation and a good deal of excellent cooking. There are complicated relationships, both unrequited and requited love, commissions from royalty, the proximity of madness and, to keep everything in perspective, a keen sense of the absurd. And, alongside all of that, we live through some great historical events in the restoration of the monarchy, the plague and a Great Fire.

But central to everything is the remarkable Robert Merivel. He’s a talented individual who threatens to achieve but rarely does. He’s never a success but manages to stumble upon a succession of remarkable achievements. He drops out of his studies as a physician, but practices as a doctor. He gets a special job from the king, but fluffs it. He lands a job that’s a meal ticket for life and gets kicked out. Through Merivel’s eyes we experience the sounds, smells and lifestyle of London, the opulence of high society, courtesy of royal patronage and then the frugality of religious commitment. We also appreciate how knowledge and thus assumptions can change.

We enter a world where Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of the blood is still novel. When, as medical students, Merivel and his colleague Pearce discover a man with an open wound on the chest that allows his beating heart to be touched, the pair marvel at how the organ that is supposed to be the centre of all emotion has itself no feeling. In our rational age, of course, no-one refers to heart as having anything whatsoever to do with emotion… One wonders which of our currently unquestioned assumptions will be as quaintly absurd three hundred years from now. 

Celia is one of the king’s mistresses. As a cover for his continued liaisons with her, he suggests Merivel marry her in name only. It all goes wrong, of course, when our rather shaggy and unattractive hero, seen as something of a joke by his contemporaries, falls for her. He spins a yarn or two and is found out, but along the way we feel we have experienced what it is like to seek and receive patronage. We also feel the subsequent fall from favour.

When Merivel’s life changes, we too are drawn into his new world, a world in which his unfinished and thus unconsummated study of medicine can be usefully employed. He becomes involved with his work, eventually too involved, and there is yet another fall from grace back into the company of the hoi polloi. But in this era, everyone’s life experience seems close to some edge or other. There’s plague about, and disease of all kinds. Poverty both threatens and beckons, and yet daily the needs of flesh must be satisfied. And in this respect Merivel is both a success and a survivor.

Despite being a figure of fun and an incompetent, he lives life to the full. Through him we taste, smell and sense his age and, in the end, we also understand it a little more than we did. Restoration is strong on plot. What happens to Robert Merivel is as important as how it happens, so my review reveals little of the detail of the character’s progress through life. But it is always an endearing and enlightening journey, and reveals aspects of humanity that are surely universal and eternal, as eternal perhaps as Merivel’s own room at the top of his tower. Restoration remains one of the best books I have ever read.

View this book on amazon Restoration

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Sacred Country by Rose Tremain

Rose Tremain’s Sacred Country is a novel set in Swaithey, a small place in Suffolk in the rural east of England. It’s a long way to a big city – in British terms that is, an hour perhaps or two to London at most! Local industries are small and livelihoods have traditionally arisen largely from the land. In some ways Swaithey might represent nothing less than the countryside idyll, the epitome of the perfect place to be at one with nature and oneself, the kind of place where day trippers from the smoke might imagine a life with fewer complications.

But as we get to know Swaithey’s inhabitants one by one, we discover a village of strangely isolated individuals. They seem to be constantly searching for an identity their isolation denies them and, though they are forever conscious of their place in space and time, they seem to seek only internalised goals. And, of course, these goals keep changing and it seems that few involved would recognise what they were seeking even if they found it. Central to Sacred Country is the story of Mary Ward.

We meet her first in 1952, telling off her younger brother Timmy. She is already old enough to be convinced she is a boy. The last we hear of him is in 1980. He is called Martin and is living in America. Now almost everyone in Swaithey seems to be, in one way or another, hung up on sex. There’s plenty of births and general fecundity, but Mary, for instance, wants to deny her breasts. Her mother Estelle wakes up one morning having an orgasm, in which she rejoices. She can hardly remember the last one, and the feeling appears apparently without mechanical assistance. Meanwhile Timmy wants to become a vicar but can’t cope with Latin or Hebrew, shame him, and thus is the perfect partner for Pearl who just wants a child, nothing more. Walter needs dental treatment and, in seeking out the required probing, comes across Gilbert who fixes his mouth and then explores other avenues.

Mary, meanwhile, has left home and has gone to live with a family friend. She thus comes to know a local eccentric who caresses cricket bats and smells of linseed oil. But the point is he allows, even encourages Mary to find his identity as Martin. There is a confusion for Mary, but surely nothing greater than for most, who stumble into and over what life throws at them with copious second thoughts until old age finds them merely lonely. Thus Swaithey’s folk interact, assist and hinder, both harm and care for one another. By the time we have lived with them for 28 years, perhaps we might expect at least some of them to have come closer to realising the realisable. But no, none of us has that privilege. 

A day is a day is a new day. Change is perhaps an illusion, a product of imagination, but certainly there is no going back. We may, as one character does, develop a passion for Country music so strong that we not only wear the clothes but also migrate to Nashville, but we would be no nearer to locating a core of identity within the self that everyone in this book seems to seek. Mary-Martin, meanwhile, moves to London. The separation from his-her family seems permanent until a late suggestion of reconciliation. Shotguns have gone off in the meantime. Wars have been fought. He-she seeks out what she wants while doing bit jobs, and then a longer-term relationship with a poetry magazine offers stability. Cooperation is thin. She-he lies and is rejected. Other see through her reconstructions and withdraw cooperation. Eventually, he-she finds someone who asks fewer questions, but the internalised questions remain. They are no closer to answer than he or she.

As ever with Rose Tremain, the emotional landscape is rich, despite its East Anglian lack of feature. Interactions are many and varied, and families are depicted as organic, almost having their own unstoppable life generated from within their own existence. But in the end there is always a distance between people and themselves. It is as if they are strangers unto themselves, with each step along the path towards self-knowledge both painful and taken blind. Sacred Country is clearly worth reading several times.

View this book on amazon Sacred Country

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Costa Blanca Arts Update - Pianist Daniel del Pino plays in La Nucia

A few days ago I wrote a piece about a Russian pianist who successfully mixed so-called ‘classical’ music with jazz on the same programme. In her case, it was one half of each, half great Romantics and half jazz standards plus her own compositions. I could not have predicted that soon I would be reviewing a work by a Russian composer who does much the same thing, but at the same time! 

Daniel del Pino is a fine, even great pianist, known throughout Spain and in concert halls across the world. I have heard recitals by him at least once a year for the last six years or so. Certainly one thing he always delivers is hard work, his own, that is, because his performances are nothing less than a complete delight from beginning to end. 

But there’s no opening Haydn Sonata followed by Mozartian gentility for Daniel del Pino. His programmes are never less than demanding and his most recent recital in La Nucia’s Auditori de la Mediterr├ánia, organised by Los Amigos de la Musica de la Marina Baixa, was no exception. On reading the list of works in prospect on this occasion, however, something immediately stood out. There was a composer I had never heard of – and that’s quite a rare occurrence these days! Daniel began with a finger loosener. In his case this meant six of Rachmaninov’s Opus 39 Etudes Tableaux! If he had played nothing else all night, I would have gone home in bliss. Opus 39 number 5 in E flat minor is a personal favourite and in Daniel del Pino’s hands the exquisite shape of the music, a complex interaction between three musical arguments, was close to sublime. In all, Opus 39 numbers 1, 2, 3, 5, 6 and 9 might, for many pianists, have formed a grand finale. For Daniel del Pino, they were openers. 

He followed this with two pieces by Granados, both Goyescas, El Pelele and Quejas, o Maja y el Ruise├▒or. In many ways I find the idioms of Rachmaninov and Granados similar, in that they were both late Romantics, celebrants of the luscious, the personal, the individual and the national. In Rachmaninov’s case, it’s usually the pathos that dominates. In Granados, it’s the sunshine, dance and display, but mingled with some absurdity. Daniel del Pino was able to switch his interpretive landscape effortlessly to bring out the more impressionistic subtleties of Granados. This is music for which he clearly has more than mere feeling. 

His final piece was a rousing finale in the form of Liszt’s Spanish Rhapsody. Alongside memories of the Granados, this was musical tourism, but cultural tourism at worst! Showpiece it may be, but it is harmonically and structurally inventive, so it is musically satisfying as well as being a pyrotechnic display. As an encore he chose a simple – not so simple! – study by Mendelssohn. I have, of course, missed something out! 

Between the Granados and the Liszt, Daniel del Pino presented the eight Concert Studies Opus 40 of Nikolai Kapustin. Now I can hear the concert goers of western Europe saying, “Who?” in concert. In over forty years of listening to music, I have never encountered the name … I think … I have vague recollections of a piece for Jazz Big Band being played on the BBC Third Programme’s Music In Our Time in the mid-1960s. I missed the name of the composer, but now I think I know it. Daniel del Pino introduced the music to his audience before playing it. He told us that Kapustin was Russian, born in 1937, and composed in a pianistic tradition he inherited from Rachmaninov, but placed his thematic and rhythmic material firmly in the idiom of jazz. I have expressed my opinion of ‘crossover’ music before. Usually the result is puerile from the point of view of expression and often mundane in terms excitement and performance. Via the scored and highly pianistic music of Kapustin, we heard something that was definitely not crossover. The music was precisely scored and perhaps there was an arpeggio too far here and there. But while it was clearly rooted in the harmonic language of Rachmaninov and even Scriabin, the material and its treatment were pure bee-bop. Though it may have lacked an improvisatory edge – it seems that Kapustin himself does not claim that he scores improvisations – the music still had the feeling of jazz, but was presented in a structure that revealed itself and engaged. These eight pieces proved to be a major work and technically at least were perhaps the most demanding part of a thoroughly demanding programme. Daniel del Pino’s recital was the work of a complete artist. He can surprise as well as deliver amazing technique alongside superb interpretation and musical sensibility. Hear him play. You will not be disappointed.