Thursday, July 30, 2020

Elizabeth – The Forgotten Years by John Guy

Myths are best served exploded, otherwise they can over-inflate and thus hide the substance of any dish. And if that dish be the national consciousness or identity of a nation, then such over-egging must be avoided, lest it become the
over-elaborated norm.

In recent times the Tudors have become entertainment currency, and not only in British media. From television series to historical novels to feature films, we have seen a plethora of offerings, mainly stories of Henry VIII and Elizabeth, it has to be said. These often degenerate into costume dramas or whodunits of political intrigue, where accuracy is smoothed out of the history to create the kind of simplistic cliché of plot that mass markets are deemed to demand. “Based on a true story”, that overworked and internally contradictory byline, is now so overworked that it would be better omitted. “Fabricated around historical names” would be better. And though there is nothing wrong with fiction, since it often allows interpretations that challenge received wisdom, there are real difficulties when that fiction is transferred into myth whose acceptance becomes so widespread that it may not be challenged. It could be argued that connotations associated with terms such as Good Queen Bess, Golden Age or even simply Elizabethan are in danger of relying more on fiction than fact. Or perhaps these are nostalgic labels for contemporary ideal states that are thought to be lacking in our own times.

And so what an absolute delight it is to come upon a book such as Elizabeth - The Forgotten Years by John Guy. This is a book that really is based on true stories, since this academic historian of Clare College, Cambridge references and describes any sources that the reader may need to back up any point. Timescales are not stretched, statement is supported by facts and mystery is only allowed to obscure fact when evidence does not exist.

The forgotten years of John Guy’s title refer to the latter part of Elizabeth's reign. The earlier years, before the Armada in 1588 are those that form the backdrop for most of the fictions, with their multiple plots, proposals, match-makings and conspiracies. These later years were characterized by war, economic difficulties and political intrigue. They were perhaps dominated by considerations of succession, since Elizabeth, of course, had no heir. It is worth noting here, however, that John Guy, by virtue of a discursive style that deals with issues rather than a mixture of events arranged chronologically, does offer as context much background material relating to the years before 1588. This picture that is purportedly a selective encounter with the later years of Elizabeth's reign thus contains much rounded and detailed description of her entire reign.

John Guy states several assumptions that must guide our understanding of the period. In the sixteenth century, he says, status did not trump gender. Elizabeth was a woman, and that meant that many of the males at court had little or no respect for her apart from their recognition of her birthright. And, because her mother was Anne Boleyn, whom her father married after his denied divorce, even that was questioned by many, especially those of the old faith, who would also have wanted to do more than merely undermine this Protestant queen. The author, incidentally, is not implying that gender issues are or were different in other centuries. As a professional historian, he is simply defining the scope of relevance that is to be ascribed to his comment. Secondly, because Elizabeth was a single woman, the issue of succession had to dominate her reign. In the earlier years this meant various scrambles to find her a husband in the hope that a male heir might materialize. But later on, in the period that John Guy's book covers, Elizabeth was too old to bear children anyway. Discussion on succession, therefore, shifted from matchmaking into more strategic and political territory.

In Elizabeth - The Forgotten Years, the queen is portrayed as a fundamentally medieval monarch. She saw herself as descended from God, the assured kin of all others who shared this enthroned proximity to the Almighty. Hence, she could not bring herself to sign the death warrant for Mary Queen of Scots, believing that a decision to kill a royal by anyone would legitimize the practice, and who then might be next to get it in the neck? And since this by definition was a direct attack on God, it also carried damnation as a consequence. Hence Elizabeth's duplicity in letting it be known she wanted Mary disposed of whilst at the same time denying any responsibility for the act, thus requiring the person who enacted her wishes to be hauled up for treason. These medieval royals were above reason, it seems, as well as above the law. And messengers, it seems, have always been fair game.

This unwillingness to sign a death warrant was not a weakness that affected Elizabeth very often. It seems that the mere whiff of a plot or conspiracy quickly resulted in all smells being masked by the odor of fresh ink forming her signature on an invitation to the Tower. John Guy’s book regularly takes us to the gallows with these condemned people - usually men, of course - and offers detail of their fate. A particularly memorable sentence, specifically suggested by the queen, had one condemned man hanged for just one swing of the rope, so he could then be cut down and, still alive and still conscious, witness his own guts and beating heart being placed on the ground beside him. In an age that still believed in the resurrection of the mortal body, these treasonous felons had to be dismembered and their parts separated to ensure they would never have their souls saved. It may have been God’s will, but it certainly was that of His reigning representative on earth.

This Good Queen Bess, incidentally, was in the habit of handing down similar fates quite regularly. She also refused to pay salaries to soldiers and sailors who fought for her, dressed herself in finery while her war wounded received no assistance or pension and were forced to sleep rough. She turned two blind eyes to disease and epidemic that ravaged her forces and population. Elizabeth the patriotic hero also and perhaps duplicitously sued for peace with Spain, offering Philip II near surrender terms if she and he could agree to carve up the economic interests between them.

She handed out monopolies to her courtiers and lobbyists in exchange for a cut of the earnings. A real strength of John Guy’s book is the insistence on translating Elizabethan era values into present day terms. The resulting multiplication by a thousand brings into sharp focus the extent to which national finances were carved up by elites. While parsimonious when others were due to receive, Elizabeth for herself demanded only the finest and most expensive treatment. It was, after all, her Right.

Elizabeth also countenanced an English economy that raised theft on the high seas to a strategic goal. And her courtiers treated the expeditions as capitalist enterprises, with ministers and the like taking shares in the ventures in exchange for a share of the swag. And much of this would be stolen before it was declared or as it was being landed by handlers or mere thieves who clearly learned their morals and behavior from the so-called betters. The market was free, apparently, but those who operated it were always at risk of incarceration.

Thus, Elizabeth - The Forgotten Years will be a complete eye-opener for anyone who has absorbed popular culture’s portrayal of this age. John Guy’s book identifies the very human traits displayed by this Godly queen and posits them absurdly alongside the attitude of her contemporaries that she was a mere worthless woman.

There are not many figures in John Guy’s wonderful book who come out unscathed, either in reputation or body. Neither does he set out to destroy anyone’s reputation. As an historian, he presents evidence, assesses it and then offers an informed and balanced opinion. This, however, is healthy, for in the current climate populism is too often allowed to merge its own version of history into its message. It does so to achieve some control of a contemporary agenda via the creation of myth, and Tudor melodramas are not exceptions to this rule. Elizabeth - The Forgotten Years demands we remember our real past accurately in all its folly, and in so doing explode many dangerous myths.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Reflections on String Quartet No.1, Kreutzer Sonata, by Leos Janacek

Leos Janacek´s musical voice is unique. No other music behaves or sounds like his. There are no long lines or tunes. His harmonies are unlike anything you have ever heard. He wrote two mature string quartets. He destroyed a youthful third. He wrote the Quartet No.1, Kreutzer Sonata, in nine days in 1923, some ninety-five years ago. He was 69 years old. This is modern music that is not modern. It is not atonal like Schoenberg, nor is it percussively experimental like Bartok. It is not the neo-classicism of Stravinsky. Janacek is unique. Uniquely passionate.

I have written the first paragraph like a series of almost unconnected statements. But it returns to its own beginning and repeats itself, or almost repeats itself. The style is a deliberate choice because Janacek wrote like this, both in music and words. His style is almost musical cubism, where a shape, a form, a subject is visible, but it is broken into pieces that do not join. The pieces seem to repeat, but they are never quite the same, and the shapes are probably never quite complete. There are always questions, rarely statements.

Like Wagner, Janacek uses leitmotifs, tiny musical germs that signify a character, an emotion or an action. They reappear throughout a work, but never simply repeat. In this first quartet you will hear a sweet, slightly sad phrase of only two bars. It is unmistakably feminine. This contrasts with a nervous, repeated motif of short, staccato notes and regular use of ponticello, harsh bowing near the bridge. This is male. It is angry and jealous. The contrast between female vulnerability and sincerity and masculine impetuosity and pride is played out through the work. But in Janacek these ideas and associated phrases are short. They are gone almost before you have heard them. Musically, the sound of Janacek is more like Bruckner than any other composer. This is no surprise, since he studied in Vienna when Bruckner´s works were being performed. The difference is that the repeats and variations in Bruckner last for several minutes. In Janacek, they are all finished in seconds, and they sound more like Puccini.
The quartet´s subtitle, Kreutzer Sonata, is not a homage to Beethoven, though there is a quote from the Beethoven sonata, brutally compressed by Janacek, in the third movement. The quotation has musical and pictorial intentions, because the Kreutzer Sonata of the subtitle actually refers to a short story by Tolstoy of the same name. The quartet is not a literal programme of the story, but more of a cubist painter’s impression of it.

In the story a man spends much time and energy trying to analyse his marriage. His attitudes are conservative and male-centred. His wife, however, developed independent interests, a quality he himself could not understand. For him, a wife should be submissive and obedient. But this wife took up music and learned the piano. She often played alongside her teacher, a violinist who regularly visited the family home. The pair decide to rehearse Beethoven´s Kreutzer Sonata for a performance and the husband becomes jealous of his wife’s musical bond with the violinist teacher. In Tolstoy, the fact that these unmarried people play music together is problematic.

As the pair rehearse, they play better together and the husband’s jealousy grows. He needs to feel in control of his wife’s experience. He confronts her, becomes angry and stabs her in a fit of rage. She dies, but he is not severely punished because he was the husband and adultery was suspected. Music was to blame. This story unfolds during the String Quartet No1 by Janacek, but it is not quite the same story.

This work was commissioned and first performed by the Bohemian Quartet in 1924. In his biography of Janacek, Jaroslav Vogel describes how the quartet´s second violinist, the composer Jozef Suk, believed that Janacek wanted the work to be a moral protest against men´s despotic attitude towards women. Suk would have been reasonably close to Janacek, incidentally, because he was married to Dvorak´s daughter and Janacek and Dvorak had been close friends. His opinion would thus have been an informed one. Whereas Tolstoy´s story suggests that music is sensual and rather dangerous, Janacek makes entirely the opposite point. Here music is human conscience. It presents an emotional liberation via music and asks if it should also represent the social liberation and independence of women.
This is an interesting point. Janacek did not treat his own wife well. He had affairs. He was already by the 1920s obsessed with Kamila Stosslova, a married woman over thirty years his junior. He wrote over 700 letters to her. She replied twice. Much of what he wrote was inspired by his extra-marital longing for Kamila. Perhaps he wanted to liberate her via this music, and so there is much evidence of his own guilt and selfishness in his apparently liberal message. In contemporary terms, Janacek’s obsession with Kamila came close to “stalking”, but the creative energy his obsession generated resulted in fifteen years of intense musical activity.

He was almost sixty before his first success. He had lived a teacher’s life, devotedly developing the music school in Brno. He became obsessed with a younger woman. He became estranged from his wife. And, in those final years, he wrote four great operas, two quartets, several orchestral works and much other music, all of which, like the Kreutzer Sonata, tells a story. It is his story. He, himself, is a vulnerable individual. He is flawed. He is also a genius, and thus a modern human being with his own voice.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Some thought on Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses is not an easy book to review. After finishing any book, the reviewing process is always an excellent way of clarifying what, if anything, the particular work may have communicated. With a book like Satanic Verses, however, as with any book as famous, or infamous as this, does one review the book itself or does one review the reaction to the book? Is it possible to review the book without reviewing the reviews? Is there any need to describe the book itself, when it is this well known, or should one concentrate on judging the allegations levelled against it? Should one actually merely ignore the content and deal only with the reaction?

Of course, there are questions that are present throughout the process. They simply cannot be ignored. Satanic Verses is no longer a book that can be approached without prejudice, bias or both. So let this reader state as an initial position that he has always been convinced that freedom of speech always trumps claims of offense, but also that freedom of speech is not a freedom that should deliberately seek to offend, attack or coerce. All lines are fine, as long as they are travelled to reach a destination and not attack it. Literature, like all art, is in the journey, not the end state.

But I am reading Satanic Verses for the first time… I always wanted to read it but shied away for years. I was not afraid of controversy, but I was living in Islamic states and copies of the book were not welcome. This is what we call censorship and I am supposed to oppose it. I am now curious, more than motivated to read it, curious to identify exactly what might have caused offense. Personally, I regard religion as fair game for any caricature or criticism. Religions have never fallen shy of criticizing one another, after all. I have been an admirer of Rushdie’s work since reading Midnight’s Children when it was hot off the press. I was also resident in an Islamic state, one fundamentalist enough to have banned the sale of all alcohol. That's the time when our college library removed all of Rushdie’s work from its shelves because of Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa issued just after Satanic Verses was published. That same college term during which I sought Rushdie’s novel in the library, I borrowed and read The Place Of Dead Roads by William Burroughs from the same library. I did point out to the librarians what I had found early in the book and suggested that in the interest of consistency it should also be removed from the library. I was duly informed that it was Salman Rushdie who was banned (note the author, not the book) and so the William Burroughs could stay. Opinion, or even offence, is rarely consistent, and apparently never rational. I hereby find myself reviewing the reaction to Satanic Verses, not the book itself.

Let it start. Satanic Verses introduces its two principal characters in mid-air, as they fall from an Everest-high aircraft that has just disintegrated in flight. Amazingly, they survive their fall, but the novel would read just as well if they didn't, with their lives flashing past dreamlike in the seconds that remain before they hit the ground. Crucially they are both involved with mass media in the form of film and television. One has starred in television dramas based on religious epics. Now why aren't these considered disrespectful?

Like all complicated people, they have lived complicated lives. They have bi-located between contrasting geographical and cultural contradictions and have been at home anywhere and everywhere. Cultural identity is at the core of this work and, like the overall scenario, the concept and its perception are constantly confused by those who receive cultural messages, interpret them and possibly change them. We like to think of ourselves as rooted in our cultures, backgrounds and identities, but these are in a state of constant change, cannot be pinned down by description, let alone defined. Culturally, we are always foreigners, whatever we choose as our convictions. 

Stylistically, Satanic Verses conforms to the author’s norm of magical realism. The word ‘norm’ is problematic until we acknowledge Salman Rushdie’s own observation that this is still ‘realism’. At the level of phrase, every sentence is a vivid and surreal succession of images. Read slowly, these coalesce into a visible kaleidoscope of constant change, where the reader can take nothing for granted, but will want to absorb the experience in real time for merely what each moment brings. Read quickly, and the print evaporates. It's the pictures that count, but they are always fleeting images. Like life, they flash by.
Interspersed with this hyper-reality are dream sequences in which characters whose existence is literal but clearly invented enact film-like sequences that are not quite the religious myths they mimic. Unlike the real characters, who are always vague and negotiable, these caricatures act more like cardboard cut-outs. Here the tone is more naturalistic, no less surreal, but a deal more comic. They seem like the television version of the story that might feature our main protagonists among the cast. And, like in the William Burroughs book mentioned earlier, most religions get it squarely in the neck. Burroughs does it in three sentences, whereas Rushdie is more thorough. And a good deal more comical. Where Burroughs is bad-tempered and dismissive, Rushdie is ironic and sympathetic.

We soon learn that the book’s title derives from particular suras, specific verses that have been edited out of religious texts because they imply things that should not be stated. Meanwhile our principal characters also seem to edit their own identities to suit convenience, assumptions, advantage and aspiration. The characters from religious myth thus seem to act in ways that are wholly similar (not holy) to those of our real life, surreal television stars, film actors, ne’er-do-wells and highly-strung narcissists. Just like the rest of us.

Long before the end, the reader may start to feel punch drunk after being pummelled by combinations of streamed images. Technicolor language and fantastical scenes. But at the end, Satanic Verses presents such a vivid description of a particular character’s experience that any reader will relive those moments for the rest of terrestrial life. The adjective is irrelevant, by the way, since the book has by then confirmed that the terrestrial is all there is to life.

Satanic Verses is thus a meditation on what makes us feel, think and react. We are products of religion, culture, myth, birth right, circumstance and experience, and everything else we imagine. We take everything seriously, including the jokes, the fantasy and the truth, which probably does not exist outside of opinion. We are as constant as our whims and as solid as our dreams. This makes Satanic Verses hard to review. It is an unforgettable experience, that like most myth, will be most vivid for those who believe in its reality and enter into it. Those who stay outside of its world simply don't get it. It’s a book full of questions, without answers, with experiences along the road to the nowhere we inhabit.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

A Tale Of Love And Darkness by Amos Oz

In A Tale Of Love And Darkness Amos Oz writes an autobiography of his early years. Though written from a much later perspective, this memoir effectively lives entirely in the first years of the author’s life, covering birth to the age of twelve, when his mother died in 1952. There is also much in the book that is drawn from his adolescence and his work in a kibbutz after leaving home, but these remain like visions of an only partially real future when the narrative returns, often abruptly to those earlier years when his mother was still alive. There are detailed stories of schooling, discovery of literature and a little of his coming of age and his first experiences of an adult life of love and affection. There is much more about his father and his only partially successful life as a writer and academic, plus some other things for which he displayed equally unrecognized talent. There is also a good deal of Jewish history, especially that related to the post-World War II diaspora from Europe to British-controlled Palestine.

But at its core this book is essentially about the relationship between Amos Oz and his mother. It starts with her giving birth to him and ends with her death, just twelve years later, an event that left the author with deep feelings of guilt and loss, of course. But there is more, in that one also feels there has been a lasting psychological scar that has marked much of the author´s work.

A Tale Of Love And Darkness succeeds in many ways – too many for a cursory review as this to list, let alone describe. Its description of family life in the 1940s in Jerusalem must head the list. This was no rip-roaring, unpredictable household. The father was bookish, a man who yearned to be an academic, to feel the social respect that would be conferred with authorship and recognition. Much is made by Amos Oz of his father’s unrecognized talent and, one feels, the son was perhaps prouder than the father when the latter eventually gained his doctorate from the University of London. Both much had passed by before then.

Despite the book’s vivid portrayal of his own and his relatives’ families, Amos Oz seems almost to freeze in mid-sentence when he describes his mother. She was clearly an immense, if rather distant influence on him. She was domestically inclined, very attractive, perhaps aloof and certainly long suffering, as her husband pursued his private dreams in his even more private study amongst his books and papers. She was probably not alone in this situation, but perhaps more alone than she herself or especially others were willing to admit.

These families’ origins where in the Baltic states, Poland, Russia and other parts of Europe. They left for Palestine, pushed by the hardening fist of fascism and, elsewhere, mere intolerance. Most who stayed behind perished. They were greeted by a British administration in the Middle East that was never clear in its priorities and where policy was made on the roof. Nothing much changes, it seems. Calls for Jewish statehood were pursued alongside direct action and this era of tension and privation forms the backdrop for the early years of the author’s life. Aged eighteen, he would eventually meet Ben-Gurion, an encounter where the nervous tension, pride and awe jump from the page only to evaporate as quickly.

Amos Oz had relatives who were writers and academics, but they generally did not use their influence to foster his father’s ambitions, though this did not seem to generate tensions. His father’s stoicism would probably not have tolerated comment. Language was always at the core in the home, however, with his father‘s command of Hebrew, Polish, Yiddish, Lithuanian and Russian allowing etymology to become breakfast talk.

A Tale Of Love And Darkness is especially memorable for its description of the author´s education. He attended all kinds of establishment, private and public, with both classroom and personal settings. He becomes infatuated with one teacher and certainly educated purposefully by another later on. It becomes an experience powerful enough to live on through a lifetime.

Eventually Amos Oz decided to adopt kibbutz life. This seems to come as a surprise, as much to Amos has his family, we feel. But he embraces the new challenges, appearing to relish the directness of physical work. Perhaps this was a psychological reaction to the face that his father’s rather withdrawn bookishness might have alienated his mother in the household. This is something that is alluded to in the book, but only via the opinions of the author’s relatives. It is certainly not stressed. But through kibbutz life, Amos Oz learns that the most effective way to become a writer is to live life and observe it. The writer then may interpret it.

But there is darkness here as well, a personal darkness that the author regularly alludes to and then quickly avoids. We feel it is surely the memory of his mother’s death which is resurfacing. If there is guilt involved, then its source is surely the perceived inability to influence events, to go back and change the circumstances that gave rise to tragedy. If only…

In the final pages, the author is again just twelve years old. He watches as his mother falls into the sleep that is the end of her life, a memory relived from the distance of middle age, but the memory remains as vivid as it was on the day it happened, illustrating that a silence of sleep, when eternal, is more powerful than any words can describe.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Gainsborough, A Portrait by James Hamilton

Gainsborough, A Portrait by James Hamilton is much, much more than a biography of a painter, though if it were only that it would still be a masterpiece of its genre. Thomas Gainsborough was born in Suffolk in 1727 and died in London in 1788. He spent his early years in Suffolk, was apprenticed in London as an engraver. He moved back to Suffolk and lived again in the family home. He was already painting. He seemed not perfectly suited to the messy, fiddly practices associated with engraving. He gradually amassed commissions, almost by increment from sitters of ever higher rank.
A lengthy stay in Bath was purely for professional reasons, but London and Suffolk were always a draw. By then he was a wealthy and successful painter of portraits, who dabbled in landscapes on the side. That last phrase, incidentally, is apposite since his wife, Margaret, used to pocket all of the fees he charged for portraits. What he received for landscapes he did not disclose to her, only to his own pocket.

If you have ever looked at Gainsborough’s portraits and saw that first, they were rather dark, or second, the forest looks altogether too round it to be true, or third, it seems rather that the feet emerging from the bottom of the dresses appear a tad too small, then you will find your explanations in James Hamilton‘s book. The light is problematic, perhaps, because these pictures were not painted en plein aire, but by candlelight in the studio. A sense of rounding in the trees might result from the fact that he often did not paint real trees, but miniature tabletop settings of coal, twigs and – yes – broccoli. Now that explains quite a lot. Observation number three results from his very businesslike procedures with his sitters. To minimize their discomfort, he concentrated on their faces and heads. After they had left his studio, he would then fill in the rest of the body, often using clothes he kept on dummies, the same dress sometimes appearing in portraits of different women. The mannequins obviously had no feet, so these were probably added with a little imagination, hence the sometimes awkward proportions.

But there is far more in Gainsborough, A Portrait than detail of the artist’s commissions, works and techniques. James Hamilton provide is nothing less than a rounded portrayal of English life in the mid-eighteenth century. In the artist’s letters we soon learn to recognize the euphemisms that are used to disguise the licentiousness that seems to occupy most of these men’s waking hours. In letters, d-mn is not a curse, and the word swords – or other obvious euphemisms - are often underlined, right up to the hilts. Not subtle, but socially acceptable according to the mores of the day, it seems.

The book has is a wonderful portrayal of small town life in Sudbury, Suffolk. We sense the nouveau riche pretensions of Bath and we can almost feel London expanding amid the stories of Gainsborough’s Pall Mall house and Richmond Hill getaway. But what is so wonderful about James Hamilton‘s book is that its erudition, which at times is breathtaking in its detail, is so beautifully embroidered into the narrative that all we received is a rounded, complete insight into the way Gainsborough lived, did business, and related to people, as well as seeing a detailed picture of what he painted and how he worked.

Of particular interest was his and his contemporaries’ touting of business from the rich and famous. Obviously, a commission from the Royals, especially the King, was what really put you on the map and, as ever in Britain, a social pecking order made the achievement of status easier for some than others. Gainsborough was from quite lowly origins and did not attend prestigious institutions to learn his trade, so he had to work for the elite status that eventually came his way. It is worth noting however that he was never knighted, unlike his rival Reynolds, being the journeyman of the trade in the celebrity likeness business. But he did make a good living, which he largely handed over to his wife, who stashed the money away, lest her husband blow it on wine, women or song, or even the expensive musical instruments he bought, but never learn to play.

Gainsborough rubbed shoulders with the elite. He was friends with other artists and with composers, such as Abel and J C Bach. But one feels his feet never really left the ground, even when parking his sword. And as such, he was not given to visionary statements in his art. He clearly liked to paint landscapes but found he could only sell them on the back of his portrait trade. Thus, he devoted his professional time to that which would be better his life, leaving intellectual challenge at least for later.
Interestingly, James Hamilton makes the point that Gainsborough the artist would have found work in any age. His approach would always have found a clientele and his style would have adapted, whilst more visionary artists, despite their massive achievements, could not have pursued their particular visions in a different age. Gainsborough thus becomes a kind of model modern artworld businessman, pragmatic, competent, in demand and commercially aware of the success he achieved. Well, at least his wife was.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

4-3-2-1 by Paul Auster

4-3-2-1 in not one book. It is four. And they are in order, 4-3-2-1. Its title, incidentally, could not be 1-2-3-4 for reasons the reader will eventually discover. Ostensibly the novels are the life stories from birth to mid-twenties of Archibald Isaac Ferguson, only child of Stanley and Rose from Newark, New Jersey. But, as has already been implied, Ferguson, as he is usually known, is not just one person with a single life. He is four people, depending on which story one chooses to enter.

Ferguson´s grandfather was a Jewish immigrant from eastern Europe. He became Ferguson as a result of a joke an almost random association of misunderstanding and assumption that recurs almost as a leitmotif throughout the book. It is of course by chance that this name attaches to its future owner. And then, also sometimes by chance, sometimes by choice drawn from a set of options presented by chance, that Ferguson´s life twists and turns along the paths that fork through time.

Ferguson thus becomes four parallel but diverging people. They are him, we believe, because a writer, who may be Paul Auster, maybe someone else, tells us they are all one and the same person. The four become different people as they progress through their years. Parents divorce, or perhaps don´t. The father´s business fails catastrophically. Or perhaps it doesn´t and becomes hugely successful. It might indeed just trundle along, keeping the family in some comfort short of riches.  The mother becomes a photographer, or perhaps doesn’t. There is a family feud, or perhaps it was never even mooted. There´s an accident, a decision, a choice, but not necessarily for the same Ferguson we knew a chapter ago. All events, however, have their consequences.

And these four characters who are all the same person, these four different Archibald Isaac Fergusons live their lives in parallel episodes, are influenced by the same current affairs, politics, crazes, cultural changes and commercial pressures, but they respond and react differently, selectively, individually. Thus they diverge, their paths never to cross again.

Other family members, notable the step-sister Amy – who might be a step-sister in one story, a mere cousin in another – plays her part throughout. Ferguson lives throughout the 1950s and 1960s. He goes to camp, or perhaps doesn´t. He is not drafted to fight in Vietnam, perhaps because all four versions were born with the same body, perhaps because of what time did to that body, or to the mind that associates with it. They pursue a variety of educational options, attend different schools, pursue different interests and adopt different specialities. Their sexual preferences vary depending on which version of the life we opt to follow, and of course depending on the availability or otherwise of partners, and the pressures others bring to bear at certain crucial points in these different lives.

They all negotiate the rise of consumerism and the growing passion for white goods, a proclivity that is crucial for at least one of the fathers. John F. Kennedy is assassinated, as are his brother and Martin Luther King. There are just one of each, but they appear several times. There are riots in Newark and in other cities. There is Vietnam and the anti-war movement, with its activism and demonstrations. There is the pursuit of the opposite sex, or the same sex, or both. There is learning, much of which focuses on literature, and there is academic, economic and social success, failure and a good deal of the mundane interspersed. There is Jewishness and Christianity alongside the secular. There are accidents, fires, break-ups and reconciliations, and all the other things that can go right and-or wrong in any life, but not in any order and not always in the same story. And thus there are four novels, or perhaps three, or two or just one. There are 850 plus pages, of this we are sure.

Long before the end it is quite hard to remember which version of Ferguson went this way or that, made which decision, suffered which trauma, finished or made up with which particular lover (again). But that may just be the point. As in A Winter´s Tale, when Shakespeare resurrects comedy from the depths of tragedy, Paul Auster´s Ferguson eventually reveals himself as one of the equally plausible characters we have come to know.

In that ending of A Winter´s Tale, Shakespeare’s comedy arises from the previous tragedy of Hermione’s death. He brings her back to life from the statue she became.  He omitted to repeat the gesture so that Mamillius, her son, might follow her back to the living, condemning the lad to remain petrified, and dead. And so we must also re-evaluate comedy. All the world may be a stage, with all of us players upon it, but the writer remains the director, the ultimate omnipresent and omnipotent power who wields the weapon of fate.

Diverging plots have also been used in film. In “Sliding Doors”, Gwyneth Paltrow´s character does and also does not manage to enter a London Underground train that is about to depart. Thus two lives live on, perhaps parallel in time, but certainly diverging to very different ends.

Paul Auster´s 4-3-2-1 seems to inhabit the sum of the above territory. The writer directs, of that we are sure. But the novel reminds us, perhaps even reassures us, that the choices we make in life, the paths we take and those we reject determine life´s chances, its outcomes, and perhaps even our personality. We become only what we live.

And then, whatever the destination, temporary or final, we always should remind ourselves that the world remains a stage, except, of course, for the ultimate director, who holds the pen.

Friday, July 17, 2020

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins first appeared in 2006, the paperback including corrections and clarifications in 2007. Dawkins starts from the fact that the world changed in the mid-nineteenth century when Charles Darwin finally published his theory of evolution. He reminds us also that Nicolaus Copernicus in the sixteenth century brought about a similar paradigm shift by postulating that the earth was not the centre of the universe or even the solar system. It may also be relevant to remind ourselves that some of these facts had been known to ancient Greek philosophers (Aristarchus) and that the knowledge had been subsequently suppressed by various religions, contrary to evidence, such as the appearance of ships´ masts over the horizon at sea. It is this denial of evidence whenever it challenges dogma that is the central theme of The God Delusion.

Richard Dawkins charts the process whereby scientific evidence has continually rolled back the previously dominant supernatural explanations of reality as we perceive it, thus calling into question the basis of continued allegiance to any form of religion. He goes as a far as describing a child´s indoctrination into a faith by parents as a form of abuse. The arguments will not convince or convert the religious. They were clearly never intended to do so.

There is one word that he uses many times and it is “evidence”.  As a scientist, Richard Dawkins maintains a rational approach to the physical world.  Science explains nothing, by the way. The question “why” is perhaps inadmissible, since it really represents an amalgam of the answers to how, when, how much or what. And these questions must be answered before anything amounting to explanation can be adopted. Dawkins´s position is little more than a restatement of Kant´s Categorical Imperative, which is almost three hundred years old. Dawkins´s opponents, however, apparently regard him as a modern radical. He reminds us that science creates intellectual models that fit with and relate to the physical world. In reality, whatever that might be, an electron, for instance, is probably nothing like what we imagine it to be. But is our model of what we understand an electron to be fits the phenomena of its effects, and if our expectations of its presence correspond to what we observe, then we have something that is workable, even though, ultimately, we can never know if it is literally accurate.

And this is Richard Dawkins´s main problem with religion. To believe something merely because it is written in a book that someone else has previously labelled sacred is as anti-scientific as denying gravity. It is, as Dawkins points out, irrational to the point of being disingenuous, and disingenuity, in most religions, would be condemned.

A major argument used by Richard Dawkins is, of course, that these religious texts are only ever interpreted or adopted selectively. He quotes numerous examples from the Bible of divinely handed-down rules that are broken in every self-proclaimed Christian society. If particular aspects of these texts have been selected with others ignored, and if that selection is dictated by the cultural, moral or intellectual mores of a particular place and time, then what is it that still makes these texts both authoritative or divine, let alone literally true?

More than a decade after The God Dilemma appeared, it seems that its reading is if anything more essential now than then. The political presence of the populist right, often associated with the same ideological blinkers and rejection of evidence that characterises the fundamentalists of religion, had in 2006 only a fraction of its current influence. There is thus no more important time to remind ourselves of Dawkins´s approach – even if we might disagree with his destination – that evidence is all important and cannot be either discounted or denied. In an age where the powerful say one thing today and deny it tomorrow or insert a word like “not” after the event to change all sense, then it is the responsibility of all people who respect evidence or eschew anything that ignores it.

Richard Dawkins also reminds us that human beings collectively still know very little about anything. The expanding universe – that bears absolutely no resemblance whatsoever to any universe described in any sacred text – poses perhaps the greatest question. Where is the matter that might drive such expansion? The question currently cannot be answered either definitively or convincingly. And it would be no answer, as Dawkins points out, to lump this question, along with all the others we currently find hard, into a box, call it something supernatural, and then consider that matter solved, let alone explained.  Such intellectual laziness would do nothing to enhance our paucity of knowledge. What The God Delusion also illustrates, however, is that those who espouse this intellectual laziness are often apparently more confident than those who refuse to commit because of a lack of evidence.

The moral of it all, and it is more important now than in 2006, is beware of all counsel that comes without proof, without ability to demonstrate or illustrate. And the only acceptable proof is a weight of evidence that cuts across opinion and is demonstrable. And, importantly, distrust anything that claims there is no need for such authentication.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

The Life of Ezra Pound by Noel Stock

A review of The Life of Ezra Pound by Noel Stock must begin by acknowledging the phenomenal achievement of its author. It is comprehensive, detailed, forensic, appreciative, critical and illuminating, a massive achievement of analysis, research and insight. At around 200,000 words it is also a commitment, not for the fainthearted or for anyone with only a passing interest in either poetry or the history of the twentieth century. But it is also something else, something that, despite the magnificence of its scholarship, provokes this reader to focus on issues that are external to the text, itself. But more of that later: first, the book.

Ezra Pound was undeniably one of the greatest figures of twentieth century literature. Unlike his illustrious contemporaries and friends, however, Joyce, Eliot and Yeats among them, his name has seemed to slip from the mainstream since his death in 1972. I read his great achievement, the Cantos, when I was at college. I did not understand them. In some ways they feel less like a work of poetry than a lifetime achievement, a creatively conceived and sometimes over-presented commonplace book into which fell, in poetic form, a distillation, a reflection or sometimes mere mention of whatever disparate material that Pound obsessed over at the time. The Cantos were Pound’s creative life, but we must not forget the massive amount of other material, his journalism, music, prose and economics, for want of a more accurate word.

Pound was one of the founders and movers of literary and artistic movements: Imagism and the Vorticism among them. They were perhaps not the most enduring of directions. He was American but seemed more at home in England and then Italy, neither of which chooses to honour his achievements on their soil. But what is strongly felt about this man from the start is his conviction of, perhaps his obsession with his own genius. He was utterly sure he would contribute to the arts and perhaps even change their direction. He seemed to consider his legacy immortal, even before it had been created. He felt he was something new, original and enduring. And all this when apparently no-one even wanted to read his material, or formally give him time of day. And not only did he seem to deny his failures, he didn’t even seem to register them. The limitations were always somewhere else. In the early years, he thus seemed like a self-publicist, with is achievements acknowledged before they were achieved, like a modern self-published author who writes five-star, best-seller reviews of his own work. Nowadays, that surely would never do!

But eventually, perhaps by sheer dogged application alongside considerable talent, Pound received the recognition he thought he deserved, though perhaps never in our own contemporary, blunt instrument yardstick of success – sales. Certain academics loved him. Others did not. He himself had high hopes of a Nobel Prize.

Noel Stock includes copious quotations from Pound’s verse, always with critical assessment, sometimes with criticism. The Cantos were so far reaching in their intellectual coverage that it may appear from the outside that no-one without the full gamut of requisite skills would understand them. And given that these skills comprise, amongst other things, a knowledge of Dante and medieval Italian poetry, Confucius, Mencius and Lao-Tze in the original Chinese, troubadour songs in their original langue d’oc, Noh theatre texts in Japanese, Pound’s own experimental English, besides knowledge of the Classics and their metres, one might presume that there might be few modern readers of his work. This is probably accurate. But there is more to the modern shunning of Pound’s work than its overtly elitist intellectual demands. And it is here that this review needs to diverge from literature, poetry and indeed Ezra Pound, himself, to address the related concepts of fascism and racism.

The main reason why today Pound’s name remains passé is his espousal of fascist ideas and his overt antisemitism. He went to live in Italy. He regarded Mussolini as rather a good thing. In Italy at the time he was hardly alone in this belief.  He adopted Hitler’s aggressive antisemitism because he was fundamentally opposed to capitalism, if it meant what he saw as a banking and economic system dominated by Jews, the foundation of this belief being a bank owned by the Rothchild family. He also took to broadcasting pro-fascist propaganda (in Italian and English) on radio during World War II.
Normally, my reviews are consciously detached. I try to review the book, not myself. Likes and dislikes are, to me, wholly nebulous and indefinable and even passing whims that are always less significant than considerations of communication or achievement of ends. In the case of The Life of Ezra Pound, the subjective “I” must be included, since our appreciation or not of this poet’s writing now seems to depend wholly on our individual take on his politics, despite his being be neither analytical or pro-active in his views, as this biography clarifies.  In some ways, his politics were as transient as his current interests, as expressed in the meanderings of the Cantos. But what now can we make of Pound? Should we even try to understand him? Is dismissal the preferred option? I would say that he is worth the effort. Not the use of “I”! And this is not because I think Pound is a particular genius, overlooked or even readable. And I certainly do not see his actions as pardonable! And here I beg your pardon for making this book review become something personal, something about me and not about the book, but I assure you it is relevant. Please exit here if you are wary of the personal.

I remember in the recent past a well-known British television presenter saying on-air that the music of Wagner was not played in her household because of the composer´s antisemitism. I remember another celebrity saying that antisemitism was the flavour of Wager´s age, and that rejection of the composer´s work on those grounds alone ought to prompt a similar rejection of everything artistic or otherwise that came out of mid-nineteenth century German culture.

In the not too distant past I re-read Adam Smith´s Wealth of Nations. In my review I concentrated on those aspects of the analysis that might contradict the completely neo-liberal interpretation of the work. I was perhaps wrong to do so, but I wanted to challenge the idea that there is just one way to read Smith´s notion of free trade.  Embedded within Smith´s thesis, however, are assumptions about human progress and worthiness. The Hindoo, the Mussulman and even the Catholic have their place in history and civilisation, but the heathen is judged to be a primitive sub-human. I do not recall Smith referring to ´The Buddhist´, but that may be my own failure of memory. In today´s politics, how many of the neo-liberal, perhaps neo-conservative supporters of their own notions of Smith´s concepts of free trade also regard those not associated with an organised great religion as both uncivilised and sub-human? And, given that the assumption appears to run throughout the work, should that alone disqualify Smith´s views on other subjects or his contribution to economics? Another position that almost dominates sections of The Wealth of Nations is that there is no economic activity that is or could be greater than the total that describes the state. How many of these same free marketeers would share Smith´s oft-stated revulsion of the very idea of a transnational corporation, which he regarded as necessarily market-distorting and almost automatically corrupt? This is recognized in antitrust and anti-monopoly legislation, but how often is this side of Smith´s work quoted? My point here is that we can choose to be selective, and usually do.

I am tempted here to introduce the composer Anton Webern into the argument. A member of the second Viennese School, Webern espoused the atonalism of his associate, Schoenberg. Webern was perhaps the artistic opposite of Ezra Pound, being prone to destructive self-criticism and a desire for an extreme succinctness of expression. But Webern, like Pound, thought that fascism might be more sympathetic towards “high art” to which he aspired than the mechanisms of capitalism that concentrated on what it could sell. He thus initially espoused fascism, eventually to his own and his associates´ cost.
After this considerable diversion, there is eventually a moral, and that is to beware anyone touting answers, especially those based on interpretations of the past in anything other than its own terms. Which brings me to Brexit! It might seem quite a jump, but it does follow. Trust me!
I have recent personal experience, albeit apocryphal, that suggests the prime motivation among the British working class leave voters who surely swung the referendum result was “getting rid of all the foreigners.” I use quotes to emphasise that this was expressed to me personally and verbatim, with stress on the “all”. I had just finished The Life of Ezra Pound and I felt immediately a strange yet strong link with Pound´s antisemitism, which was founded on nothing less than trying to find someone to blame.

Perhaps we should not judge Wagner, Adam Smith or even Ezra Pound using the moral perspective of our own time. For if we did that, and rejected any espousal of either racism or religious bigotry, how much of our human past would we retain? And, given the above Brexit opinion, is the moral perspective of our time significantly different from that of the 1930s, or even the 1850s, or 1770s or indeed any other time in our conflict-ridden blame game of history?

The Life of Ezra Pound is a forensic biography of a poet. It describes a life lived in its historical and cultural context. Like all books committed to communicating its subject, it is a masterpiece that takes the reader way beyond the confines of its subject and thereby achieves a permanent relevance. Revisit this past. We must never deny it existed or forget its consequences. But it reminds us that as individuals, communities and societies, there is no rule that precludes the repetition of error. And neither is there any rule that insists that a current moral ground need be any higher than any other existing folly, contemporary or past.

Friday, July 10, 2020

Two Lives by William Trevor

In Two Lives William Trevor offers two stories – Reading Turgenev and My House In Umbria. They are not mere stories, however, and read like substantial novellas. Both have women as central characters. Reading Turgenev features Mary Louise Dallon, an Irish Protestant whose parents support her decision to marry, though on the surface at least the match may be less than perfect. In My House In Umbria someone who claims to be called Emily Delahunty relates her chequered personal history against a backdrop of wholly unpredicted events that change the lives of all she invites to her house. In both stories, William Trevor examines a gap that might exist between reality lived, reality recalled and reality imagined. Writers create apparently fictitious worlds which, when embraced by characters who themselves are also fictitious, approach desired realities much closer than reality, itself.

Mary Louise Dallon is a young woman in an almost frighteningly normal Irish Protestant household. There are visits to the cinema and suitors of various ages and types, and work which will always be local and probably predictable. Predictable, that is, until someone does something rather unexpected. Mary Louise Dallon does do the unexpected. Reading Turgenev thus examines the consequences, predictable and otherwise, of this departure from the expected norm. And, of course, the Turgenev that gets read is itself fiction. But, for Mary Louise its imagined world becomes perhaps more important than the strange reality that surrounds her. People who share her life ignore the reality or, when it does not suit their bias, they recreate it almost as their own fiction. The effect on Mary Louise is devastating, or perhaps the consequences were inevitable, products of her own mis-interpretations or mis-understanding of reality. As a result, Reading Turgenev becomes an almost viscerally moving experience, where real violence is done to the central character without a finger ever being raised in threat. It-s all done with words. And eventually, those words are themselves a fiction.

My House In Umbria features a writer who is known as Emily Delahunty. The name might be unlikely. Perhaps much of what she relates about herself is of the same ilk. She has been here and there – Idaho, Africa, Umbria, English towns. She has suffered parental confusion and probably abuse, has been exploited in the USA and has been in business in Africa. But then, she is also a creator of romantic, perhaps sentimental fiction.  An apparently random event brings about equally chance encounters when people who seem to need one another congregate in Emily’s house in Umbria. Throughout she confuses real events with those of her own fiction. There is no denying reality, but this can also be created. She is clearly presenting to others her own version of reality that is far from the frame of a confident older woman in which she casts herself. Which version of reality will provoke belief?

Throughout William Trevor’s book the real joy is the author’s resplendent prose.  It surprises. It decorates, it twists, turns and celebrates. These fictional characters become completely real. Utterly credible, despite their propensity to live in imagined worlds. The overall concept is stunning. The detail is devilish, the consequences of these fictions apparently real.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

The Lost World of Byzantium by Jonathan Harris

A review of The Lost World of Byzantium by Jonathan Harris is near impossible to write. The book, incidentally, is far from impossible to read, despite its rather dry style. The problem is the breadth and sheer extent of its subject, an issue the author confronts with both enthusiasm and competence. Often history presents the casual reader with a hard-to-negotiate problem, being the straight-jacket of preconception. And it’s often a problem of which we are unaware, precisely because we are rarely conscious of the assumptions we bring to any experience. And this is precisely why we need books like this one by Jonathan Harris, because it can cut through what we clearly do not understand. We need to confront preconceptions, because the process is always enlightening. But the process is often challenging as well. Rest assured, however, because this challenge is rewarding throughout.

The challenge in the Lost World of Byzantium is met head on and early on. We talk a lot of Rome, and much less of Byzantium. We hail the achievements of the former, and generally list the shortcomings of the latter. We see Rome as somehow noble, correct and classical, whereas Byzantium is often corrupt, degenerate, knavish and unsuccessful. And, as Jonathan Harris points out, we are constantly explaining why the Byzantine Empire eventually failed. What we rarely acknowledge is that at its height it was a more extensive empire than Rome’s and, importantly, it actually lasted longer than its precursor. And it was Christian from the start.

It is this perception of Byzantium as eventual failure that Jonathan Harris dispels at the start. It is also essential that he does this, since then we can appreciate the detail of the empire’s history in its own context, rather than in another imposed by our own preconceptions about a future it never saw. In many ways, the history of the Byzantine Empire was the history of Europe from the fourth to the fifteenth century. The Ottoman expansion westwards and its eventual conquest of the empire served to provide a wake-up call for concerted action to defend Christianity. At least one previous attempt had dissolved into anarchy as the Crusaders sacked the very place they had set out to defend. The fall of Byzantium, however, rendered any future sectional gain irrelevant, for if the edifice fell, there would be nothing for anyone. And thus the continent changed a little after Lepanto.

Any reader of such a long and complex history as that of the Byzantine Empire, however, must bear in mind the size and scope of the author’s task. The Lost World of Byzantium may comprise about 150,000 words, but it is trying to cover more than a millennium of European history, not to mention swathes and eras of Middle Eastern, Central Asian and North African history as well. We soon learn not to regard the Byzantine Empire as a purely or even primarily European phenomenon, as regular conflicts are fought to the south and east as well as to the north and west. What becomes clearer, however, is that an empire may wage war at its periphery, and that war may result in expansion or contraction of its territory. But if the empire wages war against itself at the centre, then the threat to its security is existential. Jonathan Harris’s book relates several occasions when Byzantium survived such complete and wounding internecine transformations.

An enduring insight from The Lost World of Byzantium relates to the general role of religion in these transfers of power, and in particular the ability of theology to create empires, rulers, dynasties and perhaps states. Byzantium was founded on Constantine’s embracing of Christianity. But this was only the beginning of the story as we perceive it. The early church was riven by schisms and heresies, notably the Arian interpretation of the nature of Christ. From the perspective of our own age, these theological differences might appear to have the significance of disagreements on the exact count of angels on a pinhead. But at the time, theological disagreements could lead to persecution, exile and war. A long time after the early church had solved some of its self-generated conundrums, new theological differences emerged with similar consequences. It is a great achievement of Harris’s book that it manages to raise what we now might regard as arcane to the status of living political debate. If economic advantage granted by the achievement and tenure of power, as ever, remained the goal, the political and ideological battleground where that status was secured was often theological and only when we appreciate that role do we understand the history of this empire, and perhaps also the history of the first and much of the second millennium of the Christian era.

If there is a criticism of this monumental work, it is that the necessity of chronicling the incumbents of the throne sometimes make the history a mere list of tenants, a procession of kings who merely seem to come and go. The Johns, the Michaels and the Constantines keep coming, forever counting, and it seems sometimes that only the numbers change, as each incumbent suffers his own conspiratorial fate, often remarkably similar to that of his predecessor. There are numerous child emperors, all with their own nakedly ambitious protectors. And also history seems to reproduce itself as yet another incumbent marries to secure peace and alliance, or pursues yet another catalogued military campaign against north, south, east or west, as ever only partially successful. The muddle, it seems, tends to continue.
Overall, the book deserves some criticism for not including enough description of the social and economic conditions within the empire. Such diversity, both ethnic and religious, needs more detail to provide a picture of its complexity. There is little that conveys any feeling of what it was to live even in Constantinople, itself, let alone the Byzantine Empire as a whole. But then, with a task of this size, any author needs to be selective. Jonathan Harris simply could not have included material of this type without doubling the size of an already massive book. And, given the author’s commitment and dedication to his subject, this absence ought to provoke most readers to explore more of his output. This aspect surely has also been covered elsewhere.

What is included are descriptions of greens and blues, Pechenegs, Basils, various Phokases and numerous Theodoras, alongside Abbasids, Seljuks, Fatimids and hordes of Constantines. If even one of these hits a blind spot, then Jonathan Harris’s book will help provide the missing understanding. If anything, it is surely comprehensive. History is always about much more than our preconceptions and all good writing on the subject should remind us of this fact. The Lost World of Byzantium provides a superb opportunity to learn much about this neglected, but crucial era of history.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Conclave by Robert Harris

Reviewing a book often clarifies what you have read and how you may or may not have reacted to the content. There are many books that are not worthy of such attention, because they have little in the way of nuance or detail that might stimulate reaction. In such cases a negative review is itself worse than worthless, nothing less than a waste of time. Better just forget it and move on. In the case of Conclave by Robert Harris, I am tempted to do just that, but there are some points that are worth making about the book. Most are positive, but there are others as well.

Conclave has a literal title. It's about the election of a Pope, behind locked doors. The action takes place in the Vatican, first in the Pope's private apartments and then alternately in the Vatican's Casa Santa Marta, where the assembled Cardinals are being put up, and the Sistine Chapel, where they meet to cast their votes. Michelangelo's frescoes figure frequently, especially at times of the principal character's moments of reflection - and they are usually mere shallow moments, liberally strewn with verbal tools of the trade. But for the most part, these people live entirely in their here and now and, perhaps uniquely amongst such eminent company, they hardly ever comment on anything other than the matter in hand.

A Pope has just died. The circumstances are a little suspicious. There are some interesting aspects to the Pope's final days. But he has definitely died of heart failure and Cardinals are duly summoned from across the globe to allow the hand and will of God to identify a successor. Arrivals include a Nigerian who is aiming to be the first black Pope, a Canadian who is capable of domination, an Italian who is a champion of the political Right and another who is not. There is also the diminutive figure of a Filipino, only recently appointed, who is very much an unknown.

The story unfolds from the point of view of the Dean, the Cardinal convener of the conclave, another Italian called Lomeli. He is something of a liberal, and he does not want to be Pope. At least that's what he says when asked. The action is portrayed from his point of view, but only ever in the third person. This works for the reader, because when any factual detail needs to be explained, Lomeli, in the third person, conveniently thinks about the issue and relates everything needed to make sense of the plot. Of course at equally convenient moments, he decides to tell the reader nothing, preferring to wait for the next chapter. This, presumably, is the author editing the Cardinal's thoughts.

Robert Harris's Conclave is the kind of genre piece where the plot is everything, so any review must steer well clear of revealing any of it.  On the face of it, there are numerous potentially interesting conflicts amongst those assembled for the election. There is First World and Third World, rich and poor, right and left, traditionalist and liberal, even Latin versus contemporary language. Scandal, sexuality, celibacy, child abuse, money, ambition, power and a little history are added to the mix, as are secret hiding places, lost relatives and terrorist atrocities. And, if there is anything missing, Cardinal Lomeli will conveniently think about it and let us know all that is deemed relevant.

But the plot is all, and that cannot be described. Suffice it say that this particular reader had worked out every detail of the plot inside the first forty pages and simply did not believe that the obvious route would be followed. It was. Then, throughout, cardboard cut-out Cardinals crossed the screen to enact said predictable routine. Conclave thus proved to be a mildly interesting way of filling a couple of hours but, unlike good fiction, it proved unworthy of a second read. There was enough complication in these people, however, to make Conclave worth reading once.

But as ever with genre fiction, it's the shortcomings that are the most memorable. Our ambitious, rather stentorian Nigerian Cardinal seems not to object when our third person Lomeli narrator refers to his language, Yoruba, as a dialect. The Italians, of course, speak Italian, which is a language. Admittedly, it's not only the Church that patronizes former colonies of the Third World.

But it is in area of realism, that over-worked, even cliched scenario of almost all genre fiction - even fantasy! - where the real problem arises. I give nothing away when I state that a terrorist atrocity figures at one point in the book. There are indeed near-simultaneous attacks across Europe, for some reason. It's convenient for the plot, it seems. One of the atrocities is close enough to the action to blow in windows of the Sistine Chapel, where the conclave continued. Just hours later, despite debris, bomb fragments and the odd bit of flesh being presumably still strewn around the area, we are told that a crowd of one hundred thousand has assembled nearby to await the announcement of the new Pope's identity. It's a good job the conclave did not take place in Salisbury, Wiltshire, since the onlookers would not have got near for several months. And without there having been either explosion or carnage...

Conclave by Robert Harris is a good read. It's quite well written in an inelegant way. The reader is regularly told convenient facts whenever they are needed, so there are really no characters, only two-dimensional costumes that act out a plot. It is generally more credible and perhaps more interesting than most genre fiction, and will please those who enjoy the form. Just don't expect anything else.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Eros and Psyche by Ludomir Rozicki

Opera reviews usually carry no spoiler warnings. On the contrary, they usually begin with an exhaustive, sometimes exhausting blow-by-blow account of every contrived detail of plot. So let this be no exception. Eros and Psyche by Ludomir Rozicki could be just another nineteenth century classical rewrite, just another femme fatale tear-jerker, but it is much more than that.
Psyche dreams of being swept off her feet by love. We feel that these Arcadian maidens occupying a green room to make up for a performance are almost imprisoned so that they might beautify themselves. Psyche is enamoured of, perhaps obsessed with a man, who has taken to visit her nightly. It´s a good time to pop in!

She reveals to a friend she has been seeing someone. Eros reappears and offers eternal love, but only on his terms. Somehow he has managed to conceal his identity, if not his intentions, until Blaks, the caretaker, inadvertently casts light on Eros’s face and then all hell is let loose. Eros condemns Psyche to suffer an eternal life of constant wandering and disappointment, a life in which Blaks will regularly reappear to deny her any fulfilment. It’s a judgment delivered by Perseus, who announces exile and eternal wandering as he hands over a passport and tickets for both Psyche and Blaks. As Psyche embarks upon her fate, we realise we must not blame the messenger.

Her first subsequent port of call is a party - perhaps a drunken orgy - in ancient Rome, a Rome that is of course not ancient for her. A couple of Greeks at the gathering lament what Romans have done to their culture, a culture inherited from their own people, including Psyche. She appears, but she is obviously out of place, of a different culture and time, and she is mocked by everyone, especially by the women, who ridicule her appearance. They label her mad and Blaks, who here is a Prefect, apparently in charge, delivers condemnation.

We move on to Spain during the Inquisition. Psyche embraces Christ crucified on the cross. There is sexuality in her obsession with the figure. She enters a convent, but still yearns for a life outside its confines. The other nuns do not trust her. She tells of her need for the sun and fresh air, but she is warned not to have ambition. She must do as she is told, because asking questions is sinful, here. There is to be a visit by the abbot, a man who recently condemned a nun to be burned at the stake. Psyche is thus warned. Her attitudes are described to the abbot, who condemns her. Blaks, of course, is the abbot, who wields power more easily than he exhibits faith. Eros appears, we think to save her, but all he offers is a facile song.

Our heroine’s next port of call is revolutionary France. She works while men drink. We learn that it was Psyche who led the storming of the Bastille in the name of freedom. She rejects an offer of marriage because she would rather serve the people. She wants to lead the commune into battle. She is too radical to be a revolutionary. She insists on principle and finds herself on the wrong side of politics. Guess who might be the pragmatic leader who condemns her beliefs.

A final scene is in a bar or nightclub, where psyche dances to entertain the drinkers, who are all men. Blaks, here called the Baron, is the owner of the club and the principal exploiter of the women who work for him. The women attract the men to the bar, they drink and the baron, not the women, makes money. Psyche laments her role, but the baron says it’s all her own fault. She laughs at offers of love, saying she wants to be independent. But, having achieved her liberation she finds she can’t cope with it.
Eros appears, perhaps to save the day. Psyche is still infatuated, but now also exhausted. Eros reveals he has an alter ego by the name of Thanatos, the personification of death, and thus Psyche learns she is doomed. Her response is to torch what remains of her life, a life that has now rejected her. Eros-Thanatos has the last word, however, by presenting Psyche with a sports car which has already crashed. He invites her to sit at the wheel and then paints her with her own blood to show the end has finally arrived.

Eros and Psyche was premiered in 1917 and Rozycki’s style is not unlike that of Symanowski, but there is also Richard Strauss in there, alongside not a little Debussy. Many of the short phrases are also reminiscent of Janacek, though usually without the bite. Given the opera’s date, we would expect Psyche, though still femme fatale, to be at least a little forward looking. She is certainly not a Violetta or Mimi, in that she is no mere victim of bad luck, disease or circumstance. She is closer to a Butterfly, but she does not accept her fate meekly and without protest. In classical terms, we may have here a Salome or Elektra, but these were anti-heroines who probably deserved what they got. Tosca got mixed up in politics that went wrong. One has the feeling that Psyche would have relished the opportunity, but it never arose.

Three other theatrically destroyed women of the era come to mind, Judith, Katya and Elena. Judith’s plight in Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle parallels Psyche’s here. Judith can only know Bluebeard by probing the psychological spaces of his mind. He resents this, but allows her to continue, knowing that once she knows him, he will have taken possession of her. Similarly, Psyche is punished because she gets to know Eros, thereby reducing his control over her, a control he must reassert by condemning her. The Bartok-Balasz character, however, is more modern than Psyche, despite the existence of castles and visions. It is only when Judith understands the mental make-up of Bluebeard that he has to punish her, because only then that she becomes a threat to him. She is eternally mummified alongside the wives who have preceded her.

Janacek’s Katya Kabova is a step back into the nineteenth century by virtue of originally having been a creation of Ostrovsky, but her achievement of a finality of death does ask some modern questions.  Ostrovsky’s nineteenth century provincial dramas general do away with their heroines, but it is the societies rather than the individuals that are seen at fault. When oppression and hypocrisy are cultural and structural, it is hard for any individual to oppose them. But here it is these attitudes that make female existence a tragedy. Yes, Katya takes her own life, but it is another woman, her own mother-in-law, who asks the community to witness the doing of justice and not to shed tears for a woman who brought her fate on herself. The music, in fact, ends with neither tragedy nor anger, but with a question mark. Elena Makropoulos presents a different challenge. In many ways she is in control. Like Psyche she has lived, or at claims to have done so, in many eras, has inhabited many roles and has had a string different lives. Her original fate, however, like Psyche’s, was imposed on her by a man, in Elena’s case her father. Like Psyche, Elena has become cynical about men’s motives and dismissive of their capabilities. Crucially, however, when Elena is offered the opportunity to take back control of her eternal existence, she rejects it, preferring death to repeating the same old things. Psyche was never offered control and its attainment was never in her grasp. But Psyche thinks she achieved a liberation from oppression at the end, though she was unable to cope with it. This makes her a more modern figure.

So, for a modern audience, Psyche cannot be merely a classical beauty who crosses a god. And in the production by Warsaw’s Polish National Opera, she isn’t. Each of the scenarios is transformed into a film set. Scene one is a giant green room, populated by women who clearly want to be stars. Whether Eros operated a casting couch is unclear, but the probability is high. From scene one’s green room, Psyche is cast her role in each of the other four scenes, each of which is destined to be part of a feature film in which she stars. When Blaks repeatedly frustrates her activities and condemns her, the two of them become near stereotypes for femme fatale and callous male power. If we ask if it has to be this way, we have to answer that it was a male god in the first instance that insisted it should be so.
By the end, Psyche has had enough and she torches the world that has exploited her. It ought to be a final act of self-destructive defiance but the god and men even then reassert their control. A car crash is organised and she is painted with blood. The car itself part of the trappings of the stardom she has sought, and thus Psyche potentially becomes a tabloid press headline, probably moralising about a life of debauchery or excess. Psyche thus becomes a modern victim. She is a Marilyn Monroe ruined by fame, or perhaps a Jayne Mansfield, epitome of womanhood exploited for male voyeurs.
Thanks to the internet and Opera Vision we can all view this production from Warsaw and thereby draw our own conclusions. Streamed via a smart TV or perhaps better in the case of Opera Vision via a laptop and cable, the opera even comes with subtitles for anyone who might not catch all of the  original Polish . Joanna Freszel as Psyche gives a stunning performance, being vocally up the task as well as combining the confidence, ambition and assertion of a modern woman alongside the naivete and vulnerability of anyone who might fall in love. Mikołaj Zalasiński as Blaks is brilliant at using his power whilst never really appearing to be worthy of its extent, which is exactly what the character of Psyche must be thinking. He also makes the role anti-intellectual, thus stressing the contrast between the use of power and any knowledge of its consequences. 

The broadcast was in 2018 and these days there are only extracts from this production. But they are still excellent.

Monday, July 6, 2020

Why did I write Eileen McHugh, a life remade?

I wanted to explore several strands, the first and most important being the interrelationship between popular and populist, understanding the latter term in its colloquial sense of wanting to achieve popularity, possibly at all costs. I have long found it intriguing why pop music, for instance, is assumed to refer to ‘popular’ music when something over ninety per cent of releases never achieve popularity on any measure. Probably more than ninety per cent of pop is also not from Tajikistan, but we do not call it Tajik music. Thus labelling things by what they are not could be an infinite process! If pop means populist, however, then it makes sense, because this art form seeks, by whatever means, to achieve public notice, sales, profit and the rest, with the stress on the words ‘aspires to achieve’, hence the failure of ninety per cent of the genre. This often leads to an artist compromising an idea to render it saleable. But if an artist does not do that, the work remains unknown, anonymous, unexperienced. How much should an artist in whatever form seek to live within the confines of recognisable genre? And is that possible without compromising what the artist wants to communicate? How far can one go along this road before reproducing cliché?

Eileen McHugh is an artist. She is a sculptor. She seeks no avenues of compromise in her work. Her career was short and unnoticed. Paradoxically, one of her works has achieved viral status on the internet via a photograph posted in the name of Mary Reynolds, who now wants to create a biography of the artist and a discussion of her work so that she can create a museum to display it. She has contacted Eileen’s mother and has the artist’s sketchbooks and notes.

Eileen wanted to tell stories in her work, stories that arose out of the detritus of people’s lives, their bits and pieces of discarded trash. Her work at one stage is described as ‘off the wall’ as well as on it. The form of the book, however, repeatedly illustrates how lives themselves mirror this state. The lives of people who knew the artist become like new works created by Eileen, assemblages of life’s discarded bits and pieces.

Another strand was the obsession that drives artistic expression, if the motivations of populism and profit do not apply. Why exactly did Schubert write over six hundred songs when he never heard a single one of them performed before a paying audience? What motivated the composer Mieczeslaw Wenberg to ‘write for the shelf’? What drove a deaf Beethoven to communicate via sound?

And why is it that we often feel challenged by art? Is it because we have no idea what we like, and prefer to live in the security of liking what we know? Is it because we only trust things with which we have an assumed commercial relationship, so therefore we trust the transactions being offered?

Paradoxically, by the end of Eileen McHugh, the artist herself is perhaps the person we know the least, despite having been the subject of the whole book! If we do not see people as assemblages of their petty likes and dislikes, any of which might change on whim, what is left? Perhaps it remains as anonymous and unknown as ignored work. Our real contribution to humanity, however, artistically or otherwise, is eventually revealed as that which we give to others. Even tragedy can have a positive outcome.