A short visit to Vienna

As regular readers of this blog may have noticed – and I flatter myself there are a few regular readers – I haven’t been around much lately: I’ve been enjoying a few days in Vienna. And no – I won’t put up my holiday snaps: they aren’t, frankly, very good, and if you really want a flavor of what Vienna looks like, a quick browse through Google Images will give you a far better impression than any snaps taken with my cheap digital camera.

Oh, very well then – I admit it: I forgot to pack my camera. But really, there’s no harm done. Enjoyment of a place is by no means enhanced merely by pointing a camera and snapping. Indeed, one may argue – as I certainly did, very vehemently, when my wife reprimanded for not having packed the camera – that enjoyment of a moment is intensified rather than otherwise by our awareness of its transience; and that, as Louis MacNeice put it,

We cannot cage the minute
Within its nets of gold

Not even, MacNeice may have added, with a cheap digital camera.

In many ways, Vienna is an endless celebration of kitsch. One knew that right away as the plane landed at Vienna Airport with the Blue Danube waltz piping out to the passengers. It’s all Viennese waltzes and Viennese whirls, chocolate cakes and apple strudels. And, like any major European city, tacky souvenir shops.

I have a fascination with tackiness: I love browsing through cheap and tasteless souvenirs. The souvenir shops in Vienna are dominated by Mozart: Mozart coffee mugs, Mozart fridge magnets, Mozart mouse-mats, Mozart t-shirts, Mozart ties and scarves – anything at all you may care to imagine, but with a picture of Mozart on it. Why this unremitting focus on Mozart I wonder? After all, Beethoven was equally a resident of Vienna, and was no lesser a composer. There are also Haydn, Schubert, Brahms, and many, many others. Had any of these other composers been immortalised in tacky souvenirs, I would have been tempted: if I had seen, say, a Gustav Mahler coffee mug, or an Alban Berg baseball cap, I’d have had my wallet out right away. But these, I admit, I viewed and passed on.

Of course, I had to make a pilgrimage to the Big Ferris Wheel at the Prater. I may not look or sound like Orson Welles, but I’ve seen The Third Man so many times over the years that I know Harry Lime’s dialogue by heart. I was going to recite the Cuckoo Clock speech at the foot of the big wheel, but at the last moment, decided I’d look something of a fool if I did, and chickened out. Perhaps I should have gone ahead with it: a few minutes of looking a fool is, after all, a fair price to pay for having been Harry Lime – if only for just those few minutes.

And then, there was the Wiener Staatsoper, where I had cheapish seats for Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty. I was never was much of a ballet fan, to be honest, but I do love Tchaikovsky’s score, and, as far as I was concerned, hearing this music played so beautifully was worth the admission price on its own. So the restricted view didn’t really bother me much. However, when I stood up (I was at the back of a box with no-one behind me), I did get a pretty good view of them all prancing round to the music. And pretty damn good they were too.

And then, the art galleries. Vienna’s most famous artist, Gustav KlimtI have never really liked: I have no idea how to define “kitsch” or “schmaltz”, but whatever they mean, that’s what I see in Klimt. And seeing his works face to face did not, I’m afraid, change my perception. Egon Schiele I found far more interesting. But – cultural conservative that I no doubt am – the greatest pleasure was a whole day spent at the Kunsthistorischesmuseum, which has one of the most wonderful collections of any gallery –  Bruegel, Dürer, Holbein, Titian, Velazquez, etc. etc. And three splendid late Rembrandt self-portraits. And Vermeer’s extraordinary The Art of Painting. And some paintings by Caravaggio – most notably the Madonna of the Rosary – that fair took my breath away: I had seen this in reproduction before, but nothing quite prepares you for the experience of seeing this monumental work in the flesh, as it were.

Madonna of the Rosary by Caravaggio, courtesy of Kunsthistorischesmuseum, Vienna

Madonna of the Rosary by Caravaggio, courtesy of Kunsthistorischesmuseum, Vienna

And speaking of flesh, there was Rubens. Lots and lots of Rubens. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – he who is tired of large naked ladies in fur wraps is tired of life itself.

So I’ll leave you with one of the old boy’s most seductive works. (And hopefully, I’ll be back soon to writing about books.)

"The Fur Wrap" by Rubens, courtesy of Kunsthistorischesmuseum, Vienna

“The Fur Wrap” by Rubens, courtesy of Kunsthistorischesmuseum, Vienna

Britten’s “Peter Grimes” at English National Opera

I am acquainted with about four or five of Britten’s operas, but don’t pretend to know any of them intimately. These are works I have heard once in a while, but haven’t actually lived with: and major works of art, which I am convinced these operas are even though my acquaintance with them is no more than casual, need ideally to be lived with. But nonetheless, it is hard to come to Peter Grimes without at least some preconceptions.

It is a work I have found problematic in the past. Britten and Pears have both spoken of it as being a depiction of an outsider – which, indeed, it is: Grimes is an outsider hounded to his death by local villagers, who are presented throughout in a most unflattering of lights. However, Grimes himself I find so reprehensible a person that I can’t at times help sympathising with the villagers, despicable though they are. Surely this man, with his tendency towards violence, is not a man to be trusted with the care of a helpless apprentice boy? Surely the villagers are right in not wanting Grimes to be in charge of another apprentice, after the last one had died? The death of the last apprentice is recorded in the court as “accidental”; and it is also noted that Grimes had previously saved the boy from drowning. Nonetheless, for Grimes to chase after a shoal of fish without carrying sufficient supplies of drinking water cannot be interpreted as anything other than a case of gross negligence. The villagers are clearly driven by hatred for Grimes rather than by concern for the boy – but can it be doubted that, whatever their reasons, they are right on this particular matter?

I tried to put all these things out of my mind when going to see last Sunday the much feted production by the English National Opera. After all, we need not approve of a character morally to see him as a tragic hero: Macbeth is an obvious example in this respect. Let us grant, then, that Grimes is, indeed, deeply reprehensible. Does that inhibit our feelings of pity and terror?

On the evidence of David Alden’s production, the answer is “no”. Rarely have I seen anything on stage that packs so powerful an emotional punch. But the almost visceral impact made by the drama should not obscure some rather unsettling questions – most especially, to what extent is Grimes himself a monster? To what extent does he deserve any pity at all?

The production does its best to direct our sympathies towards Grimes: at the end of the second act, for instance, as the orchestra plays a tender requiem for the dead boy, we see Grimes weeping over his body: this is an addition to the libretto, and, while I can see why this addition was made, I couldn’t help wondering whether the drama would have been even more powerful, even more unsettling, without it. For to depict Grimes, as this production does, as an essentially decent and compassionate man beneath his rough exterior, and beneath his casual thoughtlessness, is, in a way, to make things a bit easy for the audience: it would have been far more disturbing, I think, to have challenged the audience to feel pity and compassion for a man who deserves none.

For that is how Britten, and his librettist Montagu Slater, wrote it. Whatever Britten and Pears may subsequently have said about Grimes being an outsider, or about Grimes being a visionary, the drama as presented by the libretto and by the music makes no attempt to soften the harsh outlines of the man. He is a brutal man who is violent to his apprentices; he is a man who, not once but repeatedly, shows not the slightest concern for his apprentices’ wellbeing; he is a man of whom his latest apprentice – eerily silent in all the scenes in which he appears – is clearly frightened. And as for his visionary qualities – his most heartfelt aspirations are nothing more noble or idealistic than the acquisition of wealth and social standing. Apart from the detail we hear in the prologue of having once saved his former apprentice from drowning, it is difficult to think of anything to say in Grimes’ favour.

Another question that inevitably crops us is why Grimes should be such an outsider. He is, after all, a brutal man in a brutal society: why does he not fit in? The answers that I have seen focus on autobiographical details: Britten and Pears had been conscientious objectors, and as a consequence, in the aftermath of the War, there have been, rightly or wrongly, strong feelings of disapprobation. And, of course, Britten and Pears were gay at a time when homosexuality was illegal. But it has always seemed to me a mistake to try to interpret any work of art on the basis of the artist’s biography: what internal evidence is there that can suggest some sort of reason for Grimes’ status as an outsider? As far as I can see, there is none. One cannot even ascribe the villagers’ hatred to Grimes’ rough treatment of his apprentices: in that society, rough treatment of apprentice boys was the norm, and fatalities amongst apprentice boys, especially in a calling as fraught with danger as fishing, were common. The villagers’ hatred is unmotivated: it is utterly irrational. It just is.

This creates something of a challenge for the audience, especially audiences who may think, as many appear to do, that one cannot become involved in a drama unless one can sympathise with one or other of the characters. For there is no-one here to sympathise with – not even Ellen Orford,  who is foolish enough to hand the apprentice boy over to Grimes, thus effectively signing his death warrant. But the idea that one must sympathise with characters is, it seems to me, a red herring: whether we sympathise or not, Britten challenges us to look on in terror and pity at what humans do to each other, and to themselves. By the time we get to the feverish final act, Grimes is unhinged, and we do not sit in judgement over this tortured man, any more than we say “Serves you right you murdering bastard!” when Othello tells us that fiends will snatch at his soul.

The production brings the action forward to the 1940s – roughly the time this opera was composed. Such a decision can have pitfalls: for one thing, the depiction of inhabitants of a small coastal town in the 1940s is bound to have, for a British audience at least, unfortunate overtones of Dad’s Army. Also, the reference to the workhouse becomes anachronistic. But on the whole, the updating in time worked well enough, despite Leigh Melrose as Ned Keene, here done up as a spiv, inevitably, for me at least, evoking memories of Private Walker. But this aside, there was not the slightest hint here of the cosiness of Dad’s Army. Quite the opposite: the village provided throughout a deeply oppressive and unsettling environment against which the tragedy unfolded. The crowd scenes were superbly done: the villagers seemed collectively a protagonist in the drama, and at the same time, various individual villagers were vividly depicted as characters in their own right. Only with “Auntie” and her two “nieces” did I find myself entertaining some doubts: “Auntie” was here dressed in a very masculine pinstripe suit and a fur coat; and the “nieces”, despite exuding sexuality, were presented very disturbingly as doll-carrying schoolgirls. Further, their stylised, marionette-like movements I found extremely uncomfortable. All this is as it should be: “Auntie” and her “nieces” should make us feel uncomfortable. But, as presented here, they evoked a world of bohemian decadence that seemed a bit out of kilter with what is, after all, provincial backwater. And should they seem so out of kilter? It is Grimes, after all, and not they, who are the outsiders here.

Alden eschews strict realism – which is always an option in this opera. The sets are here semi-abstract, evoking states of mind as well as suggesting the physical settings of the courthouse, or of the seafront, or of the inn. Most effective were the steeply raked tables that represented Grimes’ hut – and also, one suspects, his state of mind. And the staging of the apprentice’s death really could not have been done better: as we hear a cry offstage, and the rope to which the apprentice is tied suddenly disappears from view, I found myself experiencing a sick feeling in the pit of the stomach. And Grimes’ final scene in Act Three – Grimes “mad scene” – is about as horrifying as anything I have experienced in the opera: whatever reservations I may have had about this work coming into the opera house were, by this stage, all completely forgotten. Only in Berg’s Wozzeck, I think, have I experienced anything remotely comparable.

Of course, Wozzeck is a major influence in this, Britten’s first major opera. One could have a great deal of fun spotting all the other influences – some of which are virtually spelt out by Britten himself: the inn scene during the storm is clearly modeled on a similar scene in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess; the quartet with Ellen, Auntie, and the two nieces (actually a trio as the nieces sing in unison) is clearly modeled on the famous trio towards the end of Der Rosenkavalier; and so on. The most salient influence was that of Britten’s hero, Verdi: the very opening, where Peter Grimes’ name is called out three times in the courthouse, recalls the three calls of “Radames” in the trial scene in Aida. It requires no great insight spotting these (and other) correspondences. But what is remarkable is the way Britten makes them his own: all these references to other works serve Britten own musical and dramatic purpose, and what results is very individual, very different from the works of Verdi, or of Strauss, or of Berg, or of Gershwin, present though they all are. Britten does not “borrow” from the works of others, so much as take what they have to offer and transform them into something very much after his own fashion.

I generally try to avoid writing about the music since, not having had a musical education, I do not feel qualified to do so. So perhaps I should restrict myself merely to saying that as far as my admittedly untrained ears could judge, what I heard last Sunday was exceptional from all concerned. The orchestra, conducted by Edward Gardner, produced some quite extraordinary sounds; and leading the fine cast was the Australian tenor Stuart Skelton, whose singing, both musically and dramatically, was coruscating.

In short, I am convinced: the reservations I had previously entertained have all been dispelled. So much so, I now want to get to know Britten’s other operas; and, in no time at all, I’m sure I’ll become a fully paid up member of the Society of Britten-Bores. No matter. When you see something so powerful in a live performance, it becomes difficult to get it out of your system

A retraction, and a memory

The mere few minutes that so often separate writing from publication on a blog can be a source both of pleasure, and of embarrassment. For now, as I look back on my previous post, I find myself profoundly embarrassed by the following line:

Throughout the nineteenth century, Don Giovanni was seen a romantic character, searching eternally for an ideal love.

How I wish now I had thought a bit harder about this before publishing! For, of course, the nineteenth century was no more monolithic in thought than is our own, and to dismiss the interpretations of an entire century with a throwaway and unreferenced comment is extremely foolish, to say the least. True, I have read some writings from that era that do indeed view the character of Don Giovanni in such a romanticised light, but the problem is I can’t reference these writings because I do not remember where I had read them. I should therefore have done the sensible thing and not have made any reference at all to these romanticised interpretations; or, perhaps, I could have restricted myself to something  bit more vague, such as: “Certain romantic interpretations have seen Don Giovanni as someone searching eternally for an ideal love …” or something of that nature. But it’s too late now: the damn thing is up there, and has been read. So the best I can offer now, I suppose, is a retraction of that part of my post, before someone picks me up on it.

But enough of that. Once we start retracting bits we have come to think better of, there is no end to the matter: very little of this blog would, I suspect, remain unretracted. But if past posts on this blog are regarded as articulations of what I thought at the time then rather than of what I think now, I suppose there is no harm done. What I really wanted in this post, other than retracting the bit from the last one that made no sense, was to share – given my continuing preoccupation with Don Giovanni – a memory I curiously retain of that opera from my student days, some 35 or so years ago.

Let me set the background. Having seen on television a broadcast of Don Giovanni from Glyndebourne (it was this one), I had saved up my pennies, and bought myself this recording on LP. The problem was I did not have a record player, and could only listen to it when back in my parents’ house. And, this being in the Dark Days before Spotify or even the internet, I remember that music going endlessly round my head, and wishing I could just listen to it somewhere. There was one bit in particular that haunted me. Don Giovanni has taken a fancy to the maidservant of his abandoned wife; and so, to get his abandoned wife out of the way, he sings to her from under her window, pretending to be penitent. And when she comes down, seduced once again by his honeyed tones, his servant, dressed as the master and his face hidden in the dark of the night, is to lead this abandoned wife away, leaving Don Giovanni free to add to his list of conquests. It is, of course, a scene of extraordinary cruelty. And the trio Mozart provides at this point is nothing short of miraculous. The servant, Leporello, is enjoying the adventure, while at the same time feeling sorry for Donna Elvira, his master’s deserted wife; at the same time, Donna Elvira’s surprise and incredulity gives way all too easily to a resurgence of hope, and an outpouring of a passion that had never left her. Meanwhile, Don Giovanni himself sings the most heartfelt and seductive of music, which is all the more disturbing for being so utterly cynical and insincere. And all of this and more is depicted simultaneously, in music of the most perfect beauty.

And there was one phrase from that trio that kept circling my mind ceaselessly. After Donna Elvira’s initial lament for her lost love, master and servant exchange a few words to each other, and then Don Giovanni sings, twice, “Elvira, idol mio”. She is startled. Is that the “ingrato”? And Don Giovanni replies in two glorious phrases:

Sì, vita mia, son’io,
e chiedo carità.

And for whatever reason, it was those two phrases that kept whirling around my mind. I still have such a vivid memory of walking back one evening from the university back to my student lodgings, through Sauchiehall Street in Central Glasgow, with those phrases circling incessantly in my head. And how I wished I could hear the thing!

Well, that’s all this post is about, really. The memory of a memory. Of no particular interest to anyone, perhaps, other than to myself. At least, I trust there is nothing here I would wish to retract once I’ve hit the “post” button.

Some reflections on Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”

I’ve been going through a bit of a Don Giovanni phase of late. But of course, when have I not been in a Don Giovanni phase? I discovered it in my student days, when I was making my first tentative forays into this strange, unknown thing called “classical music”, and on discovering this opera, I was instantly transfixed. As with the other two Mozart-da Ponte operas – which I acquainted myself with soon afterwards – Don Giovanni became a permanent fixture in my mind, one of those things I am constantly aware of even when I am not consciously thinking about them. But these last few days, I have been consciously thinking about it. Last Wednesday, we braved the local floods to go to the cinema to attend a live broadcast of the opera from Covent Garden: the production was an interesting one, though not, to my mind, entirely successful (but more of that later); and musically, despite superb playing from the orchestra, it struck me as being merely mediocre. Not bad as such – “mediocre” doesn’t mean “bad”, although it is often taken to – but nothing too memorable either. However, I am not qualified to provide a musical criticism, so I’ll steer clear of that: even a mediocre performance of Don Giovanni is, for me, a bit special, and, since viewing it, I have barely been able to think of anything else.  And so, this evening, still under the spell of the work, I put on the DVD we have of a Glyndebourne Festival production from the mid-1990s of  Don Giovanni. Both in terms of performance and of production, I found the Glyndebourne version far more satisfying than the Covent Garden version we saw on Wednesday; however, even in the best productions, the drama, I think, remains elusive: of the three Mozart-da Ponte operas, this is, dramatically, the most problematic.

The dramatic problems are caused in part – though not wholly – by conflation. As with Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, or with Shakespeare’s Hamlet and King Lear, there are two distinct versions of this work – one Mozart had composed for the Prague première, and a somewhat different version for Vienna; and conflating the two creates certain dramatic weaknesses that don’t exist in either of the originals. In the conflated version, the dramatic momentum comes virtually to a standstill in the middle of the second act, as various arias intended for different versions are performed one after the other. In Boris Godunov, Hamlet, and King Lear, moving away from the conflated version and using one or other of the originals tightens the drama considerably. However, in Don Giovanni, what is gained dramatically by moving away from the conflated version seems to me slight, and nowhere near enough to compensate for the loss of some of the most extraordinary operatic music ever conceived: for even in the two original versions, there are, I think, dramatic problems.

The main problem – whether one uses the version premiered in Prague, or the version premiered in Vienna, or some conflation of the two – is that the resolution of the drama, that overwhelming climactic scene in which Don Giovanni is dragged down to Hell, has little to do with most of what we have seen in the rest of the opera. None of the interactions Don Giovanni has with any of the other characters, or, indeed, the interactions of these other characters with each other, fascinating though they all are, has any bearing on this resolution. So what exactly does this resolution resolve? Why present us with all these complex characters and all these complex interactions if, in the end, none of it actually leads to anything? I don’t think I have ever encountered a production that has satisfactorily addressed this problem.

In the Covent Garden production I saw on Wednesday, director Kasper Holten kept the focus firmly on Don Giovanni, making him appear on stage even in scenes where he is not usually present: so, for instance, as Don Ottavio sings privately of his feelings for Donna Anna (“Dalla sua pace”), we see behind him Donna Anna disappearing into a bedroom with Don Giovanni: we cannot be sure whether Donna Anna really is having an affair with Don Giovanni behind Ottavio’s back, or whether, as is more likely, this is a projection of Donna Anna’s desires; but the effect of staging such as this is to keep Don Giovanni constantly in the picture, throughout the entire work. So, when the climactic scene occurs near the end, it doesn’t really matter so much all those other characters in the opera have no part in it: the spotlight throughout has been very much on Don Giovanni, so there is no problem with his dominating the finale. In keeping with this focus on the principal character, the sextet that normally follows this climactic scene, in which the other characters tell us what they intend doing afterwards, is cut: by this stage, these other characters are of no interest. Bypassing the sextet, we cut directly to the final passage of the opera, in which we hear sung a rather trite-sounding moral (“This is the fate of miscreants: evildoers always come to an equally evil end”). And even here, we have a directorial twist: this passage is sung not by the characters on stage, as da Ponte’s libretto specifies, but seemingly by disembodied voices off-stage. This moral is presented as humanity’s judgement on Don Giovanni, not the judgement of specific characters, who have, by now, more or less ceased to matter. Meantime, we see Don Giovanni alone on stage: this is the greatest Hell someone like Don Giovanni can be made to suffer – an eternity of solitude. Whether this is a real Hell, or a symbolic or psychological Hell, it is up to us to decide. (It’s probably symbolic and psychological: we don’t really go for real hells in our enlightened times.)

This focus on Don Giovanni, this attempt to get inside Don Giovanni’s mind (as director Kasper Holten says is his intention), is, however, fraught with dangers. For Mozart does not, I think, give us any sort of clue at all as to what really is going on inside Don Giovanni’s mind. Despite being the opera’s principal character, despite his tremendous personality dominating the opera, he doesn’t have a formal aria: he has three short solo pieces, none of which tells us much about him. In the first of these pieces, he is commanding and energetic, giving orders to prepare a party: it is a short piece of tremendous vitality, but doesn’t really tell us anything about him that we do not already know. In his second solo piece, he is singing a serenade, and it is utterly gorgeous and seductive: however, he had used a variation of this tune a bit earlier when he was trying, with utmost cynicism, to draw Donna Elvira away from the scene so he could have a go at her maidservant: beautiful though the serenade is, it is but a formula he uses as and when he needs to: it is utterly insincere. And in his third solo, he is pretending to be his servant Leporello: once again, the real Don Giovanni eludes us.

And this is the problem: how does one get inside Don Giovanni’s head when there appears to be no path in? And yet, one feels one needs to: after all, even without Kasper Holten’s directorial decisions, his personality dominates this work; he is a character of tremendous vitality and charisma, and none of the other characters can match him in these stakes. He dominates this work as surely as Hamlet dominates Shakespeare’s play; and, like Hamlet, he is endlessly fascinating. But where Shakespeare’s play is almost overloaded with material exploring the state of Hamlet’s mind, there seems to me here to be nothing, absolutely nothing, to indicate what is going on in Don Giovanni’s.

Throughout the nineteenth century, Don Giovanni was seen a romantic character, searching eternally for an ideal love. Nowadays, we may find such ideas soppy: as enlightened modern people, we know, as our misty-eyed and rather stupid ancestors did not, that what we mean by love is really nothing more than sexual desire. So Don Giovanni must be given some other grand purpose. In an interview broadcast during the interval of the live broadcast, director Kasper Holten says that Don Giovanni is a man attempting to escape from his mortality. Fair enough, I suppose: certainly less soppy than looking for an eternal love. Except that I can see nothing either in the libretto or in the music to support this contention. In the scene where Don Giovanni forces the frightened Leporello to invite the dead Commendatore to dinner, and the dead Commendatore sings the single word “si”, we see Don Giovanni clutching his head in mental and spiritual agony at this intimation of mortality: but there is nothing in the libretto to indicate any such agony, and the music continues merely to depict Leporello’s terror, and Don Giovanni’s amusement. This idea that Don Giovanni desires to escape from his mortality is, like the nineteenth century idea that he is searching for a perfect love, merely a projection on to the Don of our own preoccupations. As to what is going on in Don Giovanni’s mind, we do not know.

My own suspicion, strengthened each time I approach his work, is that there is precisely nothing going on in his mind – that there really is no more to him than the surface that we see. The surface is so extraordinarily fascinating, we may feel that there must be something of substance underneath it: but I don’t think there is. Other than a constant, never-ending desire for sexual gratification, and, at times, a certain coarse and cruel sense of humour, there really is nothing. Even his seeming heroism when faced with the statue of the dead Commendatore may not be as impressive as it seems at first sight: it is the overcoming of fear that may be described as “courage”, but Don Giovanni does not seem even to have the capacity to be afraid in the first place, any more than he had the capacity earlier in the opera to feel guilt after killing a man. His insatiable sexual desire really is all there is of him: and beyond that – nothing.

It is hard to see what other conclusion one can come to. Every attempt to find some substance in this character seems to me to be imposing on him something that just isn’t there. For over two centuries now, the character of Don Giovanni has resisted all attempts at interpretation. It is not, as with Hamlet, that there are too many possibilities: quite the opposite – there is none. And it is precisely this – this hollowness where there should be substance – that seems to me so disturbing. All this charisma, this energy, this vitality – could it all really be for nothing?

Throughout the course of the opera, Don Giovanni is involved in four distinct dramatic strands, some of them overlapping. In each, there is a potential for a human relationship; but in each, Don Giovanni remains curiously and utterly detached. The first is his relationship with his servant, Leporello. Leporello has ambivalent feelings about his master: he clearly takes a vicarious delight in his master’s conquests, and generally finds his escapades amusing; but he retains, nonetheless, sufficient moral compass to feel at times sorry for his victims, and to recognise that his master is leading the life of a scoundrel (“briccone”). But how does Don Giovanni feel about his servant? He certainly takes a delight in seeing Leporello uncomfortable – as in the supper scene where he perceives that Leporello is secretly eating some of the food intended for his master, and mischievously orders him to whistle; and it amuses him to see Leporello frightened, as in the graveyard scene. But beyond this, there is absolutely nothing about Don Giovanni’s feelings for Leoprello, and anything we may suggest on that score is, once again, projections of our own ideas on to Don Giovanni. I rather suspect that Don Giovanni feels nothing at all for his servant: he is not capable of feeling.

The second relationship is with his wife, Donna Elvira, whom he has abandoned. This is, in effect, the situation we see with the Count and Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro, but pushed to an almost grotesque extreme.  In the earlier opera, the Count is philandering, and is serially unfaithful to his wife; and she, with what in Mozart’s time was regarded as a tragic dignity but which in our own time is possibly more often regarded as stupidity, continues to love him, laments what is lost, and wishes to redeem him. Here, Donna Elvira also, despite knowing the sort of person her husband is, and despite perhaps knowing that she is doomed to failure, persists in her love, and tries to reclaim him. She retains the tragic dignity of the Countess (“Che aspetto nobile, che dolce maesta”), but she is driven almost demented by her husband’s utter indifference. Even Leporello can feel sorry for her, but such feelings are beyond Don Giovanni. It is not even hatred that he feels for her: he feels, once again, nothing at all.

The third relationship is with Donna Anna and Don Ottavio, and here, matters are complex indeed. At the start of the opera, as the curtain rises, we see Leporello keeping guard while his master is on seduction duty; and then, suddenly, the music explodes. Don Giovanni and Donna Anna burst out of the house, she trying to hold him back, and he trying to escape before the household is awakened. And ironically, perhaps, it is she who, at this point, is the dominant character: it is she who introduces the melodic material, and Don Giovanni is reduced merely to echoing her. It would seem that his attempt at seduction has failed. But has it? Is it possible that she has turned on him after a successful attempt on her honour? Is it even possible that she was not an unwilling partner? Mozart and da Ponte don’t tell us, and, as a consequence of our not knowing, the scenes involving these characters have about them a tremendously powerful edge of uncertainty. However, our modern age, it seems, cannot take too seriously the idea of a chaste woman protecting her virtue: the recent Covent Garden production is by no means the first I have seen that insists that Don Giovanni and Donna Anna have indeed been having it off, and that she was, as they say, “gagging for it”.

I really cannot see what is gained by removing the ambiguity: I can see that much is lost. For one thing, if it is really the case that Donna Anna really was a willing sexual partner; and, further, that she knows that it was Don Giovanni who had killed her father; then her violent outburst in the passage leading up to her aria “Or sai chi l’onore”, and the passion of the aria itself, would all be mere simulation: the whole thing would be a long and elaborate lie. And it is not entirely clear what motive she should have to spin such a lie. In the Covent Garden production, it is implied that she spins this story because she is infuriated on discovering the relationship between Don Giovanni and Donna Elvira, but I can’t say I am convinced: even granted that she is infuriated for this reason, what could she hope to gain by telling this elaborate lie – to Don Ottavio, of all people, who has not the slightest chance of imposing himself against Don Giovanni?

By the end, in her final aria “Non mi dir”, she pledges her love to Don Ottavio – although the coloratura passage at the end of the aria may indicate something other than pure tenderness on her part. Kasper Holten interprets this scene as Donna Anna finally deciding that Don Giovanni is not really for her, and that it is Don Ottavio whom she really loves. Fair enough: but if it is indeed the case that Donna Anna develops as a character, then surely there should be some indication in the drama of why she develops in this manner, and how. And I certainly can’t see any indication at all. Once again, it seems to me, an interpretation is being imposed that has no grounding in either the libretto or in the music.

Of course, the relationship between Donna Anna and Don Ottavio is complex, and there are no easy answers. I’d guess that Donna Anna was certainly no willing partner at the start of the opera; and, further, that she probably did manage to hold off Don Giovanni while raising the alarm; but that, nonetheless, she is attracted to him: which lady isn’t, after all? But she feels tremendous guilt as a consequence of this attraction: Don Giovanni is the man, after all, who has killed her father. I accept this is all conjecture – albeit conjecture that is not inconsistent with the libretto and with what the music tells us. But whatever the truth of the matter, we are in deep psychological waters here, and presenting Donna Anna as Giovanni’s consensual partner who lies her head off for the rest of the opera does seem to me not only unwarranted, but an ironing out of complexities and ambiguities that Mozart and da Ponte had deliberately put there.

But what does Don Giovanni feel about Donna Anna and Don Ottavio? It seems to me that, once again, whatever Donna Anna and Don Ottavio may feel for each other or for Don Giovanni, he, as ever, feels nothing at all for them. Every time we try to figure out what Don Giovanni feels, we run into a complete blank.

And similarly with the last set of relationships involving Don Giovanni – that with the peasant couple Zerlina and Masetto. It is, once again, a sort of reprise of what we had seen in Le Nozze di Figaro, except that here it is pushed, once again, to extremes: an aristocrat tries to take away a woman from a lower social class from the man she is to marry, and isn’t concerned about what either of them may feel. But while there is some similarity between Masetto and Figaro, and between Don Giovanni and the Count, there is none between Zerlina and Susanna: Zerlina is either naïve, or manipulative, or possibly a bit of both: Susanna is neither, and remains throughout unswervingly loyal to her betrothed. The emotional climates of the two operas are very different. The Count in Le Nozze di Figaro, despite being corrupted by the power he wields, is still capable of feeling: Don Giovanni isn’t. Beyond his sexual desire for Zerlina, he, once again, feels nothing at all for her. And neither does he give a second thought to Masetto.

So how can one convincingly present on stage a character of tremendous charm and appeal, of irresistible charisma and vitality, but who is so utterly hollow underneath? Someone who is incapable of forming any sort of human relationship with anyone because there really is nothing more to him than the need for constant sexual gratification? Kasper Holten’s attempt to get into Don Giovanni’s mind is an interesting one, but I think it fails; and I think it fails because Holten is searching for something that simply doesn’t exist. What goes on in Don Giovanni’s mind? Apart from lust – nothing. What humanity there is in the opera may be found in the complex of emotions of the characters around Don Giovanni, but not in Don Giovanni himself.

Holten’s presentation of the drama probably works better seen in the opera house than it did on screen. It involved a rotating maze of doors and stairs, with various electronic projections against the walls and the characters. In the cinema broadcast, with close-ups and cuts between different camera angles, it often seemed fussy, over-intricate, and even confused. I’d guess it works better seen on stage. But I think, on the whole, that the bare stripped-down presentation that director Deborah Warner and designer Hildegard Bechtler give us in the Glyndebourne DVD is a more effective way of  presenting the opera, in which the drama is already so tangled that any further intricacy serves but to confuse rather than to clarify. But not having seen Holten’s production on stage, I wouldn’t be too insistent on that point.

I do, however, find it fascinating that we continue to try to find depths in the character of Don Giovanni where, it seems to me, there are no depths at all. Why is nothingness in this person so difficult to accept, I wonder? What is it that makes us feel that there must be something more to him than there really is? I’m afraid I still do not know: the idea that there really is nothing behind the surface disturbs me also, for reasons I cannot quite grasp.

***

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Reading Lawrence

Books are often recommended on the basis that it is “unputdownable”. That it is a constant page-turner”. Once I started, I couldn’t put it down till I had finished. And so on.

Let’s not be sniffy. I have enjoyed such books also. The Three Musketeers, Farewell My Lovely, the Flashman novels - all compulsive unputdown-ers, and splendid they all are. To this day I can remember that shiver of excitement I had felt as an eleven-year-old when Dr Mortimer had leant forward and confided: “Mr Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound.” How could any first-time-reader – or, for that matter, any hundredth time reader – not turn the page at that point?

But even acknowledging the immense pleasure of a quality page-turner, there exists another kind of book that deserves our attention. Not page-turners, but rather, books where you often find yourself reading over the page you’ve just finished; not books that you can’t put down, but on the contrary, books that you need to put down frequently to savour and think about what you have just read. Such books may be hard for publishers’ PR departments to promote – which, I imagine, is the reason why publishers’ PR departments don’t bother – but they’re often worth the effort.

The book I am reading on my commuter train these days – The Rainbow by D. H Lawrence – is very much like that. Well, re-reading  I suppose, but I got so little out of my first reading (over thirty years ago now) that it doesn’t feel like a re-read. When I wrote about Lawrence here some three years ago, I couldn’t help expressing an admiration for his seriousness of purpose, and for his intensity of utterance; but I confessed myself defeated: I really could not understand it; and worse, I didn’t even know how to begin to understand.  Lawrence’s concerns, I concluded, weren’t mine.

However, a few months ago, a number of Lawrence’s  short stories – most especially, “The Odour of Chrysanthemums” – struck me with a force I had not expected. The time was ripe, I felt, for a revisit. So I went to my shelves, and dug out those copies of The Rainbow and Women in Love that I had bought way back in what seems like some long lost period of history, when Lawrence’s reputation as one of the major novelists of the century was more or less undisputed.

What I am reading is still puzzling me, but I am now finding myself more engaged with the puzzles than I had been before. Progress is slow: that is inevitable when I find myself re-reading passages to try to get a better grasp of them, or simply to enjoy the sounds and the rhythms of that very idiosyncratic prose. It is by no means “unputdownable”; there are no footprints of gigantic hounds to keep me turning the pages.

Lawrence’s ambition is tremendous. He depicts three generations of the Brangwen family – landowning farmers in Central England – tracing the rise and eventual decline of each generation, and picking up the thematic threads with the newer generations as the older decline. But it is no mere family saga: Lawrence is not much interested in the events that form the plot, nor even in why those events occur .  His interest is elsewhere.  Lawrence here grapples with what Will Brangwen sees as lying beyond “the rind of the world”:

He surveyed the rind of the world: houses, factories, trams, the discarded rind; people scurrying about, work going on, all on the discarded surface. An earthquake had burst it all from inside. It was as if the surface of the world had been broken away entire: Ilkeston, streets, church, people, work, rule-of-the-day, all intact; and yet peeled away into unreality, leaving here exposed the inside, the reality: one’s own being, strange feelings and passions and yearnings and beliefs and aspirations, suddenly become present, revealed, the permanent bedrock, knitted one rock with the woman one loved.

The rind, the external everyday reality that earlier generations of writers had captured so unerringly, has now burst open; and the mysterious inside, that hidden reality behind the pasteboard masks that Melville’s Ishmael had talked about, is now out in the open.

But where is the language to describe this inner reality? Our language has been fashioned to describe the rind only; can it be up to describing workings of the soul that are so nebulous and so intangible? Can it capture – or, if not capture, at least glimpse as they pass – the most profound and mysterious movements of our innermost selves?

For this was Lawrence’s ambition. The opening sentences of the novel may seem like the introduction to a traditional family saga, but we are still on the first page when we are startled with this:

But heaven and earth were teeming around them, and how should this cease?

In sympathy with the worlds inside us, the worlds outside, heaven and earth, are also teeming, seething, constantly in turbulent motion. Language stresses and strains in the process, coming close at times to fracturing, as it tries to express that which it had never been designed to express. The sounds and rhythms of the prose are often striking, often magnificent, its repetitions casting at times an incantatory spell; and sometimes, it is, it must be admitted, awkward. But, one senses, it had to be.

I am fascinated by what I am reading, but, although I am closer, much closer, to understanding this novel than I had been before, I really do not know how to describe this work, or the effect it has on me. I know that, as a book-blogger, I really should be putting down at least a few personal impressions if nothing else; but never have I felt, I think, quite so unequal to the task.

At my current pace of reading, I should be finished this novel around the end of next week, I think. So I will have a bit of time to think about how best to approach it here. But let that wait. For the moment, I am carried away – dizzy, lost, yet unbewailing – by the sheer torrential force of Lawrence’s vision.

“An Armeninan Sketchbook” by Vasily Grossman

An Armenian Sketchbook by Vasily Grossman, translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, published by Maclehose Press, London

The novel Life and Fate was “arrested” – as Grossman used to put it – in February, 1961. Three KGB officers had entered Grossman’s flat, and had taken away not merely the manuscripts, but even the typewriter ribbons. The idea was that Grossman’s masterpiece must never be read by anyone: even its existence was not to be known. Like so many countless human beings, the book was disappeared.

034Later that year, Grossman found himself in Armenia, for reasons that remain somewhat mysterious. He had received a commission from the Soviet authorities to translate from Armenian a novel by Hrachya Kochar, and had been requested to travel to Armenia to familiarise himself with the country, and to meet with the author. It is a bit mysterious why Grossman should have received such a commission: a perfectly competent translation of a shorter version of the novel already existed; and, on top of that, Grossman did not even know Armenian: his task was to put into shape an existing literal translation of the full novel – hardly a job requiring the talents of a writer of his reputation. Perhaps, as has been suggested, it was the authorities’ way of recompensing him for the loss of Life and Fate. Grossman himself seemed happy to go: he was no doubt glad to get away for a while.

The projected Russian translation of Kochar’s novel did not materialise. What did materialise was a memoir of his visit to Armenia, entitled Dobro Vam, which means, literally translated, “Good to You”. In this, the first English version of the work, translators Robert and Elizabeth Chandler have gone with the title An Armenian Sketchbook.

Robert Chandler says in the introduction:

Just as Everything Flows, which he began in the mid-1950s but continued to expand and revise during his last years, is Grossman’s political statement, so An Armenian Sketchbook is his personal statement, a discussion of the values he holds dearest – in art and in life. It is possible that, at some level, Grossman sensed he did not have long to live.

It is an informal and loosely structured work, giving the impression that the author is conversing with the reader about whatever comes to mind – the landscape of Armenia, the history and culture, the churches, the art. Possibly, as Robert Chandler suggests, Grossman did sense that he didn’t have long to live: amongst other things, he describes the physical discomforts which, in retrospect, we may see as the first signs of the onset of the bowel cancer that was to claim him two years later. In the final section of the memoir, he describes the pain that had suddenly seized him on the way to a wedding:

I have experienced horror and terror more than once in my life, not to mention fear and confusion. I took part in the war. I crossed the Volga under German fire, several times. I have experienced both massive bombing raids and barrages of mortar and artillery fire.

And yet, even though both during the war and at other times I have experienced my fill of fear, I have never – strange as this may seem – felt such utter horror as on that wedding coach.

One may expect a work written in such times to be angry and bitter. Heaven knows, Grossman had every right to be both. This is a man who has lived through the worst years of Stalinist terror, who had been present at and had witnessed some of the most horrendous carnage at Stalingrad, who had reported from Treblinka immediately after liberation, and had seen at first hand the grisly details of that unspeakable hell-hole; this was a man whose own beloved mother had been murdered in one of the many Nazi atrocities, and buried in some anonymous mass grave; a man who had lived through anti-Semitic pogroms in his own land; a man whose great masterpiece, to which he had devoted ten years of his life, had been torn away from him, and which he believed would never be read by anyone. And now, he was facing a disease which would soon kill him. Who had greater right to be angry and bitter? Yet, the wonder of this book is that Grossman is neither. He retains an unfeigned and unaffected love of people, and a determination to see them in the best possible light; he retains an optimism and a belief in human worth that may well have appeared hopelessly naïve and sentimental had it come from anyone other than him.

Not that he was blind to the darkness in our lives. Given all he had lived through, how could he be? But that’s not Grossman’s subject. For instance, of the many people he describes, there’s a cleaner, Astra, whom Grossman describe as “a beauty”. Her husband is in prison, serving a sentence for murder. Astra hadn’t wanted to marry him, but:

…but Aramais [Astra’s husband] was infatuated; he wept, threw himself drunkenly at her feet, and vowed to kill both her and himself. Astra, her mother and everyone in the village knew this was no empty threat. And so now she goes about in ragged clothes and worn-out boots, saving every copeck so that she can take a little more food to her husband.

Her in-laws, whom she lives with, are described objectively: they are a nasty and violent lot. The misery that is Astra’s life Grossman does not delve into: he does not need to – the few details he gives us are more than enough for us to piece together the story. But the point of the portrait is not to present her as a mere object of pity, but as someone of immense nobility of character. Anyone could take pity on someone like Astra; but Grossman loves the person that she is. He is well aware of the evil to which she is subjected, and he depicts it unblinkingly; but his focus is the beauty of her moral stature.

It is this insistence on the essential goodness and nobility of humans that shines through the pages. Everything Flows, which he must have been working on at the same time as this book, is a work of barely contained fury: how else can one react, after all, to mass transportations, to man-made famines, to mass terror, to slaughter on an unintelligible scale? But this is Grossman’s personal rather than his political testament. If Everything Flows expresses his fury at the violation of humanity, An Armenian Sketchbook honours that which has been violated. The two works are complementary.

For the Armenian people too had been violated. Of the many pictures Grossman paints are those of people who had lived through and had been traumatised by the genocide that had been visited upon them.

The final section of the book describes an Armenian wedding, in the shadow of the Biblical Mount Ararat. The local customs Grossman finds alien, and some even repulsive; and, as Grossman could keenly sense, the bride’s future did not seem to promise much happiness. But then, Grossman notices the bride and her young brother:

Through their tear-stained eyes they smiled at each other, a smile of love. My heart filled with joy, warmth and sorrow.

Later come the speeches. In Armenian, of course, so Grossman, the translator, can’t understand. But one of these speeches was about him, Grossman, the special guest at this wedding. Hrachya Kochar, the author whose book Grossman was to translate, translates for the translator:

The carpenter was talking about the Jews, saying that when he had been taken prisoner during the War he had seen all the Jews taken away somewhere separate. All his Jewish comrades had been killed. He spoke of the compassion and the love he had felt for the Jewish women and children who had perished in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. He said how he had read articles of mine about the war, with portrayals of Armenians, and had thought how this man writing about Armenians was from a nation that had also suffered a great deal. He hoped that it would not be long before a son of the much-suffering Armenian nation wrote about the Jews. To this he now raised his glass.

Like so much else in this book, this might have seemed naïve and sentimental had we not known who the author of this book is, and all to which he had borne witness in the course of his life. That someone who could know so well the very worst that humans can do and be, but who could yet find it in himself to celebrate all that is fine and noble, is humbling. “Probably I have said much that is clumsy and wrong,” he says at the very end of this book, “but all I have said, clumsy or not, I have said with love.”

***

Vasily Grossman is an important writer – not merely because he has borne witness to certain things which should not be forgotten, but also because he was a great writer. And he was also, I think, a great man. We owe Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, and to the various colleagues of theirs who have worked with them on other translations, an immense debt of gratitude for making accessible to the Anglophone reader these remarkable works.

Fiction for adults young and old

No doubt my memory is failing me, but I can’t remember from my teenage years any category of fiction labelled “Young Adult”. Indeed, I cannot even remember the term “Young Adult”. I gather this term refers to teenagers, but why one cannot simply say “teenager” – which, as well as being more descriptive and less cumbersome, has the advantage of not sounding like something concocted by some faceless marketing department – I cannot imagine.

The reason I mention this is that in my peregrinations around the net, I frequently come across posts and articles fulminating on how absolutely ghastly those people are who look down on Young Adult Fiction. Now, I enjoy looking down on something as much as the next person, and if there really is anything in “Young Adult Fiction” that is worth looking down on, I wouldn’t want to miss out. But the problem is that I don’t know what “Young Adult Fiction” is in the first place.

Quite apart from the unwieldy nature of the term, I am a bit puzzled by its import. After one has matured mentally into adulthood – and that, of course, occurs at different ages for different people – there seems to me little point in classifying further in terms of age for the purpose merely of creating yet more literary ghettoes. If a book can be of value to an Old Adult, why can it not also be of value to a Young? Or, for that matter, vice versa ? If the adult population of readers is to be subdivided in terms of age, can we now look forward to “Middle-Aged Adult Fiction”, and “Mature Adult Fiction”, and, perhaps, “Geriatric Adult Fiction”?

In any case, what do Young Adults themselves – or teenagers, as a middle-aged fogey like myself prefers to call them – think of all this? Looking back on my own teenage years, I would have found it patronising to have been described as a “Young Adult”, and would have felt grossly insulted by the idea that some committee somewhere has met to determine which books are most suitable for my age. If teenagers feel no longer patronised and insulted by this sort of thing, the world has indeed changed over the last forty or so years – far more so than I had realised.

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