Archive for October, 2015

Strauss on my mind

I’ve had Strauss on the mind lately. Richard Strauss, that is, not Johann the Waltz King – although, to judge from the waltz in Der Rosenkavalier, Richard could have gone in that direction had he so wanted.

It all started a few weeks ago, when I found out that I would be working for a couple of weeks in offices in central London. So, naturally, I looked to see what was on in London in the evenings during those two weeks. And I found, to my delight, that the renowned Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, under their Principal Conductor Riccardo Chailly, was giving over a few days a series of three concerts of Strauss and Mozart. So I booked myself for all three of them. I mean, it would have been churlish not to.

Strauss has a bit of an odd reputation. The general consensus of opinion seems to be that it was Mahler, Strauss’ contemporary, who was the true genius, pouring out his tortured soul in works of emotional profundity and spiritual intensity, while Strauss was merely a showman, who cared more for effect rather than for substance, who often strayed into the crude and the vulgar – a sort of musical Barnum and Bailey. While I have no doubt at all about the stature of Mahler, I have never been at all happy with such an appraisal of Strauss. Yes, he was a showman, he could be crude and vulgar, and, yes, there are many works of his in which showmanship takes precedence over substance. But this is by no means the whole story. In the first place, showmanship need not preclude depth, or even artistic integrity; and in the second place, the composer of Elektra and of Metamorphosen deserves to be taken seriously – every bit as seriously, to my mind, as the unremittingly serious Mahler.

The three concerts included what Chailly has described as Strauss’ “core” tone poems, plus the late work Metamorphosen. Interestingly, Chailly does not include Don Quixote among this “core”, insisting that it was conceived as a set of orchestral variations rather than as a tone poem. And neither does he include the Alpine Symphony, a work which probably does lend credence to Strauss’ reputation of being a showman rather than a serious artist. Even some of the “core” works don’t quite, perhaps, dispel that notion – but the boundary between artistry and craftsmanship seems to me a very blurred one at best. And anyone who says something such as Ein Heldenleben is not a supremely beautiful and moving piece of music is a bounder and a cad, and can meet me afterwards in the car park outside.

Ein HeldenlebenA Hero’s Life – formed the second half of the first of the three concerts. In the first half, we had one of Strauss’ earliest masterpieces – the gloriously ardent and swaggering Don Juan. The orchestra played superbly: the sound was mellow, but deceptively so, as, at the dramatic climaxes, it packed a tremendous punch; but even at its most dramatic, the sound never lost its refinement, never became harsh. And no matter how thick the orchestral texture may be, the sound was never congested: there was always a sense of space around the various strands of the music.

Sibelius had once commented that Strauss provided his listeners with rich and exotic cocktails, whereas he gave the listener pure spring water. We need spring water as well, of course: going straight from one rich and exotic cocktail to another can become a bit too much. Here, the spring water was provided not by Sibelius, but by Mozart, a composer who was very close to Strauss’ heart. Between Don Juan and Ein Heldenleben, the Gewandhaus Orchestra accompanied Maria João Pires in a performance of Mozart’s 27th piano concerto. It is a work often described as being a late Mozart work, and indeed it is – although we should keep in mind that Mozart was only 35 when he composed it, and that the works Strauss had composed at that age are regarded as his early works. It is a work of ethereal beauty: there seems something quite other-worldly about it. Gone is the exuberance and the drama of Mozart’s earlier piano concertos: where, previously, the second group of themes had contrasted dramatically with the first, here, they seem to complement each other. The music does indeed dance along gracefully, but the brilliance of Mozart’s dancing in his earlier works seems to have vanished, leaving behind a ghost of its former self. Huxley had once commented that Mozart’s music is saddest when it seems to be happy, but never has the happy surface been quite so transparent as it is here, revealing the depths below. It is a work that smiles, and yet breaks the heart, and I don’t think I could hope to hear it performed better than I did here. There is a passage in the first movement development section that is particularly close to my heart: the key changes come so frequently and so quickly, that it seems to give an impression of drifting between keys: I know of no other music quite like this.

After the interval, we were in a different world entirely: Ein HeldelbenA Hero’s Life. In many respects, it’s a work of utter megalomania: in the section labelled “The Hero’s Works of Peace”, Strauss gives us a collage of themes from his own earlier pieces, leaving us in no doubt as to who the hero of the title is. But I think that to criticise the work on this ground is to miss the humour: whenever I hear this piece, I seem to see a twinkle in Strauss’ eye, a wink and a nudge. Similarly in the second section of the work, which depicts the hero’s enemies: it’s a glorious cacophony of winds, suggesting to absolute perfection a band of snivelling idiots. One may ask what is so very heroic about defeating such a miserable bunch, but once again, this is to miss the humour of the thing. Speaking for myself, I can’t help but break into a broad grin when I hear this.
And then, there is the love scene. The hero’s companion is depicted by a solo violin, and the hero, in the form of the orchestra, woos her ardently; but she is no doormat merely to do the hero’s bidding. Time after time, the violin solo seems to be responding to the hero’s amorous overtures, merely to go off into intricate cadenzas and arabesques: this is a companion who is very much her own person, and with her own mind, who will respond to the hero as and when she wants to, in her own time, and in her own way. And when she finally does, we have a love scene like no other in music: Strauss gives us sounds so gorgeous, and so opulent and sensual, that it’s almost indecent.

Then comes the battle scene, in which the hero defeats his enemies. This is a section that could come over as overblown – but in this performance, it was genuinely thrilling. The orchestra of about a hundred or so players, including five percussionists (yes, five – I counted ‘em!) went at it hammer and tongs, and yet, somehow, they never compromised the beauty of tone. It was magnificent. And afterwards, the enemies vanquished, we move into the hero’s works of peace – a glorious collage of themes of Strauss’ earlier works. In Don Juan, there had been a thrilling moment when a swaggering horn fanfare had sounded over the massed orchestra: we had heard this only earlier that evening; well, since that moment was so wonderful, Strauss thought he would repeat it again in Ein Heldenleben: and no, it doesn’t suffer from the repetition – it remained just as thrilling.

How does one finish a work such as this? Strauss decided not to pile Pelion on Ossa (or is that the other way round?) – after all the thrills and spills, he opts for a quiet ending, as the hero, having achieved all that could be achieved, renounces worldly things. The music is extraordinarily moving and beautiful. Showmanship? Perhaps. Who cares?

The second concert was not really in the class of the first: this was nothing to do with the playing or the conducting, but because the programme wasn’t as good. It started with Strauss’ early tone poem Macbeth, and interesting though it was to hear this played live, it isn’t a patch on Don Juan, the opening piece in the first concert. The Mozart piece was the 3rd violin concerto, and, lovely though it is, and beautifully played as it was by Christian Tetzlaff, it is not in the same league as Mozart’s last piano concerto. After the interval, we had Also Sprach Zarathustra, and again, I couldn’t help wondering just how seriously we are supposed to take this: isn’t the very idea of setting Nietzsche’s philosophy to music a bit of a joke? Once again, I couldn’t help seeing a twinkle in Strauss’ eye. And similarly with the section in which the Übermensch dances: what sort of music would an Übermensch dance to? Strauss makes him dance to a Viennese waltz, and, although the rest of the audience didn’t seem to find this particularly funny, I thought it was hilarious. The piece also has the very famous opening, of course; and the ending too is very beautiful. But for all this, it seems to me somewhat incoherent: despite all the lovely moments and beautiful passages, there is much that seemed to me a bit dull and uninspired. It was all great fun, I suppose, but whereas Ein Heldenleben had been more than just fun, this, I don’t think, was. Once again, this is not a comment on the performance, but on the music itself: there is no doubt in my mind that Strauss was a very great composer … but it’s fair to say, I think, that he was not always great.

For the third and last concert, there can be no doubt at all: it was, from beginning to end, utterly magnificent. It started with the magnificent Tod und VerklärungDeath and Transfiguration; the final section of this work, representing the transfiguration of the soul after death (or some such), is a gloriously opulent passage even by Strauss’ standards; my expectations were high, and the orchestra did not disappoint. After that came another of Mozart’s late masterpieces – the clarinet concerto. I must admit that, immediately after the ending of Tod und Verklärung, my ears took a bit of time to adjust to Mozart’s very different sound world, but once they did, it was utterly irresistible. The soloist, Martin Fröst, shaped and coloured each phrase exquisitely, and as we moved into the interval we were left wondering how anything could possibly come after this and not seem an anti-climax.

What came afterwards was Metamorphosen, one of my personal favourite works by any composer. It is a piece for 23 strings, an unbroken span of some half hour or so; it was composed by Strauss in his eighties in the years after the end of the Second World War, and it is a lament for the depths into which the culture had sunk in which Strauss had been steeped. Now, Strauss’ relationship with Nazism remains controversial: from what I can work out, he was, personally, a very decent and generous man, without any hint at all of racism or of anti-Semitism; but the unfortunate fact remains that, in his admittedly old age, Strauss did allow himself to be wheeled on by the Nazis as the great representative of the German Musical Culture. It was naïveté on Strauss’ part rather than anything else, and while such naïveté cannot be anything other than reprehensible, to label Strauss a Nazi, as some have done, does seem grossly unfair. But, be that as it may, Metamoprphosen is a great masterpiece. I went through a phase in my early twenties – not, for various reasons, the most cheerful years of my life – when I used to listen almost obsessively to Mozart’s D minor piano concerto, and to this: its deep gloom and desolation, rising to uninhibited passion before subsiding once again, has long resonated with me, and listening to it live, and played and shaped so beautifully, was for me a particularly fulfilling experience.

The concert could have ended here, but they obviously wanted to end with a bang: so, to finish off, we had the hugely witty and exuberant Till Eulenspiegel, Strauss’ musical depiction of the prankster from Germanic folklore. It is a tremendous orchestral scherzo, and it was played with great verve and gusto: it brought the house down.

So, after all that … was Strauss a great musical genius, or just a showman? I incline towards the first option – how could the composer of Metamorphosen be anything but a genius? – but frankly, I don’t know that I care much. Genius or showman, this is music that I love, and I wouldn’t be without it. And that’s all that really matters.

“The Tempest”: a production for children on the autistic spectrum

Earlier today, I spent a fascinating afternoon at the Bloomsbury Studio London, watching a production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. But this production, devised and directed by Kelly Hunter (whom I saw only last year playing Mrs Alving in a quite superb production of Ibsen’s Ghosts), was not an ordinary production: it was aimed specifically for children and for young adults on the autistic spectrum.

Bloomsbury Studio is a small, in-the-round theatre. For this event, parents and carers sat on chairs arranged in an outer circle, while, in an inner circle, surrounding a space representing Prospero’s island, sat six actors, each looking after a small group of children. They went through the story, selecting specific scenes and specific lines, inviting and encouraging the children to join them in action and in mime, in sounds and movements.

Now, anyone who has experience with children on the autistic spectrum will know how difficult this is – how difficult it is, in many cases, to get some children on the autistic spectrum even to acknowledge the presence of others. And to begin with, many of the children seemed reluctant. But, to my immense surprise, they started joining in – some with evident gusto. It was a sight I thought I’d never see – a group of children (and, in one case, a young adult) on the autistic spectrum taking delight in a group event.

And at no point was there anything resembling coercion. No child was ever urged to do anything they did not wish to: nothing was ever forced. The entire cast was sympathetic and supportive, and stayed on afterwards to speak to the children, parents, and carers. As an observer sitting on the sidelines, it was a quite wonderful experience.

This event was a co-production between the Royal Shakespeare Company, and the Ohio State University. I do not know when and where they will be doing this again, but if any reader is a parent or carer of an autistic child, or know someone who is, I do urge you to keep an eye on their website.

A trip back to childhood: “Smith” by Leon Garfield

Given how prone I am to bouts of misty-eyed nostalgia, it’s a bit odd that I tend not to revisit favourite books from childhood. That’s because, I think, much of the stuff I used to read as a child was pretty poor material, and that for every Treasure Island or The Hound of the Baskervilles there were reams and reams of unmitigated rubbish that not even the cosy glow of nostalgia could dignify. However, there were a few exceptions, and when I saw in the bookshop recently a copy of Leon Garfield’s Smith, I couldn’t help myself. It was a school reader: we read it in the English class when we were about 12 or so, and although one is not supposed to enjoy what one read at school, and certainly not supposed to admit to enjoying it even if one did, I remember thinking even at the time that it was terrific stuff. Reading it again over 40 years later, it struck me that maybe my childhood taste wasn’t perhaps quite so bad after all – that amidst all the trashy mystery stories and Enid Blyton romps I used to gobble down in preference to those worthier books my parents thought I should be reading, I could, even then, take in and enjoy a bit of quality.

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I didn’t remember the plot very well, but I did remember the atmosphere, and the tension, and the sense of excitement. What I didn’t remember at all – presumably because it passed me by at that age – was the sheer delight the author took in the language. It is, after all, hard to imagine a book aimed for children nowadays starting like this:

He was called Smith and was twelve years old. Which, in itself, was a marvel; for it seemed as if the smallpox, the consumption, brain-fever, gaol-fever and even the hangman’s rope had given him a wide berth for fear of catching something. Or else they weren’t quick enough.

It continues:

Smith had a turn of speed that was remarkable, and a neatness in nipping down an alley or vanishing down a court that had to be seen to be believed. Not that it was often seen, for Smith was a rather sooty spirit of the violent and ramshackle Town, and inhabited the tumbledown mazes about fat St Paul’s like the subtle air itself. A rat was like a snail beside Smith, and the most his thousand victims ever got of him was the powerful whiff of his passing and a cold draught in their dexterously emptied pockets.

This is the writing of an author who loves words, and who relishes putting them together in ways that they delight for their own sake. This is, of course, a children’s book, and there is a strong narrative, but Garfield has no thought of patronising his young readers: language for him is more than a mere means to an end, children’s book or not.

Of course, no-one writing for children would write like this now, and no publisher, one suspects, would publish it. Yet, this book was published only in 1967, and was aimed for the children’s market. How quickly things change!

The setting is London in the 18th century, and Smith, the child pickpocket, resides in the underworld. Inevitably, there are echoes of Dickens – although the protagonist Smith is more Artful Dodger than innocent Oliver Twist – and there are echoes as well of the picture of the London underworld that Defoe depicts in Moll Flanders, or Fielding in Jonathan Wild. The sense of place – of the streets and the alleyways, the inns, Newgate prison – is always strongly projected. And the story too is splendid. Smith has picked a man’s pocket, but all he has for his troubles is a document; soon afterwards, he sees this man killed for the very document that he has stolen; but unfortunately, Smith cannot read, and has no way of finding out what it is about this piece of paper that has cost a man his life.

As an adventure story, it can’t be faulted. It is superbly paced, with expert tightenings and loosenings of tension; the plot is full of twists and turns; and, despite the dark milieu, its heart is warm – as I think it should be in a children’s story. (Or am I too old-fashioned in thinking that?) Smith forms an unlikely companionship with a blind retired magistrate, who later comes to think – wrongly, as it happens – that Smith is a murderer; however, when Smith is faced with a choice between leaving this helpless blind man to fend for himself in the cold and snow, with murderous villains circling close at hand, or revealing himself, and taking the risk that the magistrate may later turn him in to the authorities, Smith makes the correct moral choice: even if it costs him a hanging at Newgate, he cannot leave this man to his fate. There’s certainly more than a touch of the Huckleberryfinns here, and the book is none the worse for it.

I suppose it could be said that the story is derivative, but perhaps we place too great a weight on the concept of originality: so intent are we on searching out novelty, and praising that which is new for no better reason than it is new, we sometimes forget to ask ourselves whether what we are praising is any good. There’s much to be said, I think, for doing established things well, and Garfield more than does that. And throughout, the language is a delight – although, rather predictably I suppose, one of the Amazon reviews complains about this book, aimed specifically at children, being too hard to read. O tempora! O mores!

Reading this book for me was a surprisingly poignant trip back into my childhood, and I found it quite delightful. I thrilled again to the adventure, puzzled again to the mystery, and enjoyed again the journey – both literal and moral – that Smith takes through the course of the story. The blind magistrate too makes a journey, as Garfield tells us at one point: he makes a journey from justice to compassion. For the author to point it out explicitly in an adult novel would certainly have been heavy-handed, but in a children’s book it seemed just fine. There are a few other children’s books by Leon Garfield that I don’t think I read as a child: I think I may enjoy reading them now.

And I discovered also that Garfield had also written a completion of Dickens’ Mystery of Edwin Drood. I can’t imagine any writer better equipped to complete this work, and I’d be very keen to get hold of a copy.

“Persuasion” by Jane Austen

Having now re-read all six of Austen’s full-length novels, each of the last three – which I take to be her masterpieces – takes us by surprise given what had preceded them. After the sunny ebullience of Pride and Pejudice, Mansfield Park surprises us with its dark and sombre demeanour. After the tense drama of Mansfield Park, Emma surprises us by its smiling pleasantness, and its gentle and leisurely – one may almost say “loose-limbed” – tempo. And, after the seemingly – but only seemingly – carefree nature of Emma, comes Persuasion, a tale of passion.

This may seem a strange thing to say about a Jane Austen novel. After all, is Austen not cool and detached, aloof and ironic, forever viewing from beneath arched and amused eyebrows the frailties and follies of humanity? Well, yes, she is: the principal protagonist of this novel, Anne Elliot, comes from a hideously snobbish and self-regarding family, and Austen does not spare them. But – and this is a point I don’t think I grasped when I first read these novels – great works of art are not restricted to a single tonality. Anne herself does not share the blinkered view of the world of her father and older sister, and neither is she, as her younger sister is, a petulant airhead: she has about her a natural poise and dignity that are often considered to be innate features of aristocracy – qualities that the rest of her family, proud and self-conscious though they are of their aristocratic lineage, appear conspicuously to lack – but, beneath that exterior, she has the capacity to think clearly, to ratiocinate, and to feel. Like all Austen heroines – even, to a significant extent, Emma, who, for all her faults, has sufficient sensitivity to understand she had been wrong and sufficient humility to reform – Anne Elliot has self-awareness. She is capable not merely of conversing with herself, but also of interrogating herself, of being aware of her own weaknesses and shortcomings. Take, for instance, that marvellous passage where she tells the young Captain Benwick, heartbroken by the untimely passing of his betrothed, to read more than merely that which indulges his emotions:

…she thought it was the misfortune of poetry, to be seldom safely enjoyed by those who enjoyed it completely; and that the strong feelings which alone could estimate it truly, were the very feelings that ought to taste it but sparingly. (I,xi)

Dr Johnson could not have put it better. Here, we have reason and good sense, a view of life which, while not rejecting the importance of human emotions, warns against excess, advises balance, advocates a sense that would keep sensibility under a decorous control. But later that night, Anne Elliot interrogates her own self:

…nor could she help fearing, on more serious reflection, that, like many other great moralists and preachers, she had been eloquent on a point on which her own conduct would ill bear examination. (I,xi)

Sense and sensibility, that had been packaged out to different characters in an earlier novel, co-exist here in a single character – and, despite outward appearance of calm and control, the sense cannot control the unruly sensibility in her mind. Anne Elliot understands how she should feel, but she knows equally well that she has not the power to act according to her understanding: passion here is not something that can be controlled by the will, any more than it can in the stresses and storms of the novels of the Brontës.

Anne is in her late twenties: this makes her considerably older than the heroines of Austen’s other novels, who are stepping out for the first time into the world of amorous and of sexual emotions. Anne, unlike the previous heroines, has a back-story: some eight years earlier, when she had been nineteen, she had fallen in love with a young naval officer, Wentworth, but, in view of his lack of a suitable family pedigree, and his seeming lack of career prospects, she had been persuaded to turn him down. Now, eight years later, Wentworth, now a naval captain and a worldly success, returns into her life; and she realises that the passion she had harboured remains still, unabated. The persistence of human passion is not a theme one would expect from a novelist often regarded as cool and detached; and, indeed, the tempests that rage are internal: Anne is far too self-collected and too poised to make an exhibition of herself. But the tempests are, nonetheless, real, and with an art so understated and so delicate virtually to defy analysis, Austen depicts a state of mind in which the slightest thing can carry with it an emotional, and, indeed, an erotic charge that is frequently startling. For, amongst other things, Persuasion is an erotic novel.

Perhaps I should at this stage clarify what I mean by this. I do not mean that the novel contains explicit descriptions of sexual acts. Of course, the mores of Austen’s time would not have allowed for this, but I don’t think Austen would have included such scenes even if she could. For the erotic and the pornographic are distinct from each other, and not merely by virtue of the fact that the former one may display openly on one’s shelves while the latter has to be hidden away: I mean, rather, that the pornographic is concerned only with the physical aspect of sexual attraction, while the erotic, while not denying this physical aspect, encompasses far more: the erotic is concerned with a desire for and an attraction to a person. And it is not to deny the importance of the physical to say that in human perception, there is far more to a person than the physical. It is not that the physical is eschewed, but neither is it the sole, or even the central feature of the erotic. And this is what Austen conveys in Persuasion: she depicts with an astonishing vividness and immediacy what it is like to be attracted to a person.

Even before Wentworth appears again into Anne’s life, Austen depicts in Anne a sense of eagerness, and also, at the same time, a sense of an overpowering uncertainty and perturbation – even dread. When they do meet, they keep a decorous distance from each other; but there are two scenes in which the erotic frisson – the “erotic” as characterised above – is electrifying. They are seemingly minor scenes: no onlooker to either scene would have detected anything approaching the erotic. But Austen understood the nature of the erotic better than most: it is, after all, a state of mind. The successful depiction of the erotic lies not in the physical detail, but in the minds of the characters.

In the first of these scenes, Anne is tending to a nephew who is ill, and, as she kneels next to the child’s bed, another child jumps on her, and prevents her from standing up. At this point, Wentworth takes the unruly child from Anne’s back. That is all. And yet, once Anne realised what Wentworth has done, a veritable storm rages in her mind:

Her sensations on the discovery made her perfectly speechless. She could not even thank him. She could only hang over little Charles, with most disordered feelings. His kindness in stepping forward to her relief, the manner, the silence in which it had passed, the little particulars of the circumstance, with the conviction soon forced on her by the noise he was studiously making with the child, that he meant to avoid hearing her thanks, and rather sought to testify that her conversation was the last of his wants, produced such a confusion of varying, but very painful agitation, as she could not recover from, till enabled by the entrance of Mary and the Miss Musgroves to make over her little patient to their cares, and leave the room. She could not stay. (I,ix)

The second scene is similarly unremarkable – at least when viewed from the outside: Wentworth, observing Anne to be tired of walking, helps her into a carriage. And that is all. But once again, seen not from the outside but from the perspective of Anne’s fevered consciousness, the effect is electric:

Yes – he had done it. She was in the carriage, and felt that he had placed her there, that his will and his hands had done it, that she owed it to his perception of her fatigue, and his resolution to give her rest. She was very much affected by the view of his disposition towards her, which all these things made apparent. This little circumstance seemed the completion of all that had gone before. She understood him. (I, x)

As in the previous scene, there is no physical detail at all: we are told “his will and his hands had done it”, but where those hands had touched her, and how, or, for that matter, what part his will had played, there is not the slightest inkling. Eroticism, as ever, is a state of mind, and few, one suspects, understood it as well as Austen did.

This vagueness in both scenes of what precisely was done physically reflects Anne’s own perception of the events. She cannot tell precisely where his hands had touched her, so confused is her mind, so electrified her consciousness. Neither in the earlier scene did she at first know just who it was who had relieved her from the troublesome child:

In another moment, however, she found herself in the state of being released from him; some one was taking him from her … (I,ix)

“Some one,” says the narrative voice – injecting into the moment a tremendous immediacy by switching for the moment from the past tense to using the participle (“…was taking…” rather than “took”), and allowing us to discover who this “some one” is only when Anne herself does so. We do not need to be told precisely how Anne feels: the mode of the narrative itself communicates so powerfully erotic a charge that direct statement becomes superfluous.

We find this intense identification of the narrative voice with Anne’s own perceptions throughout the novel. Take, for instance, that wonderful scene where Anne once again is in the presence of Wentworth:

Her eye half met Captain Wentworth’s, a bow, a curtsey passed; she heard his voice; he talked to Mary, said all that was right, said something to the Miss Musgroves, enough to mark an easy footing; the room seemed full, full of persons and voices, but a few minutes ended it. (I,vii)

Anne’s eye only half-meets Wentworth’s, and for the rest, Anne sees nothing. She hears, but nothing she hears seems to register. And the narrative voice allows us to see no more than what Anne sees, to take in more than Anne does. Anne sees nothing of Wentworth because she has her eyes averted. The narrative does not explicitly tell us this, but it’s not hard to infer. And from this inference, we may make a further one, and discover for ourself why Anne keeps her eyes averted. The tumult in Anne’s mind needs no overt narration.

In no other novel by Austen has the focus been so intensely upon a single character. An outline of the plot would suggest that this is, as it were, an ensemble piece, but all the characters, Anne excepted, seem almost to be on the fringes. They may interest us in passing: Austen will from time to time drop some intriguing details about them; but they are never allowed into the spotlight. Take for instance the Musgrove’s elder son, now deceased; this is all we get about him:

The real circumstances of this pathetic piece of family history were, that the Musgroves had had the ill fortune of a very troublesome, hopeless son; and the good fortune to lose him before he reached his twentieth year … (I,vi)

It’s a cruel joke. There’s much warmth of feeling in this novel – how can it be otherwise given its themes? – but there are tonalities there also other than warmth, and Austen was certainly not averse on occasion to a bit of coldth. The passage quoted above continues:

… that he had been sent to sea because he was stupid and unmanageable on shore; that he had been very little cared for at any time by his family, though quite as much as he deserved; seldom heard of, and scarcely at all regretted, when the intelligence of his death abroad had worked its way to Uppercross, two years before. (I,vi)

There is much material here for the novelist to expand upon. This boy had been sent away because he was a nuisance to the family, but had died. Now, whatever that boy may or may not have deserved, whatever the extent to which his loss is grieved, the family that sent him to sea to be rid of him must, at some level, unless they were completely unfeeling (as the Musgroves aren’t), be embroiled in guilt. Austen could certainly have explored this had she wanted to – one can hardly imagine any novelist doing it better – but she dismisses it all with a heartless (though admittedly funny) joke. And this is because, I think, she doesn’t want any other theme or strand to compete with the theme she has placed at the centre – the reawakened passion of Anne Elliot. Where her previous novels had expanded to take in its cast of characters, this contracts, leaving only Anne at the centre, and all the others at the fringes. Even all the machinations in Bath – of William Elliot’s plots to ensure that Anne’s father does not remarry, his plans to wed Anne and secure his inheritance, and so on – are little more than sketched in, and seem barely to register. And the discovery of William Elliot’s true character seems almost perfunctory: Anne does not find this out for herself from her own experience, but is told it all by her friend Mrs Smith. (And one suspects that not all her evidence would hold up too well in court.) But Austen could afford to be cavalier with the plot, because the plot, such as it is, is not what is important here.

Persuasion was published posthumously, and the title of the novel is, I gather, the invention of Henry Austen, Jane’s brother, although we do not know whether Henry had discussed the matter with his sister before her death. It seems, though, a perfect title: the idea of persuasion, and its repercussions, both moral and emotional, run throughout the novel in various guises. There are two major acts of persuasion (alongside many minor ones) in the novel: the first, occurring before the start of the novel, is that of Anne’s being persuaded to reject Wentworth; and the second, which forms the principal theme of the novel, is of Anne’s persuading herself that her passion is yet alive. (Wentworth, presumably, persuades himself likewise, but since the narrative focus is so firmly on Anne’s consciousness, we only get to know what Wentworth feels when he discloses himself to her at the end.) What is particularly interesting is that, despite the emotional turmoils Anne undergoes, she feels no bitterness about the past: the advice she had received, from Lady Russell, who was acting, in effect, as a sort of surrogate mother, was not only well intended, but, very possibly, good advice. How easy it would have been for Austen to have presented Lady Russell as yet another hideous snob, like Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice. But Austen resists that: persuasion from a figure such as Lady Catherine de Bourgh could easily be dismissed as immoral and tainted, and if Austen does not present Lady Russell as another Lady Catherine de Bourgh, it is because she wanted the reader to take her persuasion seriously. Certainly, the reasons given for the persuasion are serious enough:

Anne Elliot, with all her claims of birth, beauty, and mind, to throw herself away at nineteen; involve herself at nineteen in an engagement with a young man, who had nothing but himself to recommend him, and no hopes of attaining affluence, but in the chances of a most uncertain profession, and no connexions to secure even his farther rise in the profession, would be, indeed, a throwing away, which she grieved to think of! Anne Elliot, so young; known to so few, to be snatched off by a stranger without alliance or fortune; or rather sunk by him into a state of most wearing, anxious, youth-killing dependence! It must not be… (I,iv)

As it happens, Anne’s youth is killed anyway:

Her attachment and regrets had, for a long time, clouded every enjoyment of youth, and an early loss of bloom and spirits had been their lasting effect. (I,iv)

But this is not to say that Lady Russell had necessarily been wrong: there is more than one way that the enjoyment of youth may be clouded, and bloom and spirits lost, and while unrequited love may be debilitating, so may “wearing, anxious, youth-killing dependence”. We can never know what really lies down the passage which we did not take, towards the door we never opened. And as if to re-iterate the possibility that what lay behind that unopened door may also have caused pain, Austen moves the narrative forward with two instances in which impetuosity leads to a fall, and subsequently, to suffering: first, when Anne’s nephew falls and hurts himself, requiring Anne to stay in Uppercross to help tend to him; and later, there’s Louisa Musgrove’s more serious fall down the steps of the Cobb in Lyme Regis that renders her unconscious, and puts, for a while, her very life at risk. Now, if Austen had used this motif only once, we could have passed it by as a mere plot mechanism, but when a novelist of her stature uses it twice, we need to take it more seriously. Impetuosity does indeed have its consequences, and they are considerable.

So aware is Anne of the possibility that, despite the emotional tempest raging inside her, Lady Russell may indeed have been right, that even towards the end of the novel, she is open to persuasion, once again by Lady Russell – sense desperately trying to overrule sensitivity – to marry William Elliot. And Anne may indeed have done so were it not for Mrs Smith’s revelations:

It is just possible that she might have been persuaded by Lady Russell (II,ix)

The moral problem with persuasion is that the persuader claims to see on behalf of the persuaded what lies behind that door we haven’t opened down the passage we haven’t taken. The right to make this claim is questionable, but so is silence in the face of justified apprehension. Neither sense nor sensibility has here the monopoly on wisdom.

Despite the often elegiac tone of the novel – elegiac for the lost bloom of youth, for passions unfulfilled and thwarted – Austen’s view was, ultimately, optimistic. If, in Emma, the solution to not perceiving adequately is to learn to perceive adequately, so here, the solution to a bad decision in the past is to reverse that decision if the opportunity arises in the future. And here, the opportunity does indeed arise: the ending is conventionally happy. Indeed, in Anne’s declaration of the strength of feeling and of the intensity of emotion that woman can possess, it is ecstatic. All the tensions that had accumulated through the suppression of human erotic desire, this absurd but nonetheless beautiful and ennobling desire we humans have for each other, find here their release. But major key though the ending may be, the principal tonality of the rest of the novel is very much in the minor: it is a lament for human loneliness, for passion thwarted, for the lost bloom of youth. One wonders if, had Austen lived longer, her fiction might have taken a more decisive turn towards the tragic, and with a greater preponderance of minor keys. Perhaps. But one never knows: her comedy is every bit as expressive as tragedy can be; and she was, after all, constantly surprising us.

Putting a bit of passion into the arts

In an age where the arts are largely regarded as no more than signifiers of lifestyle choices, it is good to see some evidence of passion. The last time I wrote here about a protest at an art gallery, the protest was nothing whatever to do with art, but, rather, some infantile nonsense about wearing a kimono. But this protest actually is about art: people are protesting against the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (an institution that must surely be tired to death by now of protests) exhibiting paintings by Renoir on the grounds that … well, on the grounds that “Renoir sucks at painting”, and that exhibiting his works is nothing less than “aesthetic terrorism”.

I’m not really a fan of Renoir myself – I find his paintings too saccharine, too chocolate-boxy – but I’ve always put that down to personal taste. I have never doubted his technical mastery (but then again, what do I know?), and there have even been occasions when I have put all my reservations behind me, and found in some of his works elegance and charm – qualities that, I realise, mean more to me now than they used to in my younger years. I continue to have reservations about Renoir, but I must confess I have never thought of protesting on this matter.

“Les Parapluies” by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, courtesy of National Gallery, London

I’d guess this is intended to be funny. Or, perhaps, as a friend suggested, this may be some sort of “performance art”. For surely to God no-one in their right minds can carry banners saying “God Hates Renoir”, and mean it seriously! I mean, they wouldn’t … would they?

So what else could we be protesting about? There’s little point protesting outside bookshops about their selling Dan Brown books – that would merely be stating the obvious, as no-one thinks of Dan Brown as a quality writer in the first place. It would be like saying Plan 9 from Outer Space is a crap film – we all know it’s crap, and indeed, its very crappiness is its attraction. Best to pick on a writer who is admired and acclaimed – Dostoyevsky, say, or Woolf. Wouldn’t it be great to launch a protest outside a bookshop demanding that, on purely aesthetic grounds, they stop selling Crime and Punishment immediately? Or to gather outside an art cinema demanding that they stop showing films by Jean-Luc Godard?

Let’s go for it! Let’s inject some seriousness and passion back into the arts!