Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Boris and the Vixen

I hope I’m not disappointing anyone, but this post is going to be about opera.

More specifically, about two of my personal favourite operas – Mussorgsky’s  Boris Godunov, and Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen – performances of which I had the privilege of attending over the last week.

Other than their both originating from Eastern Europe (one is Russian, the other Czech), and apart from their both being among my personal favourite works, they have little in common. Except, perhaps, that, each in its own way, they’re both quite unusual operas. Mussorgsky’s opera, based on  Pushkin’s sprawling epic play, is itself a sprawling epic opera, but seems rather strangely structured: the central character Boris appears in only four of its seven scenes (in four of its nine scenes in the later 1873 version); and there are long scenes, taking up substantial parts of the opera, that seem at best only tangentially related to the central plot, making one wonder just what they are doing there. This was perhaps inevitable given that Mussorgsky (who was librettist as well as composer) had to radically cut down the text of Pushkin’s play, reducing twenty-five scenes merely to seven: this inevitably results in some narrative discontinuities, where the audience has to fill in the gaps for themselves, and also in a few threads that don’t appear to lead anywhere. It’s a work that seems to want to expand further than what can reasonably be accommodated in a single evening’s performance.

Janáček’s opera is even stranger: it is based not on a play or even a novel, but on a comic strip in a newspaper; it is virtually plotless (a summary of the incidents that occur don’t really amount to what most of us would recognise as a plot); and it tells of the interactions between humans and animals in a woodland setting. Hardly the stuff of traditional opera.

But we shouldn’t wonder at their strangeness: all works of genius are strange to some extent or other. Boris Godunov, like Mussorgsky’s later opera Khovanschina (which was left unfinished), takes us to a turbulent period of Russian history. (Although we may wonder whether there has ever been a time in Russian history that wasn’t turbulent.) The period is the late 16th century: Boris is asked by the populace to accept the crown, to prevent further civil warfare and bloodshed. He agrees, but his very first words set the tone: “My soul is heavy”. Yes, soul: this is a very Russian opera after all.

The version I saw last week performed by the Royal Opera was the earlier, and more compact, 1869 version. It is not a version I am familiar with: the recording I have (and through which I know the piece), conducted by Claudio Abbado, appears to use the longer later version from 1873, but includes also a scene from the earlier version that Mussorgsky had taken out. The differences between the 1869 and the 1879 are fascinating, but it would take a greater Mussorgsky scholar than myself to write a proper analysis of it. As for as I can see, Mussorgsky, for his later version, stripped out a brief scene in which Boris encounters the Holy Fool (who is about as archetypal a Russian figure as may be imagined); adds two long scenes involving various political and romantic machinations in Poland, where Dmitri, the Pretender, is manipulated by the Polish Princess Marina, and who is herself manipulated by the Jesuit priest Rangoni; and added also an extra scene after Boris’ death, in which we witness an attempted lynching, and where, at the end, we see the armies of the Pretender march through the land, as the Holy Fool laments the fate of the Russian people: whoever is in power, it is the people who continue to suffer. In addition to this, Mussorgsky had significantly expanded at least two other scenes. (There are most probably further changes if one were to study the scores in detail – something I am not, alas, qualified to do.)

I did, I must confess, miss those extra scenes, and the extra passages Mussorgsky had composed for the later version; but even this more compact version seemed sprawling. I do not mean that as a criticism: I love the sprawl. Between the famous coronation scene at the opening, and perhaps the even more famous death scene at the end, we find ourselves in the gloom of a monastery cell, where the monk Pimen is chronicling the history of Russia (this scene is primarily expository, though not wholly so: we see also the young schismatic monk Grigory, who will later claim to be Dmitri, heir to the crown). Then, we have what seems to be a quite irrelevant scene set in a tavern, where we encounter the striking figure of the drunken monk Varlaam. True,  it does relate to the main action  in that we also see Grigory, now escaped from the monastery, and trying to make his way across the border into Lithuania; but the focus of this scene falls on Varlaam (sung with some gusto in this production by John Tomlinson): quite apart from anything else, he is given what must be the best “drunk” music ever composed: here was a composer who knew well what it was like to be drunk, and reproduced it unerringly in music. (In this earlier version, we do not see Varlaam again after this tavern scene: in the later version, we see him again in the final scene, attempting to lynch and hang a Catholic.)

Only after all this – some half way through the opera in its earlier version – do we encounter Boris again (after his brief appearance in the opening coronation scenes), and, perhaps to our surprise, we encounter him as a gentle and tender man, loving and solicitous of his children. But his soul is heavy: Prince Dmitri – the real prince Dmitri, not the one who later pretends to be him – had been murdered: he was a mere child. According to Pimen’s narration, it was Boris who had ordered the murder. We never quite get to know the truth of this. But in the terrifying final moments of this particular scene, we see Boris tortured with guilt, and hallucinating: he sees the murdered child appearing to him, and he cries out in terror, disclaiming his guilt. The music Mussorgsky provides for this really does make my hair stand on end: I really know nothing in any other opera to match this for sheer terror.

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Bryn Terfel as the tortured Boris Godunov. Or, perhaps, me after a rough night. Take your pick. (Picture courtesy Royal Opera)

Some day, I’d love to see the later, more expanded version, but I can’t complain: this was every bit as majestic and as imposing and as dark and terrifying as I have always imagined this opera to be. Bryn Terfel as Boris was simply extraordinary, projecting both the tender side of the character, and also the tortured and demonic side, with equal conviction. I am not really qualified to comment on the musical aspects of the performance, but Marc Albrecht’s conducting, and the orchestra’s playing – and also, in this of all operas, the singing of the chorus: it can be argued that the people are the real protagonists here – left, as far as I was concerned, at least, absolutely nothing to be desired.

(I have now seen Bryn Terfel live on three occasions – as Hans Sachs, as Falstaff, and now, as Boris Godunov. Not a bad threesome!)

With The Cunning Little Vixen, we enter a very different world. We are no longer dealing with kings and pretenders and marching armies – we are in a forest, and the first orchestral sounds we hear seem to evoke the wind rustling the leaves, and the chirping of insects. A forester takes a nap, and a frog lands on his nose. On waking, he finds a fox cub, and takes her home to be a sort of pet for the children. The forester, and all the animals – the fox, the frog, the various birds, the mosquitoes – all sing.

The music is certainly very beautiful but at this stage, one is entitled to ask – What is Janáček playing at? The English title suggests a cute, Disneyfied view of the animal world, but the English title is misleading: the original Czech title is Příhody lišky Bystroušky, which, roughly translated, means (I’m told) “The Adventures of Vixen Sharp-ears“. Somewhat less Disneyesque than the English title perhaps, but it still doesn’t help us much. A summary of the plot, such as it is, doesn’t tell us much either: the fox cub grows up into a vixen, wards off the advances of the dog and kills all the chickens (no Disneyesque cuteness here!), runs off back into the forest, drives out the badger and takes over his home, falls in love and marries a fox (to ecstatic singing from all the other woodland animals), has many fox cubs of her own, and is then, all of a sudden and quite out of the blue, shot by a poacher. And the vixen’s death isn’t even the climactic point of the opera: the orchestra is given a few bars of sad, reflective music on the vixen’s death, and then we move on. In contrast to Boris Godunov, where death seems an earth-shattering event, here, death is presented merely as something that happens every day: it’s no big deal really.

Alongside this, we get the world of the humans: we see the forester at home with his wife; later, we see him in a tavern with a priest and a schoolmaster (Janáček’s drunk music is very different from Mussorgsky’s); the schoolmaster is pining for someone named Terynka, but his love is unrequited; while the priest, returning home tipsy, reflects on the time he had been falsely accused of a sexual misdemeanour. Later, we find that Terynka (still unseen), is to marry someone called Harašta, who is also a poacher: the schoolmaster’s love is fated to remain unrequited. The priest, meanwhile, has left: we are told briefly that he is lonely and homesick. And so on. A lot of incidents, yes, but they refuse to gel into anything resembling a coherent narrative line. Everything just seems to happen – with nothing much leading up to them, and nothing much resulting from them. Even the death of the principal character, the vixen. These things just happen – and that’s all. Even death.

To get some idea what Janáček was “playing at”, we must look to the music.

I’m truly sorry Man’s dominion
Has broken Nature’s social union…

It is “Nature’s social union” that Burns speaks of that Janáček here depicts in his music. On Saturday night, the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Simon Rattle, performed all three acts without an interval, and the whole thing emerged like a vast orchestral tone poem with voices, an all-embracing paean to nature, and to its eternal cycles of self-renewal. But of course, the fact that Nature renews herself regularly is scant consolation to us poor sods who face inevitable extinction: and this is acknowledged. The climactic point of the opera comes not with the death of the vixen, but with the Forester’s rueful monologue, in which he reflects sadly, though not bitterly, on the passage of time, and, by implication, on his own inevitable extinction. The music here is almost unbearably poignant: Simon Rattle says in his programme notes that the ending of the opera leaves him in tears, and Janáček himself had asked for this music to be played at his own funeral. I myself find it very hard to listen to this monologue without thinking of Wordsworth’s line “that there hath passed away a glory from the earth”. And yet, this is not quite the last word. Once again, the forester falls asleep, as he had done at the start of the opera, and once again, a frog jumps on to his nose, but it’s not the same frog as at the beginning: it is that’s frog’s grandchild. And in the final bars, the music itself seems to expand to fill the void with sounds of what I can only describe as ecstasy.

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Lucy Crowe as the Vixen, and Gerard Finley as the forester, in “The Cunning Little Vixen”. (Picture courtesy London Symphony Orchestra)

It’s not a long opera: it’s only about 90 or so minutes – shorter than some of Wagner’s single acts. But in that 90 minutes, we find music that is, by turns, gentle, nostalgic, boisterous, exuberant, calm and nocturnal, joyous and celebratory … and even, at times, dark and tragic: the music that opens the third act, say, speaks of death as surely as does any funeral march in a Mahler symphony. This opera, for me, is Janáček’s Lied von der Erde, but how different his focus is from Mahler’s! In both works, I suppose, the sadness and the angst are, as it were, sublimated into a sort of ecstasy, but where, in Mahler, the longing fades away at the end, serenely into silence, here, we seem overwhelmed by the sheer plenitude of Life itself.

Of the performance, there is not really anything I can say other than it held me spellbound throughout. The London Symphony Orchestra produced the most extraordinary sounds and it’s hard to imagine this cast – led by Lucy Crowe as the Vixen and Gerard Finley as the forester (with a telling cameos from Hanno Muller-Brachman as the poacher Harašta, and Sophia Burgos as the Fox) – being bettered. I am not entirely sure what, if anything, Peter Sellers’ semi-staging added to the proceedings, but the way I felt on leaving the Barbican, I was in no frame of mind to complain.

Well, I suppose I’ve probably spent my entire annual opera allowance over just a few days. But it was worth it. I wouldn’t have missed these for anything.

On re-visiting late James

When one speaks merely of one’s literary preferences, of the degree to which one likes or dislikes this book or that, then – as I have often had occasion to say, with, perhaps, a somewhat greater sense of self-importance than is entirely warranted – one reports not so much on the books themselves, but upon one’s own self. Bearing this in mind, I have tried, in my earlier posts at least, and not very successfully even then, to be as objective as I could, keeping my subjective responses to what I read at what I hoped could be described as “at an arm’s length”. But over the years, this has changed, and perhaps that’s just as well. For, after all, there are any number of people who can objectively analyse literature far better than I could: that is something I am not trained in, and probably wouldn’t be too good at even if I were. But what I can do, better than anyone else, I think I can say without undue boasting, is to give an account, a subjective account, of how I, personally, view a work, and why. And if that is autobiography rather than criticism, then, frankly, so be it.

For a description of one’s own subjective viewpoint is necessarily autobiography: what I see reveals where I am, and how I interpret what I see reveals the leanings and biases of my mind. And, now approaching the age of sixty at a faster pace than I might have wished, I find myself increasingly inclined to take stock, to find out where I really am, and how I came to be there; to discover, in short, these leanings and biases of my mind.

One thing I find myself doing increasingly with age is revisiting. I know many would count it a shortcoming on my part to re-tread merely the ground already trodden rather than seek out newer worlds to conquer, but there is so much in that old ground that I know I have missed, or that I know would mean something different to me from what it had meant to me earlier, that it seems pointless not to look back. For each work of art is incomplete without the reader – or the viewer, or the listener: it is only when a work of art is read (or viewed, or heard) does it achieve completion. And since we are all uniquely different people, each completion is necessarily unique. This is not to argue in favour of relativism – to say, as some do, that no individual understanding can be deemed incorrect: the reader’s understanding is but the final component of the pattern, not the pattern itself.

I am currently in the process of re-reading, after some twenty years and more, Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove. Progress is slow, firstly because I tend to be a slow reader, and secondly because the construction of James’ sentences, especially in his later works, is not such as to allow quick comprehension. But in any case, I do not see the point of trying to race through this: I know that James isn’t everyone’s cup of afternoon tea, but his stature as a literary artist is hardly in any doubt, and from what I remember of my earlier reading of these, his last three novels – The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, The Golden Bowl – are among his most profound and heartfelt utterances. The Biblical allusions in the titles of the first and last of these three testify to, at the very least, their seriousness of intent. And I know I did no more than skim the surface in my earlier readings: I did not understand much, but I understood enough to realise that I wasn’t really understanding enough. But what little I did take in, even back them, has been resonating in my mind ever since, and now, I feel, the time is right to revisit. Reading these three books will take a long time – a very long time, I suspect – but that’s all right: I’m in no hurry. And, being a somewhat different person to the thirty-something whippersnapper I was at my first reading, those final pieces I shall now be providing to complete these works will, I think, be very different from previously. And when one is no longer in suspense to discover how the plot will develop, the mind becomes free to focus on other, more important matters,

James published these three massive novels in three successive years, and it seems likely he was working on them at the same time. Or, at least, that he was thinking about them at the same time. So inevitably, I imagine, there will be thematic connections between them. But what themes? That I am not yet sure about. I am some 200 or so pages into The Wings of the Dove, and right from the very first sentence, James warns us that he will not state anything directly:

She waited, Kate Croy, for her father to come in, but he kept her unconscionably, and there were moments at which she showed herself, in the glass over the mantel, a face positively pale with the irritation that had brought her to the point of going away without sight of him.

So much is achieved in this opening sentence. There’s a sense both of time (“he kept her waiting unconscionably”) and of space (“the glass over the mantel”), and also of Kate Croy’s agitated mental state. And yet, any other writer, I think, would have written “Kate Croy waited..” rather than “She waited, Kate Croy, …” I think this is James announcing from the beginning that he will not be stating anything directly; and also, I think, by making the reader pause twice within the opening four words, he establishes a certain tempo, a certain rhythm, which impels the reader to pause frequently, examining carefully what is being said, or, more frequently, what is not being said.  For, even more perhaps than most others of James’ works, this is a novel built upon evasions – evasions both by the characters, in thought and in speech, and evasions by the narrator himself. The very fact of evasion seems to be one of the novel’s major themes. But to what end? What, in fine, is being evaded? Or is that too direct a question to ask?

I have never felt comfortable writing about a book till I have got to the end; and then, more often than not these days, I pour out just about everything I can think of to say about it in a single monstrously long post that no sane person would even want to read. But unless and until I get a sense of the overall shape of a work, I find it very hard to comment. So I had better leave it for now. To be continued, as they say. Unless I do a bit of evasion myself.

So in the meantime, I am progressing, excruciatingly slowly, perhaps, but utterly absorbed and fascinated, attempting to get to the heart of the great mysteries that James hints to us with all the artfulness at his disposal. And whatever final components I as a reader will contribute to complete these works, they are likely to be very different from what I had previously contributed.

A Visit to the Prado, or, What I did on my Holidays

There are, next to each other, two fridge magnets, on our fridge (as one might expect), of Rembrandt’s painting “The Jewish Bride”, and of Velazquez’ painting “Las Meninas”. And I used to say that one was the greatest painting I have seen, and the other the greatest painting I haven’t. Well, I have finally remedied that. Heaven knows why it has taken so long. We finally made that trip to Madrid, and spent a day at the Prado – one day was never going to be enough, but it will have to do for now – and so, yes, I have now seen “Las Meninas” as well.

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Visiting the Prado is a dizzying experience. There is far too much to take in in a single visit. After a while, one finds oneself walking past paintings one knows to be masterpieces, but feeling too saturated with what one has already seen to try to absorb anything more. And what about all those other paintings that deserve the time I did not have, and the attention that had already drained away? Well, another visit, perhaps, some other time. Maybe a longer stay in Madrid, and more than a mere day. My mind these days is too small to absorb too many things within so short a space of time. (This, incidentally, applies to my reading also, but let us not get side-tracked.)

Not that I responded to everything. I can make nothing at all of Hieronymus Bosch for instance, and “The Garden of Earthly Delights”, so often cited as one of the gallery’s highlights, left me cold. And what is one to make of Rubens? Now, there are a great many paintings by Rubens that I admire – some immensely – but he did churn them out, didn’t he? And yes, I love flamboyance: if anything, my tastes run towards the flamboyant rather than towards the restrained. But there were times I stood in front of some of those canvases, and thought to myself, “This is just silly!” Standing in front of “The Adoration of the Magi”, I actually found myself laughing: not quite, perhaps, the most appropriate response. And yes, this is a comment on me, not on Rubens. But, much though I love the dramatic and the colourful, certain things are beyond even my threshold.

And El Greco. There was a strange one. There was a time when the paintings of El Greco fascinated me, with those colours, at once vibrant and austere, and those forms curiously elongated, but I can see little in them these days except a sort of mystic terror. I don’t think I am so earthbound as to reject anything that may be termed “spiritual” (I use inverted commas there as an admission of defeat: “spiritual” seems far too vague a term to describe what I would like to convey, but neither can I think of a suitable alternative). But, whatever “spirituality” I may profess, an artistic vision that appears to me to offer little other than terror is not one that speaks to me. Not these days, at least: perhaps my receptivity had been broader in my younger days.

But let us not dwell on all that I failed to respond to. What is the point, when there was so much that transported me? Merely to list all the paintings that I loved would be tedious, certainly for myself, and even more certainly, I think, for the reader. So let me highlight just a few paintings that made a particular impression on me. Please indulge me as I choose my personal choices – five paintings that I would take with me from this gallery for my own imaginary private collection.

But choosing merely a few highlights is not very easy in a gallery such as this, where, after having been held transfixed for God knows how long by Velazquez’ “Las Meninas”, I turned round to see through an open doorway Titian’s magnificent equestrian portrait of Carlos V. And this would be my first choice.

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“Carlos V” by Titian, courtesy Prado Museum

Of course, I suppose I should pick “Las Meninas” too – perhaps the most famous painting in a gallery bursting at the seams with famous paintings. But no – for Velazquez, I will pick his portrait of Sebastian de Morra. He was a dwarf, and was in the court merely to amuse the courtiers with his short stature. But Velazquez paints him as a he would an emperor. He doesn’t hide his physique – quite the opposite – but gives this man, the purpose of whose very existence was merely to provoke mirth, a dignity and a nobility that is nothing short of majestic.

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“Sebastian de Morra” by Velazquez, courtesy Prado Museum

My next choice is not so well-known. It is a still life by Francisco de Zurbarán, and at first glance, it is simplicity itself: four vessels, one of metal, the other three of earthenware, arranged in a straight line parallel to the plane of vision, none of them touching or overlapping with each other. Other than these vessels, and the ledge on which they are placed, all is dark. What could be simpler, or, one might think, less remarkable? And yet, the painting projects a sense of stillness, of utter silence, that seems almost sacred. I had said earlier that I do not reject the “spiritual”, and, given my sensibilities, I must say that I find greater spirituality here than in all the mystic visions of El Greco. (Once again, this is not a comment on El Greco … etc. etc. …)

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“Four Vessels” by Zurbaran, courtesy Prado Museum

It was towards the end of my visit of the gallery, after many hours’ wandering, and as I was nearing the end of my attention span, that I found myself face to face with Rogier van der Weiden’s “Descent from the Cross”. And it’s one of those occasions where I wish I were more skilled at this ekpharsis business. I wish I could explain why it is that I find myself so unutterably moved by the fact of Christ’s right hand and the Virgin’s left hand being parallel to each other. But I can’t. I can’t explain anything at all about this wondrous painting. Perhaps I had best resort to that old cliché of certain matters transcending analysis, and leave it there.

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“Descent from the Cross” by Rogier van der Weiden, courtesy Prado Museum

My last choice is a Goya. Not one of those horrific “black paintings” – but one he painted at the end of that series: “The Milkmaid of Bordeaux”. I may be completely wrong in this, but standing in front of that painting, I get a sense of serenity. Through that web of silvers and blues and greens, there seems, to me at least, a sense of having, as it were, come through: after all the horrors, after a journey through Hell itself, Goya presents us with a vision of radiance in a simple figure of a milkmaid. But it is also the vision of someone who knows what he has gone through, and hasn’t forgotten. It is a vision of serenity despite all the terrors. All this is no doubt very fanciful, and I do not possess the skill to explain why I feel this way. I can only report on that fact that I do.

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“The Milkmaid” by Goya, courtesy Prado, Madrid

Another trip beckons. I don’t know when: it has taken many, many years just to make my first visit. But I know I have to return. I can’t just leave it here.

 

The darker films of Billy Wilder

Mention the Golden Age of Hollywood – the 30s, the 40s, and into the 50s (although the studio system that gave rise to that Golden Age was already collapsing by then) – and most people these days … well, let us be on the safe side and say “a great many people these days” … will have a mental picture of the “Dream Factory” – a pipeline churning out frothy escapism, undemanding entertainment that is best seen with one’s brains left safely at home. Of course, there’s no denying that much that came out of Hollywood back then was indeed light, frothy entertainment: no-one will be watching the Astaire-Rogers musicals, say, or screwball comedies, expecting anything too serious. Although it may be added that should anyone take their brains along to these films rather than leave them at home, those brains would not necessarily feel insulted by what they see: there are gradations even in light, frothy entertainment.

But there was far more to the Dream Factory than merely confecting sweet dreams. Even at the height of the Depression, when, heaven knows, escape from a bitter reality was very much needed, the focus was not always purely on “escapism”: even comedies such as the Laurel and Hardy films acknowledged the reality of the Depression (Stan and Ollie were frequently penniless vagrants), and Chaplin, in films such as The Kid or Modern Times, certainly didn’t hold back. Social criticism was very much an integral part of the gangster movie genre at Warner Brothers; and in 1940, barely a year after the Great Depression is reckoned to have ended, John Ford made a magnificent cinematic adaptation of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath: those who reckon Hollywood films of that era were essentially frothy escapism can still let out an astonished gasp or two as one of the characters in that film describes in shockingly graphic detail how his children had starved to death.

The darkness Hollywood films of that Golden Era were prepared to depict was not necessarily merely the darkness of social evils, murky though they were: sometimes, the darkness was of the human heart. And here, Billy Wilder, especially, excelled. In some sixteen or so years – between 1944 and 1960, to be precise – Billy Wilder co-wrote and directed, amongst, it may be admitted, more light-hearted fare, five films that look very uncompromisingly indeed into the darkness of the human heart. These films are, in chronological order, Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard, Ace in the Hole (also known as The Big Carnival), and The Apartment. Each of these films features as protagonist a man who, through flaws and shortcomings in his character, finds himself morally compromised, and becomes, as a consequence, filled with self-disgust. (In Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard, this protagonist shares the spotlight with a female character who, too, is very deeply flawed, though in very different ways.)

At this point, when the reader is, I’m aware, wondering what all this is leading to, and when I am eager to press ahead and satisfy the reader’s curiosity on that score, I have to issue one of those tiresome “spoiler alerts”. I know I have to, because when I don’t, I receive indignant e-mails. So here it is: If you have not seen these films – more particularly, if you have not seen The Lost Weekend and The Apartment – and plan to see them, and feel that the essence of good drama lies in finding out what happens next (at least on first viewing), and, in particular, in what happens at the end, then it is probably best that you read no further. For it is on the endings of The Lost Weekend and of The Apartment that I intend to focus.

With that out of the way, let us continue.

Three of these five films (Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, Ace in the Hole) end in tragedy: they could hardly have ended any other way. The other two films are also dark and tragic in content, although tragedy is averted at the end. In The Apartment, the last film of this unofficial series, the deeply flawed protagonist is, at long last, allowed to redeem himself morally. And there is a real sense of joy when this happens: there is a sense of release, a rare concession, amidst all the pessimism and all the cynicism and all the vitriol, that a way out, even given our profound human shortcomings, may be possible. It is possible not by the Grace of God – the presence of God is not particularly apparent in any of these films – but by a moral strength that even the most unremarkable of us may retain within ourselves. This ending moves us because it is so hard won, because we have, both earlier in this film and in the previous films, been shown the various red hells into which our sightless souls may stray. For, until that ending of that final film, we are, morally, in very murky waters indeed. We are far from the Dream Factory here.

All five of these films seem to me masterpieces, but speaking entirely subjectively (as I often do on this blog), it is The Lost Weekend that particularly intrigues me. Its protagonist (played by Ray Milland) is an alcoholic, but the film is not really about alcoholism, as such: at least, alcoholism is not its central theme. The central character, Don Birnam, seems to have everything going for him: he is handsome and charismatic, he is intelligent and cultured, and he is supremely articulate. But he is haunted by a sense of failure.  He had aspired, and aspires still, to be a writer, but all he has to show for it is a series of unfinished manuscripts. His tragedy is not merely that he is mediocre, or, worse, talentless; his tragedy is also that he recognises it, and that he cannot come to terms with what he recognises. And he takes refuge in drink, and exercising his supreme articulacy with the barman:

It shrinks my liver, doesn’t it, Nat? It pickles my kidneys, yeah. But what it does it do to the mind? It tosses the sandbags overboard so the balloon can soar. Suddenly I’m above the ordinary. I’m competent. Extremely competent! I’m walking a tightrope over Niagara Falls. I’m one of the great ones. I’m Michelangelo, moulding the beard of Moses. I’m Van Gogh painting pure sunlight. I’m Horowitz, playing the Emperor Concerto. I’m John Barrymore before the movies got him by the throat. I’m Jesse James and his two brothers, all three of them. I’m W. Shakespeare. And out there it’s not Third Avenue any longer, it’s the Nile, Nat. The Nile and down into the barge of Cleopatra.

As the film progresses, we see Don Birnam travel through what seems like the circles of some Dantean inferno. Even now, some  seventy-five years after the film’s release, I doubt I have seen anything more horrific in a film than the sequence in the drying-out ward, or the terrifying alcoholic hallucinations Don Birnam has back in his flat.

But the tragedy that seems inevitable is averted. His girlfriend Helen (played by Jane Wyman), persuades him to start writing again, and he sits down to pen a novel based on his experiences. We, the viewer, may be left unsatisfied by this. Don Birnam has had false starts before, we know; and, further, we know also that, despite all his qualities, he does not have whatever it takes to be a writer: what stirs his imagination is not what he is writing, but rather, the idea of being a writer. When I saw this film in my younger days, I had no doubt that he would return to his drinking, and that what we see on screen is not so much a new start, but, rather, tragedy deferred.

But in my latest viewing (last week), I thought differently. Shortly before the end, Don has redeemed his revolver from the pawnbroker, obviously planning to shoot himself, and Helen, knowing this, and not really knowing what to do about it, pours him a drink; and when he expresses puzzlement, she breaks down and says “I’d rather have you drunk than have you dead”. Now, call me sentimental (as you probably will), but I suddenly found myself rather moved by this. Helen has, after all, stayed by him even when she has been told, by Don himself amongst others, to get out while she still can. And if she would rather have him drunk than dead, then maybe she would rather have him talentless than dead too. Maybe she could reconcile him to his lack of talent. Maybe. The future, as the film ends, is still uncertain, but if Don is to redeem himself, it won’t be through discovering his talent (he doesn’t have any), but, through Helen’s love, by being reconciled to that fact. And if that sounds sentimental, I’d counter that perhaps, too often, we miss out on profound matters by our fear of being sentimental as much as we do by actually being sentimental. At any rate, this last viewing, the ending did not seem to me so inevitably dark as it used to seem.

It is only at the end of the last film of this series, The Apartment, that the protagonist (played here by Jack Lemmon) is allowed unambiguously to redeem himself. What he had been doing really was unspeakably sordid: in return for promotion, he would lend out his apartment to senior managers in his office for them to carry out their extra-marital affairs. But in this film, the protagonist is, at long last, allowed to rediscover his moral bearings. And yes, the driving force, once again, is love. Perhaps these Wilder films are not quite so cynical as they are so often made out to be: yes, morality is frequently flouted and love frequently slighted, but morality and love both exist, and they are both potent, redeeming forces.

By the time The Apartment was released, in 1960, what we think of as The Golden Age of Hollywood was finished. Perhaps The Apartment and John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, released two years later, were the last remnants of that age. And while it did turn out the most glorious entertainment, it wasn’t blind to the darkness either. And no director, I think, peered into that darkness as insistently as did Billy Wilder. But it would be a mistake, I think, to see in even his darkest films merely undiluted pessimism and cynicism.

O poor Robinson Crusoe, how could you possibly do so?

In Daniel Defoe’s novel, the eponymous hero, Robinson Crusoe, during the 28 years he spends on his desert island, sometimes asks himself whether his fate was God’s punishment for having committed the primal sin of disobeying his father. And it struck me, even on my first reading as a child, that, given that Crusoe had been the owner of a plantation that was worked by slaves, and that, further, given that Crusoe had himself been a slave trader, there were somewhat greater transgressions than merely filial disobedience that the Almighty could have punished him for. Crusoe’s failure to see something so obvious as this struck me then, and strikes me still, as a chilling piece of irony that underpins the entire novel. And to the question “Did Defoe intend this irony?” I’d answer “Does it matter?”

Not that I’m one of those readers who divorces the text from the writer, seeing the former as merely a product of its times, and hence, no more than a reflection of the various power structures of those times. Far from it. The terrible irony I see underpinning Robinson Crusoe strikes me as very much a  literary quality: it shifts the focus of the novel from that of human resourcefulness and self-sufficiency (which are usually taken to be the novel’s principal themes) to the more interesting themes – from my perspective, at least – of the human capacity of self-delusion, and humanity’s failure to recognise its own moral culpability, repining as we do at the thought of imagined sins when far greater crimes are staring us in the face.

Now, all the available evidence concerning Defoe indicates that this irony was not intentional on the author’s part, but I really don’t see what that should make a difference to the way I perceive this novel. Especially when this irony enhances both its literary and its moral qualities.

This year is the three hundredth anniversary of this very famous novel, and it is perhaps only natural that we should be disturbed by its content. I will not list the various reasons why modern readers may find the content disturbing: they are well described in this article that recently appeared in The Guardian. However, the headline-writer appears not to have read the article: “Robinson Crusoe at 300: why it’s time to let go of this colonial fairytale” says the headline, although Charles Boyle, the author, says quite explicitly:

The argument here is not with Defoe, who was a clever and contrary man. His acceptance of slavery as necessary for profitable business is one thing; his belief that Britain is a nation of immigrants and his championing of education for women are others. Nor is the argument with the novel itself … My quarrel is with the way the novel has been used, and continues to be used …

His quarrel, in short, is with interpretation. And Defoe’s novels, in general, are open to various interpretative stances. This is primarily because each of his major novels (at least, the ones that I have read: Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders, Journal of the Plague Year, and Roxana) is a first person narration, and can, and, to my mind, should, be taken as a dramatic monologue. Thus, we find ourselves compelled to evaluate what is being said in the context of our understanding of the person who is saying it. In Moll Flanders, for instance, we notice the irony of Moll expressing, near the end of her narrative, penitence for her criminal life, while, at the same time, being content to live on the proceeds of that same criminality. That Moll is not aware of this irony is no reason why we shouldn’t take a different view. In Robinson Crusoe, we go a step further: not only is the fictional narrator not aware of the irony underpinning his narrative, it appears, from evidence external to the novel itself, that Defoe himself was possibly not aware either. But the irony nonetheless exists, and, to my mind, makes it a greater novel.

Charles Boyle’s other criticism – that of the pedestrian nature of the prose – may be possible harder to counter. Defoe was primarily a journalist, and only took up novel-writing comparatively late in his career; and he made a point of writing his novels in clear, precise, journalistic prose. It was, it seems to me, a conscious artistic decision. I must admit I do not find the prose “pedestrian” at all: indeed, the nature of the prose seems to me to serve its purpose well – to provide the utmost clarity and transparency even while concealing subtleties and ironies hidden even from the narrator. This conflict between transparency of the narrative style and the secrets hidden within the narrative itself seems to me to reach its apogee in Roxana (the work I take to be Defoe’s masterpiece), where, by the end, despite the absolute clarity of the prose, we cannot even be sure of what precisely happens, let alone how we are to interpret it.

It would be very wrong to “throw away” Robinson Crusoe as the Guardian headline-writer seems to suggest: but perhaps we should look again at this novel and, indeed, at Defoe’s other novels too, all of which seem to me to contain far more than is immediately apparent.

On bookshops, cathedrals, and fanciful analogies

We all have a favourite bookshop. And if we don’t, we should. We who are into blogging about books – we book-lovers, or, to employ a diction more suited to our pretensions, bibliophiles – should ideally have one particular bookshop that is particularly close to our heart. Not necessarily the biggest, nor even the best stocked, but one to which, for whatever reason, we find ourselves sentimentally attached.

For me, that is not an easy choice to make. Living as I do in a place from where it is as easy to travel to Central London as it is to Oxford, I am a bit spoilt for choice. In London, I do like Hatchards, which, unlike other big bookshops, has not diluted its bookishness by incorporating a coffee shop within its premises. And the big Waterstones in Torrington Place, near University College London, is particularly well-stocked, and is a delight to browse in. On the other hand, I have been known to describe the Blackwell’s in Oxford as my “spiritual home”. Spending a day in shops like this, if you ask me (and you probably don’t), is worth more than all your online outlets put together.

But there is one bookshop that is particularly close to my heart: Minster Gate bookshop, in York. It is an antiquarian and second-hand bookshop, and is much smaller than the ones I have mentioned, but it has character. The ground space is actually very small, but what it lacks in horizontal space, it makes up for in vertical: there are five storeys, including a basement, connected by very steep and very narrow flights of stairs. And these stairs, not having much room to extend, turn one hundred and eighty degrees between each successive pair of floors, creating a small landing half-way up. (I’m sure there is a technical architectural term to describe this, but since I do not know what it is, I have no choice but to provide laboured descriptions.) And these small landings each have a set of shelves, which one can only peruse by having to move to one side every now and then to let other customers squeeze past.

Minster Gate bookshop, York. Picture taken from bookshop’s website.

Needless to say, there’s no café here. Nothing compromises its air of bookish seriousness. And the stock is a delight. Being primarily an antiquarian and second hand bookshop, this stock is always changing, but every time I have been there – and I first went there over forty years ago now – I have not found it short of items to tempt me. I don’t live very close to York these days, but when I do visit, not having a look at this bookshop is as unthinkable as not having a look at York Minster itself.

Which brings me to what is, perhaps, the greatest charm of this utterly charming bookshop: its close proximity to the mighty York Minster. The shop is situated a mere few yards from the magnificent soaring south transept of York Minster, which is one of the world’s greatest sights.

York Minster Cathedral, rising majestically above the city of York

The building itself I cannot help thinking of as a symphony in stone. I am not sure why this analogy with a symphony keeps coming to mind, but it seems apt: there is to this edifice an uncompromising and massive grandeur; it soars high, high above the maze of narrow streets below it, and looks down with a seeming disdain upon the small world below which seems almost too insignificant to encompass such glory. And, no doubt fancifully but nonetheless compellingly, this puts me in mind of the craggy grandeur I find in Beethoven’s symphonies, which, while enjoining us (quite literally in the finale of the ninth) to live our lives heroically, give us at the same time an image of a vastness so immense and so incapable of being adequately embraced by mere mortals such as ourselves, that we are put very firmly back in our place.

The interior of York Minster

The contrast between York Minster and Salisbury Cathedral – another favourite of mine, and one which, being closer to where I live, I visit often – could not be greater. Instead of rising above narrow medieval streets, Salisbury Cathedral is situated in a spacious and airy close. Indeed, the world “close”, though literally accurate in this context, is also inappropriate, as this “close” is as open as may be imagined. Within this “close”, the cathedral is surrounded by gentle lawns and trees. The building itself epitomises grace and elegance. Even that famous spire, which is actually higher than any of the towers of York Minster, imparts no sense of massiveness or of grandeur, but rather of a certain lightness.

Salisbury Cathedral

For some tastes, compared to the mighty York Minster, Salisbury Cathedral conveys merely charm, is merely decorous, and is, hence, in the final analysis, merely insipid. I disagree, most vehemently. If York Minster is a Beethoven symphony, then Salisbury Cathedral is a Mozart piano concerto, delighting the senses with its charms, but touching also the strings of the heart, and sounding the deepest of chords. But then again, there are those who also think Mozart’s music is also a mere display of triviality, or, at best, of pleasant but ultimately insignificant fripperies. It is best, I think, just to shrug one’s shoulders and pass such people by.

And yes, Salisbury Cathedral is equally glorious inside

To complete the set, I think I should mention also the third of my three favourite cathedrals – Chartres Cathedral. In Chartres. France. And I guess I should liken this, too, with the works of a great composer. Bach, perhaps? The great passions, maybe, or the B minor mass? No, enough of this. An analogy that was no more than mildly fanciful to begin with reveals its silliness all too easily if stretched too far. So let us not stretch matters here.

Porch of North Transept Of Chartres Cathedral

But wait, wait … I got sidetracked. I was meaning to tell you about what I bought at the Minster Gate bookshop, and next thing I knew, I was talking about cathedrals and symphonies and all the rest of it. This is what happens when one has no discipline in one’s writing. So, let’s get back to where I had started: books. Or, rather, buying books.

What – I need more books? When I have so many at home I haven’t read yet? Of course, all bookish people – to which tribe, dear reader, I assume you belong – have been asked that question. And other questions too: Why do you have so many books in the house? Have you read them all? Yes, but surely you’re not going to re-read all of these? And so on. Nowadays, tired of explaining at great length why I surround myself with books, and still, despite my detailed and (as I like to imagine) articulate replies, encountering puzzled and uncomprehending faces, I have taken to saying, having put on as serious a demeanour as I can manage, that I fill my house with books because I believe they ward off evil spirits. That usually shuts ‘em up.

And the two books I came out with from Minster Gate bookshop yesterday to ward off evil spirits was a volume of Nabokov’s short stories, and a hardback edition – which, though second hand, looks not merely unread but unopened – of David West’s commentaries on the sonnets of Shakespeare. David West was, of course, a noted classical scholar: I have been greatly enjoying lately his translations of the odes of Horace (and I gather his translation of the Aeneid is also very fine). I am very curious to see what he makes of Shakespeare’s sonnets.

I’m on a long train journey back home tomorrow, so I should have plenty of time to start reading these. And even if I don’t, they will, I am sure, prove most effective in warding off evil spirits.

Please note: while the pictures of Salisbury and of Chartres are my own, the much better taken pictures of York I found by Google search, and they were not accompanied by a copyright notice. There was no intent on my part to breach copyright, but if I have inadvertently done so, please do contact me. Thank you very much.

“The Master Builder”: a postscript

My last post was a long one, and given I have already spent over four and a half thousand words on it, I really shouldn’t need to add a postscript. But on reading my post over again, there seems to me that something important is missing. At no point do I address the question “What do I, personally, think the play The Master Builder is about?”

The standard answers come easily. It is about a very great number of things, not all of which can  be articulated; to state directly what “it is about” is necessarily reductive, because if “what it is about” can be directly stated,  Ibsen wouldn’t have employed such intricate indirections; to insist on one single interpretation is to deny a host of others; that even one’s personal perspective on a work so profound and so complex as this changes over time, often from reading to reading; and so on, and so forth. All of which is true, but since I do not aim to give an objective overview of any work I discuss here on this blog, I really should be obliged to offer at least my own subjective perspectives. Not insist upon them, but merely to offer them, such as they are.

In an article on this play that appeared some nine or so years ago (and which I had not seen till only a few days ago), distinguished Ibsen scholar Toril Moi (whose book Henrik Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism I most warmly recommend) speaks of Hilde being fascinated by and longing for sex, and yet, at the same time, being afraid of it. She compares Hilde to Hedda Gabler, who used to listen fascinated to Loevborg’s accounts of his various debaucheries, but who threatened him with a gun when he had made an advance on her. (I must admit this is not a parallel that had occurred to me.) And in Solness, Toril Moi sees a man who, underneath all the various complexities – the various neuroses, the various pieces of myth-making about himself – is afraid simply of death.

Moi has interesting things to say also about Aline Solness, who, far from being a desiccated old woman in her sixties, is someone who had borne children only thirteen years earlier, and is most likely in her mid-to-late thirties. It is surely her relative youth that makes her living death so much more terrible.

For me, the marriage of Aline and Halvard is among the greatest mismatches in drama. Aline’s greatest sorrow is not the loss of her children, traumatic though that had been: it is the loss of her childhood, the violent break from the only world in which she had been happy; it is her dislocation into a world that feels forever alien. She has nothing of her husband’s energy and vigour, her husband’s zest for life and longing for joy: if Halvard feels chained to a corpse in being tied  to a woman who is incapable of moving on from her emotional attachment to a vanished past, she, on her part, cannot live in a present that has nothing to offer her but regretful memories of what has been forcibly wrenched from her.

Hilde, on the other hand, wishes to escape her past, but where she is to escape to is not certain. She describes her home as a cage, and herself as a wild bird; and when she is asked if she may wish to return to her childhood home – that one thing that Aline Solness desires more than anything else – Hilde replies that wild birds do not fly back into their cages. When she had been about twelve or thirteen – when, like  Juliet in Shakespeare’s play, she had been in the early stage of her journey from girlhood to womanhood, and was becoming aware of her sexuality – she had seen the vigorous and charismatic Solness, then, perhaps, in his early forties, climb up to the top of the tower; and she had found it thrilling beyond anything she had ever experienced, or had experienced since. From then on, her family home had been merely a cage from which she had to escape. So deep is her longing to escape the domesticities of home, that at times she becomes almost masochistic – as at that rather shocking moment when she speaks of the ancient Vikings, and of her excitement not at the thought of carrying away others (as Vikings used to do), but of being carried away.

And there’s Solness himself, of course. Yes, he is afraid of death. But I think he is afraid of something even more than that: he is afraid of nothingness. He is afraid of the possibility that nothing really matters. To me, the crux of the whole play, the climactic point of the drama, occurs during Solness’ final duologue with Hilde in the third act: he tells her of his defiance of God – even though he cannot bring himself even to speak God’s name; he tells her that from moment on, he had determined to build no more churches for God, but houses – houses for people to live in. From that moment, his world was to be people-centred rather than God-centred: he would embrace what we would nowadays describe as “humanism”. But it was no good: he has found no fulfilment in this either. All he has found was nothingness. And it is this nothingness he fears, more than anything else.

That first time he had climbed up the tower despite his fear of heights, he had done so to express his defiance of God whom he had believed in. Now, he climbs the tower again, but this time, he does so in defiance of nothingness, which he now also believes in. If nothingness is all that reality has to offer, then the greatest castles that can be built, the only castles that can be built, are “castles in the air”.

I have, in the above, refrained from citing passages from the text to support what I am saying. This is partly because I have done enough of that in my last post, and also because what I am offering here is, without apology, my own personal view of the play.

And of course, the usual caveats apply: I am not insisting upon my view of the work; there are a great many other valid ways of seeing it; I am sure I will see things differently again the next time I encounter it; and so on. But, for the moment at least, this, I think, is what lies at the centre of all the various complexities and profundities of this inexhaustible work – the fear that, at the heart of it all, there is simply a vast nothingness.