Posts Tagged ‘Alan Bennett’

Grand Tour #8 – Germany. The Flying Classroom / Erich Kästner

April 19, 2017

I’ve got past form with Erich Kästner. I was so engrossed in Emil and the Detectives one evening in 2006 that I left my phone on a train and never saw it again. It would be on a train, I suppose. Anyway, with all of German literature to choose from I could have opted for one of the acknowledged classics – Werther, say, though that’s hardly original – but in the end I decided to return to dear Erich.

The Flying Classroom (Das fliegende Klassenzimmer) is a book ripe for rediscovery, published in a new translation by the legendary Anthea Bell just a few years ago with the original Walter Trier illustrations preserved. It’s a pleasure just to hold the handsome Pushkin Press edition in your hand. The translation was funded in part by the Goethe-Institut, which I remember being a useful source of Thomas Mann stuff during my A levels. Long may it prosper.

The book opens with adult Erich being nagged by his mother to write the Christmas story he’s been banging on about, only it’s the height of summer and he can’t get in the right mood, so he goes to the Zugspitze, the only place in Europe with snow. Part of his motivation for writing this story is that he has just read a book in which the children were constantly happy. Childhood is not like that, he writes, and part of the process of growing up is learning to weather the punches that life throws at you, even as a child, so that you grow emotionally as well as physically. From one of the introductory chapters:

Only when the brave have become intelligent and the intelligent have become brave will we really be sure of something that we often, but mistakenly, feel is an established fact: the progress of mankind.

The Flying Classroom was published in 1933, the same year Hitler was elected Chancellor, and Kästner saw the way the wind was blowing. The knowledge of what came shortly after its publication, the burning of Kästner’s own books by the Nazis, makes reading this one a particularly poignant experience, though the story itself is poignant enough.

I get the impression there isn’t much of a tradition of the school story in German literature. The only one that comes instantly to mind is Robert Musil’s nasty novel of sadistic bullying The Confusions of Young Törless. How I love that book; but it’s not what Kästner seems to be going for here (except in the scene where two boys from a rival school abduct Rudy Kreuzkamm and tie him to a chair in the cellar with a washing line). The school story is a predominantly British genre, and whatever Kästner’s model may have been (Kipling? Wodehouse?), he outdoes the established masters here.

The action takes place on the last few schooldays before Christmas, and centres ostensibly around preparations for a school play, The Flying Classroom, written by Johnny and performed by him and four friends. You’re bombarded by names at the start of the book, but it’s worth slowing down and getting to know each of the boys individually: there’s Johnny, the creative one; righteous Martin, the leader; smart Sebastian, the joker; diminutive and weedy Uli; and hulking Matthias, Uli’s protector, who dreams of being a boxer and is rarely seen without a piece of cake in his hand.

At the start it appears that Johnny will be the central character, but every boy has his own story, the most engaging being those of Uli, who puts himself at risk in an effort to prove his bravery, and Martin, who is devastated at receiving a letter from his mother telling him she cannot afford the train fare of 8 marks for his journey home, and so he must stay at school for Christmas in the company of a small number of other boarders. The resolution of this plotline brought tears to my eyes, which is an effect books almost never have on me.

One of the hardest things for boys to learn is that a teacher is human. One of the hardest things for a teacher to learn is not to try and tell them.

Mrs Lintott, of course, in The History Boys. I always knew that teachers were human, because I’d been brought up by two of them. If you’re a child with a parent teaching at your school, the assumption is that you live in perpetual fear of their embarrassing you in front of your peers. With me it was different, my father a universally popular man, me wanting occasionally to shout at children expressing admiration for him, ‘He’s not nice and funny at home, he’s a tyrant! A TYRANT!’ (The reality was probably somewhere between the two.) Let’s return to Mrs Lintott. When I quote Alan Bennett it’s usually to make a point, and the point here is that in Kästner’s world the lesson that one’s teacher is a human, when learned, deepens rather than undermines the relationship.

The boys’ teacher Dr Bökh (nicknamed Justus for his decency – ‘I’d go to the gallows for that man if I had to!’ swears Matthias), instead of disciplining them for delinquency, tells a candid story of his own childhood, and a friendship that he regrets having lost. This brings about a revolution in the attitude of the prefect Theodor, who treats the other boys more kindly. In another episode, the children deride their headmaster for his one repeated joke, but view him newly with sympathy and pity when, embarrassed, he attempts to tell a new one. Dr Bökh’s lost friend, it turns out, is an acquaintance of the boys, Dr Uthofft (known to them as No-Smoking because he lives in a no-smoking carriage from a decommissioned train), and the boys are able to effect a moving reunion, having intuited the importance of this friendship to the two men. There’s something of Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Selfish Giant’ in this demonstration of the potential of children to redeem adult suffering, and it is one of a number of moments that lift the book from mere greatness to magicality.

No-Smoking linked arms with Justus … ‘I’ll ask you at this moment, which I hope is a memorable one, not to forget your own youth! That may sound an unnecessary reminder now, while you are still children. But it isn’t unnecessary, believe us! We have grown older and yet we have stayed young. We two know what it’s all about!’

Dr Bökh and Dr Uthofft looked at one another.

And the boys privately decided, in their hearts, never to forget that exchange of glances.

I fear that out of context this reads as sentimental. Kästner is not a sentimentalist. He writes early on of communing by the slopes of the Zugspitze with a butterfly called Gottfried and a calf called Eduard. So far, so whimsical, you might think, but at the end he relates that Gottfried has died and Eduard has most likely been made into schnitzel. Everything has a season. The Flying Classroom isn’t sentimental, though it’s often gemütlich, in the best way. Reading it ought to be a Christmas tradition, like watching Fanny and Alexander or having a fistfight with your aunt.

It’s not sentimental, and it’s not soft. It’s robust and riotous and archly, absurdly funny. Sebastian scoffs at the sixth-formers taking dancing classes with girls. ‘They ought to read what Arthur Schopenhauer has to say about women,’ he rails. Professor Kreuzkamm, on learning of his son Rudy’s kidnapping, openly reprimands Rudy’s parents before the class. There are typographic jokes and puns, and always those warm, endearing illustrations. It’s a sad and joyous book, and I loved it.

2016 foursomes

December 30, 2016

What a year it’s been. Bring on the nuclear holocaust, that’s what I say. But for some of us, whether we like it or not, life goes on, and so here is the annual trawl through the handful of things that have made me grateful to be alive in 2016.

Top 4 theatre
The year began and ended with exciting plays at the Hampstead Theatre – Tom Stoppard’s typically complex but fun Hapgood in January, with Lisa Dillon as the titular spymistress; and Tony Kushner’s irresistibly sprawling The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures in November, with Luke Newberry particularly catching the eye. The Helen McCrory-led production of Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea at the National Theatre was more moving than I’d dared expect it to be. And the most fun I had all year was at the Theatre Royal Haymarket for Ayckbourn’s How the Other Half Loves, where Nicholas Le Prevost reduced me to helpless laughter (as he has in the past).

ayckbourn

Top 4 student theatre
I’m very lucky to live in Cambridge. The Marlowe Society’s production of Measure for Measure at the Arts Theatre in February was outstanding in many respects, not least the speaking of the text. I’ve sat through enough bad productions of Shakespeare to notice the difference when the actors really understand what they’re talking about. Alexandra Wetherell’s Isabella and Tom Beaven’s innately funny Lucio were two of many standout performances. At the ADC, a gripping production of David Hare’s Murmuring Judges in March has stayed in the memory, and Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art was very well done in October, as good a production as I can imagine of this ingenious, frustrating play. Outside Cambridge, the Eltham College production of Merrily We Roll Along that I wrote about here was super.

Top 4 albums
This year I have been mostly listening to popular music from the 1920s, but there’s none of that here. Still, I advise all readers to dig out some Roger Wolfe Kahn, zip up their cocktail slacks and get frigging. Quite a catholic selection this year. In April I bought the 17-disc box set of the studio recordings of Marcelle Meyer, a pianist of preternatural elegance and taste. I love her way with French repertoire especially, and not just the expected Ravel and Chabrier but also Rameau and Couperin. Try her Scarlatti. The original Broadway cast recording of A Chorus Line has afforded me considerable pleasure. It’s a joy to find there’s more to it than simply ‘One’, catchy though that is. Joni Mitchell’s Blue I already knew, but it wasn’t until this year that it got under my skin and became an obsession. The single album that’s been most in my ears, though, is Prefab Sprout’s From Langley Park to Memphis. I’ve loved the Sprouts for years, but have only recently begun to explore their back catalogue in depth. They really are the most harmonically inventive pop group of their era, and every track on this album is a jewel, from old favourites like ‘The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’ and ‘Cars and Girls’ to the less familiar. Give it a try.

Top 4 books
It’s been another busy reading year (more on that anon), but if I had to whittle it down to four… I read Harold Pinter’s Betrayal early in the year and it dazzled me, all the more for being quiet and reserved in tone, without the aggression of something like The Birthday Party, though there’s a great deal of surface and below-surface tension. It’s more straightforward, more ordinary than his other plays, the non-straightforward thing being the play’s reverse chronology, which is just the sort of thing I love. It never feels gimmicky. I listen to music backwards too. I’ve been making my way through Anthony Trollope for about ten years now, and The Last Chronicle of Barset tied up a lot of loose ends in the most satisfactory ways imaginable. Bishop Proudie’s revolt, a very long time coming, is the most exhilarating thing I’ve read in yonks. David Garnett’s short novel Lady into Fox was an unexpected delight, a whimsical story of metamorphosis, an unorthodox but touching story of trans-species love. And I can’t omit Angela Carter’s wildly fun and funny Wise Children, the deliciously gossipy theatrical memoir of 75-year-old Dora Chance, owner of the only castrato grandfather clock in London.

It was all right until Grandma fixed it. All she did was tap it and the weights dropped off. She always had that effect on gentlemen.

Top 4 new films
The cinema used to be a second home to me. Well, not really, but I used to go to it more often than at present. I thought Spotlight, a good old-fashioned procedural drama about Boston journalists trying to uncover a sex abuse story, was fully deserving of its Best Picture Oscar, smart and tense. Alice Munro’s short story collection Runaway impressed me early in the year, and Pedro Almodóvar’s adaptation of its three interlinked stories, Julieta, was just wonderful, romantic and mysterious and beguiling, with Rossy de Palma’s standoffish housekeeper stealing the show. How wise Almodóvar and Munro are about the dynamics of human relationships. Ira Sachs’ Little Men was a poignant offering, about how the relationship between two boys in early adolescence is threatened by a dispute between their families. Like last year’s Carol, it felt to me more than anything else like a love story, a film about falling in love, and about growing up. Fourth and lastly, I’m not a horror aficionado, but I was thrilled by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s Goodnight Mommy. It looks sensational, shot in a palette of greens and greys, and works an eerie kind of magic. Two twin boys live in a remote house with their mother, who is recovering from facial surgery. Her behaviour to them since her surgery feels changed, and they begin to doubt her authenticity. What it lacks in subtle commentary on power relationships it makes up for in creepiness. I was a bit freaked out.

Top 4 old films
Or, the ones I watched on TV. Not an old film, but Sean McAllister’s documentary A Syrian Love Story is a very great piece of work, more eloquent on the subject of displacement than a thousand news reports. It follows a Syrian family of two parents and three boys over the course of several years and several different homes, as the changing political situation forces them to leave Syria and alter their expectations of life. Thomas Vinterberg’s revenge drama (of sorts) Festen was electric, epic in scope, Shakespearean even (I don’t think it was just the setting that made me think of Hamlet), making the self-imposed limitations of Dogme 95 seem a virtue more often than not. My film of the year, without a doubt, was Samira Makhmalbaf’s The Apple, made when the director was still a teenager. Based on a true story with (mindblowingly) the protagonists playing themselves, it’s about a father who keeps his two daughters confined to their house, and the efforts of members of the village to liberate the girls. Enigmatic, humane, endlessly fascinating. Last of all, Manhattan. I could easily get into Woody Allen if all his films were this warm and funny and beautiful. I loved every frame. A proper, grown-up romantic comedy that makes you smile.

Top 4 New York
Watching Manhattan was a prelude to going to New York in October. I suppose I’d always assumed that going to America was something done by other people, people I had no desire to emulate, but when my brother said he intended to go I suddenly realised it was the one thing I wanted more than anything else in the world. It didn’t disappoint. The National September 11 Memorial made me emotional in a way I hadn’t expected; the views from the Empire State Building were spectacular; seeing the Tom Harrell Quartet at the Village Vanguard made me think I ought to start going to jazz clubs in the UK; and, on our final day, Brooklyn’s beautiful Green-Wood Cemetery, where I paid visits to people like Gottschalk and Bernstein. I hope to return one day.

new-york

Have a happy New Year, and I’ll see you on the other side.

Reine des mouettes

November 9, 2015

Reine des mouettes, mon orpheline,
Je t’ai vue rose, je m’en souviens,
Sous les brumes mousselines
De ton deuil ancien.

Rose d’aimer le baiser qui chagrine
Tu te laissais accorder à mes mains
Sous les brumes mousselines
Voiles de nos liens.

Rougis, rougis, mon baiser te devine
Mouette prise aux nœuds des grands chemins.

Reine des mouettes, mon orpheline,
Tu étais rose accordée à mes mains
Rose sous les mousselines
Et je m’en souviens.

‘Sir, I don’t always understand poetry,’ pleads Timms in The History Boys, which I like to quote here ad nauseam. Well, there’s not understanding and there’s not understanding. If I don’t understand Ezra Pound, that may simply indicate that I’m a normal human being; if I don’t understand the poem above, an unpublished verse by Louise de Vilmorin (1902-1969), it’s partly because, vaguely competent though my French is, I will never have the comprehension of a native speaker, and so I fail to observe whatever idioms and intralineal meanings it may contain; in English I understand it even less. The last verse, in my rough translation:

Queen of the seagulls, my orphan girl,
You were pink given to my hands
Pink beneath the muslin
And I remember it.

Just because I don’t understand it doesn’t mean I don’t love it, as I love ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ or Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge. The Beethoven defies analysis, up to a point (not that I’ve ever tried); this poem, slight, for all I know written in a stray quarter of an hour, probably doesn’t. But as I read it, thinking perhaps, What does this mean, I also think, How beautiful this is. I see the seagulls and the pink and the muslin and the mists.

When, ten or twelve years ago, I was in a voracious poetry-reading phase, I frequently read French poetry I didn’t comprehend, just for the feeling of the words. Apollinaire, Baudelaire, Mallarmé. The magic wouldn’t have worked with a language I didn’t speak at all – Hungarian, for example – but with French I knew at least how it sounded, if not always what it meant.

When, foolishly, I went to see Calixto Bieito’s production of Carmen at ENO a few years ago, the banality of hearing it sung in English killed the opera stone dead. The mystery was shattered, Bizet’s clothes were well and truly off. For all I know the libretto is dreary in French too. Stephen Fry, writing years ago in the Literary Review:

Call me old-fashioned, purblind, hidebound, reactionary and out of touch if you will, but I believe that one of the great advantages of being born English is that one can hear the world’s greatest opera in a language other than that in which one asks strangers the way to the lavatory and orders deliveries of coal. However literate or musical the translation, opera in English always sounds like Gilbert and Sullivan. Most libretti are horribly commonplace and I feel very sorry for Italians and Germans who listen to Da Ponte and Wagner and cannot hear the pretty rhythms and alliterations of their two beautiful languages for the banal meaning they convey.

I’ve had assorted phrases from ‘Reine des mouettes’ swimming around my head for a week or so, and that’s because Francis Poulenc’s setting of the poem has insinuated itself into my brain. To quote Jeremy Lion, ‘It is a medically proven fact that if you set things to music you remember them much better, like the alphabet – and wars.’ Here is an educational song teaching facts about various countries of the world.

Poulenc was the closest thing to Haydn the last century could come up with. Four-square phrases, catchy tunes, humour, plus extra insouciance. He mingles joie de vivre and poignancy with speed and grace. I love Sylvia McNair’s performance here, accompanied by Roger Vignoles. Her vowels are a bit off, but together they have the measure of a song that is very difficult to perform.

Poulenc doesn’t hang about, does he? One semiquaver and you’re in. Hear the rhythmic variety of his melodic setting too, the first two lines syncopated, the third and fourth in regular quavers. The poem doesn’t have a regular metre (how does poetic metre work in French anyway? I get confused), but even if it did you sense he’d shake it up a bit to reflect speech rhythms. When the words recur towards the end of the song he introduces further rhythmic variation through triplet figuration.

The setting of the final stanza is especially delicious, the urgent, questing harmonies of the piano and the ‘quasi parlando’ vocal pressing for some kind of resolution, then the blissful release of the final two lines, prolonging the ecstasy of the eventual cadence. But the music doesn’t resolve with that last vocal phrase, ‘Et je m’en souviens’, but is carried by the piano to the subdominant, major and minor sevenths alternating gloriously before the longed-for release. Hard to describe Poulenc without using the imagery of orgasm. He’s just that kind of composer.

Any amount of analysis doesn’t explain why I feel the way I do about the music. You can break it down into chords and patterns, but exactly why this note here or that note there should make me shiver is a mystery, not least because I may be the only person it affects in this way. What has given me the context to ascribe this particular emotion to this particular part of this particular song is all the music I have ever listened to. I’ve devised an inexpressible grammar of music in my mind. I don’t know how to approach that, or whether it matters.

Gull

Image by Dschwen from Wikimedia Commons.

Out of body

November 1, 2015

When I look back on photographs of myself as a boy, which I do far less often than I imagine, a feeling of dissociation comes over me. It’s me, indisputably, and yet it isn’t.

January 1986

As friends stared glassily at photographs of me and the strange little barnacle that in those days passed for my organ of generation I tried to explain that the child they were scrutinising was not me. This was the biological as well as the psychological truth. Every cell in my body had by that time been replaced. P.G. Wodehouse’s typewriter comes to mind as a model of this important phenomenon. He bought his Royal in the 1910s and used it right up to his death. But by then every part of it had been renewed: the chassis, the platen, the roller, the keys – everything. Was it still the same typewriter?

Stephen Fry, ‘Naked Children’ (originally published in The Listener, anthologised in Paperweight)

What do we feel when we contemplate our past selves? I started thinking about this a couple of nights ago when I reencountered Scripps, in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, remembering going up to university for interview:

I’ve never particularly liked myself but the boy I was, kneeling in that cold and empty chapel that winter morning, fills me now with longing and pity.

I don’t feel longing or pity when I look at the photo of myself above, grasping the mane of my rocking horse. My memories don’t go that far back (I was two and a half), so I can’t say how that boy felt, but I imagine he’s as happy and excited as he looks. I identify more with what Edmund White writes in his preface to A Boy’s Own Story, a novel he wrote about his teenage self at a remove of about 25 years:

If I’d hated myself as a boy and adolescent, I now felt an affection for the miserable kid I’d once been, a retrospective kindliness one might call ‘the pederasty of autobiography.’

Not that I was miserable often. I’ve been able to find only one photo in which I look genuinely wretched, pouting and red-eyed and sitting alone in a corner. Hints of blotchiness on my face and feet suggest eczema may have been the cause. It bedevilled my boyhood, though my abiding memory is not of the physical discomfort but of my mother’s anger at my grandfather’s repeated commandment, ‘Don’t scratch, press.’ He meant well, but didn’t know what it was like first-hand. She and I both knew it was hopeless.

In other photos I see chinks in my armour that might have been exploited by others. Hints of effeminacy, as I stand limp-wristed in the garden with my yellow plastic spade, or unwrap my Christmas presents with something that isn’t flamboyance exactly but certainly isn’t straight, that could have led to bullying but didn’t. A guilelessness also, a credulity in my expression, that I don’t remember ever having.

Anyway, I made it, I grew up without the assistance of my adult self to hold my hand; but now I feel an unusual desire to be a friend to that boy. I’d like to visit him from the future so I could reassure him that he’d be OK, that he wouldn’t have to go to war, that he’d pass his A-levels (something I think I had occasional anxieties about even as early as primary school, the result, I suspect, of overhearing conversations between my parents about my father’s sixth-form teaching).

I also think, wouldn’t it be cool to introduce him to the music he wouldn’t discover until later. I could have been listening to Weill and Oscar Peterson at a much younger age. As it was, I was happy enough with The Sound of Music, and didn’t feel I needed someone older and wiser telling me what to do.

July 1986

Dubious dress sense aside, he looks such a nice guy, doesn’t he. I’d like to have known him.

Now that I’ve reached the point at which I am envying my childhood acquaintances their friendship with me, some kind of protocol of decency has been breached. I hereby declare an indefinite moratorium on self-regarding blog posts like this, though I doubt it’ll last long. I’ll try to think of something else to write about for a while.