Posts Tagged ‘Ingmar Bergman’

Grand Tour #7 – Denmark. The Diary of a Parish Clerk and Other Stories / Steen Steensen Blicher

April 9, 2017

In January 2008, records show, I bought a copy of The Diary of a Parish Clerk and Other Stories by Steen Steensen Blicher, translated by Paula Hostrup-Jessen. I can’t for the life of me remember why, though I imagine it was the result of following up a reference in another book. Anyway, it’s finally come in useful, as it meant that when I got to Denmark there was a book ready and waiting.

Blicher (1782-1848), like many of his characters, was a clergyman by profession, though not, perhaps, a typical one. The seven stories in this anthology are set in his native Jutland and are concerned with the small lives of the landowners, farmers and clergy who live there. They are also frequently lurid, gossipy and scabrous.

The 1824 story ‘The Diary of a Parish Clerk’ was Blicher’s first major success. It consists of a diary that intermittently spans nearly fifty years of the life of Morten Vinge, from youthful piety through an adolescent passion for the girl of a grand family, to his disappointed old age. Blicher comes across here as a fan of realism. One early diary entry opens, ‘Alas, alas! My dear father has frozen to death!’ These unexpected tragedies happened in Blicher’s time, the bleak Jutish landscape harsh and unforgiving, and as much a character in these stories as any of the personnel.

Blicher’s narrators are an odd bunch of liars, tale-tellers and fools. Though ‘The Diary of a Parish Clerk’ is told through the clerk’s own words, one senses Blicher’s gentle amusement at the Latin tags sprinkled through the early diary entries, and at Vinge’s po-facedness generally. Taken in by a French-speaking family, he attempts to learn French by reading a translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which he knows in Latin, and has some success.

But one thing is odd: when I hear them talking upstairs, I don’t seem to hear any French words – they are certainly not discussing Ovid.

(He’s like Adrian Mole.)

Peer the Fiddler, who narrates the story ‘Alas, How Changed!’, shares Vinge’s lack of self-awareness. At the outset Peer acknowledges himself to be a fool, a ‘useless nitwit’, and proceeds to tell stories against himself, of a catalogue of embarrassing incidents on a duck shoot, for instance, but even he does not seem to realise just what a notorious geck and gull he is. When Peer relates that the object of his affections is taken with him when he strikes a particular pose, the reader senses instinctively that he is the butt of a joke. It’s an amusing and poignant story, but whether Peer is meant to be scorned or pitied, I can’t tell. Perhaps both. I’m sure Blicher knows.

Elsewhere, the unreliable narrator is a speciality. ‘The Gamekeeper at Aunsbjerg’, a story of grief, death and sexual intrigue, is a delight in this respect, its narrator admitting at the start, ‘I am well aware that I have a reputation for lying; and at this point too someone may perhaps accuse me of fabrication.’ What is the reader supposed to think? To a passing reference to ‘this true story of mine’ is appended an asterisk, which leads to the footnote, ‘It is indeed true’. I love a writer who knows how to deploy the comic footnote. The incompleteness of this story does lend it credence, though, and an air of the folkloric; and my favourite story of the collection is indeed based on a true story.

This is ‘The Pastor of Vejlbye’, a crime story with elements of horror. The pastor of the title is accused of having killed a man, and comes to believe that he may have committed murder in his sleep, being a sleepwalker by temperament; but is all what it seems? There is a directness, a paring down to the bare elements, in the way this story is related, that made me think of Ingmar Bergman’s masterpieces of the early 1960s, Winter Light especially (though that might just have been the presence of the pastor). The story’s cold-bloodedness is both shocking and invigorating. It would make a superb film (has been made into three already, in fact). If you’ve got half an hour to spare, you can read a different translation of it (as ‘The Rector of Veilbye’) here. Go on.


2011 threesomes

January 3, 2012

The New Year is the signal for a bit of meme time around here. I like the meme – it’s a socially sanctioned excuse for theft. I stole this idea from a post on Becca’s Blog a year ago. So, what was my 2011 like, in various things?

Top 3 books
It was a pretty decent reading year. One book stands out among all the others, and that is Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, which I began reading on holiday, sitting in Cologne Cathedral while I waited for an organ recital by Martin Baker to begin, and finished back in the UK. An utterly engrossing, lovable book. Perhaps I should investigate the family saga further in 2012. John Cheever’s Falconer was another highlight – a short novel about a university professor coping with life in prison. Like nothing I’ve read before, and Cheever is a writer with a magnificent eye for detail. On an arguably less exalted level – but no less wonderful – are Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street books, all seven of which I devoured in the space of a few months in the middle of the year. His humanity and tolerance are infectious.

Top 3 CDs
Of the year’s new releases, I listened to The Prince Consort’s recording of Brahms’ Liebeslieder-Walzer and Stephen Hough’s Other Love Songs a lot. I was fortunate to be at the premiere of the Hough in the summer, and it is a work I have grown to love. Simon Standage’s Mozart violin concerti with the Academy of Ancient Music and Christopher Hogwood have reminded me of the beauty of this music. I also found Christian Bruhn’s Timm Thaler soundtrack tremendous fun.

Top 3 films
I watched a titanic number of films last year (not Titanic; I am not mad). I rarely feel in the mood for watching Bergman, but I found it was his films that impressed me most of all. A genius. The Seventh Seal, Through a Glass Darkly, The Silence, but most of all Winter Light. I’ve been watching Fanny and Alexander over the New Year, for the first time in about ten years, and am enjoying being dazzled by it anew. Powell and Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp struck me as a great masterpiece, Roger Livesey and Anton Walbrook both quite irresistible, and I’m delighted to hear that there is a new print being released in cinemas in a few months’ time. And I might name any of several others as my third film, but for the sake of variety let’s say Before Sunrise, which is a lovely film if you’re of a romantic disposition. (I saw a handful of brilliant new films at the cinema too, so for an alternative three try The King’s Speech, The Guard and Tomboy.)

Top 3 live music
It was a thrill seeing Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s production of Parsifal at ENO in February. It’s only recently that I’ve started going to see Wagner live, and Parsifal is perhaps my favourite opera. John Tomlinson was a superb Gurnemanz, and I marvelled at the economy of the scoring. It exposes as misguided the popular conception of Wagner as sprawling and overblown. Love Stephen Hough at the Wigmore though I did, I think Marc-André Hamelin provided my piano recital of the year at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, playing Haydn, Schumann, Wolpe, Debussy and, as his barnstorming finale, Liszt’s Reminiscences de Norma in the composer’s bicentenary year. And last of all, Pulp at Wireless. Jarvis has still got it.

Top 3 theatre
I’m including musicals and comedy, so there’s only one echt play, and even that’s not particularly echt – namely Richard Bean’s One Man, Two Guvnors, which I saw just before Christmas. A breathtaking thing to behold, and quite the most I’ve enjoyed myself in any theatre, perhaps anywhere ever. A rollercoaster, and wrong to single out individual performances in a production so delicious in every aspect (not least its superb music), but I must say I thought Oliver Chris particularly wonderful, funnier than I’ve ever known him before, not to mention James Corden, Tom Edden, Trevor Laird, Daniel Rigby, etc. etc. etc. ad infinitum. My trip to Chichester to see the new production of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd was a great treat, the cast superb (in spite of some doubts about Michael Ball), and I will make a point of revisiting it in London this year. And thirdly, Jonny Sweet’s lovely solo show, Let’s All Just Have Some Fun (and Learn Something, for Once), which I saw at the Soho Theatre in January. He stands at the front giving the audience bear hugs as they come in; one cannot but love the man.

Lastly, I must add another happy discovery, which has been on the periphery of my consciousness for a while but which I only began to pay attention to this year, John Finnemore’s radio sitcom Cabin Pressure. I think its central cast of four – Finnemore, Benedict Cumberbatch, Roger Allam and Stephanie Cole – must be just about the strongest and most likeable since Rising Damp. A fourth series has just been commissioned. There is no end to Finnemore’s talents, apparently. He also wrote an excellent sketch show for Radio 4, and drew a picture a day on his blog, Forget What Did, as a sort of Advent calendar last month. You owe it to yourself to have a look.

Here’s hoping 2012 is similarly happy, for me and for all of you!