Posts Tagged ‘Love’

Grand Tour #6 – Netherlands. The Garden Where the Brass Band Played / Simon Vestdijk

April 1, 2017

To the Netherlands, and I suspect to the only book of this project that I will have read before. Years ago I was the moderator of a message board (technically I still am, but it’s so quiet these days that it moderates itself), and one of our regular contributors was a translator who frequently deplored British readers’ lack of interest in translated literature. In the spirit of appeasement we decided to do a group read of a book from an unfamiliar language, and he suggested The Garden Where the Brass Band Played (De koperen tuin), a 1950 novel by the Dutch writer Simon Vestdijk, translated by A. (Alex) Brotherton. I felt like paying it another visit.

the-garden-where-the-brass-band-played

It’s a coming-of-age novel (a genre I inevitably gravitate towards) set in the early part of the last century, telling the story of Nol, the son of a judge in the northern town of W …, and his relationship with a girl four years his senior, Trix, the daughter of local musician Henri Cuperus.

Near the start of the book we witness 8-year-old Nol at a public garden where Cuperus conducts a Sousa march that fills Nol with such joy that he is moved to dance with Trix, also present. This moment of delight – of falling in love, as it turns out – colours everything that follows it. The Dutch title of the book would be more accurately rendered in English as ‘The Brass Garden’ (to be pedantic, ‘The Copper Garden’), the brass (or copper) referring not merely to the musical instruments but to the sheen that Nol’s memory of that afternoon assumes. It’s not a spoiler to write that the book ends with Nol returning to the garden and finding it damp and desecrated, not golden like the garden of his memories: that’s what has to happen when you grow up.

If the book ends with tragedy, it opens with exuberance, even in the trials of Nol’s childhood. Nol has heard his older brother Chris, frustrated by his piano lessons, crying in the room next door, and has even shed sympathetic tears himself, despite the coolness of their relationship. He nonetheless takes a vindictive pleasure in the prospect of getting one over on his brother:

Both of us came to supper with red-rimmed eyes, looking dazed, like geese after a storm. It had already been decided that Chris didn’t have to go to piano lessons any more. After the soup he had just as much to say as ever, but during the dessert, when my father told him to keep quiet, he didn’t kick me, which was just as well for him because, despite the sympathy that gave me a glow of pleasure for days afterwards, I had my answer ready. I wasn’t going to say: ‘He kicked me, the beast’, as I had done once and been sent to the kitchen by my father. I’d just make a sign, a movement of my hand, tracing the course of a tear down my own cheek with a finger.

Incidentally, though a minor character, Chris is at the centre of a comic interlude early on that I can’t believe I’d forgotten, in which he sets up a small business at school selling peppermints that gets out of hand. It’s so funny that I can’t resist quoting it.

He had rings under his eyes from sitting up, night after night, first at his homework, then, till after midnight, studying ‘economics’, compiling peppermint statistics, pricing shares with stock exchange quotations and all the fiendish complications of dealing in shares. He got thin and haggard, he looked as if he was bent under a heavy load. Even my parents, who knew nothing of his nightly labours, began to show the strain because he talked of nothing else at the table and persecuted my father with unanswerable questions. He always had a supply of peppermints of diverse shapes with him. Sometimes he would offer these to us after dessert. It was all treated as a joke though my parents used to look at each other with raised eyebrows and never kept the peppermint long in their mouths.

Tremendous.

To return to music, the reasons for Chris’s abandonment of the piano are Clementi and Dussek, two names that strike terror into the hearts of little boys even now, presumably. Nol is not deterred by the failure of his brother, and persuades his parents to let him take piano lessons from Cuperus, who proves an inspiring teacher. Though the story of Nol’s love of Trix is the main focus, his love of music runs throughout the novel, always underscoring his hero worship of Cuperus, his estrangement from Trix, his contemplations of the past.

Most prominent of all the music in the book is Bizet’s Carmen, a performance of which Cuperus conducts when Nol is at the impressionable age of 17, with Trix singing the minor role of Frasquita. The second intermezzo (which I take to be the Entr’acte between Acts 2 and 3), with its gorgeous duet between harp and flute, later joined by clarinet and strings, recurs at strategic points. (There is also a clear parallel to be drawn between the characters of Carmen and Trix, though it’s not gratuitous.) The sweet wistfulness of this music infects the book.

Nol’s growing up is depicted partly through his changing taste in music. Snob that I am, when I read of Nol’s being moved by Sousa, my first reaction was, Sousa? Only now I think of it, I myself had a brief Sousa phase when I was about nine.

Frasier: Remember when you used to think the 1812 Overture was a great piece of classical music?
Niles: Was I ever that young?

Before he is too much older, Nol thinks back on Sousa as ‘the music that I had long since grown out of.’ He is introduced by Cuperus to the likes of Bizet and Wagner, and eventually branches out on his own, falling in love with the music of Debussy and Ravel that even the progressive Cuperus does not care for. Vestdijk writes about music with sensitivity and understanding. I remember flinching, the first time I read it, at Nol’s dismissal of Op. 31 No. 1 as Beethoven’s dullest piano sonata, the finale notwithstanding; I listened to the music this time and found myself nodding sadly with sympathy.

The growth to maturity of Nol is so delicately drawn that you are barely conscious of it as it is happening. A small event can change his understanding of life subtly, such as the conversation where he asks his mother, ‘But surely … you must have been in love once?’ and receives the poignant reply, ‘Not really.’ At various points he repeats his mantra, ‘Time is irrelevant to love’, which seems to me frankly bullshit, and perhaps by the end of the book he realises as much. Whatever else romantic love is, it is not stationary: it kindles, surges, mutates, dies (or am I making the mistake of assuming everyone experiences love in the same way I do, which I confess is probably not the case); and the depiction of love in this book, though reserved, convinces and moves me deeply.

This smile wasn’t like the sunlight breaking through the clouds. It was something altogether different, it must have been the lines around the eyes that lit up again with their natural mischievousness, the eyelids, and those lashes … I don’t know how to describe it exactly. I don’t know either how soon I forgot her again during those summer holidays, or how long, how many months, years even, I let pass by and scarcely gave her a thought. I don’t know how that was ever possible.

netherlands

Grand Tour #3 – France. Dawn & Morning / Romain Rolland

March 11, 2017

The name of Romain Rolland (1866-1944) was familiar to me, but it wasn’t until I read a piece by E.M. Forster, written on Rolland’s death (‘Romain Rolland and the Hero’, in Two Cheers for Democracy), that I became intrigued to read him. Rolland was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1915 on the strength of Jean-Christophe, a roman-fleuve in ten volumes, the committee citing ‘the lofty idealism of his literary production and … the sympathy and love of truth with which he has described different types of human beings.’

It’s not that I dislike lofty idealism of literary production exactly, but it’s rarely the first thing that attracts me to a book. Forster, though, made it sound good, recalling the excitement with which friends would ask one another if they’d read the latest volume, and stressing the musical aspect.

There is a scene in the opening volume … where the hero, still a baby, touches the piano for the first time, and experiments in the marriage of sounds. I have never come across a scene like it in literature, for it is not merely poetic, not merely good child psychology: it seems to take us inside a special chamber of the human spirit, and make us co-creators.

Given that Forster is never one to overstate anything, these are strong words indeed, and so I dug out (well, the staff of the University Library dug out) the first couple of volumes, Dawn (L’Aube) and Morning (Le Matin), in the hundred-year-old translation by Gilbert Cannan that no one has yet attempted to improve upon. It shows its age: Cannan anglicises the hero’s name as ‘John Christopher’, which would never be done these days. (I’ll stick to Jean-Christophe, if you don’t mind.)

romain-rolland

Cannan’s introduction made me wonder whether it was too late to turn back:

The first volume … carries John Christopher from the moment of his birth to the day when, after his first encounter with Woman, at the age of fifteen, he falls back upon a Puritan creed.

This sounds like precisely the kind of posing small-minded macho conservative moralism I despise, and Forster isn’t blind to that aspect, suggesting that Rolland’s ‘lifelong insistence on the Hero … has its distant parallel in the sinister cult which has produced Hitler.’ That said, there’s some of that in Montherlant, whose writing I love, and how much of a male chauvinist can a newborn baby really be? I decided to power through.

It didn’t take long for me to see what Forster was on about. Dawn opens with Jean-Christophe, a few hours old, being nursed by his mother while his paternal grandfather waits nervously for J-C’s profligate father to come home. In the scenes that follow, Jean-Christophe grows gradually, almost imperceptibly, learning to play. The reader shares his joy.

He was also a magician. He walked with great strides through the fields, looking at the sky and waving his arms. He commanded the clouds. He wished them to go to the right, but they went to the left. Then he would abuse them, and repeat his command. He would watch them out of the corner of his eye, and his heart would beat as he looked to see if there were not at least a little one which would obey him. But they went on calmly moving to the left. Then he would stamp his foot, and threaten them with his stick, and angrily order them to go to the left; and this time, in truth, they obeyed him. He was happy and proud of his power.

(Perhaps there are hints of fascism here too.)

Rolland is not a sentimentalist. He ends the first chapter with a warning that his ‘little salamander’ will be ‘brought to reason’ by life. The dawn of the book’s title doubtless relates to the dawn of Jean-Christophe’s life, but also to the several dawnings on him of life’s brutalities. These start at an early age, the realisations of his family’s social inferiority and of the merciless cruelty of others, both at school and at his mother’s place of work. (There are scenes in both Dawn and Morning that strongly recall Pip’s childhood humiliations in Great Expectations, which I like to imagine Rolland cherished, though it’s probably my sick fancy.)

Rolland notes almost boastfully that Jean-Christophe never has a day’s illness, and I thought: Heroism, tick. Heroes can be so boring. But while he has an iron constitution, Jean-Christophe is an intense boy. Sent back to school against his will following an episode of bullying, he attempts to strangle himself. He is troubled by various spectres: the spectres of a boy born to his parents before him and now dead, whose recycled name he has inherited, and of any number of mysterious things that scare him. He invariably suffers in silence, trying to be grown up, not knowing how to communicate his fear to his parents. The loneliness of childhood is brilliantly depicted.

The members of Jean-Christophe’s family embody radically different approaches to life (which is convenient). His musicality is nurtured by his grandfather, who notates Jean-Christophe’s various hums and turns them into piano pieces for him to play; his father encourages his pianism with thoughts of exploitation; his uncle Theodore cares only for the mercantile, and favours Jean-Christophe’s younger brother Rodolphe; but his uncle Gottfried becomes a vital influence: he dismisses Jean-Christophe’s early compositions as ugly, not out of cruelty but because he sees only the beauty of nature, which Jean-Christophe comes to see too.

Jean-Christophe had often heard these sounds of the night, and he loved them. But never had he heard them as he heard them now. It was true: what need was there to sing? … His heart was full of tenderness and sorrow. He was fain to embrace the meadows, the river, the sky, the clear stars.

Jean-Christophe’s unhappiness deepens in Morning: his patron, the Grand Duke, is a philistine, and the conversation at home leaves him intellectually stifled. If you’re a hero, you’ve got to be a bit miserable. Unexpectedly, he falls in love with a boy, Otto (Rolland’s quite explicit that it’s love), but the fact that J-C’s never had so much as a friend before means he goes somewhat overboard in his correspondence.

It is three days now since I heard a word fall from your lips. I tremble. Would you forget me? My blood freezes at the thought … Yes, doubtless … The other day only I saw your coldness towards me. You love me no longer! You are thinking of leaving me! .. Listen! If you forget me, if you ever betray me, I will kill you like a dog!

Out of context this reads as highly comical, but surrounded by the details of their torrid relationship it’s perfectly convincing, if tiresome. I suppose adolescence is boring, though I don’t think I ever wrote anything that overwrought when I was in love, or if I did then I had the decency to keep it to myself. The relationship is cruelly curtailed when Jean-Christophe’s brother Ernest discovers the correspondence, calls J-C a major-league fag (you have to read between the lines), and that’s that. The young can be very puritanical, can’t they.

Before the end, though, comes Woman. To be specific, Minna, a girl the same age as Jean-Christophe whom he is teaching to play the piano. To begin with he thinks he’s got the hots for her mother, but his affections change subtly, and she finds she feels the same way. This relationship is rather more engrossing than the one with Otto, partly because, nineteenth-century morality being what it is, something might actually end up happening. I particularly liked Rolland’s observation of the selfishness of love, of how when you’ve got only one person on your mind everyone else can fuck off. (I’m paraphrasing.)

To tell the truth, they were kind only by fits and starts … Jean-Christophe, who was consumed with love for all humanity, and would turn aside so as not to crush an insect, was entirely indifferent to his own family. By a strange reaction he was colder and more curt with them the more affectionate he was to all other creatures; he hardly gave thought to them; he spoke abruptly to them, and found no interest in seeing them. Both in Jean-Christophe and Minna their kindness was only a surfeit of tenderness which overflowed at intervals to the benefit of the first comer. Except for these overflowings they were more egoistic than ever, for their minds were filled only with the one thought, and everything was brought back to that.

Excuse my quoting at length, but though I didn’t love it wholly I thought there were parts of it that were very good indeed. I won’t go into detail about what happens with Minna, but you already know about his Puritan creed, yawn.

Getting back to Forster: ‘As the series proceeded, our excitement slackened,’ he writes, and he seems to suggest that the award of the Nobel Prize was as much for Rolland’s having completed his proposed ten volumes as for the volumes themselves, which fall off in quality when Jean-Christophe reaches Paris at around the halfway point. Forster doesn’t think Rolland’s work will survive as Proust’s (in which respect, well predicted), but he singles out Rolland’s internationalism for praise. That’s something I can certainly get behind, and if I end up not returning to Rolland I hope it will be because I have other authors from other countries demanding my time, and not because of indifference.

I’m sorry this has been so long.

france

The 1947 Club: A Girl in Winter / Philip Larkin

October 10, 2016

1947-club

It’s 1947 Club time, and my first book is A Girl in Winter by Philip Larkin. There are some spoilers in what follows. Jacqui has posted an excellent, spoiler-free write-up of the book here.

I’d been under the impression that Larkin’s two novels, written before he became established as a poet, were a kind of shameful secret, Philippa Martinez-style romances written for the mass market. It turns out I was misled. He wrote this book in his early twenties while working at Wellington Library in Shropshire ‘handing out tripey novels to morons’. You’ve got to do something to preserve your sanity.

a-girl-in-winter

The girl of the title is Katherine Lund, an émigrée from an unspecified European country working in an English provincial library during the war. She has a hateful boss, Mr Anstey, and no friends. Several summers earlier, following her participation in a school letter exchange scheme, she spent three weeks staying with her correspondent, Robin Fennel, at his family’s Oxfordshire home. In her present-day loneliness, she has reestablished contact with the Fennels, and the action of the book takes place on the day that she receives a message from Robin to say he is coming to visit her. The book is divided into three parts, the central one consisting of a flashback to Katherine’s visit to the Fennels’ before the war.

Let’s start at the very beginning, which strikes me as a very good place to start, with a description of the snow on that winter morning:

It lay in ditches and in hollows in the fields, where only birds walked. In some lanes the wind had swept it faultlessly to the very tops of the hedges. Villages were cut off until gangs of men could clear a passage on the roads; the labourers could not go out to work, and on the aerodromes near these villages all flying remained cancelled. People who lay ill in bed could see the shine off the ceilings of their rooms, and a puppy confronted with it for the first time howled and crept under the water-butt.

You might have guessed Larkin was going to turn into a good poet from his eye for the small detail. The way you can tell it’s snowed even before you look out of the window, from the changed quality of the light. Small details impressed me throughout. Katherine is delegated to escort an ill colleague home, and finds that her anticipation of hearing from Robin makes her more disposed to do this good deed, a labour of displaced love; when, in the flashback section, she meets Robin for the first time, having exchanged many letters with him, she finds the intimacy of their correspondence counts for nothing in person, and they effectively have to build a relationship from scratch.

Elsewhere Larkin has a nice line in pencil portraits of people, skewering them neatly. The delight present in Robin’s stand-offish sister Jane, for instance, when Katherine upsets a teacup: ‘Her gaiety still seethed quietly within her.’ Or Miss Parbury, whose handbag Katherine restores to her after a mix-up: ‘Rather tall, with a rosy complexion and fair hair, she looked like a large tea-rose gone well to seed.’

Many specific details, though, are shunned. Larkin creates a vivid sense of time and place, but exactly where Katherine is working isn’t at all clear, though we know it’s not London. And just who is she? Where is she from? Her being in England, it is occasionally hinted, is the result of an unpleasant incident, but no further information is given. Is she a Jewish refugee? She admits to Miss Parbury, ‘If there wasn’t a war, I shouldn’t be here.’ Her name, Katherine Lind, makes some readers think her Scandinavian; I think German is more likely, given that we know Robin can speak her language. (In a neat touch that made me smile, the passages where Katherine and Robin talk in her own language are notated not with speech marks as they would be in an English book, but with dashes, the convention on the continent, to differentiate them from the surrounding English dialogue.)

Katherine’s past is a blur, even to her. The middle section, although seen from her perspective, is narrated from its own time. When we return to the present day, we find that Katherine’s own memories of the period, which we have read about very closely, have deteriorated, so that she can’t be sure of the truth. Did she fall in love with Robin, and is that why she’s so worked up about his coming to see her? It’s easy to see why she might have done so. Before she comes to visit, he sends her a photo of himself so that she will be able to identify him when she arrives.

The photograph showed him looking at the camera with his hands on his hips, lit by brilliant sunlight, wearing a cricket shirt. There was a swing in his body that suggested he had been called and had turned momentarily back while the picture was taken. He was dark and slight, with long eyelashes. The expression on his face was evasive in the sense of not being fully captured by the camera. Rather to her surprise, she had shown it to nobody except her parents.

Reading that, I’m a bit in love with him myself. The thing is, though, that love doesn’t seem to be on the cards. The flashback section reminded me very strongly of a book from a few years later, L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between. Katherine, like Leo, is an outsider in a world of unaccustomed privilege where people behave according to a different code. It’s a hot summer, there are games to be played and walks to be taken, everything’s beautifully repressed. A scene where Robin frees a moth from the house is like the scene in The Go-Between where Leo dries Marian’s hair with his bathing suit, a fuss over nothing, with the maintenance of appearances the main consideration. Towards the end of Katherine’s stay, a group photo is taken. In some novels a photograph would serve as a nostalgia-creating device, something to give the episode an idyllic haze, but not here. Katherine’s not happy with the photo, and indeed, unlike Leo, she doesn’t seem to have been bewitched at all by her hosts, who have been polite but often not much more than that. It certainly doesn’t appear that Robin has designs on her. And then, just before she leaves, something happens.

It’s the final section of the book that’s the most interesting, and where the Larkin familiar from the poems is most in evidence. Katherine has a bad day at work, Mr Anstey having been particularly foul to her, and feels disillusioned. Her misanthropy, her disgust at the sordidness and emptiness of human existence, feels like Larkin’s. It was in the passages of despair that I felt closest to her myself. Panicked at the prospect of seeing Robin again, Katherine contrives to miss him, then regrets it, and finally, unexpectedly, finds him waiting for her when she gets home. They talk, she cooks him some food, and they go to bed together.

Larkin’s plot springs a few surprises along the way, so much so that I occasionally thought, is this supposed to be a suspense novel? because if it is there surely ought to be some suspense, not just the revelation. The going to bed is very much a surprise, but (I thought) a happy one.

Afterwards, Katherine and Robin talk. My thoughts turned automatically to Larkin’s poem ‘Talking in Bed’.

Talking in bed ought to be easiest,
Lying together there goes back so far,
An emblem of two people being honest.

Except that the rest of Larkin’s poem is about how people eventually fail to talk together in bed, whereas Katherine and Robin’s conversation might be the most intimate they’ve had. Sex is a watershed in several Larkin poems, such as ‘Annus Mirabilis’ and ‘High Windows’, though Larkin invariably places himself on the outside. Living is something that other people do. Most pertinent, perhaps, is his marvellous poem ‘I Remember, I Remember’, where he passes through Coventry on a train, ‘where my childhood was unspent’, and proceeds to catalogue the many things he didn’t do in his youth. Katherine’s concerns are Larkin’s, are all of ours, I suspect. She’s missing something. For the moment, Robin will do. Tomorrow, who knows? We carry on. Larkin’s poem ends, ‘Nothing, like something, happens anywhere.’ In some circumstances, that thought can be a consolation.

I remember 3 — back to school edition

September 6, 2015

I remember Miss D reading out a piece of work by Holly in which she wrote that she missed Hong Kong (or was it Singapore?) and didn’t like England, and I felt sorry for her, not because she was homesick but because I sensed she was mortified at having it broadcast to the whole class, being shy anyway and not having friends yet. What you submit to a teacher should constitute a secret contract. Miss D was an inspirational teacher, but she made some bad decisions. She did the same thing to me on two occasions.

***

I remember Mr R putting Nikolai, the new Russian boy, next to me in Maths. I was a bit shy of him, partly on account of his being cute. We were working on playing cards and probability, and he asked me ‘What is club?’ and I did a drawing but it was a bad one because it’s difficult to draw a club even if you’re not nervous and I’m not convinced the message got through.

***

I remember Harry faking an epileptic fit to play a practical joke on Mr S, the supply teacher, but it didn’t work because Mr S wasn’t very observant.

***

I remember Ben asking Mr O in an English lesson how to spell ‘hisself’, as he wanted to use the word in a short story, and Mr O saying there was no such word, which struck me as very unhelpful because it could have been dialogue, and people do say ‘hisself’ even if it isn’t grammatical.

***

I remember joking that Oliver Twist was an OK book but it didn’t have any of the songs in it, which made Neil laugh.

***

I remember being pleased when Kat objected to something she perceived as homophobic in a story we were reading in English, even though it wasn’t really necessary. The rest of us who cared about it wouldn’t have been bold enough to speak out.

***

I remember thinking my history teacher Miss L was beautiful.

I remember thinking she liked me more than the other pupils because the marks she gave me were disproportionate to the quality of my work and the effort I put into it, and anyway she just did.

I remember Miss L played the flute and was quite shy and had translucent skin and sometimes blushed.

I remember Miss L correcting me gently for my anachronistic use of the phrase ‘conscientious objector’.

I remember David, who was normally quite boisterous and disruptive, toning things down for Miss L, probably because he secretly liked her too.

***

I remember Mr T telling Helen that she sounded like Kenneth Grahame, and I realised he meant Kenneth Williams and felt bad for him, though I was the only one in the class who’d have known.

***

I remember Mark coming in one morning and telling me his cat had died the night before, and hanging around with him during break and lunchtime feeling sad together and not really speaking. I think a member of staff asked if we were OK and I explained. I wrote a piece of music in memory of Mark’s cat, though I never played it to him or even told him because it would have been embarrassing.

***

I remember devising a signature based on Miss R’s, which is still essentially my signature now.

***

I remember, when we were about twelve, Jamie euphemistically describing Luke to me as a ‘flower’, and me protesting because of my conviction that being effeminate did not equate to being gay, though Luke did turn out to be gay, and so did Jamie.

***

I remember Mr W banging his fist on the table during a play rehearsal, knocking a cup of water into his bag, and Paul having such a laughing fit that he had to go to the toilet to recover for so long that I wondered if I should go looking for him.

***

I remember taking a penalty in football and striking the ball very poorly but scoring because the goalkeeper was even worse than me.

***

I remember a student Music teacher correcting my use of ‘symphony’s’ to ‘symphonies’ in a piece of written work about the Minuet and Trio from Schubert’s 5th. I approached her after the lesson to explain why she was wrong.

***

I remember Tim being shocked at how late I went to bed and telling me the late nights would catch up with me, and thinking what a bore he was.

***

I remember Rachel asking me, possibly earnestly, if I was on drugs, probably because I liked to go around with my eyes half closed and sometimes walked into things. I wasn’t on drugs, I was just tired.

***

I remember feeling flattered when Max punched me repeatedly in the arm, and when Jake gave me this personalised message, because they amounted to tokens of friendship, albeit oblique ones.

Message, c. 1998