Posts Tagged ‘The Turn of the Screw’

Grand Tour #15 – Greece. Kassandra and the Wolf / Margarita Karapanou

June 28, 2017

‘I’ll tell you the one about the Birdman,’ I said. ‘The Birdman lived on a high mountain and loved the Fishwoman very much. But they could never manage to meet each other, you see, because he couldn’t get in the water and she couldn’t fly. That’s why the Bird always flew over the sea, and the Fish always followed in the waves, until, finally, the Bird covered it and became its Shadow. Before that none of us had a Shadow. We walked about quite plain and we were cold too. But from that time on, the Shadow was born, and now we all have one to keep us company.’

I’ll be honest, I hadn’t been looking forward especially to this stretch of the journey. Just because modern Greek writers aren’t widely read down my way, I’d probably assumed the place had been a cultural wasteland for the past two and a half millennia. It turns out I was wrong: there is at least one book written in Greece during that period that is worth reading, and it is Margarita Karapanou’s Kassandra and the Wolf (Η Κασσάνδρα και ο Λύκος), which I read in the translation by N.C. Germanacos. I fell head over heels in love with it.

Karapanou’s book dates from 1974, when she was 28. It consists of a series of 56 short chapters, vignettes in the life of a six-year-old girl, Kassandra. A picture is built up of Kassandra’s life, which mainly takes place in Greece where she is cared for by her grandparents, her mother being in Paris and her father absent. It feels in some ways like a privileged childhood. ‘Grandmother strolls around the parlor, showing me the ancestors,’ says Kassandra. The servants and visiting grandees put me in mind of a favourite film of mine, Carlos Saura’s Cría cuervos, also about a young girl’s interior life.

From a chapter about Christmas:

On Saturday nights, Miss Benbridge tells me the miracles in order. Last night it was the turn of the bread rolls and fish. Which is why I am now swallowing the bread and melting with sweetness. I make little girls and seat them around the table to keep me company. I put myself among them too, and we look at each other. I make compliments to them so that they’ll love me. We all stare at the snow together, our hair is freshly brushed and drawn back, we’re wearing pink ribbons, and we smell of soap.

Although the tone is always that of a child, the chapters vary widely in subject matter, ranging from the quotidian (a trip to the cinema to watch The Red Shoes, an elocution lesson to cure Kassandra’s silence) to the fantastical. A game of hide-and-seek with a boy, Zakoúlis, ends after three days when Zakoúlis is belatedly discovered, having shrunk to the size of an olive. Later, after being read The Turn of the Screw as a bedtime story, Kassandra is visited by its characters.

At night, Flora and Miles come to my room. Bending over, the Governess covers me with her wet hair. I’ve made friends with them.

It’s impossible to write about the book without at some point confronting its great darkness (Karapanou herself called it ‘a scary monster of a book’), and The Turn of the Screw may be a useful reference point, as another book with a menace whose precise nature is obscure. The main antagonist of Kassandra and the Wolf (as with The Turn of the Screw) is a Peter, in this case Kassandra’s grandmother’s servant. Peter is an unpindownable presence, at times a playmate of Kassandra, his gender fluidity the conduit for a game in which she plays at being a lady, at others a sexual threat. Sex is a frequent theme, occasionally as innocent sex play or as childish misunderstanding of sex (Kassandra finds Peter having sex with the maid Faní but doesn’t comprehend what she sees), but more often as something that can only be read as sexual abuse. As Miles identifies Peter Quint as the devil, so Kassandra identifies Peter to her uncle as the son of the Devil.

It is at the times she talks about sex that Kassandra relies most heavily on the language of metaphor and fantasy. That’s the way it has to be, perhaps: children’s ignorance of sex means they do not have the words to describe it. I remembered Claude Barras’s marvellous animated film My Life as a Courgette (Ma vie de Courgette), which I saw a few weeks ago, in which the children’s incomplete concept of sex is manifested in their talk of exploding willies: ‘Tu t’es fait exploser le zizi!’

What is the wolf of the title? There are wolves in the book, but the wolf might just as easily be a metaphorical one, like the opoponax in Monique Wittig’s book of that name. Perhaps the wolf is a personification of sexuality. Although Kassandra is not so traumatised by her abuse that she cannot talk about it (however obliquely), it may be the root of her disturbing behaviour elsewhere. There is a chapter in which she looks after with great care a kitten she has been lent but, confronted with the prospect of losing it at the end of the week, she begins to torture it systematically, and finally kills it. I felt quite desolate on reading it. Could it be just another fantasy?

This morning I woke up in bed and ran off to Grandmother to tell her the nice dream I’d had, but then I remembered that Grandmother had forbidden me to dream the dreams I like, so I’m keeping it secret.

A disturbing book, then, but one whose blurring of fantasy and reality felt to me as accurate a representation of the non-representational nature of memory as anything I’ve read. It really blew my mind.

For those who have read and loved it, or for those whose interest is piqued by what I’ve written, I must recommend this fascinating round-table discussion of the book and of Karapanou’s work more widely. One of the panel is Nick Germanacos, the translator of this volume.


A Britten XI

December 29, 2013

In 1958 the writer on music and cricket Neville Cardus (I mean he wrote on music and cricket, not that he wrote on music and was a cricket) published a new edition of his 1945 book Ten Composers. The revision was called A Composers Eleven. (He couldn’t bear to leave out Bruckner.) As the Britten centenary year comes to its close, I thought it might be nice to have a Britten Eleven too, before the year is out. The cricketing connotation would have appealed to Britten, perpetual sportsman and, lest we forget, one-time Victor Ludorum at South Lodge Prep School that he was. To which end, here’s a list of eleven Britten works — some acknowledged masterpieces, some more obscure — that I wouldn’t gladly be without, with illustrative examples.

1. Simple Symphony, Op. 4 (1934)
It’s true that Britten didn’t have much of a sense of humour about himself, but he was more than capable of writing and performing light and humorous music. Look at his arrangements of Rossini, the Cabaret Songs, those peerless recordings of Grainger. This early work is constructed from music he wrote as a young boy. The fast movements fizz with life, but the sarabande has a serene, stately beauty. It harks back to an earlier time, like the Air from Grieg’s Holberg Suite.

2. Rejoice in the Lamb, Op. 30 (1943)
A special piece to me, that opened my eyes to Britten’s genius in my teens. I was bowled over by its vibrancy. It’s generally acknowledged that the libretti of Britten’s operas are of variable quality, but he was second to none in his choice of already existing texts. The Christopher Smart poem excerpted here is weird and wonderful, and occasionally deeply poignant.

3. Peter Grimes, Op. 33 (1945)
Another work I discovered in schooldays. I already knew and loved a small number of operas, but I hadn’t realised before that opera was capable of a power this thrillingly visceral, both in the huge crowd scenes and in the desperate loneliness of Grimes’ final soliloquy. What mastery of drama Britten had. The Interludes and Passacaglia somehow possess an entirely different power when performed independently, as they often are.

4. A Charm of Lullabies, Op. 41 (1947)
Probably my favourite of Britten’s song cycles. It’s an unlikely but ingenious mix of texts — Blake, Burns, Robert Greene, Thomas Randolph and John Phillip — five cradle songs of differing levels of twistedness. The Randolph setting seethes with barely suppressed violence, the Blake and Phillip both possess a tender fragility. It’s also nice, given the extent to which the tenor voice of Peter Pears dominates his compositional output, to listen to something Britten wrote for the female voice. I wish he had written more.

5. Saint Nicolas, Op. 42 (1948)
I love Britten’s other stage works for children, Noye’s Fludde and The Little Sweep, but this, an episodic telling of the story of Saint Nicolas, with tenor soloist, orchestra, piano duet and children’s choir, incorporating two congregational hymns, is the most satisfying musically, and in its way quite perfect. Highlights include Nicolas’ birth and his revival of the three pickled boys.

6. Five Flower Songs, Op. 47 (1950)
A recent discovery, which I sang with my choir this summer. The best way to get to know a piece of music may be from inside. That was the case with Grimes, which I sang in at university. I knew bits of it already, but my acquaintance with the work as a whole started with the music for chorus and grew gradually around it. It was like that with the beautiful but elusive Flower Songs, like A Charm of Lullabies a sequence of five settings of texts from various sources — Herrick (2), Crabbe, Clare, and a traditional ballad. I didn’t study them, I just got stuck in with the singing.

7. Billy Budd, Op. 50 (1951)
I’ve seen Billy Budd performed live before, and performed well, but it wasn’t until seeing the filmed Glyndebourne production this year that I felt genuinely gripped. It’s a masterpiece, brutal and tender by turns, and occasionally simultaneously, something it has in common with Britten’s other great stage works, and huge in scope.

8. The Turn of the Screw, Op. 54 (1954)
The novella by Henry James that forms the basis of this chamber opera is notoriously difficult to adapt. Most translations into different media seem to attempt to make explicit the evil that in the book is so nebulous in nature, and thereby fail. Britten succeeds brilliantly, and moreover couches his telling of the story in an ingenious and exhilarating theme-and-variations structure, with elements of serialism. The opera gains something impalpable from this formality. It is genuinely eerie.

9. Missa brevis, Op. 63 (1959)
Living in Cambridge, I am surrounded by choral music. I imagine that the city constitutes probably the most concentrated hub of great choirs in the world. More than anything else, what draws me to chapel services is the music, and it is always a privilege to hear the choir of King’s or John’s sing this exciting Mass setting, written for the boys of Westminster Cathedral. The gentle, bitonal canonic setting of the Benedictus is a favourite.

10. Folk song arrangements, Volume 5 (1961)
One of the bodies of Britten’s work that gives me continual pleasure is his series of arrangements of British, Irish and French folk songs. Almost without fail he identifies the vital essence of the song and encapsulates it in his arrangement – the jokey poignancy of ‘The foggy, foggy dew’, the tart flippancy of ‘Oliver Cromwell’. I might have picked any of several volumes, but the fifth contains several particular favourites of mine — ‘The brisk young widow’, ‘Sally in our alley’, ‘The Lincolnshire poacher’, ‘Ca’ the yowes’. [As there aren’t decent performances of these on YouTube, here’s the immortal Nicolai Gedda singing a song from Volume 1.]

11. The Burning Fiery Furnace, Op. 77 (1966)
The second of Britten’s Church Parables, it doesn’t plumb the depths like Curlew River before it, but it’s thrilling in other ways. I think I approached it having read about Britten’s use of the alto trombone. A trombonist myself, my interest was piqued. The instrument gives a pungency to the orgiastic summoning of the God Merodak, the music informed by Britten’s travels to the Far East, but the most beautiful music is reserved for the scene where the three Israelites, cast into the furnace, are joined by an angel (sung by a boy). It’s a moment of transfigurative beauty.