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Category archive: Literature

Thursday June 11 2015

I love learning about two-man teams, and in Paul Johnson’s short, excellent biography of Mozart (see also this earlier bit) I have been learning more about just such a team, although a very temporary and unequal one:

In the meantime, Mozart had met his great partner, the Abate Lorenzo Da Ponte.  The letter (May 7, 1783) in which he tells his father, “I have looked through at least a hundred libretti and more, but I have hardly found a single one with which I am satisfied,” also says he has met the new fashionable poet in Vienna, Da Ponte, who “has promised ... to write a new libretto for me.” The emperor had decided to abandon singspiel in 1783 and embrace Italian opera again, and he put Da Ponte in charge of the words.  Da Ponte was a converted Jew, the son of a tanner, who had embraced Christianity in 1763.  He had led a bohemian life, as a teacher, a priest, a lascivious escort of married women in the Venetian fashion, a friend of Casanova, expelled from Venice for sexual depravity, and thereafter making his living as a translator and writer in the theatrical world.  He had an extraordinary gift for languages, rather like Mozart himself but on a much more comprehensive scale, and seemed to think multilingually.

Da Ponte wrote the librettos for three Mozart operas, The Marriage of Figaro (K. 492, presented May 1,1786), Don Giovanni (K. 527, October 29, 1787), and Cosi fan tutte (K. 588, January 26, 1790), and the collaboration between the two men must be accounted one of the most successful in the history of opera.  By almost universal agreement, Figaro and Giovanni are Mozart’s two best operas, though a small minority argues that Cosi contains the best music and superb staging and that a first-class production can make it the best evening’s entertainment.

The two men worked successfuly together for two reasons. First, they both understood that creating an opera was collaboration and that composer and librettist both had to know when to give way; sometimes words must yield and sometimes notes. The truth is, of course, that Mozart was extremely adept at words as well as music, and often he took over as librettist, Da Ponte acquiescing. This raises the second point: Both men were good tempered, used to hard knocks, nasty words, and intense arguments.  They had the admirable habit, essential to success in the theater, of drawing a firm line over a disagreement, once it was resolved, and moving on quickly to the next problem.  Mozart’s good nature was absolutely genuine and went to the root of his being.  He was incapable of real malice or the desire to wound (the one exception was the archbishop, and there, too, hatred was expressed in words rather than deeds). Da Ponte was a much more flawed creature.  He was a fearful liar, to begin with, and his various volumes of memories are not to be trusted at all. His subsequent career after he left Vienna and went to New York, becoming a trader, a bookseller, a bankrupt, a poet, and other things, shows that his commitment to the stage and to music - drama, particularly - was not total.

Moreover, it is not clear that he recognized quality in opera. He thought the best composer he worked with was Vicente Martin y Soler, and he had the most fulsome praise for Antonio Salieri.  The implication was that both were Mozart’s superiors as musicians.  Both were more successful commercially at the time, and their operas were performed more frequently than Mozart’s - so were those of many other composers, at least eleven by my reckoning.  But both were so inferior to Mozart by any conceivable artistic criteria as to cast doubt on Da Ponte’s musical understanding.  And it is a significant fact that his three Mozart operas are the only ones whose libretto he wrote that have remained in the repertoire or that anyone has heard of today.

Hence the inescapable conclusion is that Mozart was the dominant figure in the collaboration.  Da Ponte understood or learned from Mozart the need to keep the drama moving by varying the musical encounters and groupings, by altering the rhythms of vocal speech, and by switching the moods.  He may even have understood the great discovery in the writing of opera that we owe to Mozart - the way in which character can be created, transformed, altered, and emphasized by entirely musical means taking possession of the sense of words.  But the magic touch is always provided by Mozart as music dramatist.

Wednesday May 20 2015

Goddaughter 2 recently suggested I read this.  I now suggest that you read it:

In the afterlife you relive all your experiences, but this time with the events reshuffled into a new order: all the moments that share a quality are grouped together.

You spend two months driving the street in front of your house, seven months having sex.  You sleep for thirty years without opening your eyes.  For five months straight you flip through magazines while sitting on a toilet.  You take all your pain at once, all twenty-seven intense hours of it.  Bones break, cars crash, skin is cut, babies are born. Once you make it through, it’s agony-free for the rest of your afterlife.

But that doesn’t mean it’s always pleasant.  You spend six days clipping your nails.  Fifteen months looking for lost items.  Eighteen months waiting in line.  Two years of boredom: staring out a bus window, sitting in an airport terminal.  One year reading books.  Your eyes hurt, and you itch, because you can’t take a shower until it’s your time to take your marathon two-hundred-day shower.  Two weeks wondering what happens when you die.  One minute realizing your body is falling.  Seventy-seven hours of confusion.  One hour realizing you’ve forgotten someone’s name.  Three weeks realizing you are wrong.  Two days lying.  Six weeks waiting for a green light.  Seven hours vomiting.  Fourteen minutes experiencing pure joy.  Three months doing laundry.  Fifteen hours writing your signature.  Two days tying shoelaces.  Sixty-seven days of heartbreak.  Five weeks driving lost.  Three days calculating restaurant tips.  Fifty-one days deciding what to wear.  Nine days pretending you know what is being talked about.  Two weeks counting money.  Eighteen days staring into the refrigerator.  Thirty-four days longing.  Six months watching commercials.  Four weeks sitting in thought, wondering if there is something better you could be doing with your time.  Three years swallowing food.  Five days working buttons and zippers.  Four minutes wondering what your life would be like if you reshuffled the order of events.  In this part of the afterlife, you imagine something analogous to your Earthly life, and the thought is blissful: a life where episodes are split into tiny swallowable pieces, where moments do not endure, where one experiences the joy of jumping from one event to the next like a child hopping from spot to spot on the burning sand.

This is from Sum, by David Eagleman, which is subtitled “Forty tales from the afterlives”, the above being the first of them, also entitled “Sum”.

I sum- (hah!) -marised this tale as best I could to another friend, who immediately got the point that Eagleman makes at the end, that the mere fact of the variety of life becomes a source of joy, if you compare it with a life from which variety has been drained away.  This alone turns humdrumness into hell, and contemplating that hell turns the humdrumness into a kind of heaven.

Count your blessings, but not the same blessings all at the same time.

Thursday April 16 2015

Around ten days ago, I took lots of rest (the medical term for sleeping) during the day, and then couldn’t sleep properly at night. Since then the lurgy has persisted and I haven’t really got back to sane hours.

In the meantime, what did not help - did not help at all - was the latest from Madame Harry Potter, who now, some of the time, goes by the name of Robert Galbraith.  I read the first Cormoran Strike tale when it came out, and a few days back I was awake all night reading number two.  It was daylight when I finished it.

One of the many things I like about Cormoran Strike is that he operates in London.  His lair is a flat on top of one of the shops in Denmark Street, which is London’s pop musical instrument street.

Here is a clutch of Denmark Street photos I took recently:

image image imageimage image image

Lots of amateurish reflections there, in among the occasional deliberate ones, but what the hell?  I am an amateur.  (Spot the selfie.)

That grey-blue front door (on the right of the picture bottom middle) is how I imagine/presume Strike’s front door to look.

Having kept up with all the Rebus books, I found it much more fun actually knowing a lot of the places haunted by The Detective.  And with this in mind, I have now started on this first crime novel by Tony Parsons.  All this searching has just told me that it is the first of three.  This is (these are) also set in London.  This morning I was reading about The Detective visiting something called Westminster Public Mortuary in Horseferry Road, which is a five minute walk away from where I live.  (The Tony Parsons detective is called DC “Max Wolfe”.  Why can’t fictional detectives ever be called something like Colin Snail or Brian Sludge or John Watson?)

“Robert Galbraith“‘s Cormoran Strike is a freelance, but Max Wolfe is regular police, so he often visits New Scotland Yard, which is not much further away from me than that Mortuary, another five minutes walk in the same direction.  Here is a photo I took of New Scotland Yard from the roof of my block, in 2006:


London possesses roof clutter arrays that are denser and more voluminous, but none that I know of is more elegant.

Tuesday October 21 2014

There I was, lying in the bath, listening to Radio 3.  Some music had ended, and I was now being subjected to a programme which I do not usually listen to, called Words and Music.  And I heard the actor Jim Broadbent saying these words, by Michel de Montaigne:

I take the first subject that chance offers.  They are all equally good to me.  And I never plan to develop them completely.  For I do not see the whole of anything.  (Nor do those who promise to show it to us.) Of a hundred members and faces that each thing has, I take one, sometimes only to lick it, sometimes to brush the surface, sometimes to pinch it to the bone.  I give it a stab, not as wide, but as deep as I know how.  And most often, I like to take them from some unaccustomed point of view. Scattering a word here, there another, samples separated from their context, dispersed, without a plan and without a promise, I am not bound to make something of them, or to adhere to them myself, without varying when I please, and giving myself up to doubt and uncertainty, and my ruling quality, which is ignorance.

Sounds like a blogger, doesn’t he?  A blogger, that is to say, like me. Especially where he says “without a promise”.  I keep saying that. Above all there is that “this is what it is and if you don’t like it you know just what you can do about it” vibe that so many bloggers give off.  With Montaigne, we are arriving at that first moment in history when writing and publishing new stuff had become easy.  Not as easy as it is when you blog, but a whole lot easier than it had been.

I transcribed the above quote from Broadbent’s reading of it.  The punctuation is somewhat uncertain, and at one point assertively creative on my part.  I added some brackets, around what is clearly a diversion from his main line of thought to which he immediately returns.  It’s a sideswipe at others and it is then forgotten.

Such is the wonder that is the internet that I had little difficulty in tracking down the quote.  It is near the beginning of Montaigne’s essay entitled “Of Democritus and Heraclitus”, in volume three of his essays.


The BBC used a more recent translation, which I much prefer the sound of, it being less antique and long-winded.  And if Montaigne himself was also antique and long-winded, then I still prefer intelligibility to stylistic accuracy.

LATER: More about Montaigne, also emphasising the modern social media angle, here.

Wednesday March 12 2014

From The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith aka JK Rowling (already mentioned here on Monday), p. 172:

They were both as pristine and polished as life-size dolls recently removed from their cellophane boxes; rich-girl thin, almost hipless in their tight jeans, with tanned faces that had a waxy sheen especially noticeable on their foreheads, their long, gleaming dark manes with centre partings, the ends trimmed with spirit level exactitude.

I claim no expertise in the matter of the differences between male and female writers, but might not paragraphs like that have caused suspicions that “Robert Galbraith” was really a woman, even if the information had not been revealed on the front cover?  It’s the detail.  The waxy foreheads, the centre partings, trimmed like that.  I don’t think a man would have gone into quite such detail, nor - in this age of male timidity about being anti-female – been as wonderfully rude about it.

I could be imagining all that.  I don’t read much fiction by men either, and maybe the best men writers are just as exact about the women they describe and can be just as rude when doing it.  And maybe most women writers would not refer to a spirit level in such a context.  Really, I just liked it.

Monday March 10 2014

Quoted by “Robert Galbraith” (aka JK Rowling) at the beginning of The Cuckoo’s Calling:

Unhappy is he whose fame makes his misfortunes famous.

Lucius Accius.

Celebrity and its discontents are nothing new.

Tuesday January 07 2014

I’m reading Boris Johnson’s book about London.  It’s good fun.  I don’t know how much Boris is to be trusted about things like historical facts, but I doubt it is that bad, even though he is a politician.

The thing is, for years I’ve been looking for a brief history of London, but all the others seem to be too long, and too solemn, or worse, they exude literary pretension.  I think I own this book, but have never been inclined to read it.

I’ve just finished the Chaucer chapter.  I hadn’t realised quite what a swell Chaucer was.  Him writing in English was a rather generous - or maybe rather patronising - gesture from a man whose first language was Norman French.  It was during his lifetime that English supplanted French as England’s language.  Johnson mentions the Black Death, of course, but not one of my pet theories about the Black Death, which is that the Black Death actually helped to cause English to take over, by killing half the royal administrators, who then had all to be replaced, because clearly the bureaucracy couldn’t get any smaller.  That would be against the laws of everything.  So, what remained of the teaching profession was sucked into the bureaucracy.  At which point the English turned to home education.  Guess in which language.  But I digress.

I am greatly looking forward to reading about the time of the English Civil War, and then the stuff about John Wilkes, who is someone I keep hearing about but have never really got to grips with.  I anticipate a good, quick, potted biography.  I am expecting the arguments swirling around Wilkes to be a bit like those that now rage around the figure of Edward Snowden.

The book passes my basic test, which is that having started it, I find that I want to finish it.  I am reading the book, despite merely needing to read other books.

In the shop (a remainder shop), I read the beginnings of the chapter on Shakespeare, and bought it on the strength of that.  You can buy it for £2.82.

Thursday December 19 2013

I am, as noted in the previous posting, reading Deidre McCloskey’s Bourgeois Dignity.  At the join between page 350 and page 351, I learn this:

The second sons of British aristocrats, such as Richard Howe, had long joined even the technically demanding and bourgeois navy.  They stood on the quarterdecks facing enemy fire, as aristocrats should, but their fellow offers were the sons of lawyers or of clergymen (such as Sir Frances William Austen, Admiral of the Fleet in 1863 and Jane Austen’s brother; and Sir Charles Austen, another brother and another admiral).

I did not know this, that is to say, I did not know (in particular) the bit in the brackets.  That explains a great deal about the novel Persuasion, in which the best men are navy men, and the biggest arse is an aristocrat.

Jane Austen’s books are popular because, despite the way they look on television, they are precisely not unthinking celebrations of aristocratic privilege and excellence.  Upwardly mobile traders are accorded dignity, and aristocrats who despise tradesmen for trading are in their turn despised by Jane Austen.  Yes, Mr Darcy owns half a county, and Elizabeth Bennet falls for him when she first sets eyes on his gigantic stately home.  But his aunt, Lady Catherine de Burgh, who despises Elizabeth for being related to tradespeople, is another pompous aristocratic arse (of the female sort), bested at the end by bourgeois Elizabeth Bennet.

By the way, McCloskey is a cricket fan.

Jane Austen’s naval brothers
A blog as a semi-dustbin
So painters also used to “take” pictures
Steven Pinker’s description of The Enlightenment
The names people choose for their children are strange
Obama raises the price of tanning
You know where you are with a book - usually
Cat tales
Under a hundred copies
London Bites @ Sway
Hislop fluffs the rhyme
“Vivid characters, devious plotting and buckets of gore …”
More random links
Quota quotes from Wodehouse
“I will cause a boy that driveth a plough to know more of the scriptures than thou dost.”
A poetic Hornby
Man regrows finger
Lizzy Bennet tells it like it is
Bookcase staircase many books electric book
Tom Wolfe on the only real fun of writing
Charm defensive
The visitor
Susan Hill on not having to be up-to-the-minute about book blogging
One Man and His Very Thin Blog
Sandow on Bond versus the Musketeers
Alice in Fortnum and Mason
Oscar Wilde defends society
“Liberty might be defended, after all” - Tom Holland’s account of the Battle of Marathon
Remembering the Alternative Bookshop experience
Four stars at Amazon
Pauses - Indian accents - English names
More IP violating: Barry Beelzebub on Freepost bricks and a still-legal wild boar hunt
A deftly modified cliché