Archive for April, 2017

Unfinished books 2

April 25, 2017

back end cartload

This is the second in a series.

Amongst the books I have salvaged from my late father’s house is a copy of George Johnston’s last book, A Cartload of Clay.

My copy is ex the YMCA library in Sydney.  A pristine date due slip and loan card in an envelope pasted inside the back cover suggest it was never borrowed from that library.  The front page bears the name of a colleague of my father’s, with whom he lunched practically every day when they were both at work (I joke that he was “the other man”).  Judging from another, pencilled note “1st ed. $1” he bought it second-hand.

Published in 1971, this the third instalment of Johnston’s “David Meredith” trilogy, following My Brother Jack (1964) and Clean Straw for Nothing (1969).  I heard My Brother Jack read (abridged, obviously) as a serial on ABC Radio some time in the early 70s and later read it and Clean Straw for Nothing when I was about 16. I surely also read Cartload of Clay then, if only out of completism, though I have no real recollection of that.  I was probably too young to get what it was on about.

The trilogy is autobiographical – David Meredith is Johnson, subject to the usual fictive rearrangements. Cressida is his second wife, Charmian Clift.  Johnson and Clift returned to Australia in 1964; Clift committed suicide on the eve of the launch of CSFN.

Cartload follows a day when the widowed Meredith sets out on a “practice walk” up the street to the church where his daughter is to get married.  Like Johnston, Meredith has lung problems.  He doesn’t get far.  Taking a breather at a bench by a bus stop he meets various local characters and dozes off and his mind wanders – to an interlude in wartime Kunming – an affair and his friendship there with the poet Wen Yiduo; – to a trek on the Tibetan plateau with a photographer friend who later fell off a mountain when stepping back to take a picture; to his time in Greece; to his return to Australia and his encounters with the younger generation; to the suicide by Cressida with the stock of barbiturates he had kept by his bed to do the deed for himself; to his childhood in Elsternwick – revisiting a subject already dealt with in My Brother Jack, but now treated with less scorn.

It is hard to see how the novel could have finished other than with the death of David Meredith.  In the end, Johnston beat his character to it and the book was published unfinished.  There is a good introduction by Sydney’s Mr Literature of the day, John Douglas Pringle.

I realise that I am pretty much exactly same age that Johnston must have been when he wrote this – he died just two days after his 58th birthday.  I am sure this makes me more receptive to its themes than I can have been when 16.

I’ll squib the duty of a literary critic just as I do of a musical one: I don’t profess to say what the book is about  (as if a novel can be reduced to a syllogism).  There are some quaintnesses of period (the Youth generation; women) but also much that is resonant to me – poetic even.  I have enjoyed reading it.

Here is an extract – omitted yesterday on account of ANZAC day.

Meredith discovers he has bitten his fingernail down to the bleeding quick:

Meredith fingernails I

Meredith fingernails II

That is in chapter 14.

Chapter 16 starts with Meredith sitting at the bus stop:

“If at this stage you were to imagine the scene as being presented on the stretched-out oblong of the modern cinema screen it would be most interesting to visualize it through whatever is the opposite to a zoom lens; the retreating viewpoint, that is, soaring higher and higher like an escaped balloon, focused at the figure of Meredith huddled lonely and solitary on the mundane suburban bus seat…”

to the point where he is just an invisible speck amongst “the drab red expanses [of red tile and red brick and …cement and asphalt], now from our great altitude resembling a parched desert.”

16.1 Meredith

End of chapter 16

There’s something a bit overbearing, like an old-style newsreel voice over, about the second person address in this chapter, but I love how the fingernails come back into it.

One funny thing.  Johnston’s final home was in Raglan Street, Mosman – thinly disguised in the novel as Inkerman Street, “Northleigh.” I cannot imagine that I knew this before I looked it up in a biography of Johnston also salvaged from my father’s house, but as I read the book I already had a distinct picture in my mind of a street in Mosman and the bus stop where Meredith pauses. It wasn’t the exact street, but it was pretty close.

Unfinished books 1

April 23, 2017

KMurr

D is out of the country at present.

D sometimes complains that days, even weeks when he is here can pass without any substantive conversation from me.  Nevertheless, whilst he is away I find I have more time to read.

Inspired by Daniil Trifonov’s performance of Schumann’s set of pieces Kreisleriana, I decided to track down their literary namesake – ETA Hoffmann’s literary alter-ego, Kapellmeister Kreisler.  Hoffmann first adopted this character as a journalistic pseudonym in about 1809, but he reached his greatest fame through Hoffmann’s final work, Lebensansichten des Kater Murr  – translated as The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr together with a fragmentary Biography of Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler on Random Sheets of Waste Paper .

Yes, that is the Hoffmann of the Tales of Hoffmann, author of the story on which The Nutcracker is based, and famous in music history for an equivalent to Schumann’s “Hats off, gentlemen” welcoming of Chopin’s genius when, about 20 years earlier, he acclaimed Beethoven’s Instrumental Music (in a review of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony) as the apotheosis of romanticism.

It is popular sometimes to mock the insularity of Americans who know little of countries outside the USA, but it is no less shocking to contemplate the literary insularity of the Anglosphere when you realise how little presence there is in English of a writer such as Hoffmann.  Most of what little the University of Sydney library has is confined to its stacks (as so much is these days) and a visit to Abbeys bookshop in town proved fruitless.

I have read two of Hoffmann’s shorter stories in the original German. That was when my Deutsch was in better nick than it is now.  Fortunately, Penguin Classics published a translation by Anthea Bell of Kater Murr usw in about 1997.  It was obviously a labour of love on her part.  I doubt if it has been a great commercial success for them.

Gratifyingly I was able to track down a copy in the City of Sydney Library.  It is marvellously easy to order a book to be delivered to the branch of your choice.  Public libraries are wonderful things.

The conceit is that Murr, a tomcat of literary pretensions (he has surreptitiously learnt to read and write by carefully observing his original master, Abraham) has written his autobiography.   By the time of writing this, he is living with Kappellmeister Kreisler.  He has adopted and treated as scrap paper an account of Kreisler’s life (in fact, more like a gothick novel featuring Kreisler) and left pages of it as if used as blotting paper amongst those of his manuscript.  Accidentally, according to Hoffmann (describing himself as the editor) the printer has printed everything, with the result that sections of Murr’s narrative are interspersed with sections of the story of Kreisler.

Murr’s account is continuous, subject to these interruptions – that is, with one exception each extract takes up from where the last left off; the extracts of the Kreisler story are discontinuous and in some disarray – Murr, the “editor” tells us, seems to have torn up some of the paper or used it for something else.

A cat’s life is short, so periods which in a human biography would be designated in  years are designated in months, such as “the apprentice months.”

On occasion, Murr mixes with dogs.  In this fictive world, dogs are cats’ social betters. Murr lives in fear of them even when they befriend him.

Following the restoration of the status ante quo at the Congress of Vienna, there was a crackdown against the student movements which had arisen and been while tolerated for so long as useful in the struggle against Napoleonic France.  Hoffmann, by then holding a day-job as a judge in Berlin, was involved in investigating these nationalist student fraternities with which he likely sympathised.  Murr joins a cat-fraternity until it is broken up and his friend killed from a dog-bite.  Some political satire appears intended, albeit obscure to me.

The plot of the Kreisler story revolves around a princely household in a former microstate which has been swallowed up by neighbouring states (probably a reference to the consolidations imposed by Napoleon). Whilst appearances of a court are maintained, it is all pretence with which the prince’s erstwhile subjects go along. The prince himself is satirized as a ridiculous figure much given to French phrases and punctilious in his observance of now meaningless aristocratic niceties.

To this “court” comes Kreisler after quitting a Grand-ducal Court where his art was not respected, true German art being overshadowed by Italianizing fashions – Rossini is amongst the resented. Hoffmann himself wrote an opera, Undine, favourably noticed by Weber, and spend some years in the theatre at Bamberg after he lost his legal job in the Prussian part of Poland as a consequence a Beethovenesque (cf Eroica) lack of respect towards the occupying French.

One Prince Hector,  proposed suitor of the ex-micro-Prince’s daughter, Princess Hedwiga, has designs on Julia, daughter of Madam Benzon, widow of a councillor at the little court and mother also of a mysteriously disappeared illegitimate daughter of the micro-Prince.

Kreisler loves Julia with echoes of the impossible artist’s love (OK, he is an “impossible artist” but I probably mean “artist’s impossible love”) which is the theme of Offenbach’s operatic adaptation of other Hoffmann tales.  Kreisler confronts Hector with a painting given to Kreisler by Master Abraham, Kreisler’s mentor and (if you can recall that far back) Murr’s master.  Set upon by a retainer of Prince Hector, Kreisler kills his assailant and flees to a monastery.

There is plenty of critical writing, much of which I have dipped into on the internet since reading the book, about the comparison between the self-satisfied Murr and the restless, mercurial Kreisler.  Whilst the general trend of this is to prefer the Kreisler narrative, even Murr encounters some of the difficulties and humiliations of an artist amongst society.

Gradually we learn that something terrible happened in Naples involving the Prince Hector, his brother,  and Master Abraham, of which the painting was a reminder.  The missing illegitimate daughter was murdered, and then there is the question of what has become of Abraham’s wife, whose psychic powers were an essential element of Abraham’s “Invisible Girl” trick.  She is supposed by him to be missing possibly dead; we we know she was abducted and imprisoned at the instigation of Madam Benzon by arrangement with the petit-Prince for fear she would expose their liaison and maybe she is the Papagena-like crone in Naples.

Master Abraham goes on the road and entrusts Murr to the care of Kreisler.  Presumably this is when Murr uses the Kreisler “waste paper” to write his life history and thoughts.

At the end of book 4, which is the end of the second published volume, Hoffmann as editor sorrowfully announces that Murr has died.  Some fragments by Murr survive, which Hoffmann hopes it may be possible to publish with the remainder of the Kreisler story in a volume 3.

Hoffmann himself died shortly after.

So no volume 3, which is pretty maddening.  All those dark gothic secrets unresolved on the Kreisler side!  I can accept the Murr material stopping so abruptly because suspense is not an element in that.

I haven’t really captured here the humour of the book and its charm: cats in novels are almost as good as on the internet.  Hoffmann, who is said to have had an actual cat, Murr, must have been a cat lover.  This endears him to me.

 

I think that I shall never see…

April 15, 2017

P1110935

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A trinity of concerts

April 9, 2017

Last Saturday to the SOH to hear the SSO.  I met up with my friend and former student (though I don’t think I ever directly taught him in class), Db.

It feels as though Db and I go even further back than we actually do.  His PhD supervisor, M (who died relatively young in about 2001) was a close family friend and neighbour when I grew up in West Pymble.  M told Db a few anecdotes about my family which gave a perspective on that time which I would otherwise not have had.  And retrospectively going even further back, Db is now responsible for and from time to time travels to a scientific facility which is just up the road from the sheep station where my father grew up before WWII.

The program, conducted by Asher Fisch, was:

Dorman, After Brahms, 3 orchestral intermezzi
Brahms – Schicksalslied and Gesang der Parzen (with the Sydney Philharmonia)
Strauss, Alpine Symphony.

The first two of the Dorman pieces are based on/derived from aspects of late Brahms piano pieces, respectively Op 118 No 1 and Op 119 No 1.   I can’t say the Brahmsian spirit really struck me in the first one.  It seemed, in its orchestral version, simply too helter-skelter.  The second was closer to its original. Funnily enough, it was the third piece, claiming no specific Brahms model, which felt the most Brahmsian.

This was the SSO’s first performance of Schicksalslied and also of Gesang der Parzen.  For that matter, I’m not sure if we’ve had Nänie and the Alto Rhapsody is only infrequently done.

I had been particularly looking forward to Sl and GdP.  Both texts have rather similar themes, and even a metaphor in common of mortals’ destiny (as opposed to the Gods’) being like water falling downwards over Klippen (cliffs).  GdP (Goethe from Euripides; a song sung by the fates to poor old Tantalus) was grimmer.  They are both a reminder of a Hellenism which is definitely a bigger thing in German literary culture than English. I enjoyed them both, notwithstanding rather whiter-than-ideal tone at an exposed high and quiet tenor part of the Gesang

At interval Db reminded me that it was at the SOH that we had been to what he counted as his most memorable Strauss performance. That was on (if Ausstage be my guide) 13 September 1991. After taking part in a school concert in the Concert Hall, we slipped into about row C of the stalls for the last act of Der Rosenkavalier.  This was Stuart Challender’s last ever performance, three months to the day before he died.  You can only imagine what he must have been feeling when he conducted the bit where the Marschallin muses on the passing of time.

I’m afraid I didn’t really get into the Alpine Symphony.  I must have been in the wrong mood for it. There are definitely some bits which are a bit like the fight between Telramund and Lohengrin and which are only just music.  Until the final section, it just seemed so loud and fast.  I wanted to pause for a few more breathers on the way up the mountain.  The playing, however, was fine, and I’ve since listened to the broadcast on air and online and enjoyed it more.

On Friday, I went impromptu to Angel Place to hear/see the St John Passion – stirred by the rehearsal I had stumbled across the day before at St James King Street.  Inevitably in Angel Place the choir could not match the exhilarating power of its opening chorus when sung in an almost empty church the night before.  Whilst the church would have been less resonant when full and obviously its capacity is less than Angel Place, I wonder if they wouldn’t have been better off staying in the church – sticking the kids up in the back gallery with maybe a few in the choir stalls if they wouldn’t fit upstairs. Fewer people would have got to hear it  and yes those pews are not comfortable, but Angel Place is so expensive to hire that I imagine the financial outcome could have been about the same and there are other reasons – let’s call them authenticity for short – for keeping it in the church.

I was surprised at how few solo arias there in fact are.  Sally-Anne Russell was better suited to her second than her first.  I’m not sure that I have ever heard an unequivocally successful rendition of the second soprano aria, which may be more about the aria and its place near the end of work than the performers.

I find myself less in sympathy with the religious content than I would once have been. The St John is the more blood-libelly of the Passions (“If thou lettest this mango, thou art not Elias’ friend.”) At one time I affected to prefer it to the St Matthew, on account of its more punchy narrative, but now I suspect it would take the more elaborate stage machinery of the latter to sweep me past the Religion to my own higher sphere.

It was an estimable performance.  “You look exhilarated!” said the cloak-room attendant when I went to get my bag at the end, and I suppose I was.

On Saturday just past to UNSW to hear the Australia Ensemble.

The concert was entitled “Fantasy and Variations.”  The fantasy was a work for piano quintet by Carl Vine.  This was very effective without necessarily sticking its neck out very far.  I enjoyed it.

The remaining works all featured variations: the Carl Nielsen wind quintet; a Prélude, récitatif et variations for flute, viola and piano by Duruflé, and the Mozart Clarinet Quintet.  The Duruflé was a discovery to me: it’s only his Op 3 and it seems his only published chamber work, so I wouldn’t say it is really typical of him; it was quite lush.  The Nielsen is deservedly a classic.

I had been blasé about the Mozart in prospect.  It is a work which suffers a bit from over-exposure. But blasé was good because things could only get better once the quintet started. Although the clarinet is prominent – the opening movement is almost a duet between the first violin and the clarinet – what was really striking was the way that David Griffiths integrated himself within the ensemble as a whole.  It’s not the kind of piece where you stamp and shout at the end, but you know you have heard, at least in a performance like this, a masterpiece.

Of the three concerts, I enjoyed the Australia Ensemble’s the most.

The pursuit of hoppiness

April 6, 2017

On second thoughts (this post originally had a more mundane title) I might as well borrow this pun, which was a promotional poster in the building where I work. I expect it was borrowed in turn from some US source.

I confess my first thought was of some (preferably Czech) beer before I divined a reference to the Easter bunny was intended.

Meanwhile, in the courts, timetables become more spacious as the law’s delay accommodates the Easter season. From time to time in a Friday list someone proposes 14 April as a date on which a matter might next be listed.  This becomes a great joke.

There is a famous legal anecdote, told of a number of judges but most often of Lord Mansfield, the late eighteenth-century Scots Lord Chief Justice of England.  When he announced that he intended to sit on Good Friday, some courageous counsel is claimed to have said that, if he did so, he would be the first judge to have done so since Pontius Pilate.  Even if the story happened, the courageous counsel was almost certainly wrong about that.  In 1824, when this anecdote was brought to his attention by one Mr Chitty, Mr Justice Park observed that  “There have been 5,000 persons brought to trial on Good Friday.”

Chitty’s motion was to arrest judgment (the jury brought in its verdict of guilty of murder on 7 January) on the grounds that the court had sat on Epiphany.  Chitty claimed this was contrary to a statute of Edward VI concerning days (including Epiphany) which were to be kept holy.  Oddly enough, Good Friday was not one of the days listed in the statute.

You have to say it was a desperate application.  Chitty went so far as to invoke God:

“It is my solemn opinion before God [Mr. Justice Park, “Oh! Oh!”] that the ground for an arrest of judgment is valid, and I therefore move it.”

Mr Justice Park was distinctly unimpressed:

I am of opinion that there is no validity whatever in the ground laid for this motion, and I must hope, that in future Counsel will not appeal to the Deity for the sincerity of their opinions, because such an appeal gives a sort of sanction, approaching to the nature of an oath, to their assertions, which they are not called upon to give. A Counsel is not only not blamed, but honoured, for advancing an opinion with ingenuity which his deliberate and impartial judgment might not confirm, but he is not called on to sanction it by appeals to the Deity.

The prisoner was hanged on 9 January.

But I digress.

This evening, as I walked up King St to the station, Queen’s Square was filled with frolicking schoolchildren.  The side door of S James was open.  I wandered in: the St John Passion was being rehearsed for a performance at Angel Place on Friday night.  An “early instrument” orchestra has been assembled – perhaps a bit stronger at the front desk of the violins than further back, but impressive nevertheless.  Some soloists are drawn from the choir with distinguished supplementation.

I stayed to the end of Part I.

The schoolchildren (from Shore and Santa Sabina, the latter accompanied by the redoubtable Mrs Carey, now translated from MLC School) were there to make up the massed choir for the chorales.

It should be and I hope it will be a great experience for them.