E. H. Pritchard, A Lady in Peril, ed by Ruth Frump. Shearwater Classics, 2013.
By the time E. H. Pritchard (1817–1928) came to write his third novel, he had paid his writerly dues. The early Bonnet in the Thresher (1847), whilst rough around the edges, had spectacular flashes of the sober, steady prose for which he is today dearly remembered. Love and Grass (1855), its worthy successor, is a classic of love, loss and herbaceous foliage. For a long time many assumed that A Lady in Peril (1875) was forever destined to live in the shadow of its predecessors, but a new edition of this great work reminds us of a nineteenth-century giant at his best.
Serialised in The Cornmagnet (1822–1899), A Lady in Peril recounts the story of Dotty Sissington, whose disastrous marriage to Arcadius Prattbaron and her subsequent indigence in the Indian subcontinent, is the peril to which the title portentously refers. Upon returning to the Cotswolds, she is shocked to discover that her family is mostly dead or maimed (her father has been injured in a horse accident, her brother Tuppy is drowned, Miffy suffocated by floral prints and Nuffy victim of a snuff overdose) which nevertheless provides a fortuitous opportunity for her to prove her excellent skills of repentance. She ends up realising her true affection for the rustic and confident Ardent Reeds, only for him to be trampled by rams moments before she can make this known to him.
Dotty was Pritchard’s favourite heroine by virtue of her ‘admirable thrift,’ acknowledging his three page description of her shaving a thrupenny off the linen account as ‘the greatest thing I have ever written.’ She is initially seduced by the wealth of Prattbaron, who is quick to boast of his many orchards, but only after thirty chapters comes to see him for the violent drunkard and philanderer he truly is. By this time, Reeds, a dependable and less gouty presence (and a thinly veiled version of Pritchard himself) is selflessly caring for her family back home, but even he is unable to prevent treacle-loving Tuppy’s tragic rowing boat accident, and his own eventual martyrdom.
Although it takes 600 pages to reach the peril, the novel is perhaps Pritchard’s greatest achievement. Described by Trollope as ‘wonderfully boring,’ the highest compliment an author could be paid in those times, it speaks to us today of steady social change, and the reassuring certainty of a Presbyterian God proving points in the lives of ordinary country bumpkins.
David John Cowling is editing the 1,600 pages of Pritchard’s unpublished ‘Autobiographical Fragment’ for Cambridge University Press. With apologies to the eminent Victorians.
Marcus Phelps, Beethoven: God of Gods. Henley & Meyerbeer Press, 2014.
Of all the great composers throughout history, who excites our curiosity more than the transcendent Ludwig van Beethoven? Is there another composer whose works and life both fit so conveniently into the profundity sandwich of beginning, middle and end? Is there another composer who so ingeniously travails the Autobahn from Classical to the Romantical? Is there a comparable figure as pleasingly anti-establishment, whilst remaining as pleasingly fixed in the canon?
And it is with a cannon that Marcus Phelps’s new biography of Beethoven, God of Gods, begins. No, not the contrapuntal technique, but the military device, which was used to fire the newly deceased Beethoven into the Danube, a posthumous rite accorded by Viennese custom to only the most distinguished of its vagabonds, for which the famous musician had been mistaken.
Phelps does not miss a single classic Beethoven story, and indeed many you’ve never heard of but are just as good. Take the episode in which Beethoven becomes embroiled with a soldier at the fishmongers, after the latter dropped a cod on the manuscript of The Consecration of the House. We learn that Beethoven frees himself from the scuffle and declares with Ciceronian majesty ‘Thou art but crill to the godly leviathan of Beethoven.’ It certainly does no harm to learn that Haydn enjoyed two spoons of lukewarm coffee served in a chintz dish, whereas Beethoven would go days without nourishment before consuming a block of cheese in seven seconds, usually whilst writing the recapitulation of an Andante. To the naysayers, both are probably true despite Schindler’s reservations. And how delectably enriched our understanding of the Große Fuge because of it!
What separates Phelps’ biographical excursion from his peers is this talent for inference. On the basis of a (probably cheese-stained) letter Beethoven wrote to Prince Lichnowsky on 17 May, in which there is an allusion to a meeting in a gaming house, Phelps embarks on an inspired and debauched description of a meeting between Mozart and Beethoven, not dissimilar in style to Eduard Mörike’s Mozart on the Way to Prague (1856). In raucous surroundings, Beethoven and Mozart play ‘at Ombre, Nap, Cribbage, Buncombe, Chalky, Loo, Flips, Quadrille, Moggie, and Muppet after which the kleine hexenmesiter soon found himself in 1,000 florins worth of debt, but recompensed his friend by proffering the theme which was to become the darling of the Pathétique.’
Yet this is not all. The triumphal apex of the book includes a speculative list of Beethoven’s maladies, the most comprehensive to date. We learn in minute detail of his constipation, diarrhoea, intussusception, proctalgia fugax and more. Phelps reveals to us that Beethoven himself musically refers to many of these conditions, not just in the famous finale to the 2nd symphony, but in crude quodlibets inspired by Mozart’s ‘Leck mich im Arsch,’ and written to be performed by five hundred Franciscan monks in an unpublished project which makes Scriabin’s Mysterium (1903–1915) look a muted affair. These revelations alone, an unexampled victory of the fecal-scholastic retrospective diagnosis genre, is worth the price of the book, which in its quiet and comfortingly speculative way secures its place alongside the weightier tomes of Thayer, Solomon and Cooper.
David John Cowling is composing his Opus No. 1. With apologies to John Suchet’s Beethoven: The Man Revealed.
The Metaphysica is divided into seventeen sections, eleven in English and six in Sanskrit. The text is a dense, unpunctuated and asymmetrical stream of consciousness, and alongside various philosophical musings, contains fragments of shopping lists (‘custard—three tins—an egg—coffee’) diagrams of Gembuccio’s shed (which until the time of his death he had intended to renovate)—and sections from Eric Cantona’s autobiography with the nouns strategically changed. The editors have tried to be sparing in their annotations, but the footnotes are three times as long as the work itself and include a breakdown of Cantona’s goalscoring stats with Marseille.
The message of Gembuccio’s philosophy, broadly speaking, is difficult to surmise. The overarching theme seems to be a belief in the animating principle of Thuos. In our existence we move between two mental states, adduction and supination. Adduction, he claims, is achieved by ‘confirmation of the flux,’ but this confirmation is dependent on ‘the amalgam of Spirits and their local imbalance.’ He stresses the importance of the word ‘Spirits’ which he maintains is conceptually equidistant between Spinoza’s ‘substance’ and Hegel’s Geist. He was accused by A. J. Ayer, among others, of total incomprehensibility, leading to his famous rejoinders in Book 3 that ‘nothing is more coherent than contradiction, nothing more incoherent than Ayer,’ along with ‘contradiction is the manifestation of Thuos,’ both of which have been interpreted as foundational statements of Dialetheism.
There are darker moments, too, written at a time when the author was recovering from a bout with an errant rooster after he incorrectly deciphered a clue in Kit William’s Masquerade as ‘BOUT ROOSTER IN YORK.’ Here the figure of the rooster becomes a momento mori, and the call of this plump, territorial creature incessantly haunts the narrative from this point on. We see less of the happy-go-lucky Gembuccio of the earlier chapters, and a growing preoccupation with the rooster as a symbol of spiritual transgression. Even three months before his death, he writes to Stewart ‘I cannot shake the feeling it has all been about the rooster, and that all else has been vanity.’
Qomp’s accompanying commentary to the Metaphyisca, as well as his learned introduction, lets us learn a little more about the mysterious author. Aside from his magnum opus, Gembuccio wrote 17 unstageable operas, all autobiographical in content, including The Saucy Adventures of Gembuccio and Gembuccio in Swindon: Sins of a Philandering Genius, both of which were to begin with the title character descending from the top of the stage in a dimity smock to twelve minutes of E flat major. Critic Harold Rutherford writes ‘This represents the most significant operatic revolution since the time of Wagner’ and argues that the Metaphysica and the operas must be considered as a single statement of his aesthetic. Others, such as Udo Grott, argue that the Mytho-spatial landscape of the Metaphysica is fundamentally in conflict with the operas, which are dominated by a mood of sensual frippery and extended recitatives mostly concerning the composer’s hatred for Belgium.
In 1971, the Shrewsbury Amateur Operatic Society decided to stage Gembuccio’s Saucy Adventures but encountered difficulties when the author specified that one thousand nude women were needed for the Apotheosis scene, in which ‘the hero was to appear before the assembled in the garb of a sultan.’ The Director of the production wrote to Gembuccio if it would be acceptable for 100 women to wear skin coloured leotards, but the author categorically rejected this compromise as mere prudery. Eventually the production was cancelled due to ‘unrealistic levels of nudity.’ The controversy was one of the reasons Gembuccio turned his back on public performances of his work, describing theatre directors as ‘feculent narrow-minded bollock jockeys’ and the theatre going public as ‘feculent and appallingly ugly.’ There has only ever been one work produced in his lifetime—)the Divertmento for Theatre, which was to end with a clarinettist urinating on the audience whilst crying ‘USURPERS!’ It was met by mixed reviews. Any enthusiasm for reviving his work onstage has usually been tempered by the frequently demanding musical instructions of his scores which call for members of the orchestra to perform certain passages ‘silently,’ ‘without instrument,’ and the infamous ‘unhurried but frantic.’
Gembuccio was largely dismissive of historical tradition and had little if nothing to say at all about the history of Western philosophy. Nevertheless, he singled out three figures for praise: ‘I have read many histories and accounts of supposedly great men and women, but none can compare to the holy trinity of Parmenides, Demosthenes and Eric Cantona.’ He described Shakespeare as a ‘degenerate’ who was ‘incapable of writing a word of sense’ and claimed to hate no-one alive or dead with the exception of crooner Andy Williams whom, as he explains in book 4 of the Metaphysica, was responsible for the Chernobyl disaster.
The Metaphysica ends with a chess problem captioned ‘La challenge (to be rhymed with melange).’ He says that the geometrical properties of La challenge (which took him 28 years to complete) express the philosophy of the Metaphysica better than the text of the preceding 999 pages. The most powerful computers in the world are currently unable to crack ‘La challenge’ with best play resulting in a draw, leading some to claim it has no solution, although its creator vehemently insisted in writings up to the time of his death that a solution was possible and that he had hidden the answer in a tupperware container somewhere in Bingley.
One can only hope that the reputation of this intellectual maverick is recovering after the debacle of his Fettschrift, where he attacked his friends as ‘communist sympathisers’ and ended up in a ‘beard-off’ with Daniel Dennett. The publication of this book is a sign that Gembuccio’s reputation has recovered somewhat, and that his small but loyal fan base is alive and well. He has been accused of megalomania—indeed, of embezzlement and polygamy—but always had the quality of rising above his foes and legal problems with a characteristic joie de vivre. A regular reader of these humble pages will see no other option than to purchase the Metaphysica at once, in order to sample its multifaceted delights. A biography is being planned in the near future, to shed light on this fascinating but little known individual who continues to challenge us with his flagrant esotericism.
Frank Brady is a man who knew Bobby Fischer well—well enough to write a biography of him during the ‘sixties (Profile of a Prodigy) when Fischer was still busy attaining the status of one of the world’s most formidable chess players. Fifty years later he has returned to his subject, having consulted all the available material to hand, and drawing on his own memories and those of the many luminaries he had the privilege of meeting.
‘What was Bobby Fischer really like?’ is the question Brady sets himself the duty of answering in the forward, and of all those who have attempted this formidable challenge, his effort is the most comprehensive to date. At the age of 29, Fischer became World Chess Champion and was praised for his ‘complete mastery of the world’s most difficult and challenging game’—by the US President no less. He had risen to the pinnacle of his profession, and had scored a symbolic victory in the Cold War, for which he is today most fondly remembered.
Yet anyone even vaguely familiar with the trajectory of this chess champion’s life can’t forgo a feeling of great sadness when ‘the wilderness years’ inevitably appear, bleakest in their description of an autodidact gone astray, a fiercely independent mind seduced by fascist literature and forever victim to the ‘persecution mania’ or Verfolgungswahnsinn which led him to reject the hospitality of his friends, lucrative business offers, and the compromises which are the only way to make our lives practicable. This can be interpreted by his idolaters as monastic devotion to his convictions and conversely by his critics as a cruel and savage foolhardiness. Brady does well to negotiate the tensions in both how Fischer behaved, and how he has subsequently been regarded.
However many times you read an account of Fischer’s life, there are always aspects of his personality which are astounding. He had the bewildering charisma only someone who is totally blind to it can possess. He was at once desirous of solitude, and incredulous when American tourists failed to recognise him (as well as a poor Icelandic girl who mistook him for ‘Mr Bingo!’) He is a figure around whom myths and legends cluster: so we read in a paragraph that Fischer may have travelled to Italy to meet the mafia, that he was Barbara Streisand’’s high school crush, the list is endless. The extent of his reading post-1972 is a great surprise, ranging from Georg Henrik von Wright to the Markings (1963) of Dag Hammarskjöld. And all of this from a man who would sing ‘sixties R’n’B impromptu with childish glee, and once finished one of his inflammatory radio broadcasts with a quite staggering performance of ‘All You Need Is Love.’
Not everything about Endgame is an unqualified success. Brady has difficulty from time to time marshalling the vast wealth of information he wishes to impart—for instance, in one chapter he devotes a short section to Fischer’s conspiracy theories relating to the Kasparov-Karpov games, but apropos of nothing. It isn’t that it is uninteresting—quite the opposite—but simply that its positioning feels structurally inappropriate. Elsewhere, as other reviews have commented, Brady’s style can feel episodic and disjointed though never to an extent where it becomes displeasing to read.
Fischer could certainly inspire some excellent quotes. ‘It is difficult to play against Einstein’s theory’ said his rival Mikhail Tal. ‘Fischer should be thought of as a profound artist, a phenomenon on the order of Picasso.’ Larry Evans likens the sixth game of his match with Boris Spassky to a Mozart symphony, just as a Catholic Priest compared him to the hexenmeister at the old exile’s remote Icelandic funeral. But for someone with such an artistic gift, such sensitivity to his craft, he was still able to call for the merciless extermination of the Jews (despite his own Jewishness), and applaud depictions of Pearl Harbor. We return to the question of ‘What was Bobby Fischer really like?’ Himself, to a fault—although somehow he continues to elude us.
And so to the publication of Samuel Beckett’s Echo’s Bones, but the critical termites have proven themselves to be in flourishing health once more. ‘Sterile and spasmodic’ one whines, whilst another suggests through lazy pastiche that it’s so full of the improbable and pessimistic as to be better left for dead. Almost all seem to begin by sympathising with the publisher Charles Prentice, who upon reading Echo’s Bones for the first time rejected it so strongly that afterwards he felt an irresistible pity and apologetic deference towards its poor author. ‘I am sitting on the ground, and ashes are on my head. Please write kindly.’
Samuel Beckett, Echo’s Bones. Faber & Faber, 2014
Echo’s Bones is not an easy read, but how surprising can this be of a writer for whom More Pricks Than Kicks is described as ‘a concession to the marketplace?’ So often the peculiar pleasure taken in the language is the source of humour rather than mere incomprehensibility. Take for instance this subtle classic of religious comedy: ‘While my medical advisers assure me that I lack the powers of procreation, my chaplains are good enough to condone this incapacity as one that is natural, absolute, perpetual and antecedent.’ For every ‘pranic bleb’ you can quote, there seem to be just as many gags and amusing turns of phrase (but really, what is so wrong with ‘pranic bleb’?) And for what you can’t understand, it may, horror of horrors, be incumbent on you to suffer the indignity of consulting footnotes.
‘The wild unfathomable energy of the population’, regarded by Prentice as a defect, is on the contrary one of the more enjoyable qualities of this early work. Lord Gall is the classic Beckettian tyrant, a proto Pozzo, but so ludicrous in both deportment and dress he trumps them all. He is introduced after his botched long putt strikes the hero Belacqua on the coccyx, leaving the victim ‘swooning for joy.’ After all, ‘Never had he experienced such a tingling sensation, it was like having one’s bottom skate rolled with knuckle-dusters.’ Gall, the blundering, terrifying tree dwelling aristocrat, is the highlight of the piece, with his tarboosh, his alcoholism and his ostrich Strauss. You get the feeling Beckett threw all of his hatred for the eccentricities and monstrosities of privilege into this portrayal.
Murphy and Watt might be numbered among Beckett’s better failures, but Echo’s Bones is surely of interest to anyone who wants to read a work that manages the task of learned wit far better than many efforts in more recent times. Will it ever be possible to silence the critical gall, who in response to Belacqua’s verbal extravagance (‘diadems of lakes’) shouts ‘Cut out the style … how often must I tell you?’
Charles Beauclark. Piano Man: A Life of John Ogdon. Simon and Schuster 2014
A virtuoso who spurned showmanship, a formidable intellect and yet ‘the most patronised man of the 20th century,’ John Ogdon was perhaps one of British music’s greatest contradictions. Having won the Tchaikovsky Competition in 1962, he became a concert pianist of considerable standing and left behind him a rich legacy of recorded work. He remains unique despite living in an era characterised by its notable interpreters.
‘Piano Man’, the new biography by Charles Beauclerk, is essentially the story of genius beset by mental illness, and succeeds in presenting Ogdon as a man of astonishing talent and sensitivity who struggled with terrible psychotic episodes to the extent that he was eventually made a patient of the Court of Protection. In the worst years of his illness he either ‘submitted or erupted’ in response to the dictates of his wife (who, in spite of the author’s tentative defence, cannot fail to come across in a poor light) and attempted to take his own life three times. Such were his levels of introversion, a large part of his musical life involved sublimating these intense emotional troubles into interpretations of considerable depth and poignancy.
One of the conclusions reached here is that Ogdon’s own compositions, though pieces of unexampled sophistication, were musically little more than tributes to his varied influences (Rachmaninoff, Busoni, Sorabji &c) and if anything Ogdon as a figure represents the twentieth century crisis of the pianist-composer. He no doubt related closely to the following observation he made about Liszt: “Having at the age of 30 achieved the status of performer that anyone else would hope to achieve in twice the time, he now had more ambition as a composer than as a performer.” Like many of his instrumentalist contemporaries, he was a frustrated composer who couldn’t (or perhaps on some level refused to) find a consistent voice that appealed to the popular imagination. On the other hand, his interpretative talents were such that it is difficult to conceive of a musical life lived more fully.
Beauclerk proves an adept narrator, and draws upon musical observations and literary parallels that enrich his narrative, quoting generously from Moby Dick, the object of Ogdon’s perennial fascination. Having said this, his psychological pontifications on the nature of his subject’s obsessions and family relationships can be intrusive at times. At the beginning of one chapter, what begins with a relatively interesting digression on Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘A Descent Into the Maelstrom’ ends with sentences as distracting as: “It is the mind or ego that, in its superficiality, creates mayhem and disorder. The unconscious, on the other hand, however disorientating, has its roots in divine order. (Ultimately though, the division of mind into conscious and unconscious is a false dichotomy that closes the door on the reality of a holistic perception.)” The passage is abstruse, the parenthetical self-rebuke clumsy.
It is not before time that a biography of John Ogdon was written, and despite its flaws ‘Piano Man’ will encourage many to rediscover an artist who achieved total mastery of his craft, and who dignified and brought to public attention large parts of the repertoire which were formerly inaccessible. Ogdon’s enthusiasm for Sorabji and his contemporaries is infectious, and the opening of the book, recounting the first performance of Opus Clavicembalisticum, is one of its highlights.
Like Richter, Ogdon was principally interested in the formal entirety of a work, and was incapable of ‘playing to the crowd’ to satisfy the tastes of an inconstant audience. It is this single-mindedness, this spirit of absolute self-confidence, that is the sine qua non of the great interpreter. There is no doubting that Ogdon had it in abundance.