Lady Killer

E. H. Pritchard, A Lady in Peril, ed by Ruth Frump. Shearwater Classics, 2013.

Pritchard, as depicted on the frontispiece to the 'magnum opus' edition of his novels.

Pritchard, as depicted on the frontispiece to the ‘magnum maximus’ edition of his novels.

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.

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God Botherer

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.

 

Frisch weht der Wind Der Heimat zu

It has been almost thirteen years since the loss of W.G. Sebald (1944–2001) and works are still occasionally rising from his effects like gloomy lights up from the far­off, inky crags. Since the publication date for Silent Catastrophes has been pushed back from 5 April till next June, we have to turn from the clouds clotting over the Austrian highlands and look back onto the view of the cloudbreaks over the cantons of Switzerland.

W. G. Sebald, A Place in the Country. Hamish Hamilton, 2013.

W. G. Sebald, A Place in the Country. Hamish Hamilton, 2013.

Although A Place in the Country, Sebald’s cluster of essays on, for the most part, Swiss writers, is his latest to appear in English, it appeared in German in 1998, as Logis in einem Landhaus, and for whatever reason has only made it into English in 2013. Sebald’s selection of authors is, as he writes, according to his ‘unwavering affection’ for three of their number (Johann Peter Hebel; Gotfried Keller and Robert Walser) and then, later, the honorary induction of two (Rousseau and Eduard Mörike) as members of the little group, for all of whom, Sebald feels, writing became a ‘vice’ where ‘those afflicted persist in the habit despite the fact that there is no longer any pleasure to be derived from it.’ Though they are basically only essays, what Sebald seems to accrete across these essays is a fugitive impression of ‘writers trapped in their web of words [who] sometimes succeed in opening up vistas of such beauty and intensity as life itself is scarcely able to provide.’

In these essays Sebald displays the academic acuity and rigor we all suspected he cloaked and seldomly flaunted in his prose; this manner was anticipated, for his English audience, in his essayettes, particularly those on Peter Handke and the brief, but splendid, piece on Nabokov. The essay on Johann Peter Hebel, ‘A Comet in the Heavens,’ is probably the best example of Sebald writing primarily as an academic, although even this incorporates elements of his own biography. This particular essay will prove the most practical for any Sebald academics because it, at times, feels like it is telling us more about Sebald than about Hebel. ‘A Comet in the Heavens’ is eminently quotable, not only perspicuous, but well written, and I, personally, found myself cribbing a few sentences from the essay into a blue cahier for later use.

Rousseau

But this is not the texture of all the essays and, although it is not poor, one’s enthusiasm for ‘A Comet’ wanes slightly when running across Sebald’s pieces on Rousseau and Gottfried Keller. The Rosseau and Keller essays are much more a case of speculative biographies and often give way to indirectly narrating through these writer’s books, with veins of academic thought and analysis now intercessing throughout. While sprigs of thought that illuminate Sebald’s own works remain and can still be easily reached from these footpaths, the writing often steps into the speculative and searching narratives that characterise Sebald’s other writing, investing less in the academic activities of dissection, explanation and analysis and more in tracing a kind of emotional sensitivity or understanding for a writer in a watery and faintly transparent outline.

The thin colours adumbrating each author’s biography often run down and pool in shallow wells, lightly sequencing the authors into general patterns of pain extending from lovelessness; loss of physical and mental health or loss of one’s family or home in exile; for whom the introspection of writing became necessity. As the colours run, they ring excerpts of the authors’ writing (particularly the beautiful examples of the angels in the wet glass, or any of the scenes with Judith, in Keller or the boat on the lake in Walser’s The Tanners) and outline various images (like Keller’s blotting paper, on which the name ‘Betty’ has been incised over and over). Many of the faint themes that seem to thread from each essay to another, such as the baroque love of ornamentation or the bourgeois impulse towards collecting, which drip and commingle in these common wells, are first sketched out in the course of ‘A Comet in the Heavens,’ shading itself into Rousseau’s amateur botany collecting or Keller’s penchant for knick­knacks.

Approaching this collection of essays largely as an academic exercise, I found myself, as I moved on through the essays, in many ways succumbing to the bourgeois habit of collecting, noting down the likes of Sebald’s application of Walter Benjamin or the quotations that might illuminate The Rings of Saturn (1995). But this eventually attenuated and instead, as progress was made, I was marking out my appreciation for turns of phrase and insights, resorting to only this when reaching the essay on Robert Walser.

WalserAlthough I have a weakness for the Gottfried Keller essay, the Walser essay is the finest in A Place in the Country; among the various observations Sebald manages to sew in remembrances of his grandfather, which, of course, further elaborates Sebald’s emotional attachment to Walser’s writing. This particular essay has also plainly influenced more recent Walser criticism, percolating down into Ivan Vladislavić’s heavily Sebald­indebted ‘The Last Walk,’ with its strange analysis of the photographs of Walser’s dead body, and makes J. M. Coetzee’s treatment of Walser look a touch scant and amateurish. Sebald ties the chimerical, dreamy essay into a soft ribbon by attaching Walser’s account of a balloon ride, which, I think, is somewhere in the Microscripts, to the accompaniments of a balloon photograph, probably not at all connected, and a section from Nabokov’s Speak, Memory (Sebald adored this) involving his favourite childhood book:

At the immense altitude,’ writes Nabokov, ‘to which the ship reached, the aeronauts huddled together for warmth while the lost little soloist, still the object of my intense envy notwithstanding his plight, drifted into an abyss of frost and stars­ alone.’

Walser2We should avoid taking A Place in the Country only as a supplement to Austerlitz (2001) or Vertigo (1990), remembering that Sebald’s style is rather discursive in the first instance. Although the essays are not wholly on a par with Sebald’s other writing, there are traces and elements which could easily occupy pages in one of them. Even the Eduard Mörike piece, which I found eminently forgettable on first reading, when reading without the expectation of a practical end, seems to have a charming smell of Napoleonic cannon­smoke about it and could happily belong in Vertigo. Sebald’s essays reward his reader not with material to garner for your own essays, but in the same vein as his prose. And I hope as you navigate the strange hinterlands and coastlines Sebald washed across pages you will still be able to see silk balloons drifting like Chinese lanterns up from the crags, trailing lines of frost among the stars.

Stone Cold

For a novel that burst onto the literary scene so unpredictably and with such unmitigated energy, John Williams’s novel Stoner is a remarkably muted affair. Boasting a host of positive reviews, which range from actor Tom Hanks to an anonymous troop of adoring Twitterati, the ‘greatest novel you have never read’ provides a plaintive account of life, love and education. It’s a novel that aligns itself with the modernist penchant for the mundane, that revels in the inconsequential and the sparse, which, although a blind glance at its title and publication date may suggest otherwise, is a more natural bedfellow of Henry James and Ford Madox Ford than, say, Hunter S. Thompson.

As a narrative, the foundations of Stoner are built upon the inherent misfortune of the eponymous protagonist, who, through a process of attrition, is beaten and broken by his sad and ruthlessly ordinary circumstances. For Williams, Stoner is the Everyman, the brow-beaten, ill-fated man, the vehicle through which the exploration of ‘everyday’—a concept that has its roots in characters like Jane Eyre, Dorothea Brooke and Mrs Dalloway. Never in sight of the melancholy heights reached by Tess in the woods nor Lear in the gale, it soon becomes clear that the misfortune that shrouds the protagonist, the legacy of whom, it must be remembered, Williams assures us ‘is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity,’ forms the primary substance of the character.

At times saintly, always stoic, I cannot shake the sensation that Stoner is wholly defined by his crumbling lot. A composite of responses to his pragmatic parents, his estranged wife, his bitter colleagues, Stoner is a man hardened into a submissive stone without an ounce of ability to rally against his circumstances. After all, ‘From the earliest time he could remember, William Stoner had his duties,’ and it’s this sense of obligation, first to his estranged wife Edith and then to his beloved department, that compounds both his being and his misery. Stoner is a principaled man who fights for his jobs and for his family; he does not fight for himself. In making his character more stoned than stoner, Williams’s Everyman is never wholly believable as a honest victim—he is, at times, too ordinary to be ordinary. Instead of fulfilling the rôle of the universal sufferer, Stoner forms the spine of a novel that reads as a patient exercise in determinism.

That’s not to say there’s an absence of beauty in Stoner. Williams crafts his simple prose with a delicate assurance and is at his strongest when he speaks most generally:

In his extreme youth Stoner had thought of love as an absolute state of being to which, if one were lucky, one might find access; in his maturity he had decided it was the heaven of false religion, toward which one ought to gaze with an amused disbelief, a gently familiar contempt, and an embarrassed nostalgia. Now in his middle age he began to know that it was neither a state of grace nor an illusion; he saw it as a human act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence of the heart.

It’s a quiet little novel that recounts the underwhelming life of an underwhelming man, whose steadfast determination endures two World Wars and two ill-fated bouts of love. Even Stoner’s minor victories, which range from inter-departmental tussles (‘It was a triumph in a way, but one of which he always remained amusedly contemptuous, as if it were a victory won by boredom and indifference’) to a liberating love affair, are always coupled with a sense of wasted potential. It seems a certain paradox arises when a novel that prides itself on understatement is championed so vocally. Stoner is a novel that’s suited to hiding quietly in the corner, tipping its hat to whosoever unearths accidentally its simple, sombre story. Reading Stoner is like admiring a dry stone wall—we’re impressed by its permanence against the odds, enjoy its quaint modesty and acknowledge the strength of its individual components, but ultimately are forced to wonder if there could be more holding it all together.

Game Theory

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.

Frank Brady, Endgame: The Spectacular Rise and Fall of Bobby Fischer. Constable & Robinson, 2012.

Frank Brady, Endgame: The Spectacular Rise and Fall of Bobby Fischer. Constable & Robinson, 2012.

‘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.

Bone Up

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.’bones

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?’

Piano Man

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.