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.