Brief Reviews of Two Books Which Deserve Better

It’s a choice between either giving brief reviews of two books which I really loved recently… or being forever silent about them, as more and more time passes since I read them. So, with apologies to those who were hoping for more thoughtful and detailed reviews, let me tell you about two unusual, beautifully written novels by two authors who certainly ploughed their own furrow and avoided any fashionable trends.

Brigid Brophy: The Snow Ball (1964)

For once, it was not Backlisted Podcast that drew my attention to this work (although I loved listening to their episode on it afterwards). I came to it via a passion for Mozart, particularly Don Giovanni, which clearly Brigid Brophy shared (she wrote a book about Mozart’s operas).

The novel is basically a Mozart opera set in the present-day (or, rather, what passed for present day back in the 1960s, when she wrote it). Yet there is a strange timelessness about the setting as well, so that the mention of phones and taxis seems almost jarring. The two ‘main’ characters describe the plot (such as it is) very well when they say that all they think about is ‘Mozart and sex’ or ‘Mozart, sex and death.’

The scene is a New Year’s Eve masked ball at a very large and impressive mansion somewhere in London. Anna is the friend of the hostess Anne (they also shared a husband at some point – although not at the same time) and she has come dressed as Donna Anna from Mozart’s opera. We witness the ritual of seduction between her and a stranger dressed as Don Giovanni, but we also witness the pas de deux between two other couples, the middle-aged hosts, and judgemental, ostensibly bored teenagers. Of course, we also have the interactions between these various couples and other assembled guests. Duets briefly turn into trios or quartets, with the occasional chorus of voices chiming in. Outside, it starts snowing, bringing an occasional hush and wonder to the proceedings.

The book is a playful look at the identities we toy with and then discard, the masks we put on to seduce and confuse, to attract and distract, or even to repel unwanted advances. It has sizzling flirtatious dialogue, a whirlwind of images, a crescendo of passion and one of the best descriptions of postcoital pleasure tinged with melancholy that I have ever read. Although it also brings in the awkward and self-absorbed adolescent voice through the diary that young Ruth (dressed as Cherubino) is keeping throughout the party, it is the verbal sparring of the grown-ups that set the tone for this novel. No one speaks like that in real life, we feel – or at least not with strangers you have barely met – and yet don’t we all wish we could?

There is quite a bit of discussion in the book about whether Donna Anna was seduced or not by Don Giovanni at the start of the opera, but the debate I found even more fascinating was whether the operatic Don Giovanni is brave or merely a cad, whether he chooses to provoke Hell into taking him prematurely, rather than passively wait for death to come. However, I don’t want to give the impression the book is all high-brow flights of fancy, or that you need an in-depth knowledge of Mozart’s operas to appreciate it. It is also surprisingly down-to-earth, very funny and full of witty observations, such as:

… the rich have libraries, whereas people like us have books. People like us read books. The rich have them catalogued.

Yoko Ogawa: The Memory Police, transl. Stephen Snyder (1994)

From a joyous celebration of life, to a more melancholy book, which I believe nevertheless does celebrate life.

The Memory Police of the title seems to be the elite squad operating in an unnamed island where Ogawa sets her quasi-dystopian novel – but they are not content to merely make things disappear from time to time, they want to make sure that the memories of all the disappeared objects are erased too. Their methods of enforcing compliance get more and more brutal, as they seek out those who cannot forget. One such person who cannot erase his memories is the editor of the narrator, who is a novelist. None of the characters have names, they are described by their physical attributes – the old man – or their jobs, or else simply initials – the editor is also R – as if the names themselves are fading away. The novelist decides to try and save him: despite the great risk, she prepares a small secret room in her house with the help of her faithful friend, the old man with DIY skills, and invites the editor to hide there. Meanwhile, the editor tries to teach them to remember, with the help of a few forbidden ‘missing’ objects which the narrator’s mother had hidden long ago. But the most frightening and sad aspect of the book is that these objects no longer awaken any feelings in them.

Earlier in the book, the novelist wonders sensibly enough about the ratio between the disappearance and the creation of objects:

‘I mean, things are disappearing more quickly than they are being created, right?… What can the people on this island create? A few kinds of vegetables, cars that constantly break down, heavy bulky stoves, some half-starved stock animals, oily cosmetics, babies, the occasional simple play, books that no one reads… Poor unreliable things that will never make up for those that are disappearing – and the energy that goes along with them… If it goes on like this and we can’t compensate for the things that get lost, the island will soon be nothing but absence and holes, and when it’s completely hollowed out, we’ll all disappear without a trace.’

I have to admit that this and other passages shook me a little: they reminded me a little too much of my years of being shut in a totalitarian country, cut off from the outside world, with no possibility of leaving, and being forcibly told to forget my friends from abroad or any other interpretation of reality other than the ‘official one’.

However, this is the kind of book that can be interpreted in many ways: a political allegory; a story about grieving and the fear of ‘losing’ the loved one all over again as the memories fade; the inevitable physical and psychological decline as we grow older, even a slide into dementia; the impossibility of ever fully conveying the world as a writer; that the arts may be the only thing that save us ultimately and differentiate humans from other living beings.

Yet, despite the often shocking disappearances and the consequences they have on each of the individuals, the characters try to lead as normal a life as possible, to celebrate birthdays, and cook nice meals, wash and sleep and talk. It’s this resistance, this almost futile resistance, of the small, vulnerable person in the face of the behemoth (which could be a hostile authority, or simply time itself) which makes this book so incredibly subtle and poignant.

The whole book is written in a calm, matter-of-fact yet somewhat dreamy style. I felt as if I was standing in a soft but constant rain, ready to melt and disappear myself, despite the occasional shock of the story within a story told periodically, about a typist who has lost the power of speech, and is emprisoned in a tower full of broken typewriters (this is the novel the main protagonist is writing).

My memories don’t feel as though they’ve been pulled up by the root. Even if they fade, something remains. Like tiny seeds that might germinate again if the rain falls. And even if a memory disappears completely, the heart retains something. A slight tremor or pain, some bit of joy, a tear.

A huge thanks, incidentally, to Jacqui and Debbie from the Gerrards Cross and Chorleywood Bookshops, who sent this book as part of the subscription package for my fifteen-year-old son. He has been too busy with GCSE exam-replacement assessments to read it yet, and it may be a little too subtle for him, but I absolutely loved borrowing it off his bookshelves. The more I think about the book, the more I love it: it has left a very profound echo in my heart.

Five Things to Sing About

Really struggling to find enough things to be positive about this past week, which has been marred by headaches and insomnia. But as long as I have books, plays and music, it cannot be all bad, right?

  1. I tidied up my bedside tables and bookshelves, as the new purchases were interfering with my geographical shelving.
My Russians are now next to Persephone, for some reason…
This is the bedside table I use on a daily basis. It usually looks a lot more cluttered than this, but I tidied it up for the photo. It contains my current reading and library loans, my journal and my all-time favourite authors (Tove, Jane, Virginia, Shirley, Jean)

2. I donated a massive bag full of books to the local library, but I also bought books this week, so my balance is probably zero.

The Malorie Blackman is for my younger son, and I wonder if my older son might be interested in Jean Plaidy – he is currently on a bit of a medieval history reading spree.
You might spot Kaggsy’s nefarious influence here… plus a highly-regarded Greek author about a mother/son relationship (currently a bit of an obsession of mine)

3. Speaking of mother/son relationships, I watched yet another emotionally gruelling play Mother of Him by Evan Placey at the Park Theatre. A play to make the audience think, laugh, cry and gasp out loud! It’s about a family (and especially the mother, who is being judged by everyone) going to pieces when the older son is accused of raping three girls in one night. It should come with a flashing red warning for single mothers of teenage boys – especially when the actor who plays the 17 year old son has the skinny body type of my own 16 year old!

4. ROH Live Encore at my local culture centre: Mozart’s Don Giovanni. One of my favourite operas, can never get enough of it and have watched many a wacky production. This beautiful Jack Furness revival of the Kasper Holten production featured a charismatic Erwin Schrott in the title role, a Don Ottavio I could finally empathise with (Daniel Behle) and an amazing if rather discombobulating set with video projections. It hasn’t quite dethroned my current favourite version: this ‘hipster edition’ live recording from the Festival international d’Art lyrique d’Aix-en-Provence in July 2017.

5. Sadly, I didn’t make it to this month’s writing group meeting, but I’ll be taking part in the Charity Write-a-thon we are organising in Windsor on the 16th of November. All the money we raise will go to Mind. If you do feel inspired to sponsor me, please visit my fundraising page here.

Five Things to Laugh or Sing About

There are so many things in my life right now just waiting to be complained about, that I decided to thwart them all and take a page out of Meggy’s blog. For those of you who don’t know @choconwaffles blog, she has a Friday positivity wave post, in which she lists all the good things going on in her life, big or small. I can’t promise this will become a regular weekly feature, but it can’t hurt to remind myself of fun things from time to time.

  • After two weekends away, Zoe is incredibly grateful to have me back. Reading with her purring on me is the cosiest feeling ever!
  • After a gap of years, if not a decade, I finally went to see a live opera again. The Marriage of Figaro at the Royal Opera House. The prices are prohibitive for what was a vertigo-inducing and not at all comfortable seat. The production itself was a little frantic and over-acted at times (with the large cast of servants etc.), the orchestra’s horns seemed to have a dissonant mind of their own at times. But Joelle Harvey as Susanna was magnetic, especially in her duet with Julia Kleiter as the Countess, and her almost heartbreakingly wistful ‘Deh vieni, non tardar’ aria in the fourth act. All eyes were on the countertenor Kangmin Justin Kim as Cherubino – the traditional casting being a woman – but, I’ll be honest, I didn’t realise it was a man until afterwards.
View from my seat.
  • Mozart is good for the soul and quite possibly a rejuvenator. I was exhausted that evening, as the work week had been horrendous and I’d not been feeling well for several days. On my way back to the train station from Covent Garden, I had an unexpected experience – well, unexpected in this day and age, as it hasn’t happened to me for a good few years now. A man ran after me and tried the pathetic chat-up line: ‘You’ve got such a tremendous aura. You don’t seem to be walking, you are floating.’ Clearly, Mozart gives you wings!
  • My local friends and fellow mothers, who have been with me through thick and thin, banded together to get me a voucher to buy books at The Second Shelf for my birthday. It’s the first time anyone has ever given me a bookish gift voucher, so I was very touched and pleased! I finally got to visit The Second Shelf this week and came away with lesser-known works by two authors who meant the world to me when I was growing up.
  • Thank you to Eric (aka Lonesome Reader), who mentions in his latest Booktube an event at LRB bookshop in late August: Ali Smith and Nicola Barker in conversation about writing. I booked my ticket rightaway! In fact, this week I’ve started to commit to my writing again: attended a Write together/Feedback session with my local writing group after a long gap, received detailed notes on my poems from my mentor Rebecca Goss and arranged to attend a writing retreat in 2020 with the writing friends who inspired and supported me so much in the summer of 2016.

Rock Me Amadeus!

When I was growing up in the mid 1980s , Mozart was all the rage. Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus had been made into a film by Milos Forman, Vienna was getting ready to mourn the passing of 200 years since his death (1791) and Falco was the first Austrian singer/rapper to go global with his ‘Rock Me Amadeus’ (apologies for the poor image quality – pre-HD music videos have not aged well).

Meanwhile, I was labouring with Mozart minuets and sonatas, having my knuckles rapped by my fearsome (but much loved and missed) piano teacher. It didn’t put me off him, however. He has remained, to this day, my favourite composer.

So the National Theatre’s production of Amadeus last week was a wonderful way to reconnect with my childhood. (And also an excellent form of self-medication for uncertain times.) Lucian Msamati gave a mesmerizing virtuoso performance as Salieri (his Italian was most convincing), while Adam Gillen was suitably foppish and vulnerable as Mozart (in Shaffer’s vision). All in all, Msamati is only off-stage for 13 seconds, while changing into a shinier outfit, so it’s a real tour de force.

Scene from Amadeus, National Theatre.
Scene from Amadeus, National Theatre.

Of course you have to allow for dramatic licence: no one seriously thinks that Salieri poisoned Mozart, or that Mozart was as childish and foolish as he appears in the play. Although he did live beyond his means and left his wife and children in debt after his death, he was not as unsuccessful and ‘tormented’ as he appears to be in the play. He certainly enjoyed scatological humour, loved his wife dearly, but he did not write his musical compositions effortlessly, from divine dictation. (He worked very hard, and if his manuscripts appear remarkably clean,  it’s because his wife destroyed many of the earlier drafts.) Schikaneder did not cheat Mozart out of the money for The Magic Flute (in fact, he put on a special charity performance for Mozart’s widow). Constanze was not a naive little girl, but quite a shrewd businesswoman who managed to turn her fortunes around after Mozart’s death. Salieri was highly respected as a composer and teacher, but it is true that he felt fashions had moved on, so he stopped writing operas for the last 20 years of his life.  Salieri’s music fell into oblivion – and do you know what boost led to its modest revival in recent years? The success of the film ‘Amadeus’!

But it’s drama, not historical accuracy we’re after, and boy, does it deliver it in spades! The conversation between Salieri and Mozart prior to the death scene was particularly moving, while the final salute to mediocrities is one of the most memorable speeches about jealousy and resignation ever:

Salieri : I will speak for you, I speak for all mediocrities in the world. I am their champion. I am their patron saint. Mediocrities everywhere… I absolve you… I absolve you… I absolve you… I absolve you… I absolve you all!

The South Bank Sinfonia were both actors and players in this version, and there were some very good singers among the actors. This whetted my appetite for Mozart’s music and I listened all day Friday (Mozart’s birthday) to his Masses. On Saturday evening I also attended a local semi-staged performance of The Magic Flute, performed by St John’s Opera and Chamber Orchestra, and Renaissance Voices choir. It was a contemporary adaptation, with Sarastro being the CEO of a foundation and giving Tamino a gruelling job interview. Meanwhile, Papageno worked as a ‘model scout’ for the Queen of the Night (hunting for birds, right) and also ran her social media, doing occasional Tweets for her. Great fun, the music of course sublime and I’d never heard Mozart sung in English before. Clever translation at times!

the_magic_flute