Cluny Media, and a Couple of Other Literary Things

Cluny Media is a publisher whose main line of business is the reprinting of Catholic classics, or classics which are in some way connected to and compatible with the Catholic tradition. And when I say reprinting I don't mean a sloppy scan of an old book run through a print-on-demand process. I mean very high-quality work. Here's how they describe their enterprise:

Our publishing philosophy is simple: A book, from cover to cover, should be an artifact, a work of art. Because our business is primarily to take the old and make it new, this philosophy demands a particular, careful process. Unlike the facsimile “republications” of other, similarly motivated publishers, Cluny editions are restorations. The restorative spirit especially animates the production and design elements of the publishing process.

Their "About Us" page goes into more detail about what they do, and why and how they do it. It's worth reading. And supporting. 

Over the past four or five months I've bought several of their books, and can vouch for their quality: Caryl Houselander's Letters, Robert Hugh Benson's Lord of the World, and no less than five of Sigrid Undset's works that aren't gigantic novels set in medieval Norway.

This mini-binge began with my desire to re-read Lord of the World. I had read it ten years ago in one of those free Kindle editions which are not well formatted, which meant that it had two strikes against it before I even started reading: strike one was the fact that it was on the Kindle, as I don't like reading anything substantial on an electronic device anyway. I felt like I'd somehow missed something. The topic--the Antichrist and the Apocalypse--has been on my mind, and I wanted to read an actual on-paper edition this time. I shopped around and was led to the Cluny site, which led to the purchase of that book and then the others. 

I can pretty confidently say that you'll be impressed with their list (click here), and pleased with the quality of the books. And I'm going to make one specific recommendation, of a title I was very surprised to see: Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall

EvelynWaugh-DeclineAndFall

I was surprised because I would have assumed it's still under copyright, and that whoever owns the copyright would not readily allow anyone else to publish an edition. It was first published in 1928, so maybe the copyright has expired. In any case it's a very good and very funny novel, my favorite of his comic novels. And isn't that cover great?

I'll mention another title which I was a little surprised, and very pleased, to see: the three-volume A History of the Church by Philip Hughes. I'm not in the market for this set, because I own it, in a Sheed & Ward edition of the 1930s and '40s, and I have a strong attachment to it. Back around 1980, when I was seriously considering leaving the Episcopal Church for Rome, I wanted to read something substantial about the history of the Church. Somehow I decided on this one--I have absolutely no memory now of how that came about--and went to some trouble to get hold of it from an out-of-print books dealer. It did its job, and I proceeded. 

It's very well-written, as you would expect of an educated Catholic priest of his time (1895-1967). Contemporary historians would probably consider that it goes way too easy on the Church--"triumphalist," they might say, or worse. There's something to that. But I thought it was very fair to the opponents of the Church, and unsparing of the Church's own failings, though it doesn't dwell on the shocking.

And it ends with Luther. The three volumes were originally to be titled The World In Which the Church Was FoundedThe Church and the World It Created, and The Church and the Christian World's Revolt Against It. That basic plan was carried out, but I just noticed, in a footnote to the third volume, that it was intended only as "the first half of this third part." I don't know what the story of that is. But Hughes did later publish A Popular History of the Reformation, also available from Cluny. I have a copy but have never read it.

*

There's a new online poetry magazine: New Verse Review. It's published on Substack, which is very much the thing these days. I recognize several of the names associated with it, especially Sally Thomas, whose book of poems I praised here. I like the fact that the new publication not only favors metrical verse but narrative, and, I assume, longer lyric poems. Modern poetry tends to focus on a single epiphanic moment, and I'm in favor of stretching out a bit. Provided, obviously, that that doesn't mean making a not-very-interesting poem even less so by making it longer.

*

There's a new anthology of Rene Girard's writing: All Desire is A Desire For Being. That's a quote from Girard, and it knocked me out. It's something I've been trying to get at in a poem I've been working on (a longish poem, coincidentally), so I immediately wanted to read the book. I've only read one Girard work, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, and I don't think that sentence occurs in it. The anthology was assembled and edited by Cynthia Haven, who knew Girard personally, knows his work, and has published a biography of him, Evolution of Desire. Here's an article in Church Life Journal, "We Do Not Come In Peace," which seems to be meant as a sort of introduction to the anthology.


New Criterion Article on The Art of the Fugue

It seems to be the practice these days to leave out the second "the" and refer to the work as The Art of Fugue. I don't know the reason for that. The German title is "Die Kunst der Fuge," which according to my high school (and little bit of college) German is literally "the art the fugue." (I don't know how English came by that second "u," or why the German doesn't include one of those "of"-type words, like "auf.") The two recordings of it or parts of it that I have, by Glenn Gould and Gustav Leonhardt, were made in 1962 and 1969 respectively, and reissued in the 1980s, and both say "the fugue." I assume there is some good linguistic reason for  discarding the "the," though it sounds off to me. I also assume that's why this article by Jonathan Gaisman, in the May issue of The New Criterion is called "The Heart of Fugue."

I have a sort of compulsion, which I'm trying to break, to read every magazine to which I subscribe from cover to cover, in order. It was hard for me not to defy that compulsion in this case, as the fugue article is the last one in this issue, and I was eager to read it, because I have a problem with the fugue as a musical form and am always vaguely hoping for some sort of breakthrough in that difficulty.

I've always found the form somewhat...I hate to use this term...dry. Almost inaccessible. Around this time last year I started the project of listening thoroughly to the entire Well-Tempered Clavier (see this post). My intention was to listen to every prelude-and-fugue pair at least three times. I knew I would like the preludes, in general, but had my doubts, based on past experience, about the fugues:

With a few exceptions, the form has left me cold. It seemed dry, abstract, academic. You get the statement of the subject--which is frequently not all that interesting in itself--three or four times, and at that point I usually lose the thread: the piece just becomes a lot of wandering counterpoint, with the subject emerging from time to time. 

I don't think I ever reported on the completion of that project, but I did complete it, with many stops and starts, probably six months or so after I started it. And I very much enjoyed it. And the pattern of very much liking the preludes and being unenthusiastic about the fugues continued throughout. I did, as my listening continued, find that I was enjoying the fugues more, but still they continued to seem, well, all the things that I just mentioned.

The New Criterion article pointed me toward a possible resolution of the problem: just give up. I think it's an excellent brief introduction to the form, and to The Art. But it makes clear to me that a true appreciation and enjoyment of it is beyond me, because my ears and brain are not capable of grasping the structures that make it so impressive and fascinating to those who can grasp it.

I'm very well aware that there are subtleties and complexities in most classical music that I don't and can't grasp. And that some of these are accessible only to those who have substantial training in music theory and very good ears. That undoubtedly limits but does not present a major obstacle to my enjoyment; to be brought to raptures by a piece of music is sufficient, even if I'm missing a lot.

Why is the fugue different? The opening of the article is a simple observation:

Many people, if they wonder how music is made up, suppose that it consists of a tune and an accompaniment. The paradigmatic guitarist in front of a campfire croons the melody, while his hands create the harmonies that give it color.

Well, yeah, but I'm more sophisticated than that, I thought, mildly annoyed. But Gaisman goes on with more elaborate examples: 

Frédéric Chopin admired Bellini, and his nocturnes reproduce the same model: the right hand unfurls a line of singing melody on the piano, and the left provides (in his case) exquisite harmonic support.

Yes, a long way from the campfire guitar, but the basic concept is there in Chopin. Counterpoint, on the other hand, is:

... a compositional method in which there is not a dominating tune and a subsidiary accompaniment, but contrariwise a democratic parity between the voices. (They are called voices even when they are instrumental, not sung.) A choral piece by Johann Sebastian Bach or Handel typically shares out the elements equally between soprano, alto, tenor, and bass, so that the distinction between melody and harmony does not apply; every line contributes to both.

This may seem pretty obvious. It is pretty obvious, in essence. But in this case, as often happens, I had missed the implications of the obvious: on reflection, I realized that almost all the music that I really enjoy exhibits to some degree that voice-and-accompaniment relationship. I would call it, in more elaborate music, a foreground and background relationship. The foreground usually involves melody, a single distinct line or perhaps a mingling of multiple lines, which may be one or two instruments or a whole section of an orchestra or even the orchestra as a whole, with harmony and/or subordinate melody and/or rhythm less prominent. There may be and often is a lot going on in this supporting stuff, but it isn't generally the center of attention. The relationships between foreground and background are far more complex than Gaisman's first simple voice-and-guitar instance, but they do participate in a structure where not everything is of equal prominence (I don't say "importance"--that's no doubt a tricky judgment). 

"... the distinction between melody and harmony does not apply...." That's the key, I guess. When I listen to a fugue, my ears keep searching for that prominent voice, the stirring tunes sailing over an ever-varying sea of harmony and rhythm, passages connected by transitions that in themselves keep my interest. And not only do my ears not find those things, they don't really grasp what they do hear. They hear a great many notes, but they don't grasp, they don't feel, the interrelationships among them.

All the fourteen fugues and four canons in The Art of Fugue derive in some way from a single theme or “motto” in D minor, but, following an initial treatment that almost wilfully eschews the usual devices, their ingenuity and increasing complexity amount to one of the great intellectual and artistic achievements of Western civilization...

Alas for me, I cannot hear that "ingenuity and increasing complexity." 

If this interests you at all, please read the whole article. It does make me wish I could experience what the author describes. The credit on that article, by the way, says only that "Jonathan Gaisman is a King’s Counsel, practicing in commercial law." Having gone into law after obtaining an undergraduate degree in music, perhaps. 

If you read all the above and think you deserve a reward, here it is. If you didn't, my feelings are hurt, but here's your reward anyway. I didn't bother making notes of which pieces in the Well-Tempered Clavier I especially liked, but I think the F minor prelude and fugue from Book 2 were among them.

 


Four Mystery Novels

The first three of these were audiobooks, listened to on several lengthy trips over the past few months.

Tony Hillerman: The Fallen Man

As you probably know, Tony Hillerman wrote a series of detective novels set in the Southwest, mostly on the Navajo Nation, in the area known as the Four Corners, where Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah meet. I like them a lot, and I'm not sure exactly why. I mean, they're very good, but as detective novels go they're not extraordinarily so. I think it has something to do with a fascination, going back to childhood and Western movies and TV shows, with the landscape of the Southwest. 

After the first book or two, the crime-solvers are Navajo members of the Navajo Tribal Police, beginning with Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn, later adding Leaphorn's subordinate, Jim Chee, and the stories often involve Navajo culture and its interactions with mainstream "white" America. One of the pleasures of the series is that the main characters develop in time. They age, their relationship to each other changes, their positions in the police force change, new characters appear, but previous ones sometimes remain in one way or another. This is the twelfth of eighteen books in the series, and it finds Leaphorn in retirement, and Chee taking on the central detecting role, frequently consulting Leaphorn. And it involves the fading of Janet Pete, Jim's fiancé, and the arrival of a young female police officer, Bernadette Manuelito, who will be increasingly important. 

That broader story emerged as a patchwork for me, because I didn't read them in order. I haven't actually read many of them; they have, rather, been my first choice when I wanted an audio book to listen to on a long drive. For the most part the choice was determined by whatever the local library had on hand in audio format at the moment when I wanted one, going all the way back to those dim years when "audio book" meant Books On Tape. It would be fun to go back and read them, on paper, in their right order. That sounds like a good project for retirement, but now that I am officially retired, I don't want to devote that much time to them, with so many better works yet unread. 

I don't consider this one of Hillerman's best, but in my experience they're all worth reading. Perhaps part of the reason is that Navajo ways play a lesser role here than in some of the others, making Fallen Man a bit less distinctive. The story opens with two rock climbers on the justly famous Shiprock. One of them takes a very risky look over the edge of the ledge they're standing on, and sees, far below, the skeletal remains of a man in climbing gear. He turns out to be a young man who had disappeared several years earlier just before his thirtieth birthday, when he would have come into full ownership of the family's substantial property. That becomes, of course, a complex story involving the land, lots of money, and far-away financial interests. There's a subplot involving cattle rustling, and I've already forgotten whether it's connected to the murder case. Perhaps only in that Officer Manuelito, investigating the rustling, notices some things that prove significant to the other matter.

Not the best place to start with Hillerman, but certainly a good read. 

I have been a little disappointed in the last few Hillerman audio books that I've listened to. It seemed that the narrator was somehow not as engaging as I expected. Eventually I realized that I had been accustomed to the narration of George Guidall, whereas the newer ones are by Christian Baskous. There was something about Guidall's voice, a dry and wry quality, that seemed to fit the books better than Baskous's. I think I'll see if the library has any of the older Guidall ones. 

Ann Cleeves: White Nights and Red Bones 

These are the next two novels in the series set in the Shetland Islands with Detective Jimmy Perez as the central character. I wrote about the first one, Raven Black, back around the turn of the year, in this post. Of these two, I liked Red Bones better. Much of the plot of White Nights never really quite made sense to me. My fault, possibly. (The title refers to the summer nights which at Shetland's latitude never get entirely dark.) I didn't find the characters all that interesting, either. It begins with a bizarre incident in which a man attending an art exhibition has an emotional breakdown in front of a particular painting, and is later found dead, an apparent suicide, but of course...well, this is a detective novel. That sounds kind of promising, doesn't it? Like I said, maybe my lack of response was just me. Or maybe the book needed to be read, not listened to.

Red Bones was more engaging. It revolves around an archaeological dig almost in someone's front yard. The dig sounds interesting in itself, the site being that of a wealthy medieval merchant's home. We get a glimpse only, but an intriguing one, of the world that the merchant would have inhabited. The students doing the digging are sympathetic characters, one of them a serious student, another more of a playgirl. Guess which one becomes a murder victim. (You probably guessed wrong.) Some human remains are found in the dig. Guess when the death took place. 

Here, from Ann Cleeves's web site, are some remarks about the use of this novel as the basis of the first season of the Shetland TV series (see my post at the link two paragraphs above for more remarks on that):

Red Bones, the third instalment of Ann Cleeves' Shetland Quartet, is set in spring: a time of rebirth and celebration. And a time of death... for April is the cruelest month.

Perhaps that's why Red Bones was chosen as the basis for Shetland, a new two-part crime drama set in Scotland and starring Douglas Henshall. A special Shetland preview on November 21st was well received by the local audience, and Ann Cleeves gave it her approval too: "It's great," she said. "It's not faithful to the book but it's faithful to the atmosphere and spirit of the book. It's important that it's a good piece of TV rather than stick rigidly to the book."

I agree, Ms. Cleeves. I note, by the way, that the first novel in this series was set in winter, the second in summer, the third in spring. I haven't checked to see whether the fourth is set in autumn. (UPDATE: it is, and also the title is two words consisting of an adjective which is the name of a color and a noun: Blue Lightning.)

Ross Macdonald: The Barbarous Coast

This is one I read, in the beat-up old paperback which I bought long ago. I have most of the Archer novels, and they are, as a group, the most unsightly books on our shelves. Which seems appropriate. 

I said a good deal about Ross Macdonald in one of the 52 Authors posts, so I don't need to repeat my general opinion of and enthusiasm for his work. This novel is not his best, but since I like all of his Lew Archer novels, that's only a mild criticism. As with the Hillerman book above, I would not recommend this as the best place to start if you don't know the author's work. It's a relatively early one, and some of the later ones are better--this one appeared in 1956. But then the very first one, The Moving Target, is one of his best. 

It's a fairly typical Macdonald story: sad people who have seen their hopes thwarted--sometimes by their own foolish decisions, sometimes by the actions of others, sometimes by fortune--do things that make them even sadder, or dead. Archer moves among them, stern but compassionate. 

Something that bothered me, and which has bothered me in crime dramas generally, is the protagonist's impossible resilience and recovery after violence. The action of this book takes place over a few days. If my memory is correct, Archer receives at least two very brutal beatings which leave him unconscious. That he bounces back from these within hours and continues to work on the case, barely eating or sleeping, is implausible. .

One notable feature of this book is its bitter contempt for the movie industry. Macdonald seemed to share that with Raymond Chandler. Hollywood and Las Vegas form what you might call an axis of evil for him. In this conversation Archer is eavesdropping on a couple, a young woman, her profile "young and pretty and smooth as glass," and an older man, "an aging clown I'd seen in twenty movies":

"You said you'd catch me if I fell," she said.

"I was feeling stronger then."

"You said you'd marry me if it ever happened."

"You got more sense than to take me seriously. I'm two years behind on alimony now."

"You're very romantic, aren't you?"

"That's putting it mildly, sweetheart. I got some sense of responsibility, though. I'll do what I can for you, give you a telephone number. And you can tell him to send the bill to me."

"I don't want your dirty telephone number. I don't want your dirty money."

"Be reasonable. Think of it like it was a tumor or something--that is, if it really exists. Another drink?"

"Make mine prussic acid," she said dully.

The real import of this exchange didn't hit me until I'd read a few sentences into the next paragraph. If that guy lived into the '60s and '70s he probably had lots more fun of this sort. Sometimes it just amazes me that moviemakers consider themselves in a position to give moral lectures to the world. 

Macdonald-BarbarousCoast

This is a very ugly cover, and only partly fitting. The diving girl is justifiable because one of the young female characters is a competition diver. I presume she did not dive naked, though. I guess that red curvy thing is a boxing glove, which is fitting enough. 


Bruch: Violin Concerto #1 in G Minor

I have underrated this concerto. I've listened to it three times over the past week or so, as part of my little project involving Joseph Joachim's view of the greatest violin concertos:

The Germans have four violin concertos. The greatest, most uncompromising is Beethoven's. The one by Brahms vies with it in seriousness. The richest, the most seductive, was written by Max Bruch. But the most inward, the heart's jewel, is Mendelssohn's.

I had not heard it for many years, and though I remembered liking it I thought of it as above all a technical showpiece, impressive but not necessarily deeply affecting. And on the first of these three hearings that expectation was, if not fulfilled exactly, then not contradicted, either. 

As far as I could recall, I did not own a recording, so I went to Idagio and settled on one, one of very many: Arthur Grumiaux and the Amsterdam Concertgebouw conducted by Bernard Haitink. I enjoyed it, of course, but in a casual sort of way. Very impressive. Oh, that's lovely. I like that tune. Great finale. But I was pretty sure it was not going to end up at the top of my Joachim ranking. 

Thinking I would try a different recording, just out of curiosity, I went to Classics Today and found a recommendation for another Grumiaux recording, this one with Heinz Wallberg conducting the New Philharmonia Orchestra. (The recommendation, by the way, is from David Hurwitz, whose reviews on YouTube I've mentioned before. I've also mentioned that I found him a little annoying to watch and listen to, but he's grown on me. I've begun to enjoy his quirks, his humor, and his generally unpretentious style.)

My reaction to the second Grumiaux recording one was pretty similar: beautiful, not a rival to Mendelssohn's. 

Then I discovered, while looking for something else, that I have an LP that includes this concerto. How did I not know that I have it? Well, two reasons: one, it has both the Bruch and Mendelssohn concertos, and I never know how to shelve multi-composer recordings. I have a good many of these, probably between fifty and a hundred, and they're shelved in very rough chronological order, since such albums usually include works of more or less the same period. That doesn't work very well, though it's better than nothing. And two: several years ago I came into possession of several hundred LPs that were going to go to Goodwill if I didn't take them (see this post). And most of those have hardly been organized at all. Or played. This was one of them: 

Milstein-Mendelssohn-Bruch(Image from Discogs; my copy is STEREO, to be played only with a stereo cartridge and needle to avoid damage)

The New Philharmonia Orchestra is not the same as the Philharmonia Orchestra though they are related (seems to be a long story). I don't know whether it was just the fact that this was my third hearing of the concerto within a week or so, or the nature of the performance, or my state of mind at the moment, but this time I was bowled over. It's a great concerto, fully worthy of Joachim's placement of it among the greatest. "Richest, most seductive"? Not the adjectives I would choose, but very powerful in any case and certainly among the greats.

This is a 1961 recording, and as I mentioned, it's an LP: analog all the way. The other two I heard were digital, though they're old enough that they were probably recorded in analog. And they weren't at the highest possible resolution. Whether any of that had to do with my reaction I can't say. Maybe it was Milstein himself. 

Now on to Brahms. I've heard that one fairly recently, and really thought that there had been a discussion about it here, but I can't find it. I already know that I love it. I think it's going to be hard to say that I prize any one of these over the others. 

Also, I'm adding Sibelius to this project, which at that point will put me outside of Joachim's list by nationality--he did say "the Germans"--and although the composition of the Sibelius concerto just barely falls within Joachim's lifetime, we can assume he never heard it. I've heard it, but only once or twice, and I didn't feel like I had really gotten it. Maybe I should add Tchaikovsky, too?


King Crimson in the '80s

I was not always a fan of prog ("progressive") rock. In its early-to-mid 1970s heyday I was in fact dismissive of it: pretentious, over-complicated, sacrificing good songwriting for an emphasis on virtuosity not really suited for rock music. In short, it seemed to be trying to be something that rock music isn't and shouldn't be: of interest on purely musical grounds, where it was never going to be able to compete with jazz and classical. It was twenty years later that I gave it a second look, for a non-musical reason: my then-adolescent children had gotten interested in popular music (i.e. rock) and I was trying to steer them away from the uglier stuff. 

That didn't work, but it did change my mind. That is, my basic criticisms were justifiable and remained intact, but I enjoyed the music anyway, which led me to listen, in most cases for the first time, to Yes and King Crimson, and to develop quite a liking for them. There were a few others, but I only made a point of hearing most of the 1970s work of those two. And of them, KC seemed to have had the most interesting post-'70s career. 

But that's not really fair. Yes was a band with a fairly consistent lineup and a very consistent sound, at least through their first decade, and seem to have faded away after that, with the exception of one commercially successful and reportedly very atypical album in the early '80s. King Crimson, on the other hand, has not been a proper band at all through much of its fifty-plus years, but rather the ever-changing musical project of Robert Fripp, in which he has included various other musicians as suits his interests and purposes. It's been the exact opposite of consistent lineup and sound--Fripp tended to disband the group, at least partially, after every album or two, and reassemble it, at least partially, and go off in a somewhat different musical direction.

As a band, King Crimson was officially dead as of about 1975. But after half a decade or so Fripp revived the name for a group  of instrumental virtuosos consisting of himself, guitarist Adrian Belew, bass player Tony Levin, and drummer Bill Bruford (formerly of Yes). This band recorded three albums, Discipline (1981), Beat (1982), and Three of A Perfect Pair (1984). 

I would suppose that fans of progressive rock in general and King Crimson in particular were disappointed in these. One of the hallmarks of prog is long compositions with a lot of virtuoso instrumental work, and, despite the very high level of technical skill of all four players, that's not what these albums are. Most of the songs are in fact songs, of fairly typical pop song length, of a piece, with little instrumental stretching out. But that doesn't mean they're simple. They're not great songs as such--you don't come away humming them, or moved by the combination of words and music. But they're interesting. Rather than the complex twists and turns more typical of prog, or the basically simple and repetitive chord changes and beat of most pop, these songs have a static sort of quality--complex, and shifting slowly rather than driving forward. If I felt more confident of my technical understanding of music I would try to describe that more precisely. 

But I can say with confidence that one fairly constant feature is the use of complex repetitive hyperactive guitar figures that slowly shift rhythmically. I find it very hard to follow them for very long. I think I've got it and then suddenly it's wait, where did the accent go? "Frame by Frame," from Discipline, is a good example.

The bass and drums are also doing a lot of complicated things with rhythm there. It's as if the whole emphasis on complexity which characterizes the progressive rock concept is focused on rhythm. Basically, this band invented "math rock" (from Wikipedia) : "a style of alternative and indie rock with roots in bands such as King Crimson and Rush. It is characterized by complex, atypical rhythmic structures (including irregular stopping and starting), counterpoint, odd time signatures, and extended chords. " A week or so ago I found a YouTube video in which Adrian Belew explains this sort of thing, the way the guitar parts shift in and out of phase, so to speak, with one player starting one of these figures, the other playing it but with one note left out, and so on, so that the beat begins to float. But I just spent thirty minutes looking and can't find the video now. 

All this may seem a long way from the long and elaborate suites so often found in '70s prog. But if you listen to "21st Century Schizoid Man," the very first track on the very first KC album, In the Court of the Crimson King (1969), you find that the connecting thread is very clear. 

To call a work of art "interesting" is sometimes to damn with faint praise, at least on my part. And the word does pretty well summarize my opinion of these three albums. But I mean it quite literally. This is not my favorite music, but it is in fact interesting, interesting enough to return to now and then. There seems to be a consensus among critics and fans that the chronological sequence of the three albums is also the sequence of their quality, the first (Discipline) being the best. I agree with that. But if one likes the style at all, they're all worth hearing. 

A group consisting of Belew, Levin, Steve Vai (a name known to anyone interested in rock guitar), and Danny Carey, drummer of the band Tool, is doing a tour under the name BEAT performing this music. They're not coming anywhere very near me, but if they did I'd go. 


Two Bleak House Dramatizations

Both are from the BBC, naturally, and are serials made for television, each running roughly eight hours in total. The first was made in 1985, the second in 2005. Both are worth seeing, but all in all I think the second is superior and the best choice if you're only going to watch one.

The 1985 one, like the Dombey and Son dramatization I mentioned recently, took me back to Sunday evenings in the '70s and '80s watching PBS's Masterpiece Theatre. Comparing those with more recent similar efforts, you can sort of see the improvements in technology and, probably, financing. Visually, for instance, Bleak House 1985 is often less sharp, clear, and bright than Bleak House 2005. (I think I'll refer to them just as "1985" and "2005" for the rest of this post.) This is especially true in outdoor scenes, especially in London, where it actually is effective: the creators apparently wanted to portray the city as extremely dim and murky (which is certainly consistent with the book), and they succeeded. The slum called Tom-All-Alone's is nightmarish, as such places probably were in reality.

The two are pretty different cinematographically, and I don't know how much of the difference is technological and how much a stylistic choice. I recall, watching 2005 when it was originally released (almost twenty years ago!), thinking that the way the faces of characters often filled the screen almost entirely was a little annoying, reducing or almost eliminating a sense of the space in which they existed. But on this viewing I didn't really notice that, which makes me think it's a change in style to which I've become accustomed in other works. There was one small but irritating thing in 2005 which I think was a sort of fashionable device at the time, perhaps, and I hope, out of fashion now. That's a way of doing transitions with a literal bang. We're switching from London to Bleak House, say: wide shot of house BANG; quick cut less wide shot of house BANG; quick cut to closer shot of house BANG. Then on into the actual scene. After maybe half the episodes I got used to it, but I did wonder why someone thought it was a good idea. Maybe appropriate in some kind of noisy hyperactive contemporary movie, but for Dickens?

Changes in acting style are also apparent. In general the approach in 1985 is a little broader and more blunt. It seems, on one level, more acted, or stagey, while 2005 is perhaps more subtle--but then I don't know enough about acting to talk about it intelligently in a general way, so I would do better to compare specific characters. 

Like any male of my age, I am an admirer of Emma Peel Diana Rigg, and so it pains me a little to say that she did not make as powerful a Lady Dedlock as Gillian Anderson, whom I had of course enjoyed as Agent Dana Scully in The X-Files, but whose ability as a more serious actress I had doubted. The big difference is that Gillian Anderson does icy very, very well, while Diana Rigg--whether by nature or by actor and director choice I don't know--is warmer and more openly vulnerable. I vaguely recall from my first viewing of 2005 that I thought Anderson's performance was a little weak compared to the others, and that her English accent seemed somewhat forced and not entirely real. Well, I didn't feel that way this time. A little stiff, maybe, is the worse I would say about the accent. I was very critical of it in her more recent portrayal of Margaret Thatcher, as well as in the crime drama The Fall in 2013. I don't know what to make of that--surely her accent didn't get less authentic over the past twenty years or so, as she has lived in England for much of that time (and lived there for a significant portion of her childhood). But anyway, applause to Scully Anderson for this performance.

Charles Dance as Tulkinghorn in 2005 is surely the ultimate. And I'm pedantic enough that when I use the word "ultimate" I mean it pretty literally. (I'm always annoyed when I see an advertisement for something like "the ultimate PC," something which will be more or less obsolete and certainly surpassed within months.) Not ultimate as in chronologically final, but ultimate in the sense of unsurpassable. I suppose someone someday might prove me wrong, but I just can't imagine a more convincing and effective portrayal of Tulkinghorn, nor one more in keeping with the character as he's portrayed in the book. The Tulkinghorn in 1985, Peter Vaughan, is fine, just not in the same league for mystery, menace, and intelligence.

Anna Maxwell Martin, as Esther Summerson in 2005, also seems more convincing to me than 1985's Suzanne Burden. And so on--as I look over both cast lists, I think 2005 takes first place in most instances. There are a couple of characters who don't seem all that effective in either one. Sir Leicester Dedlok doesn't have the mountainous snobbery and pomposity I imagine, but maybe what I imagine is impossible. Nor does either fully convey to me the noble generosity of his reaction to the family's crisis. I somehow think John Jarndyce should be more colorful than he is portrayed, but again, that may be my misreading, or at least eccentric reading. Slimy little Guppy is good in both. 

Anyone who watches as many British crime dramas as I do will immediately recognize Phil Davis as Smallweed in 2005, also a noticeably superior portrayal to 1985's. He's often played similar characters, irascible, hostile, and creepy.  

I won't bother picking over the choices each version makes in tailoring the narrative for this length and format. I did quarrel with some, but I don't recall thinking that they were unjustifiable. It must be a difficult task.

Here's the, or a, trailer. Not an especially good one, in my opinion. Notice that they say "Charles Dance vs. Lady Dedlok." I didn't realize he was that well known. You can hear the end of one of those BANGs as it begins. 

 


Andrea Schroeder Sings David Bowie's "Heroes"

In German: "Helden."

I never heard of Andrea Schroeder until a few weeks ago when I was looking for cover versions of this famous song. You know it, right? If not, click here.

I was never much of a David Bowie fan. I didn't care for the whole glam rock, sexually androgynous thing, but, more importantly, I just didn't care that much for most of his music. I had a slightly annoying conversation about this on Facebook around the time of Bowie's death. I said more or less what I just said, and several younger people explained to me that it was a generational thing, and I Just Didn't Understand. 

Nonsense. Look, y'all (I said): David Bowie was a bit older than me. It had nothing to with age and everything to do with musical taste. I heard Ziggy Stardust several dozen times while I was working in a record store, and never cared much for it, though I had liked his earlier album, Hunky Dory, quite well. And I never listened to him much after that.

But somehow or other I did hear "Heroes," a basically very simple song which seems to have a mildly addictive effect on a lot of people. And, maybe in part because it's basically simple, yet deeply appealing, it seems to lend itself to some very varied ways of performing it. And maybe also because of the lyric, with its odd combination of defiance and despair. "Yes we're lovers" but "nothing can keep us together." And:

Though nothing will drive them away
We can beat them, just for one day
We can be heroes, just for one day

You can read the English lyrics here.

I like covers of well-known songs which rework them substantially. Or rather I should say they interest me, as of course they're not always successful. This one, I think, works spectacularly well. I like it just as much when I'm not looking at the screen with the beautiful Andrea Schroeder gazing deeply into my soul eyes.

I must definitely hear more of her music. She's German, obviously, and AllMusic doesn't say a word about her, nor does Wikipedia, but her own website has some impressive recommendations. 

My next-favorite cover of "Heroes" is by the metal-ish band Motörhead, and as you might suppose it is night-and-day different. I don't recommend listening to this one immediately after Andrea Schroeder's. If at all. It's hard rock.

Lemmy Kilmister, 1945-2015, RIP. One wonders, if one is a Christian, where such an apparently purely heathen soul goes.


A Note On Flannery O'Connor and Race

Having read a bit more about the unpublished Flannery O'Connor work mentioned in this post, I'm getting the impression that much of the discussion about it, and possibly the book itself, are focused on Flannery O'Connor's views on race. 

This interview with the book's editor, Jessica Hooten Wilson, by a couple of slightly obtuse Georgia Public Radio guys, is an instance. I'm sure they're smart guys who went to college and all, but this is the way they see the world:

Orlando Montoya: So I'd like to think that this story would have become Flannery's statement on race, that she might have come down on the right side, and that it would have clarified a lot of our doubts about Flannery and race. But it's also possible that she could have just ended up making some other point.

Peter Biello: Like, well, what other point?

Orlando Montoya: Religious.

Peter Biello: Oh, okay.

Orlando Montoya: A religious point. I mean, her entire body of work is just oozing, as you said, with this Catholic sense of the world. And so there's a reason Catholics just love Flannery. And to me, when I read Flannery and this story's no exception, there's just a lot of judgment, from everyone to everyone. And so that's why I kind of find her kind of difficult. Her pages are just dripping with judgment, this Catholic sense that there's going to be a reckoning and you better be on the right side. And these fragments are no different.

Oh, okay.

They're creatures of their time and culture who don't see their own as clearly as O'Connor did hers. And they are, in a limited way, admirers of her work. At least the one guy understands that the Catholic viewpoint is not just accidental to the stories. But to view the very glancing connection between O'Connor's views on race as more interesting and important than the theological-philosophical foundations of her work is indicative of a very defective understanding of it (and possibly of art in general, but never mind that now).

Moreover, the clear implication here is that the Catholic aspect is something at least mildly negative, which certainly indicates a view of the work that is seriously limited at best. We have to put up with her weird religious obsession, they seem to suggest, but we can hope that she might, in keeping with our expectations of what constitutes progress, have set that stuff aside and talked about what we think is important, i.e. race, come down on "the right side" of the matter, and "clarified a lot of our doubts." (What does that mean, exactly? Remove our doubts, I suppose. "Clarified" could mean either confirmed or contradicted.) And if she didn't? Well, clearly our doubts must remain; Flannery O'Connor is "problematic." 

It's especially wrong-headed, downright ludicrous, for a 21st century progressive to complain of an excess of judgment, when the more zealous among them rarely stop judging everything and everyone in Western civilization, apart from themselves and the present moment, as inadequate if not evil. And let us note, too, that it is often precisely the harsh, stubborn, and ignorant judgmentalism of her characters that is seen to be under the judgment of God.

I sometimes wish I could be transported several hundred years into the future so I could participate in the establishment of the judgement of "history" on our own time. The confidence that we are on its "right side" is probably going to be one of the more risible things about us. Our culture has rightly rejected blatant anti-black racism, but influential sectors of it have embraced a long list of other absurd and harmful views, not least of which is another form of racism, in which white people are considered to be indelibly stamped with something called "whiteness," an ontological stain with which they are born and which can never be erased, and which requires perpetual acts of penance. Penance, not atonement, because atonement is impossible, except perhaps by civilizational suicide. (The parodic resemblance to Christianity has often been noted; it's one of the most visible motifs of post-Christianity.)

I've been annoyed for a long time by the treatment of "racist" as a binary condition rather than a thing, like any other single human vice or virtue, that exists in degrees. If that label can be stuck on a person, it works pretty much like the old death's head symbol for poison: you're either racist or not, poisonous or not, and sensible people will keep away. Real people, real hearts and minds, of course don't function that way. One can have mild and even harmless prejudices against people of another race or culture without being guilty of any serious moral wrong. A few years ago the writer Paul Elie published an article called "How Racist Was Flannery O'Connor?" I didn't read it, though it was recommended to me, because I disliked the "When did you stop beating your wife?" tactic of the title: in a culture where anything and anyone who can be plausibly tagged with the word "racist" is to be condemned without reservation or nuance, it seemed a poisoning of the well. (This tactic has been overused to the point where it may not be effective anymore. I noticed a few years ago that many of the taggers have switched to "white supremacist.")

The truth is that race is just not a very significant aspect of O'Connor's work, which deals above all with universal questions, posed by means of an extraordinary skill in evoking those questions within a very specific, concrete, and limited place, time, and culture. Whatever racism she was personally guilty of is pretty mild stuff (and if you don't think it was mild you've led a sheltered life). She seems to have granted the basic rightness of the civil rights cause, which a serious racist of the time would not have done.

In that interview Jessica Hooten Wilson says, in defense of O'Connor's treatment of black people in her work, that

...she only knew how two Black people would talk when a white woman was in the room...

Well, of course. And she recognized that that was the situation. I think she mentions in one of her letters that she understands that what she sees--what any white person in the segregated South would see--in black people is often a carefully mannered façade, and she didn't feel able to write from within the consciousness on the other side of that façade. Call that an artistic limitation if you want to, but it's not a sin.

Although she was my parents' age, I grew up in the same segregated rural Southern world that she did. I was in high school when the passage of the Civil Rights Act began the process of putting an end to that world. It is a personal and living memory for me, not something I've read about. And I can testify that when she does picture, in her work, black people as seen by white people, the two so near and yet so distant, she is very accurate. Do the people who worry so much about her opinion of black people not notice that she doesn't think very highly of white people either?

Examination of conscience is much more easy, pleasant, and rewarding when the conscience being examined is someone else's. Those who want to put Flannery O'Connor on trial would do better to read, or re-read, "The Life You Save May Be Your Own."


Beethoven's Violin Concerto

I've started to follow through on my idea of listening to the four violin concertos praised by Joseph Joachim, one of the great violinists of the 19th century:

The Germans have four violin concertos. The greatest, most uncompromising is Beethoven's. The one by Brahms vies with it in seriousness. The richest, the most seductive, was written by Max Bruch. But the most inward, the heart's jewel, is Mendelssohn's.

To these four I plan to add the Sibelius concerto, which of course came after Joachim's time. I've heard them all at least once,  but I want to get to know them better. And also to see whether I agree with Joachim. 

Mendelssohn I just recently heard (see this post), and that was what led me to this little listening project. I'm taking them in chronological order, so Beethoven is first. My usual procedure in getting to know any piece of music, classical or other, is to listen to it three times within some relatively small span of time--a week or so. In this case I listened to three different recordings: Heifetz and Munch, ca 1960; Christian Ferras and Karajan, 1967; Perlman and Guilini, 1981 (in that order).

In the past I have been less than enthusiastic about this concerto. On the basis of one or two inattentive hearings, I just didn't think it was, for Beethoven, an especially remarkable piece. (I said so to my violinist son, and he was horrified.) Well, that's...in the past. I now consider the first movement to be among my very favorite Beethoven works. As far as I'm concerned it could be a standalone work. It's substantially longer than the other two movements combined, and seems to me complete and satisfying in itself.

The second movement, though comparatively brief, stands with it in quality, and leads directly into the third without a pause. It's there that the concerto as a whole falls down a bit. It's a vigorous "happy ending" to a work which has had a distinctly reflective, if not melancholy, spirit. And to me it's a bit of a letdown, the opposite of its intended effect. This is no doubt in part a result of a sense, which I've mentioned before, of temperamental incompatibility between me and the great composer. It's the energetic Beethoven, who sometimes seems to me a bit unconvincing, a bit overemphatic. For that reason, when (or if) I decide to rank these concertos, I don't think Beethoven's will be at the top.

About the recordings: I don't think anyone could criticize Heifetz's performance except on the grounds that it's too perfect. It seems effortlessly perfect, and for that reason a bit chilly in comparison to others. I didn't think that until I heard Ferras, and was struck by a sense of emotional warmth and depth which I didn't feel in the Heifetz. 

Those two were on LPs that I own. For the third listening, I decided to look for recommendations. A while back my friend who's a classical music expert had brought to my attention to the YouTube channel of Dave Hurwitz of Classics Today. He has roughly 1,000,000 videos on YouTube, including a long series on reference recordings: the one, or maybe the few, recordings of some work that he considers to have set the standard. His choice for the Beethoven violin concerto is the 1981 recording by Itzhak Perlman and the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Carlo Giulini. So that's the third one I listened to (via the IDAGIO streaming service), and, "reference" or not, I definitely prefer it to the others. 

I find Hurwitz a little annoying to watch and listen to, but his opinions are worth hearing. Here's the one where he names the Perlman/Guilini performance as his top choice. (There is a grotesque figure of speech at about 6:10. What was he thinking?)

 


Global Catholic Literature Seminar on Flannery O'Connor's Why Do the Heathen Rage?

In case you're interested, this is the next GCL seminar.

GlobalCatholicLiteratureSeminar

I'm slightly embarrassed to admit that I didn't even know this book was being released. Moreover, now that I've heard of it and looked around for a bit for information about it, I am not sure I even want to read it. 

Why not? Well, as far as I can tell, it doesn't even rise to the level of "unfinished novel," as the book's cover calls it, but is rather just a parcel of sketches and drafts of scenes. The book's subtitle is more modest: "A Behind-the-Scenes Look at a Work in Progress." The Collected Stories includes a very short one called "Why Do the Heathen Rage?" which seems to be one of these sketches, and it can hardly be called a story at all--some characters are introduced, a stage is set, but that's about all.

Still, my experience with these seminars makes me willing to give it a try. It's not very expensive--$65 before May 10, $75 after. It consists of four 90-minute sessions on consecutive Monday nights beginning June 3. You can register at this link. It isn't mentioned in that announcement, but in the past the cost of these seminars has included a copy of the book or books to be discussed. 

UPDATE: You do get a copy of the book, either paper or electronic, though if you register late electronic may be the only way you can get it in time for the first session. 


Two Novellas by Jon Fosse

Jon Fosse won the 2023 Nobel Prize for Literature. In stating that, I'm supposing that those reading this might not already be aware of it. That supposition in turn is based on another: that there are a considerable number of people like me who read a lot but aren't necessarily aware of who wins the Nobel and other big prizes every year. 

For my part, I just don't give much thought to those prizes, or, as a rule, to the writers who receive them. This is not any sort of contrarian snobbery. I don't look down on them; in fact I feel a vague and slight sense of shame about my ignorance. It's true that I don't assume that Nobel winners are necessarily the best the world has to offer, but neither do I assume that they aren't. Most of them are probably excellent. It's just that for the most part my literary interests don't take me in the direction of contemporary writing. 

Those interests do, however, take me very much in the direction of writing by Catholics, contemporary and otherwise, and that's how Fosse came to my attention: he is a fairly recent Catholic convert, in spite of being Norwegian. I don't really mean for that last bit to be funny. The Nordic countries went thoroughly Protestant as soon as they had a chance, then even further and faster into secularism than the rest of Europe, and Catholics there have been not just scarce but rare. Still, I wouldn't have gotten around to reading Fosse if it hadn't been made convenient by an online seminar produced by the Global Catholic Literature Project of the Collegium Institute of the University of Pennsylvania, in partnership with Dappled Things magazine. I've taken a couple of these and found them interesting and helpful.

Fosse has published an enormous amount and I would have had no idea where to start with his work. The seminar made the choice for me: two novellas, A Shining and Aliss At the Fire. There were four Zoom sessions taking place on four consecutive Monday nights in March, two each for each of the novels.

It was perhaps a mistake to take the seminar, as I was more interested in other writers at the moment--for instance, Dickens--and had other things going on, including a week-long trip that made me miss the last session. So I didn't really give either the works or the seminar itself as much attention as they deserved. Moreover, the works are rather mysterious, and despite the vigorous efforts of the excellent presenters (who, I must say, made me feel rather stupid with the intelligence and depth of their analysis) I still have only a vague idea of their meaning, and even, in Aliss, of what actually happens. Therefore I am not going to attempt to discuss them in much depth, and am writing this post mainly to point them out and suggest that you may want to investigate them yourself.

A Shining is the simpler of the two. It's even, in a sense, straightforward. I'll give you a lengthy quote from the opening which will give you the flavor of it: 

I was taking a drive. It was nice. It felt good to be moving. I didn't know where I was going. I was just driving. Boredom had taken hold of me--usually I was never bored but now I had fallen prey to it. I couldn't think of anything I wanted to do. So I just did something. I got in my car and drove and when I got somewhere I could turn right or left I turned right, and at the next place I could turn right or left I turned left, and so on. I kept driving like that. Eventually I'd driven a long way up a forest road where the ruts gradually got so deep that I felt like the car was getting stuck. I just kept driving, until the car got totally stuck. I tried to reverse but I couldn't, so I stopped the car. I was sitting in the car. Yes, well, now I'm here, I thought, now I'm sitting here, and I felt empty as if the boredom had turned into emptiness. Or maybe into a kind of anxiety, because I felt something like fear as I sat there empty, looking straight ahead as if into a void. Into nothingness. What am I talking about, I thought. There's the forest in front of me, it's just a forest, I thought. All right then, this sudden urge to drive off somewhere had brought me to a forest.

And it goes on like that. There are no paragraph breaks in its 74 pages. The man begins to walk into the forest. Night falls. It's very cold. He walks a long way, and he encounters a mysterious entity, the Shining of the title. He encounters several people, including his parents, and a man in black, as mysterious as the Shining. And there is what I will call a consummation at the end. The novella can be taken as a mystical or theological allegory (a dark wood and all that), but until I've read it again, which I do intend to do, I don't want to say anything more definite.

Fosse-AShining

Publisher: Transit Books

Aliss At the Fire is a bit longer and considerably more complex. And puzzling. And as it happens it occupied the last two sessions of the seminar, when I was distracted for one and absent for the other (though I was able to watch a video of the session later). But I think this much is accurate: the people and events are fixed in place but not in time. The place is an old house near the sea, by (in?) a fjord, and its immediate surroundings. Over this place time is sort of...smeared. The place is inhabited by at least four or five people, all members of one family, going back several generations.

The point of view shifts without notice or acknowledgment. The books opens with an "I" who is watching someone--a woman named Signe--in a room in the house. Almost immediately the point of view shifts to Signe's, in third person: "She watches...she thinks...she sees..." Among the things she sees is her husband, Asle. After a few dozen pages there is a sort of pivot and the point of view becomes Asle's. Signe sees Asle and herself at different points in their life together. Asle sees Signe, his great-great-grandmother, Aliss, and several people from the intervening generations. There have been at least two deaths, untimely and deeply lamented, apparently by drowning in the fjord. The overall effect is of a connection, very deep and very much alive, among the persons along the timeline, as if to demonstrate Faulkner's "the past is never dead; it is not even past."

I don't think the "I" reappears until the last line, and if there is any explanation of him or her I missed it (which is possible). I'm tempted to quote that line. But it would be a species of spoiler, so I won't. 

Browsing through the book just now, I noticed that there seemed to be, typographically, no sentences. The narrative goes on for many pages with no punctuation except commas and question marks, and with paragraphs only used to indicate spoken dialog. I was going to say that there are no periods in the book at all, but there are a few. On page 41, more than a third of the way through the book, Asle is seeing his great-great-grandmother, Aliss, roasting a sheep's head at a fire near the shore.

...she moves the sheep's head back and forth, back and forth in the flames. That's Aliss, he thinks, and he sees it, he knows it. That's Aliss at the fire.

Unless I've missed one, that period after "flames" is the first one in the book. There are a few more in that passage, very very few after. No doubt that means something, but I don't know what.

Fosse-AlissAtTheFire

Publisher: Dalkey Archive Press

Giving these books a little attention for the writing of this post has made me see that they deserve more attention than I gave them during the seminar, and are probably better than I gave them credit for. I plan to re-read them fairly soon. 


Quicksilver Messenger Service: "Pride of Man"

Though I only heard this song a few times fifty years ago, it's come back to my mind now and then over the years, and often over the past weeks and months, for reasons which will not be mysterious when you hear the lyrics.  

I heard this version by Quicksilver Messenger Service, one of the original San Francisco hippie-psychedelic bands, around 1970 or so, and not since until today. The band was fairly well-known at the time, mentioned along with the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, but never achieved the kind of fame that some of the others did.

They didn't write "Pride of Man." That was a guy named Hamilton Camp, who had some modest success as a folk, or perhaps I should say "folk," artist in the mid-'60s (and after). I have just learned, thanks to Wikipedia, that the song was connected with Camp's involvement in a religious movement called Subud

I was aware of him because when I was in high school I owned this album, a sampler from the then-new and innovative Elektra label:

Folksong65There's a wonderful range of music on it, and I listened to it many, many times. Some of the artists had long and successful careers, others pretty much disappeared, or just remained obscure. Some died fairly young. The duo called Kathy and Carol is among those who remained obscure, releasing one album and going their separate ways. Their track on the album was one of my favorites.

Coincidentally, my girlfriend at the time was named Kathy. Or rather Cathy.

My copy of the album disappeared many years ago. Someone has compiled a YouTube playlist which replicates the album, and that's nice. But I really would like to hear, and handle, and read the back cover of, the LP, and I see that it can be had very inexpensively from sellers on Discogs. I guess there's no harm in adding one more to my hoard.

(Cathy dumped me, by the way.) 


Mozart: Requiem

Having been thwarted twice in attempts to hear a live performance of this work, and being pretty old, I'm probably not going to get another chance at it. Oh well; I'm happy that there are recordings.

For Christmas of 2019 one of my children and her husband gave my wife and me tickets to a performance of the Requiem by the Mobile Symphony and a local choir (no offense, local choir, I just don't remember your name). Then along came Covid, and the performance was cancelled. So I was happy to see that the symphony was going to try again this year. No pandemic or other obstacle was in the way, and the performance did happen. 

But came the week before the concert, and also came a bad cold, first to my wife and then to me. By Saturday, when we were to have attended, we were both coughing and sneezing etc. so much that it began to seem like a bad idea to put ourselves into seats at the Saenger Theater where we would spend a couple of hours elbow-to-elbow with other people, and probably conversing with a few of them, as some acquaintances have seats next to and directly behind us. Apart from the good possibility that we would spread the virus, there was also the potential problem of our being unable to suppress bouts of noisy coughing and sneezing etc. Which could arguably have been a worse thing to do than spreading the cold.

So we decided not to go, and instead spent the evening watching Alabama lose their game in the Final Four of the NCAA basketball playoffs. That was sad, because it was the first time Alabama had gotten that far, but since I don't care much about basketball, missing the concert was sadder.

Oh well; I'm happy that there are recordings. And since the weekend I've listened to two of them. I had not heard this work for many years, and I was astonished at how good it is. I guess I had never really listened to it so attentively; I can recall putting on the LP when we had small children and being pretty distracted. 

This is not just an excellent and profound piece of music, it's a monument of Western civilization, up there with the greatest works of Bach and Beethoven. The fact that it's a setting of the Mass is part of its cultural status, even in the eyes of non-believers, as Christianity is at the heart of our civilization and so was the Mass for over a thousand years, and the Mass is at the heart of so much great music. For Christians it goes beyond that. The Requiem Mass in particular is a dramatic statement of the greatest truths of the faith, expressed here in some of the greatest music of one of those extremely rare artists who are unquestionably at the highest levels of genius.  

I know, Mozart left it unfinished at his death, and the version we have was completed by his friend Franz Xaver Süssmayr. We can't know how much of the work as we know it was Süssmayr's, and apparently that question has been continually and energetically argued almost from the beginning. (I did not know until a few days ago that there are other completions, some fairly recent. But Süssmayr's remains the standard.) But that doesn't matter when you're listening to it. 

I listened to two recordings, the one I purchased on LP over thirty years ago, and another chosen more or less randomly from the many available on IDAGIO. This is the LP, which seems to have been recorded in the late '60s.

MozartRequiem-BBC-Davis

Image from Discogs

And this is the other. 

MozartRequiem-Berlin-Muti

Also from Discogs

I liked the first one better. I can only say that it seemed to have more clarity, especially in the singing, which is obviously desirable when the text is so important, and generally a somewhat more fresh and lively quality. I want next to try one of the recordings which use smaller ensembles and may have greater clarity in the complex choral parts. 

I would urge that anyone who is new (or, like me, sort of new) to the work listen to a recording with the text and a close translation at hand (the back cover of my LP gives both, side by side). If you know Latin pretty well and are very familiar with the Requiem texts, you may not need them, but I certainly did. You really need to follow as closely as possible what Mozart does with the text, often giving a single word or a phrase a very elaborate treatment, with a good deal of repetition, and sometimes charging straight through. The Kyrie, for instance, is a fugue, and not the only one. I found it easy to lose track, even with the text in front of me, and the whole experience would have had less impact without that orientation. And I know that there is much more to be gained from further listening, though I feel a bit wistful knowing that there are technical complications and subtleties that are beyond my perception.

I won't try to go further than those general observations, except to repeat my sense of awe at the work. I may insert into my will a requirement that it be performed at my funeral, to make up for my having missed these two chances at hearing a live performance--and I don't mean a recording. It would be a nice thing to do for my family, though it might seem to some of them more like being forced to eat their vegetables. Stop complaining, it's good for you.


A Note on Bleak House Editions

When my wife and I moved to a new house in the fall of 2022, we tried to get rid of some of the books that were overflowing, in a very unsightly way, our shelves. That meant books that we had already read and didn't want to re-read, or had not read and most likely never would read, and duplicates. Among the latter were two copies of Bleak House. One was a small, beat-up, and generally undistinguished paperback. The other was a hardback, in perfect condition, of a good size, and nicely printed. 

So that was an easy decision: out went the paperback. 

But six weeks or so ago, when I finally began to satisfy my desire to re-read Bleak House for the first time in roughly fifty years and took up the hardback, I noticed something odd. I had just finished Dombey and Son, which runs to some 900 pages. I was fairly sure that Bleak House was at least comparable in length. But this copy had slightly under 600 pages, though it was printed in a typeface of reasonable size and with comfortable margins. Closer examination discovered this brief and inconspicuous note on the title page: "Arranged for Modern Reading."

The fact that I strongly suspect the internet to be a net harm to society doesn't prevent me from using it and appreciating the fact that it gives me instant access to vast quantities of information. I took a quick look at the Project Gutenberg edition of Bleak House and saw that at least one whole chapter was missing from my copy. Then I poked around for information about this particular edition, published by The Literary Guild, which is a book-of-the-month style enterprise, perhaps meant to be classier. And I found that it is indeed abridged. It is, as I said, a handsome production, with illustrations by Edward Gorey (which may be enough reason for me to keep it). But abridgment of such a novel is unacceptable, indeed a sin, if meant for adult readers.

So I checked out a copy from the local library: the Oxford Illustrated Dickens edition, the illustrations being the originals by "Phiz." I hadn't gotten very far in it before I realized that I wanted to buy my own copy. But the OID is out of print, replaced, apparently, by the edition included in the Oxford World's Classics series. That seemed promising. I was also interested in the Norton Critical Edition, which I've found to be very good, and, having just been reading the Wordsworth NCE, I wanted the paraphernalia of notes, background, and criticism. (I thought it was out of print, as Amazon only offered used copies. But I find now that it apparently is very much alive. At any rate I found an inexpensive used copy in good condition.)

I ended up buying both and would recommend either. Quality and size of typeface are increasingly important to me in my old age, as my vision seems to get a bit worse every year. (And it's not something that can be solved with the right glasses; if I live long enough I'll probably need cataract surgery). Both these are very readable. Norton is still using the typeface they've been using since at least the Norton Anthologies which were my textbooks in the mid-'60s, or at least a very similar one. It's remarkably clear as well as compact.

I'm telling you all this because I hadn't quite realized how much detail I was skimming past and ignoring in reading Dickens without notes.  He assumes we know something about London geography, about the Chancery courts, about details of life in his time which have had little or no presence in ours for the past century and more. There are many words and phrases that are unintelligible to us, or to me at least, and I venture to say most of us. I hadn't realized how often I contented myself with getting the general drift of a sentence or paragraph and moving on without knowing exactly what had been referred to.

Here, for instance, opening the NCE at random, I find this footnote:

  1. A ship that is laid up and out of commission, although still afloat.

The note is attached to this sentence in the text:

The good ships Law and Equity, those teak-built, copper-bottomed, iron-fastened, brazened-faced, and not by any means fast-sailing Clippers are laid up in ordinary.

Without the note, you haven't completely missed the sense as long as you get the general idea that the ships are not proceeding. But you certainly miss some precision and some flavor. 

Both the NCE and the OWC have such notes, footnotes in the NCE and endnotes in the OWC. I prefer footnotes to the constant page-turning required by endnotes. And I prefer the NCE overall. It has much more supplementary material. Some of that doesn't interest me, including 65 pages of textual notes giving every detail of variation between manuscripts of the novel, almost all of them trivial. But there are also, for instance, selections from documents of the time that go into disgusting detail about the filth of some parts of London in the 1840s, and a section devoted to tracking down real-life sources for some of the characters. I did not know that the detestable freeloader Skimpole is, by Dickens's own assertion, a portrait of Leigh Hunt, though I don't know that Dickens thought Hunt behaved detestably. 

Both editions include the Phiz illustrations, but the NCE doesn't have them all. And I wonder about the reproduction of some of them in both. Night scenes are more or less black smears, with little detail visible. But maybe that's my old eyes. Also, the maps are better in the OWC. 

BleakHouse-OxfordWorldsClassics

BleakHouse-NortonCriticalEdition


Bach: Christ Lag in Todesbanden

I've never ventured very far into the Bach cantatas, having heard mostly the "greatest hits," such as BWV 140, "Wachet Auf" (which my mental ear insists on hearing as "Watch Out!"). There are just so many of them, and--I hope you will excuse me if this sounds blasphemous or at least disrespectful--there seems to be a fair amount of music in them that is less than great. I mean, for instance, chorales that don't seem particularly distinctive. 

But thanks to an article by Ken Myers in the most recent issue of Touchstone (the article is not available to non-subscribers), I sought out a recording of this one: "Christ Lay In the Bonds of Death," based on a hymn by Luther. I recognized the title but am not sure I'd ever heard it before. It seems to me a standout. I'm posting it as the one acknowledgement of Holy Week that I plan to make here--I won't be online very much for the next week or so. I would say that I hope you enjoy this but I feel fairly confident in saying that you will enjoy it, if you listen to it and you don't have an aversion to classical music, or classical choral music. 

From Myers's article, here's an interesting bit of musical analysis that even I can grasp:

And the musical device Bach introduces here—a succinct motif that pervades the entire work—is the simplest of melodic gestures: a descending half step. Play an A on a keyboard, followed by a G-sharp. It’s the tightest of intervals possible in Western music, but that short descending sigh becomes, in Bach’s development of Luther’s hymn, an emblem of death.

In the melody of Luther’s hymn, the first two notes are a descending whole step, from A down to G. That’s how generations of Lutherans had heard and sung the opening notes of this hymn. It’s the interval borrowed from the chant on which the melody is based, and then heard in dozens of compositions for choir and for organ based on this tune. Bach had the musical-theological shrewdness to recognize in this slight (but radical) alteration in the melody a musical resource that would enable him to more powerfully convey both Passion and Resurrection.

As the BWV number suggests, this is thought to be an early work, written around 1707, when Bach was in his early twenties. You can read a great deal about it on the Wikipedia page. But you'd be better off listening to it first. The performance is by those baroque workhorses, Gardiner, the English Baroque Soloists, and the Monteverdi Choir.

I don't as a rule especially like watching musicians up close, or for that matter at all, when they're performing, but I did enjoy watching these. 


Dickens: Bleak House

Before I started writing this, I should have gone back to the 52 Authors series and read Stu's entry on Dickens, which is quite good (click here). And I see in the comments this one from me:

Bleak House is one I really want to re-read (in addition to reading for the first time the 60% or so of the novels that I haven't read at all). I read it in my 20s and thought it was great. I have a feeling I'd like it even more now.

Well, that certainly turned out to be true. I enjoyed Bleak House even more than the other Dickens novels I've read or re-read recently: Dombey And Son, Great Expectations, and, perhaps stretching "recently" a bit, David Copperfield. Everything I said about Dickens's work in general in my post about Dombey and Son a few weeks ago applies with even more force to Bleak House. As of now, it's my favorite, and as I very much liked the others that puts it pretty much in the stratosphere of my literary rankings. Now, with a necessarily somewhat smaller number of years remaining before me than I had in my 20s, and with so many books yet unread, I still may revisit this one. That says a lot about the sheer enjoyment I had in it.

Someone, and I think it was T.S. Eliot, said that Shakespeare gives us the breadth of the medieval world, and Dante the depth. A similar thought has occurred to me while reading Bleak House and Dombey And Son: that a division, an assignment of responsibility you might say, could be made between Dickens and Dostoevsky with respect to what I think of as the early maturity of modern man in the 19th century. Dostoevsky is the great prober of the spiritual (and therefore psychological) displacement of that new man. An old friend of mine once observed that most of Dostoevsky's people seem to him to be "just barely sane," and in their extremities of thought and behavior they show us what is only implied and latent in most people. As representatives of their times, they are narrow but deep. The most important of them are intellectuals or semi-intellectuals  or very eccentric in some way connected with the modern crisis. Dostoevsky is almost as much philosopher/theologian as novelist. And he is certainly Dante-esque at least to the extent of presenting an Inferno, with glimpses of Purgatory. 

Dickens, on the other hand, is almost pure novelist, purely a creator of stories and characters, and he gives us an extraordinary range of characters who are ordinary people in the sense that they are mainly interested in going about the everyday business of their not especially reflective lives, whether that business is an aristocrat's concern with maintaining the order and prestige of his little empire or a pauper's desperate attempt to keep off starvation and other miseries. And in doing this Dickens demonstrates the great Christian truth that there are no ordinary people. 

And I don't know of anyone except Shakespeare to whom he can be compared in both those respects, i.e. stories and characters (at least not in English literature--I don't know enough of others to say). Bleak House is in fact a somewhat polemical work, but to the extent that ideas play a role in it they are pretty down-to-earth, not philosophical: an attack on the Chancery courts of the time, and to a lesser degree a sort of exposé of the conditions of the London poor. (Chancery courts were very roughly comparable to what we would call civil law, concerned with contracts of all sorts, including, as in Bleak House, inheritance.) The stakes in a high-stakes lawsuit could be entirely devoured by costs, to the ruin of the suitors and, according to Dickens, the amusement of lawyers and judges. Dickens himself had a pretty unpleasant experience with Chancery, when he attempted to get some money out of people who had printed unauthorized editions of his work. 

Suppose for a moment that those were his primary motives, that Dickens thought, "I really hate Chancery, and I'm really angry at the way lack of decent sanitation forces the poor to live in filth and disease. I think I'll write a novel making these points." It's not a plausible conjecture, because there are too many things in the work that aren't part of any such focus. But just suppose. What he actually produced is no more reducible to a social justice pamphlet than The Brothers Karamazov is reducible to a philosophical one. I don't know that he could have written mere propaganda, at least not in fiction. I think his creative energy would have prevented that; the sense of energy at work is one of the striking characteristics of his work in general, and especially in this one.

The sheer fecundity of invention in plot and character is astonishing. It seems the fecundity of nature, which (to use the conventional attribution of agency) is not content to make a single bird, or even a single type of songbird fit to thrive in the southeastern U.S., but produces millions in the first case, hundreds in the second. So it is with Dickens's characters, who have a distinct "inscape," to use the peculiar term invented by Hopkins which seems to mean an essential self-ness. As Rob G pointed out in a comment recently, Dickens somehow even manages to give every character a distinctive voice. (Surely there are scholarly papers and/or books about that.)

The comparison to Shakespeare extends to the language. Prose, obviously, is more diffuse than poetry, and does not as readily provide the brief quotation that sticks in the memory in part because of its music. But, again, the fecundity is astonishing. Stephen Gill, in his introduction to the Oxford World Classics edition, cites many

passages of amazing complexity and depth, allusive, syntactically agile, multi-faceted, whose exploitation of the poetic resources of the language and the devices of rhetoric offer pleasures as rewarding as any in English fiction.

And, with due allowance for the essential difference, is often as rewarding as poetry.

The plot has distinct elements of the mystery story, including the appearance of a police detective who, though he isn't prominent until quite late in the story, is a very striking character who could easily have ranked with Sherlock Holmes, had Dickens been engaged in that sort of project. This makes me mourn the fact that he didn't live to finish The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which I have always been hesitant to read because of the inevitable disappointment.

One does have to contend with Dickens's sentimental and melodramatic streak. But even as I type that I am thinking that those terms are pretty elastic, and one person's sentimentality may be another's honest emotion. As with Florence in Dombey And Son, the central female character, Esther Summerson, is somewhat too good to be true. But she is more vivid to me than Florence because a very large part of the book is a first-person narrative by her, and so we have more knowledge of her. The narrative structure of the book is unusual in that respect--part omniscient third-person, part first-person and very limited. Moreover, the third-person narrative is entirely in the present tense, while Esther's is a sort of journal, past tense. 

As has often been remarked, by C.S. Lewis among others if my memory is correct, the characteristic virtues and vices of one historical period often balance those of another. One such virtue that is represented over and over again in Bleak House, and which is little seen and honored in our time, is nobility. Bu that I mean an iron determination to behave with honor, courage, and generosity, to say and do what is true and right and just without regard for one's own preference, ego, and interest. As far as I can tell it is rarely seen in our popular culture, and almost never among our public figures. (Try looking for it in either of our current presidential candidates.) The actual behavior of our politicians may be in practice no different from the reality of Dickens's time, but the fact that the sense of nobility was understood and admired then, while having pretty much vanished in our own time, says something bad about our culture, and good about that of Dickens. As has also often been remarked, nobility is at least as likely to be found among the lowly as among the high, something which Dickens is fond of illustrating. Also, though it is perhaps one of the more masculine virtues, as likely to be found in women as in men.


Another Night (to Remember) at the Symphony

It occurred to me after I typed that title that A Night to Remember was a book about the sinking of the Titanic. Book and film, I find on checking.

But I didn't change the title, because it is perfectly accurate. You can be assured that this night with the Mobile Symphony was not a disaster. On the contrary, it gave me, by means of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, one of those rare almost-ecstatic musical experiences. This was of course the E Minor concerto--I didn't know until today that it was actually his second, the first having been written when he was thirteen (!). The violinist was Simone Porter, of whom I had never heard, though that doesn't mean anything much. Here's the bio from her web site

I've heard the concerto on record several times, and may have heard a live performance twenty or more years ago, but I'm not sure. I've always liked it but have never been affected by it as I was this past Saturday night. I can't discuss the performance intelligently in the sort of detail that real music reviewers do; all I can say is that I was swept away from the very beginning, and didn't come back until the final notes had faded. I'm often critical of what seems to me the ovation-inflation in which audiences give a standing ovation to almost every performance, and am hesitant to join in if I don't feel that degree of enthusiasm. But in this case I was one of the first out of my seat.

I used to think those too-easy ovations were a reflection of the gratitude felt by our our local audiences for the infrequent opportunity of hearing live classical music and especially of hearing top-notch soloists. But according to this article in The Guardian it's a widespread phenomenon. (Note: I used the term ovation-inflation above before I read the Guardian article. Really, I did.)

The concerto was the second piece. The first was a somewhat peculiar work by Arvo Pärt, "If Bach Had Been a Beekeeper." I had never heard it before and was not especially taken with it, though I consider myself a fan of the composer. Perhaps if I listened to it again I'd like it better. The conductor gave an elaborate explanation of the title which I didn't entirely catch. And the piece also incorporates an elaborate game or puzzle or exercise based on Bach's name, but that sort of thing is over my head. Here's what the program notes say:

Borrowing an old form of musical tribute, Pärt created a cipher on the word “Bach” by spelling the Baroque composer’s name using the German musical alphabet: B (equals B-flat in the German musical alphabet) - A - C - H (B-natural in the German musical alphabet). He then created a formula based on this cipher that results in the close intervals that he desired for Tintinnabuli. The violas play “Bach” (B-flat - A - C - B-natural), while the cellos simultaneously start on A, the f irst violins on C, and the second violins on B-natural (H), each following with the same melodic intervals as the violas. The effect of these closely stacked, dissonant intervals is a harmonic ringing tone, that buzzes like a bee. To further evoke the buzzing insects, the string players perform tremolo, rapidly moving their bows up and down (literally trembling) against the string. The result is truly the sound of a swarm of bees.

I'm like, whatever. Being literal-minded, I object to that last sentence, but there is certainly some buzzing involved.

The after-intermission work was Schumann's Symphony #3, the "Rhenish." As far as I recall I had only heard this work once, and that was about two weeks ago in preparation for this concert: I put it on while I was doing something else, just to get some idea of what it's like. It didn't reach out and grab me, though I didn't dislike it, either. That was repeated in the concert: listening reasonably closely, I enjoyed it, but it didn't rouse any great enthusiasm in me. A little sunny and major-y for my taste, perhaps.


Wordsworth: The Prelude

I read The Prelude in a Norton Critical Edition collection, Wordsworth's Poetry and Prose. Like all the excellent NCEs, this volume includes a selection of criticism from Wordsworth's own time to ours, or nearly--that depends on what you're willing to encompass in "our time." I was following my usual practice of avoiding talk about the work before reading the work itself. But about halfway through the poem I had to sneak a look at the few pages of Matthew Arnold's criticism included, taken from his preface to a Wordsworth edition. I did this because I had, back in my brief days as a graduate student in English, read a certain amount of Arnold and tended to agree with his critical judgments. And I was not enjoying The Prelude, nor admiring it, as much as I expected to, and wondered whether Arnold had anything to say about it, and, if he did, whether I was going to find myself in uneasy disagreement with him, or supported and pleased by his agreement. 

It proved to be the latter, at least to this extent: 

The Excursion and the Prelude, his poems of greatest bulk, are by no means Wordsworth's best work.

I will lay out my prejudices, negative and positive. First, as far as I can recall I hadn't read any Wordsworth since I was an undergraduate more than fifty years ago. At the time, the early Romantics were not, in general, my favorites, with the major exception of Keats. I liked Wordsworth's short lyrics, but the famous and more lengthy "Tintern Abbey" and "Intimations of Immortality" were pretty far short of knockouts. It seemed then that Wordsworth at length was not likely to be as good as Wordsworth in brief. I suppose there were some selections from The Prelude in my sophomore English textbook, and I suppose I probably read them, but I don't remember them at all.

On the other hand, I like the premise of The Prelude: a sort of autobiography in verse. In general (again) the decline of the long poem has been part of the general decline of poetry over the past century or two. By "decline" there I mean specifically the way the word "poetry" has come to mean primarily "lyric poetry"--works of from a few lines to a few pages, and a fairly brief expression of, usually, some personal feeling or insight. The verse drama and the narrative poem of scope comparable to that of the novel are no longer an important part of literary culture, though there are the occasional, and occasionally successful, instances. The Prelude interested me as an attempt to bring something like the personal sensibility of the lyric into a work of ten thousand or so lines (thirteen "books" running between 500 and 1000 lines each). 

If you didn't major in English in college you may not recall (from your required English class(es)) that around 1800 Wordsworth and his friend Coleridge sought to revolutionize English poetry in reaction to what they viewed as the excessive artificiality of most poetry of the time--Pope, for instance. They criticized the elaborate diction and at least implicitly the critical, somewhat detached, somewhat rationalistic approach of that poetry. (See Johnson's "The Vanity of Human Wishes" for a good not-too-long example.) In a sort of manifesto, the polemical preface to their joint publication Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth stated their aim

...to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible, in a selection of language really used by men....

The "common life" they had in mind was often the truly common, the life of farmers and villagers, not aristocrats, far from wealth, fashion, and London. This produced lyrics like Wordsworth's "Lucy" poems (the first line of this one is its title):

She dwelt among the untrodden ways
Beside the springs of Dove,
A maid whom there were none to praise
And very few to love.

So much, then, for the state of play. To go straight to the outcome and summarize my reaction: I like the parts of The Prelude where Wordsworth sticks most closely to the ideals expressed in that preface. But there are long stretches where he departs from them, and those I often found dull, or worse.

Several months have passed since I finished reading the poem last fall. In preparation for writing this, I picked it up again and browsed. The opening lines are excellent. The verse is a clear stream, the appeal to the senses and experience direct and persuasive: Wordsworth is enjoying his return to the countryside after a sojourn in London, which he does not love, and the freedom he is about to enjoy for the pursuit of his poetic vocation. But pretty quickly a troublesome sign appears: a lengthy praise of his own creative ambition, which he elevates to a sacred calling:

...to the open fields I told
A prophecy: poetic numbers came
Spontaneously, and clothed in priestly robes
My spirit, thus singled out, as it might seem
For holy services....

I have always disliked, and now detest, the tendency, which began or at least gained prominence with the Romantics, to cast the artist, or rather The Artist, as a quasi-religious figure, set apart from ordinary people by his genius. Eric Gill is generally and justly condemned these days for his sexual abuse of his daughters. That doesn't mean that everything he said was wrong, though, and he was never more right than when he said "The artist is not a special kind of man, but every man is a special kind of artist."

And The Prelude is full of that sort of thing, and not as general observation but as part of Wordsworth's account of himself,  contemplating the progress of his efforts not just to write but to fulfill a rather grandiose mission which is all bound up with his philosophy. I don't think I can describe the latter, and anyway I don't want to bother. He and Coleridge had lofty and somewhat abstract ideas about mind and imagination that I always found somewhat vaporous, and in conflict with their preference for concrete language and experience in poetry. His diction in those parts also tends, perhaps inevitably, toward the vague and the pompous. The long section, spanning two books, in which he describes his experiences in France at the beginning of the Revolution might have been a vivid story, but lapses often into abstraction and detachment: "I thought this, and I thought that," not necessarily memorably expressed. 

What I find worthy of being called great in The Prelude is the recounting of experiences which are distinctly of the physical world: not mental, not ideas. The relation of those experiences is more potent than his talk about them. I'm regretting now that I didn't make notes, or mark passages in the book, because I can't readily put my finger now on one particularly vivid story of his youthful wandering in the countryside where he grew up: this one involves rowing at night, and feeling something uncanny in the way the crags which, because he is rowing away from them and thus facing toward them, seem to grow taller as his distance reveals more of them. 

When I finished reading The Prelude I turned to some of the sonnets and other shorter poems that I remembered liking long ago. They are even better than I remembered, and are the solid foundation of his reputation. I doubt that I'll ever read the entirety of The Prelude again, but I'll certainly go back to those. There are many that would be new to me, and almost certainly some gems among them.


IDAGIO, and A Sweet Little Bach Piece

No pun on the word "sweet" intended, though the piece is classifiable as a suite, though not called such. 

I'm a little embarrassed to say that I've subscribed to yet another online streaming service, this one for classical music only. I already had Pandora Plus, the paid version of Pandora, which, unlike the free Pandora service, is like Spotify and all the rest, allowing you to pick what you want to hear out of an enormous range of music. But also like those others, it doesn't handle classical music very well. Cataloging classical recordings like pop songs makes finding what you want anywhere from cumbersome to really pretty frustrating. And I find it mildly annoying to see a classical composition or section of a composition--any one track from a recording--referred to as a "song," as in this Pandora listing:

Beethoven: Symphony 9 ("Choral")
Album by Fritz Reiner
4 songs - 1994

This new service (new to me anyway) is called IDAGIO (they seem to like to capitalize it that way), and it's really good. It approaches perfection as a classical music application. Just to state the most obvious advantage, recordings are organized by composer, performer, instruments, and genre. There is no separate listing of recordings by name, but the general search tool will usually find specific recordings if that's what I'm after. 

There is a standalone Windows app, but the web app seems to be pretty much identical. And there's an iPhone app. They do have a free service, which is very much worth checking out if you're at all interested. I assume it intersperses ads with the music. I hope it doesn't interrupt the music with ads, which would be intolerable. That actually happened to me the other day when I was listening to something on  YouTube, and I think I actually yelled in shock, because of course the advertisement was significantly louder than the classical piece I was trying to hear. The yell may have been a curse. (I was listening to YouTube, through the TV, because my stereo is broken!! This is pretty awful but I'm coping.)

I started this post with the intention only of discussing a Bach piece which I had just heard for the first time. But I thought I ought to mention IDAGIO because that was where I discovered the piece. Prominently displayed among the New Releases is this one from ECM New Series:

Schiff-Clavichord

I will generally listen to anything on ECM at least once, and this was intriguing. 

An entire album of Bach keyboard pieces played on the clavichord seemed at first an odd thing, as it's a fairly limited instrument. But, well, why not? Historically it is, I assume, more correct than Bach on the piano. And Bach himself played it, though we (or at least I) think of his keyboard music (apart from organ works) as being composed for the harpsichord. All I can tell  you about the difference is that the clavichord mechanism strikes the strings, while the harpsichord plucks them, and that the clavichord is quieter and more delicate. The sound is fairly similar: if I'd heard this album without knowing what it was, and without listening  very closely, I would have assumed I was hearing a harpsichord. 

The first piece on the album is the suite I mentioned, "Capriccio on the departure of a beloved brother" in B flat major, BWV 992. I thought on first hearing that it's a delightful, fairly simple, pretty piece, and that if I hadn't know it's Bach he would not have been my first guess. Rameau or Couperin, maybe. "Simple" is not usually a word brought to mind by Bach's music. This is the earliest known piece by him, written when he was nineteen, on the occasion of his brother Johann Jacob's departure to join the army, and its six sections have a program meant to portray the departure. You can read all about it here. Wikipedia says that the story attached to the piece is "questionable," but if Bach himself wrote the explanations of the movements, there must be something to the story. 

Andras Schiff's clavichord recording is not on  YouTube, but this one on piano is. 


I Love (Physical) Books

I was going to mention this in the post about Dombey and Son, but it was already rather long: my pleasure in reading the novel was enhanced by the nature of the physical object which contains it. A few years ago I came into possession of several Dickens volumes which, along with a lot of other books, would otherwise have gone to Goodwill (it's a longish story, not important to tell). I didn't look at them very closely at the time, and there wasn't space for them on our shelves, so they went into a closet and didn't come out again until the fall of 2022, when we moved to a new house. Before the move we culled our book collection fairly severely, getting rid of everything that we had read and didn't expect to read again, or figured we would never read. 

I considered getting rid of these, but on finally taking a good look at them realized they were treasures. They are part of a complete Dickens published by Scribner's ("Charles Scribner's Sons") in 1911. And I very much wish I had the whole set. If you want one, Abebooks currently has it available for $500. Which is really a pretty reasonable price, around $14 per volume. When I put it that way, it's actually sort of tempting....

Here are the nine volumes in their new home. The white spots seem to be paint, the work of some sloppy painter of who knows how long ago. It's lamentable that I only have volume one of The Old Curiosity Shop

DickensVolumes

Here are a couple of sample pages from Dombey and Son. The illustrations are the original ones by "Phiz," Hablot Knight Browne, and they're delightful. 

DickensPages

Reading these is a physical pleasure. Splitting the novels into two volumes of four or five hundred pages makes for very comfortable handling and reading, in a typeface and size that are easy on the eyes (an increasing consideration for me), and margins that don't make the pages seem crowded. And because they were printed with real movable type you can actually feel the impressions on the paper: a slight but genuine pleasure. 

I'm not a bibliophile, not any sort of collector. A book doesn't have to have any particular charm or excellence for me to like it. It just needs to be a physical book. Too many of mine are really pretty poor physical specimens, bought used or picked up from library discard shelves. Sometimes these are pretty dilapidated, having permanent marks of their library career, sometimes in the form of those rather ugly library bindings, or defaced by the underlining or highlighting of a student (though more than a few instances of the latter will prevent me from getting the book in the first place). But when I read anything longer than, say, a blog post, I want a book, a book made of paper. 

I know a lot of people find reading on a Kindle or similar device perfectly acceptable, with various convenience factors actually making the electronic device more appealing than a book. But I think I can safely say that I never will do that. I've tried it, and I just don't much like it. I could go into more detail about that, but "I don't like it" is sufficient. It's not just my age, as I know several people of similar age, including my wife, who have made the transition. I have a Kindle Fire but only use it to read journalism and similar stuff online. I once tried reading one of those public domain electronic versions of The Pickwick Papers on the Kindle and abandoned it after fifty pages or so. I look forward to reading the Pickwick you can see in the photo above. 

I do like one thing about a book in electronic form: the ability to search for words and phrases. I have electronic copies, obtained from Project Gutenberg, of both Dombey and Son and Bleak House on my computer, and have used them as, for instance, I did yesterday, to refresh my memory about who Gridley is in Bleak House. But I wouldn't sit and read the novels that way, unless I had no other choice. Which may be the situation someday, but not in my lifetime. 


Dickens: Dombey And Son

On re-reading my post about Great Expectations, I note that I more or less assumed that the reader knows the story, which means that there was a certain level of spoilage in the post. Although it doesn't go into any detail, it does reveal the final condition of the two main characters. I am not going to do that here, so I will be a little vague.

The Dombey with whom this story is concerned is Son. The first Dombey is disposed of in a few sentences, and Son Dombey is already in middle age, with a wife and a daughter and a son who is in the process of being born when the story opens. Dombey and Son is one of the great houses in London's business world; there's even a suggestion that it may be the greatest. Dombey the Second is immensely proud of this, and it is his greatest wish that it continue with future Dombeys rotating through the firm's name. These would of course have to be male; apart from the generally very separate roles of the sexes at the time (or for that matter most times and places), they would, obviously, have to be male in order for the name to remain the same. As there is no question of a daughter succeeding to that headship, Dombey has no interest in his daughter, Florence, who is about six years old when the story opens. "No interest" is putting it mildly, as being the highest point to which his fatherly heart rises. Active contempt is increasingly the case.

And those are the mainsprings of the story, which runs to roughly a thousand pages in the edition I have. As the son, Paul, is being born, the wife, Fanny, is dying, in spite of the motivational speech--"You must make an effort"--given to her by her sister-in-law. Or perhaps it was the motivational speech that delivered the last blow to her will to live, already (so it is suggested) half-crushed by living among Dombeys. Certainly the death occurs in immediate succession to the speech. 

Little Paul is an odd and sickly child. He loves and is loved by Florence. Florence lives partly for him and partly in perpetual desperate hope of being loved by her father, who begins implacably indifferent to her and grows hostile as Paul fails to develop as his father assumes that he will, in fact can hardly imagine that he will not. Mr. Dombey has the royal pride of a pharoah or the Sun King. 

This pride, of course, is not going to lead him to a happy place. It blinds him not only to the love of a daughter whom everyone else can see is an angel, but to the presence within his circle of an Iago, a secret flattering enemy who works toward his destruction. 

If you knew anything about Dickens at all you would suppose, even without looking at the book, that this is going to be a long and complex and often very sad story. And it is, taking place over a period of roughly fifteen years and involving a great many characters. The Wikipedia page for the novel lists a round 50 of them (49 if you don't count Diogenes the dog). Many of these of course have fairly small roles, but every one is rendered with Dickens's astonishing ability to create a portrait with only a few strokes. And the names--did he really just keep an eye out for useful ones, or did he invent some of them? Peps, Pilkins, Pilcher, Pipchin, Toodle, Toots, Tox, Nipper, Gills, Cuttle, Blitherstone, Skettles....

I'm sorry to say, though, that Florence herself is a partial exception to this success, though she is, more than Dombey himself, the center of the story. I mentioned that she seems an angel, and that's the problem. She is so pure, so sweet, so self-effacing, so entirely without fault or resentment, as to seem not quite real, not quite a really living person in the way that other characters are. I don't think this is so much a failure in portraiture, a failure in execution, as a result of a choice made at a level above that, the choice of the kind of person Dickens has imagined. 

The sentimentality of that portrait is not in general an anomaly in the novel. One expects a fair amount of that from Dickens, along with melodrama and implausible coincidences that would be ridiculous in other hands. I accept them as conventions of the times, and they don't diminish--well, not very much--the irresistible power of the language and the narrative. I found myself at times thinking of Shakespeare's astonishing fluency. A descriptive imaginative power far beyond the reach of most writers hardly ever stops and is brought to bear on both great and small moments. In the first paragraph, Dombey is sitting in a room with newborn Son, who

..lay tucked up warm in a little basket bedstead, carefully disposed on a low settee immediately in front of the fire and close to it, as if his constitution were analogous to that of a muffin, and it was essential to toast him brown while he was very new.

This doom-laden figure constitutes the second paragraph: 

On the brow of Dombey, Time and his brother Care had set some marks, as on a tree that was to come down in good time—remorseless twins they are for striding through their human forests, notching as they go—while the countenance of Son was crossed with a thousand little creases, which the same deceitful Time would take delight in smoothing out and wearing away with the flat part of his scythe, as a preparation of the surface for his deeper operations.

And in the third:

Son, with his little fists curled up and clenched, seemed, in his feeble way, to be squaring at existence for having come upon him so unexpectedly.

No sentimentality or far-fetched coincidence can diminish the appeal of such writing.

The sentimentality is often transcended. I'm thinking particularly of the death of one character--no, make that two: the death of Fanny Dombey is handled briefly and with great poignancy. The other is protracted, and has the character drifting slowly out of this life and into another in a way that borders on the mystical. If, or more likely when, this novel fades in my memory into a blur from which only certain scenes stand out clearly, this will be one of those scenes.

Dickens's well-known concern with the wretched plight of the 19th-century urban poor is very present, often with the most furious sarcasm directed at the hypocrisy and indifference of the upper classes. The cast of characters range from those at the bottom who are barely surviving, and that only in constant physical discomfort or worse, to those near the top who are unable to conceive that it is not part of the fabric of nature that those who are below them should serve and honor them. The anger is plain and potent. That much would be, presumably is, applauded by our contemporaries who are advocates for "social justice." But it's strikingly different in that it has no visible ideological component at all. There is nothing abstract about it. Whatever ideas Dickens may have had about changing the situation are not presented. The persons involved are persons with conscience and the ability to act--what we call nowadays "agency." The basic structures of society may seem like the laws of the universe to them, but there is nothing in the way of their behaving well within those boundaries. Some do, and some don't, and it is a clear illustration of Solzhenitsyn's famous statement that the line between good and evil is within every heart. 

I wondered, as I've wondered before without doing anything to turn wondering into knowledge, what Dickens's religious beliefs were. The established church certainly comes off pretty badly, and self-righteous religiosity, though not a prominent element, gets a few knocks here and there. But there is more than one passage where a deep regard for some bedrock of the faith is evidenced:

Harriet complied and read—read the eternal book for all the weary, and the heavy-laden; for all the wretched, fallen, and neglected of this earth—read the blessed history, in which the blind lame palsied beggar, the criminal, the woman stained with shame, the shunned of all our dainty clay, has each a portion, that no human pride, indifference, or sophistry, through all the ages that this world shall last, can take away, or by the thousandth atom of a grain reduce—read the ministry of Him who, through the round of human life, and all its hopes and griefs, from birth to death, from infancy to age, had sweet compassion for, and interest in, its every scene and stage, its every suffering and sorrow.

Dickens himself seems to have felt that compassion and interest. 


A New Beth Gibbons Song

I generally avoid listening to pop music during Lent, and will hold off until after Easter posting about a couple of pop albums that I've been listening to recently. But I'll mention this, which will be of interest to any fan of Portishead. Possibly that includes, apart from me, only one reader of this blog, but anyway, if you are one, you know that Beth Gibbons is the singer for that singular band, and will be interested in her solo album, Lives Outgrown. It's not due out until May, but one track, "Floating On a Moment," has just been released. Most of the video is a swirling sort of liquid kaleidoscope effect which started to give me a headache after fifteen or twenty seconds. But I looked away and enjoyed the song. 

Here's the Pitchfork article about the new album. This struck me:

The songs address anxieties about ageing, according to a press release. “I realized what life was like with no hope,” [Gibbons] said. “And that was a sadness I’d never felt."

"No hope" presumably means "no earthly hope," and may or may not mean "no hope of any kind ever." Apart from that theological question, it's interesting that she'd never felt that way before. She's 59  years old. I'd say that means she's had a fairly fortunate life. Or that she has a generally positive temperament. Which I wouldn't have supposed from her singing. 

Though this is the first album released under her name alone, the album Out of Season, on which she shared credit with "Rustin Man," the pseudonym of Paul Webb, a former member of Talk Talk, seems to be at least half her work. I have that one and liked it on initial acquaintance but have not really given it a proper listen. Maybe I'll do that between Easter and May. 

She also sang the soprano (?) part in a recording of Henryk Górecki's Symphony #3, the famous "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs," which I have never heard (the recording, I mean--like at least a million other people, I have the CD which made the symphony famous thirty years or so ago). I thought it seemed like a gimmick, but this review, also in Pitchfork, makes it sound interesting:

Symphony No. 3 has a nightmarish undertone that tends to get smoothed out in dulcet recordings—one of the texts is meant to be the sound of a woman calling out for her murdered child—and Gibbons brings that squirming danger right to the surface.

Part of the tension comes from hearing her untrained voice scale these rocky heights. Her vibrato, tight and trilling and barely controlled, sounds an awful lot like someone fighting off a panic attack.


A New Poetry Thing: Poems Ancient and Modern

Why "thing"? I couldn't decide on the right word. Calling it a "journal" or "publication" doesn't seem quite accurate, though the former would do. Neither does calling it a "site," as it's one of a great many...things...at Substack.com. It is in fact a Substack entity. Somehow referring to a specific Substack, as simply that: "a Substack," as in Rod Dreher's Substack, bothers me. It's a bit like hearing people say "We ate McDonald's last night."

All right, clearly this is just one of my little quirks. Setting that quirk aside, with an effort, I am referring to a Substack written by Sally Thomas and Joseph Bottum, and it's called Poems Ancient and Modern. (I think that should be italicized, like the name of a magazine.) And it's about poetry. The two authors are themselves poets and impressively knowledgeable and perceptive about poetry. You may recognize Bottum's name as a conservative politics-and-culture writer. I have not read any of his poetry. Sally Thomas is the author of Motherland, a book of poems which came out a couple of years ago and which I love; you can read my remarks about it here.

Every weekday they publish a poem, most old enough to be in the public domain, with a sharp-eyed and informative preface. So far--and "so far" is only two weeks--the range is very great, from the obscure to the famous, from the comic to the serious. Within those ten days we've had little-known poems by little-known poets, well-known poems by well-known poets, and little-known poems by well-known poets. I don't as yet see a well-known poem by a little-known poet but I'm sure that will come. 

I can pretty well guarantee that the commentaries will show you something you might not otherwise have considered about the poems, and very likely add to your general knowledge in some way. If you have much interest in poetry, you should probably do yourself a favor and subscribe. My understanding is that a free subscription allows you to read the posts, while a paid one allows you to join the comments as well. Not to mention supporting something very worthwhile. 

I do have one reservation: a post every weekday is a little much for me. Each one demands a significant degree of attention and of course time, at least more than one would likely give to some internet item of equal length, and with many other things in my life to which I want or must give time and attention, I don't necessarily want to give that much every day to a poem of someone else's choosing, however worthwhile it may be. I am, for instance, just now, on Saturday afternoon catching up with the past week.

Here's the link again: Poems Ancient and Modern

*

In case you've ever wondered, I have considered switching to Substack. It's a very nice platform, and might at least potentially attract more readers (though perhaps lose some as well). But if nothing else the lack (as far as I can tell) of a means to import the twenty years of this blog into Substack puts an end to the idea. The only thing that would make me switch to another platform now would be Typepad shutting down, which unfortunately doesn't seem to be a very far-fetched possibility, as it is much less popular than, for instance, WordPress, and no longer accepts new accounts. 

I just did a search for "are blogs obsolete" and got a lot of hits for stories which seemed to answer "no" quite insistently. Well, good, but who cares anyway? I'm pretty obsolete myself. 


Nice to See You Again, Mr. Tchaikovsky

I think perhaps it was your representative at the piano who gave me a bad impression of your first piano concerto. And perhaps it was only the visual distraction of his mannerisms and his gold lamé jacket that got the performance off on a bad footing with me, more or less ruining the first movement, which of course constitutes more than half of the work, from which I only partly recovered before the end of the performance. But I am happy to say that on further acquaintance with the work I have completely recovered.

*

I thought I would wait a while after my less-than-wonderful experience with Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto two weekends ago (see this post) to listen to a recording of it. By "a while" I had in mind, very vaguely, a month or two. But curiosity* got the better of me. Within a week I had listened to no fewer than three recordings of the concerto.

(New paragraph, for emphasis) I am now announcing officially that I love this concerto. I'll go even further: I very much love it.

The first recording I listened to was Van Cliburn's of 1958. Although I was only ten years old when Cliburn won the International Tchaikovsky Competition in that year, I was vaguely aware of the event. It had gotten massive publicity because of the Cold War implications of this  young pianist from Texas beating the Russians at their own game, on their own turf. I heard Cliburn's name, at least, and knew that he played the piano, which was not the sort of information that would typically be found in the head of a country boy in Alabama. Now that I think about it, it occurs to me that I may have heard it from one of my aunts, who was herself a pianist and a music lover. 

The conductor on this recording is Kiril Kondrashin, and there's something bit odd about the packaging: the orchestra is not named. It's not on the cover, which is a little unusual.

CliburnTchaikovskyBut it's not on the back, either. And unless I managed to miss it, it isn't mentioned in the text, which I doubt  you can read. (These are not photos of my copy, but they seem identical. The photos were poached from Discogs.)

CliburnTchaikovskyBackCover

According to Wikipedia, it's the RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra. So I speculate that RCA omitted the name because they were not confident that their own orchestra was so highly regarded as to constitute a selling point. 

Anyway: this recording sufficed to get me over my bad experience. I was curious about others, and discovered that I own two more. One is Yevgeny Sudbin with the São Paulo Symphony. Fifteen years or so ago a friend acquainted me with Sudbin's Scarlatti recordings, which I like very much, and I suppose that must be why I bought the Tchaikovsky recording on MP3. But I don't think I had ever gotten around to listening to it. I like it, and I doubt that there's an argument about Sudbin's performance being technically first-rate, but I kept having the feeling that the orchestra didn't quite match the vitality of the piano.  

Then on to the third: Sviatoslav Richter and the Czech Philharmonic conducted by Karel Ančerl. It's a 1960 recording on the Czech Supraphon label, released in this country on the Parliament label. Small print on the jacket says it's 'A Parliament "Cultural Exchange" Presentation.' Which I suppose was another Cold War thing, Czechoslovakia being a Soviet thing, and Supraphon a state-run thing. 

RichterTchaikovsky

I found this one really exciting, and moving, and everything else that one could ask for. Nor is the 1960 sonic quality an obstacle; good recordings of that period may not match the clarity and dynamic range of what has come since, but are still excellent (and sometimes even preferable, but that's another topic). And it made me really appreciate the concerto, which, as I said, I now love.

So the question arises: is this performance really superior, or was it only that, as the third hearing (fourth if you count the concert) it benefited from my increased familiarity with the work? I really don't know, but I can say one thing: it seemed to me that the piano and the orchestra were more evenly matched than in the others. The orchestra seemed a more present and vital part of the performance. 

Also, I suspect now that part of what put me off in the concert performance was that the piano seemed in almost violent competition with the orchestra. I think this was the doing of the soloist, Maxim Lando, who really seemed to be crashing and banging excessively. But perhaps it was relative weakness in the orchestra, which, after all, is not composed of full-time professionals. I'm not a skilled-enough listener to judge definitively, but I do trust my ears enough to say that in the opening bars the beautiful theme played by the orchestra, which should be accompanied, not overpowered, by those powerful chords in the piano, was very much in the background. The overall effect was of bombast instead of the deep passion that I hear in these recordings, especially the Richter/Ančerl one.

 

* Why do we not spell "curiosity" as "curiousity"? I usually type it that way, then notice the red underlining indicating that the software does not approve. What was wrong with adding the "ity" suffix to the word "curious"? 


Ann Cleeves: Raven Black

My wife and I listened to an audio version of this book on an overnight trip a couple of weeks ago. I picked it from one of several options she gave me (ordinarily she's the one who locates the book and downloads it to her phone) because it is the first of eight novels in a series set in the Shetland Islands, and we've been watching the TV series Shetland, which is based on those books, since it began about then years ago. (I note in passing that this series is only one of several by Ann Cleeves, which come up to a total of several dozen novels, of which the ones I've read are lengthy and complex. I don't understand that level of inventiveness. Granted, Cleeves was born in 1954 and has been at this for a long time. But still.)

We both like the series a great deal, and I recommend it if for no other reason than the gorgeous cinematography of Shetland. So I was curious about the novels. This one is good, an excellent detective story with a complex plot and interesting characters and setting. However, though I am not a connoisseur of detective fiction, and so am subject to correction, I think this one cheats a bit according to what I take to be the traditional rules of the genre. And I can't say any more than that without committing spoilage. 

I was going to remark that Cleeves is not an especially poetic stylist; that is, I didn't find her prose, as a listening experience, noticeably enjoyable for itself. But then I thought that might be unfair: one doesn't, or at least I don't, have the opportunity to savor the language of an audio book, and this is especially true if one is driving a car, as I was for most of this. In that situation I can only try to follow the narrative.

Perhaps if I read her on the page I would have a different view. I tested that conjecture by going to Amazon and reading a few excerpts; it is correct. Here is the opening, poached from Amazon's sample: 

Twenty past one in the morning on New Year’s Day. Magnus knew the time because of the fat clock, his mother’s clock, which squatted on the shelf over the fire. In the corner the raven in the wicker cage muttered and croaked in its sleep. Magnus waited. The room was prepared for visitors, the fire banked with peat and on the table a bottle of whisky and the ginger cake he’d bought in Safeway’s the last time he was in Lerwick. He could feel himself dozing but he didn’t want to go to bed in case someone should call at the house. If there was a light at the window someone might come, full of laughter and drams and stories. For eight years nobody had visited to wish him happy new year, but still he waited just in case.

Outside it was completely silent. There was no sound of wind. In Shetland, when there was no wind it was shocking. People strained their ears and wondered what was missing. Earlier in the day there had been a dusting of snow, then with dusk this was covered by a sheen of frost, every crystal flashing and hard as diamond in the last of the light, and even when it got dark, in the beam from the lighthouse. The cold was another reason for Magnus staying where he was. In the bedroom the ice would be thick on the inside of the window and the sheets would feel chill and damp.

He must have slept. If he’d been awake he’d have heard them coming because there was nothing quiet in their approach. They weren’t creeping up on him. He’d have heard their laughter and the stumbling, seen the wild swaying of the torch beam through the uncurtained window. He was woken by the banging on the door. He came to with a start, knowing he’d been in the middle of a nightmare, but not sure of the details.

‘Come in,’ he shouted. ‘Come in, come in.’ He struggled to his feet, stiff and aching. They must already be in the storm porch. He heard the hiss of their whispers.

The door was pushed open, letting in a blast of freezing air and two young girls, who were as gaudy and brightly coloured as exotic birds. He saw they were drunk.

Magnus is a recluse, not exactly mentally retarded but not very bright, and quite eccentric. He is one of the people who will be suspected of murdering one of the girls. And I'll leave the plot at that. It is, as I mentioned, pretty complex, and involves in a great deal of the history of the main characters. I'll probably read the next one, at least, to watch their further development. 

Raven Black

Of course I already had, from the series, some sense of their personalities and background. Naturally I was constantly comparing the book to the series--favorably for the most part. And a few days later we (re)watched the Shetland episodes which are based on this book. Naturally there are major differences, and in general I thought they were justifiable, though I wondered if some of them were necessary or smart. I've often thought it would be interesting to sit in on the deliberations of directors and writers developing a dramatization of a novel. It must be a pretty difficult thing. The necessity of putting everything into action and dialogue would force some changes, obviously. And others might be dictated by practical necessity.

One striking change, though not an important one, is that the main detective, Jimmy Perez, is played by an actor who is the visual opposite of the book's Perez. He is not, as the name might suggest, an imported Spaniard, but a native Shetlander whose ancestry goes back generations. The name is attributed by family lore to a sailor of the Spanish Armada who was shipwrecked on one of the Shetland islands, married a native, and never went home. And in the book his complexion and hair are dark. But Perez in the series is played by a very blond and fair-skinned actor, Douglas Henshall. Plausibility is addressed by a remark that the current Perez must have inherited his appearance from the maternal line of that first marriage.

I assume that change was a simple result of the choice among available actors. Another, which is more substantial and which I would have liked to see in the series, is the switch of the series from winter to summer, which significantly changes the atmosphere (no pun intended)--consider the opening quoted above, which is very much determined by the season and even by the particular night. It also eliminates a fairly large piece of furniture from the story: a sort of Viking Mardi Gras festival, Up Helly Aa, pronounced something like UP-ayly-AH, accents on the first and last syllables. (If you don't already know, look at a map and you'll see why Shetland has a Viking connection.) Much of the story involves this festival, and a general winteriness, and I speculate that the change was due to practical constraints of filming.

There was something a bit disappointing in this audiobook. The narrator seems to be English, and apart from dialogue reads in an English accent. I think all the actors in the TV series are actual Scots, and I missed that in the reading. Even in the dialogue, I think the narrator is sometimes a little off.  He pronounces the name of the city of Lerwick, for instance, exactly as it's spelled: Ler-wick, "Ler" rhyming with "there." Whereas in the series it's something like "Lerrick," rhyming with "derrick." Or even "Lerrig." Or  something closer to "Layrig." I have learned, beginning some years ago when I listened to an audiobook of one of M.C. Beaton's Hamish Macbeth mysteries, read by a woman who was either Scottish or very skilled at sounding that way, that I very much like the Scottish accent, especially in a woman. And I would have preferred the woman who did the M.C. Beaton book (possibly Davina Porter, but I'm not sure, as I'm not even sure what the title of the book was), or someone like her. (Beaton's career, by the way, makes Cleeves look like a slacker.)

And there's one thing entirely missing from the book that I like very much about the series:  Detective Sergeant Alison McIntosh, known as "Tosh," played by Alison O'Donnell. She is pretty much my favorite character in the series, because I am delighted every time she speaks. And also by a facial expression she uses from time to time, a sort of grimace in which one side of her mouth turns up and the other down; my wife suggested that she might have been cast specifically to make that face. Perhaps she appears in the later books. You can catch a few glimpses of her in this trailer for the current season, which does not include Perez, because of the departure of Douglas Henshall. I learned from something I came across while looking for a suitable clip that there was a Team Tosh composed of viewers who wanted Tosh to be promoted to Perez's position. Had I known about it, I would have signed up.


Some Other Night, Perhaps, Mr. Tchaikovsky

I went to hear the Mobile Symphony last night, and had a very mixed reaction to what I heard. As follows:

Duke Ellington: Suite From The River

I had never heard this piece, a suite from a ballet, before, but I suppose I can say I had some expectations, and that it met them, but that that was not altogether a good thing. My expectations were based on a generally not all that favorable view of jazz-classical mixtures: they tend to suffer from neither-fish-nor-fowl syndrome. The jazzy elements seem stiff, and the classical-y elements limited, and that was more or less my reaction here. I don't want to sound too negative, as it was very enjoyable. But relatively lightweight.

Stravinsky: Suite from The Firebird

The pairing (as they say of food and drink) of this with the Ellington was unfortunate. No doubt it seemed a good idea, but Ellington did not come off well: it was the difference between very enjoyable and magical.

The first Stravinsky I ever heard was The Rite of Spring, most likely when I was a college sophomore taking Dr. Frederick Hyde's music history course at the University of Alabama, ca. 1968. I mention that because Dr. Hyde was a wonderful teacher who deserves to be remembered, and that course was a wonderful experience, which I certainly remember. When I think of him I remember him coming into the classroom struggling with a stack of several dozen LPs, from which he would choose examples to illustrate his lectures. In my perhaps exaggerated memory, there were so many records in the stack that the top ones were always tending to slide off onto the floor. 

I loved The Rite, instantly, and was eager to hear more Stravinsky. The obvious next step was The Firebird. But on one hearing I found it considerably less interesting, almost bland in comparison. And though I've listened to The Rite occasionally over the years, I didn't seek out The Firebird

Well, that's changed now. As of last night, I absolutely love The Firebird. I learned this morning that there are several suites drawn from the score, and this is the 1919 one, apparently the most frequently performed. It is sharp, clear, clean, making use of unusual instrumental techniques--very "modern" in that respect--and yet lyrical, and yet exciting. And I think the Mobile Symphony, whose players are, I assume, not full-time, did it justice. As a recording their performance would no doubt be inferior to the work of big-time orchestras, but last night it had the great advantage of being heard live. And whatever else  might be said about this orchestra, it does not lack energy, which surely has everything to do with its energetic conductor, Scott Speck. I can't recall ever before having the impulse to jump up and yell "Bravo!" at a performance, but I did last night--have the impulse, I mean. I wasn't the only one; there was in fact a standing ovation, which I think is not usual for the second work on the program, especially one without a star soloist. (I didn't actually do it because I didn't want to dump the big coat, hat, and program book in my lap onto the floor.) 

Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto #1

Because I'm so thoroughly in touch with pop culture, I know that "It's not you, it's me," spoken by one member of a romantic relationship to the other as part of the announcement that he/she is breaking up with her/him, is a sort of standing joke. I am resorting to it now in relation to this concerto. I did not enjoy it, but it's not the work, it's me--probably. I can't say why I didn't enjoy it--well, I can say, and I will, but I don't really understand the reaction. I like Tchaikovsky. I like big romantic works with heart-tugging melodies. Granted, the piano concerto is not my favorite genre--I don't think there is one that I would place among my very favorite works--but that doesn't mean I can't enjoy it.

I think it was partly, as with the Ellington, an unfortunate pairing. It was as if I'd had a drink of some of the best whiskey in the world, and, still savoring the aftertaste, tried to eat (drink?) one of those gooey fast-food pseudo-milkshakes. Wrong moment. I was not consciously prejudiced, but something in me rebelled with those first thick, crashing piano chords, accompanied by a famous melody (which was used in a popular song, "Tonight We Love," and I can't keep those words out of my head when I hear the melody).

Part of the problem was the pianist, Maxim Lando, and that began before he ever touched the keys. He came out wearing a shiny gold jacket of the Elvis style, though only waist length. And when he did begin to play, his physical mannerisms were distracting to the point of annoyance: he crouched low over the keyboard in the Glenn Gould style. And those chords were so huge, so crashing, so much more like heavy metal (which I like in its proper place) than I was ready to hear, that I couldn't help blaming the pianist for what is probably the composer's doing. 

And so it went for the entire first movement. The pianist, or the composer, couldn't seem to do anything right for my ears. Things got somewhat better in the second and third movements, and I figured out that I needed to keep my eyes closed to avoid being distracted by the gold lamé (if that's the right word) and the mannerisms. Still, I never really got on board. 

Almost certainly it's not Tchaikovsky or Lando. I'm pretty sure it's me, my frame of mind at the moment. Sometime soon I'll find a recording of the concerto to listen to (I'm not even sure whether I own one) and see if we get along better. Or then again maybe that would be a mistake. Maybe better to wait a while.

In the program notes, Scott Speck has a perfectly reasonable explanation for his choice of these three works.

An unlikely trio of composers. What on earth could have possessed us to combine Peter Tchaikovsky, Igor Stravinsky and Duke Ellington into a single concert? Well, the connections are broader than you might think – and Igor Stravinsky is the key. Stravinsky grew up and spent his most formative musical years in the land of Tchaikovsky – and he spent his last three decades in the land of Ellington.

And he goes on to cite several other connections. Fair enough. It just didn't work for me.


Wodehouse: Ring For Jeeves

I think it's been almost thirty years now since I discovered that the works of P.G. Wodehouse are a wonderful anti-depressant, producing a bubbling levity which I have previously described as feeling the way champagne looks. This effect, though, is sadly brief, and I've been a little concerned that, as with alcohol, steady use might reduce it, so I don't read Wodehouse all that often. 

I'm speaking mainly of the Jeeves and Wooster books, of which there are, I think, fourteen; it's a little difficult to fix the number because the U.S. and U.K. editions differ somewhat. Not wanting to go through them too quickly, I haven't read them all. Certainly they will continue to be delightful on re-reading--I've read Joy In the Morning and Code of the Woosters at least twice. But the happy shock of the first encounter with an especially funny bit can't be repeated. 

Lately, however, I've been thinking that this careful husbandry could be a mistake: being pretty old now, I might, if I'm too dilatory, die or be incapacitated with some of the novels still unread. And that would be very regrettable.

So it was time for another, and Ring For Jeeves was the next one in the approximately chronological order in which I've been reading them. Somewhat to my surprise, it doesn't seem to me to be quite up to the usual mark. When I noticed the publication date--1953--I speculated that this slight lessening in quality--and it is fairly slight--may have had something to do with Wodehouse's situation at the time. World War II had left him somewhat disgraced. Stranded in France in 1940, he had made several broadcasts at the behest of the Nazis, and although they were humorous and not political in content they caused Wodehouse to be reviled as a Nazi collaborator, which naturally cast a shadow over the following years. He had begun the previous Jeeves and Wooster novel, The Mating Season, in 1942, though it was not published until 1949. Ring For Jeeves seems to be the first one written entirely after the war. 

It seems to have been an experiment: it is the only novel to include Jeeves but not Bertie Wooster. Perhaps--this is pure speculation--Wodehouse thought the pattern had become a little stale, and wanted to vary it. The novel takes note of its actual situation in time in a way that I don't recall others doing. There is explicit mention that the time is the early 1950s. Television is acknowledged to exist, and even figures slightly in the action, though it remains offstage.

The plot involves the high taxation of the wealthy and the general leveling which were occurring at the time. Bertie is absent because he is at a school in which the aristocracy are taught the rudiments of taking care of themselves in the new order. Jeeves is in the employ of William Egerton Bamfylde Ossingham Belfry, ninth Earl of Rowcester, pronounced "Roaster."  The Earl, who for most of the book is referred to simply as Bill, is the inheritor of a vast and dilapidated mansion, Rowcester Abbey, which he cannot afford to keep up, and which he is desperate to sell. His sister Monica believes she has a likely buyer, a twice-widowed, rich, and still beautiful American woman, who, as the story opens, is on her way to view the place. But there are complications. Of course. And of course they're zany.

In a desperate move to get hold of some cash so that he can marry the young neighbor Jill Wyvvern--one of Wodehouse's delightful down-to-earth and pretty "girls"--Bill has gone into the bookmaking business, at the suggestion and under the direction of Jeeves. Calling himself Honest Patch Perkins, he frequents the race tracks in disguise:  

...in addition to wearing a very loud check coat with bulging voluminous pockets and a crimson tie with blue horseshoes on it which smote the beholder like a blow, he had a large black patch over his left eye and on his upper lip a ginger moustache of the outsize or soupstrainer type.

He seems to have been doing all right until a bet went against him at spectacularly long odds, leaving him owing three thousand pounds, which he does not have, to a Captain C.G. Brabazon-Biggar, a fierce White Hunter stereotype who has spent some large part of his life Out East, with, for some reason, a particular emphasis on Kuala Lumpur. The Captain is also on his way to Rowcester Abbey, in hot pursuit of Honest Patch. And it turns out that both he and Bill have had previous involvement with the rich and beautiful widow. 

Naturally it all gets more and more complicated, with more and more elaborate stratagems and deceptions and narrow escapes when the stratagems go wrong. But it all works out in the end. And Jeeves will be returning to Bertie, who is no longer at the school, under circumstances which I would enjoy relating but must refrain from doing so, for the sake of your enjoyment, on the presumption that you haven't read the book. 

I hope it isn't because I've become jaded that this book seems to sparkle less than others. Bertie's absence is part of that; though Bill is a somewhat similar character, he lacks Bertie's effervescent goofiness. And this makes him less effective as a foil for Jeeves. Perhaps as a consequence, Jeeves himself seems to me a bit overdone. His circumlocutions and literary quotations become at times obtrusive, a little too frequent and lengthy. And I felt that the winding up of the plot threads was a bit rushed. Still, less than the best Wodehouse is very, very good. 

In my limited experience the Blandings books are just as good as the Jeeves and Wooster ones, so I have several of those to look forward to as well. I've only read one novel that was part of neither series, Picadilly Jim, and although it was enjoyable it was not in the class with the others. 

RingForJeeves

The rich widow is interested in psychical research, and is thrilled by the family lore which holds that an old family ghost, Lady Agatha, wife of Sir Caradoc the Crusader, is sometimes seen in the chapel (ruined, naturally).


A Question About Eliot's "Journey of the Magi"

This poem is now in the public domain. So I've copied it from another site. It is of course appropriate for today, the Feast of the Epiphany in the Catholic calendar. Normally I set off quotations longer than a sentence or so as "block quotes," which means that they're indented on the right, which means, if line breaks are significant, as they are for a poem, they may not appear as they should. Just how they appear may be partly dependent on the browser. To avoid that, I'm not making this a block quote, but will switch typefaces instead. It probably won't look right on your phone anyway, but that's the price you pay for reading on your phone.

----------

T.S. Eliot: Journey of the Magi

'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

----------

I've always been a little puzzled by that last line. The last two lines, really. The Magi (or this Magus at least, but I'll keep it plural because he keeps saying "we"), have understood that the coming of the child means the end of the culture or civilization of which they are a part, and in which they have a privileged place. That's the "hard and bitter agony."

But do they know something pretty specific about what is coming? Have they, in some sense, been converted? Why else are their own people now "alien" and "clutching...gods" for whom the Magi seem to have no respect? Surely these people and these gods were their own before their journey, but that no longer seems to be the case. 

And what death would he be "glad of"? His own? That's probably true. But he doesn't say so, and the vagueness of the reference makes me wonder. Is he glad that his culture has received its death warrant and looking forward to its actual death? That seems a little odd, but maybe it's just a measure of his sense of exhaustion. Maybe it's both, just a broad resigned Let's  just get it over with. But it seems to me that there is an intimation of the Child's death, and what it will mean, and why the birth, the necessary first step toward that death, is hard and bitter, but at the same time something to be glad of.

JourneyOfTheMagi

Journey of the Magi, Sassetta (Stefano di Giovanni). Image lifted from The Metropolitan Museum, where you can see a much larger version


Rounding the Next Turn

In 2022 I was thinking seriously about ending this blog. Then I realized that if I kept it going through 2023 it would have run for exactly twenty years, a nice round multiple of ten. (You can read the very first post, from January 4, 2004, here.) I liked that idea, and decided to give it one more year. (I don't recall mentioning that here, but I may have.) So all through the past year I've been seeing December 31, 2023, as the end of the line.

And I was looking forward to it. I was, I am, tired of the almost-constant sense that I need to be preparing the next post. The Total Posts number below sheds some light on that: over twenty years, it's an average of more than three posts every week. 

BlogStatsNotice the daily pageview average. That's not very many, compared to even moderately popular blogs, which get, I think (based on hearsay), several thousand views a day. Hundreds, anyway. And judging by the individual page stats, a majority of the visits are pretty random searches for something for which Google happened to turn up something here. For instance, back in 2012 I did a post called "Getting Started With Kierkegaard." For years afterward that post would get several hits per day from Google. It still shows up in the first page of Google results when you search for that phrase, which is a bit surprising because all the post does is ask for recommendations. I can't be sure, but my guess is that there are no more than a few dozen people, perhaps a hundred, who read the blog regularly. It never caught on in the way that some blogs did back in that heyday of blogging, before Facebook et.al. shoved it aside and made it somewhat unfashionable.

But though the Kierkegaard post itself doesn't contain any recommendations, there are some good ones in the comments. And notice the number of comments. That comes to an average of around eleven per post. And that's far lower than the actual number, because the first five or six years of the blog were the most active for commenting, and all those comments were lost when I had to move the blog from Blogger to Typepad, which I think was in 2010. It was unfortunate, and I'm sorry now that I didn't make more of an effort to convert the comments, or at least put them into some kind of archive, because there were some very good conversations there. I remember in particular a long one about Brideshead Revisited, and another about Ayn Rand, which I think was the record-holder for quantity, running over three hundred, if I remember correctly. Apparently the post, which was negative to say the least ("Ayn Rand, Crank"), had attracted the attention of some objectivists, and a vigorous discussion ensued. 

Those conversations have been one of the reasons I continued the blog as long as I have. I only have a few people in my physical vicinity with whom I can talk about the things I like to talk about, so the blog has provided a bit of social and intellectual life, albeit disembodied, that I would not otherwise have had. And it was more than just enjoyable--I have often been informed and challenged by it. At some point in the past ten years or so the amount of conversation declined, which I think, or at least speculate, was in part because of that general displacement of blogging. Or maybe what I was writing just wasn't as interesting. At any rate, that incentive for continuing wasn't quite as strong as it had been.

And though I don't like admitting it to myself I don't have as much energy as I did. I was in my mid-fifties when I started the blog, and am now past the biblical three-score-and-ten expectation for a reasonable lifespan. For the first twelve of those twenty years I was working full-time, and a pretty heavy part-time for another two or three. Yet I wrote some things which I think were reasonably well-thought and well-crafted, and still worth reading, and now I wonder how I did it, as it seems to take more effort now to write anything more than a very casual piece, though I have much more free time (I still put in a few hours on my old job). Words don't seem to flow as readily as they used to. Also, I have some other writing projects that I want to pursue, and have found that the constant need for a new blog post is pretty distracting. 

So my decision was pretty firm, and I had made mental notes for a goodbye post. But then around the end of November I resumed work on that Rilke post, which I had begun and abandoned months ago. And I really enjoyed doing it, and though it's hardly an important contribution to the literary world I felt a sense of accomplishment, which, unlike actual writing, is entirely pleasant. 

My resolution wavered. I realized that I would always want to write that sort of thing, and had no reasonable expectation of being able to publish it anywhere else. I'm in fact a compulsive writer. Light On Dark Water began as an outlet for that compulsion (and as a work-related exercise in learning the basics of HTML etc.). It was not originally a blog, just a static hand-coded web site, which I transferred to the Blogger platform in 2006. When I first set it up I included a tongue-in-cheek FAQ in the form of a self-interview (thanks, Walker Percy):

Why are you doing this?

—What?

Putting odds and ends of your writing on the web.

—Oh. Well, on Halloween 2003, a teenaged surfing star named Bethany Hamilton had her arm bitten off by a shark. Several weeks later, when asked if she would return to surfing, she said, “If I don't get back on my board, I'll be in a bad mood forever.”

Bethany Hamilton is now in her thirties and did in fact continue her surfing career; you can read about her on Wikipedia. And I appreciate the inspiration she gave me, which I suppose might surprise her. 

I knew I would still feel something of that bad mood if I gave up the blog. And I would certainly miss the conversation, even if there is less than there once was. As my resolution continued to waver over the past month or so, I remembered that initial sense of compulsion. I continued to change my mind right up until yesterday (I am also pathologically indecisive), when the encouragement of a friend finally tipped the balance in favor of continuing. 

But with a difference: I intend to write only about books and music. No more politics, no more analyzing and lamenting the apparently irreversible decline of our civilization--and even as I type those words I'm fighting the almost-overwhelming urge to go off into remarks about the nature of that decline and the possible destinations toward which our progress is taking us. No more mockery of ridiculous headlines, no more brief posts about this or that odd or amusing item, or complaints about broccoli. No more Church stuff, though the faith will necessarily be present in what I write. I will miss those, but I think giving them up is necessary. Sometime within the next week or so, if I can figure out a good way to do it, I'll add a subtitle to the blog's name: "A Journal of Reading and Listening." And that's what it's going to be, until I either change my mind or stop blogging altogether. 

Now, see, if I were a better writer I would probably not have blathered on like this, to the extent of 1300 words. But I want to post it today, at the beginning of the year, and I don't have time to revise it more carefully because I have to watch Alabama vs. Michigan an hour from now. So thank you for reading this far, and please continue to visit. And converse.

And Happy New Year.


This Is the Last Time I Write About the Current State of the Catholic Church

Well, at least during this papacy. 

The fort is betrayed even of them that should have defended it. And therefore seeing the matter is thus begun, and so faintly resisted on our parts, I fear that we be not the men that shall see the end of the misery.

Wherefore, seeing I am an old man and look not long to live, I mind not by the help of God to trouble my conscience in pleasing the king this way whatsoever become of me, but rather here to spend out the remnant of my old days in praying to God for him.

    --St. John Fisher's "reply to Bishops Stokesley, Gardiner and Tunstal, sent to the Tower by Thomas Cromwell to persuade Fisher to submit to the King" (full text at the link)

I do not of course identify myself with St. John Fisher's courage in the face of the immediate and fairly certain prospect of decapitation. I'm not in any personal danger from either secular or religious authorities. I'm not even in danger of financial or social penalties. I suppose I might experience either or both of those if I were in a situation where the opinion of progressives had that kind of power over me, but I'm not. Nor do I mean that the Catholic Church, in my country or universally, has been decisively conquered in the way that Fisher witnessed. 

What I identify with is Fisher's understanding that it was the authorities within the Church who had given it over to its enemies, his resignation in the face of the result, and his certainty that the trouble he sees will long outlast him. 

The turmoil in the Catholic Church, the conflict between the Faith more or less as it has been understood for 2000 years and doctrinal revisions intended to make it acceptable to that godless fool, "modern man," is a grave crisis which is not going to be resolved in my lifetime. The evangelization which Vatican II and other changes were meant to enable is now crippled by that internal conflict (among many other things). And this crisis has mainly been the work of church authorities.

I know I've said things like this before, but not, I think, with quite so much emphasis and finality. The occasion, as you might have guessed, is the issuing of the decree Fiducia supplicans. I don't think I need to say much about it. If you want to dig into what it actually says and what it actually means, there are plenty of opinions out there. (I think Larry Chapp has it right.)

My own view is simple: the decree is the answer to the question "How can we do this while denying that we are doing it?" I know the document is carefully constructed to be technically orthodox, and I recognize the good will of those who argue that it changes nothing. But I think they're mistaken. The homosexual rights activist Fr. James Martin, S.J., thinks so, too, quoted by Chapp: “Be wary of the ‘Nothing has changed’ response to today’s news. It’s a significant change.".

Fisher of course did not live to see the church which replaced his own be surrendered in a similar way, not to a king but to the diffused sovereignty of the spirit of the times, which I think is clearly the spirit of the Antichrist. Many of us who watched, helplessly, the internal apostasy of most of Anglicanism recognize Fiducia supplicans as a maneuver in the struggle which wrecked that communion. Whether that maneuver will be followed successfully by others I won't try to guess. I think the most likely long-term result is a gradual continuation of the hollowing-out process which leaves "official teaching" more or less intact but a dead letter. 

I don't care to speculate about the motives of the pope. I'll just go back to something I've said before, but with more emphasis: Pope Francis is a bad pope in the functional sense that he is bad at his job, like a builder whose buildings fall down. He has  exacerbated--deliberately, it appears--the divisions in the Church and insured that the crisis of which I spoke above will be prolonged for quite some time. It is entirely possible that it will become much, much worse, in part because of his approach to it.

There's something else on this subject that I may or may not have said here before, though I have certainly said it in other places. I'll repeat it as I leave the topic: I had never, as far as I recall, so much as heard the name of Cardinal Bergoglio before his election to the papacy, and therefore had no prejudice against him. But when he stepped out onto that balcony to greet the crowds after his election, I immediately had what I can only describe crudely as a bad feeling. It had no particular content and I wouldn't call it a premonition, just...a bad feeling. I've thought about it often since then, and have spoken to others who had the same experience. It's a small thing which may be significant. Or not.