Dilettante's Diary

APRIL 23, 2018

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APRIL 23, 2018
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Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
Sabbath's Theater by PHILIP ROTH
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A Toast to 2012
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How Fiction Works
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Sex for Saints
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Housekeeping
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CBC Radio -- "The New Two"
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The Jesus Sayings
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Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 08
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Head to Head
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Ring Psycho (Wagner on CBC Radio)
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Me In Manhattan
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About Me
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MOVIES
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The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, the date will change accordingly. The new reviews will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here: Peter Rabbit (Movie); Luisa Miller (Opera); The Silence (Article), How Did We Come to Know You?, The State of Nature, Intermediate Class, The State and No More Maybe (Short Stories); Cosi Fan Tutte (Opera); Enigma Variations (Novel) Two Kinds of Truth (Mystery); Serving Victoria (Biography)

Peter Rabbit (Movie) written by Will Gluck and Rob Lieber; based on the books by Beatrix Potter; directed by Will Gluck; starring Domhnall Gleeson, Rose Byrne, Sam Neill and Marianne Jean-Baptiste, with the voices of James Corden, Colin Moody, Margot Robbie, Elizabeth Debicki, Daisy Ridley and many others.

In this modernized version of the beloved rabbit’s adventures, old Mr. McGregor (Sam Neill) dies of a heart attack while attempting to squelch the varmints who are raiding his vegetable garden. That means Peter and his wildly victorious friends have free run of the garden and the house. But their celebrations are severely curtailed with the arrival of Thomas, Mr. McGregor’s heir (Domhnall Gleeson). A nerdy young man, who knows nothing about horticulture or wild life and is solely focussed on success in the retail world, Thomas wasn’t even aware of his great uncle’s existence. He wants nothing to do with this rural property, other than to get it ready for sale – which is proving rather difficult, given that Peter and his ilk have run amok on the premises. But they have an ally in the person of Bea (i.e. Beatrix Potter?), a lovely neighbour (Rose Byrne) who paints pictures of the rabbits and tries to mitigate Thomas’ vehemence towards them.

Some viewers are complaining that this isn’t the Peter Rabbit they knew and loved as youngsters. Of course, he isn’t. This is a Peter Rabbit who has grown up with You Tube. He’s hip and knowing. How could you expect any rabbit who is a citizen of today’s world to be ingenuous and gullible? This Peter knows how to give as good as he gets.

My eight-year-old companion at the movie laughed her head off at the slapstick, but there was plenty to interest an ageing grandpa. Lots of good comedy in the dialogue, for instance. At one point, the rabbits are trying to lip-read what looks like an amorous encounter between Thomas and Bea. But the faltering lip-reading is coming up with statements like "Elephants have flatulence." There are some slyly humorous psychological touches, like the moment when Peter tries to field suspicions that maybe he too has romantic inclinations towards Bea. We get a rooster complaining about having to crow every morning and wondering how he’s going to cope with all the chicks he has sired. And Peter’s sisters – Flopsy, Mopsy and Cotton-tail – indulge in some believable sibling rivalry. Inventive plot twists involve such capers as a disastrous foray into the commercial hub of London.

This may not be a significant issue for most viewers, but I was amazed at the presentation of the rabbits who seemed every bit as real as the actors they were mingling with. As I'm not a devotee of this type of movie, this was a new phenomenon for me. I have no idea how it’s done. CGI, anyone? Whatever the method, the rabbits come across as charming creatures, with the whole range of human expressiveness in their faces.

If you search this movie online, you’ll find a controversy raging over one scene. In the problematic sequence, the rabbits throw a blueberry at Thomas and it happens to go into his mouth and down his throat. Being allergic to blueberries, he begins to choke and collapse, until he can pull out his EpiPen and give himself a shot in the thigh. Some people are complaining that it’s unfair (politically incorrect?) to make fun, in this way, of those who suffer from severe allergies. But nobody is making fun of anybody. It’s simply a clever plot device. If an enemy – and there’s no question that Thomas is the bad guy in this saga – has a vulnerability, why not exploit it? Nobody’s ridiculing anybody. My advice to those righteous defenders of the allergy sufferers: Get a life people! 

 

Luisa Miller (Opera) by Giuseppe Verdi; libretto by Salvadore Cammarano; starring Sonya Yoncheva, Olesya Petrova, Piotr Beczala, Plcido Domingo, Alexander Vinogradov and Dimtry Belosselskiy; conducted by Bertrand de Billy; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus. HD Live Transmission, April 14, 2018.

One of the things that I like about these transmissions from the Met is that they give you a feeling of being isolated from the world with its too-real troubles. For a few hours you’re wrapped up in a world of theatre, surrounded with glorious music. Even if the opera on offer isn’t one that you know anything about, or one that you’ve ever been interested in, chances are that, if it’s from Giuseppe Verdi, it will do the trick for you.

From the overture, is was obvious that this one would. (During the overture, the camera focussed, at certain points, on the clarinetist and the flautist, both of whom had solo moments, and this helped us to be more aware of their contributions to the accompaniment throughout the afternoon.) I’ve seldom heard such a zippy, rambunctious overture. Given the applause following it, it seems that the audience at Lincoln Center felt much the same way about it. The conductor, Bertrand de Billy actually asked the orchestra members to stand to acknowledge the ovation. That doesn’t always occur at an opera.

The rest of the show followed through in the grand Verdi style. Mind you, this piece, as host Anthony Roth Costanzo noted, ticks all the boxes of the melodramatic genre. It’s 19th century England, and you’ve got a sweet peasant girl, Luisa, who is madly in love with Rodolfo. Luisa’s dad, however, is suspicious about his daughter’s suitor. (Lots of opportunity here for one of Verdi’s favourite themes: the heart-rending Father/Daughter thing.) Turns out that Rodolfo is hiding his true identity as the son of a powerful Count who intends his son to marry a rich widow. But Rodolfo threatens to use some dire secret about his dad as a bargaining chip.

Meanwhile, an evil schemer named Wurm, who lusts after Luisa, is stirring up trouble. (Well, what can you expect from a guy with a name like that?) As an example of the lousy dramaturgy on display, Wurm and the Count engage in a long scene where they tell each other about the dastardly deed that they perpetrated long ago. That’s one of the worst flaws of bad playwriting: two characters have to tell each other something that they already know just so that the audience can be clued-in. Mind you, in this case, the shtick makes for one of the rare operatic duets for two bass voices, so maybe that justifies the dramatic faux-pas.

Although some touching moments did occur here and there, I couldn’t believe any of the carry-on. The clichs included a matronly contralto who is making unwanted advances on our hero and a man who gets condemned to die for insulting a Count. God was referred to so often, as a way of ratcheting up the tension, that I was thinking He deserved a curtain call. Is it because of stories like this that opera isn’t capturing the attention of millenials? Take the final scene, where somebody discovers that a drink taken was poisoned. Why, the young viewer might ask, would the poisoned person stand there and sing for another fifteen minutes? Why not call 911? Why not pull out your smart phone and Google antidotes for poison?

But never mind, the music was glorious. Sonya Yoncheva (Luisa), thankfully, is a true Verdi soprano. Her voice has the power and richness to match the drama, the sweetness and resilience for the more lyrical moments. Piotr Beczala has the perfect voice for the role of Rodolfo. As he mentioned in the intermission interview, the role starts in almost a bel canto mode but gradually evolves, towards the final act, in the direction of a more stentorian kind of singing, la Verdi’s Otello. I did think Mr. Beczala’s big aria in the second act was a bit "throaty" – somewhat lacking in ringing head tones – but maybe that was admissable, given the kind of vocal transition required.

As for Plcido Domingo in the role of Luisa’s father, I sometimes feel a bit disgruntled about the Met’s giving him these baritone roles now that he can no longer manage the tenor repertoire. Yes, Signor Domingo can sing the baritone parts, but his voice doesn’t have the richness and fullness that a true baritone has in the lower register. So why not give these roles to genuine baritones? On the other hand, Signor Domingo’s high notes in these roles have tremendous ring and excitement to them, so maybe that’s the benefit of having a singer who trained as a tenor. When you witness the energy and power that Signor Domingo pours into a performance – at the age of seventy-seven – it’s understandable that he’s so beloved of Met audiences and you acknowledge that he deserves the acclaim they shower on him. (Not to mention the fact that he seems, off stage, to be a truly nice gentleman.)

As host of the afternoon, Anthony Roth Costanzo, a countertenor star of the Met, made no attempt to come across as anything other than exuberantly gay. (Whether or not he is gay is another question.) I suppose the Met should be congratulated for encouraging the man to appear on camera simply as he wants to present himself, without any attempt to conform to more conservative expectations. And perhaps some of his extravagant smiling and his arm-waving could be put down to nervousness. But I did register some definite discomfort over his presentation among the people sitting near me in the theatre. Is that their problem? Or is it a problem for the Met in terms of maintaining audience members?

In any case, Mr. Costanzo's questions to the singers were clear and pertinent, his rapport with them was charming. However, he did make one impromptu remark that may go down in history as one of the most startling moments in all of these Met transmissions. He was asking Sonya Yoncheva how much she identifies with the character of Luisa. Ms. Yoncheva was saying that, most of the time, she feels like a very strong woman but sometimes she just likes to be a girl. Mr. Costanzo blurted out something along the lines of: "Me too!" [Not an exact quote.] You have to wonder whether he realized what he was saying. Did he mean that he, too, sometimes feels timid and vulnerable, or was he actually making a blatant joke about gender identity?

 

New Yorker Notables:

The Silence (Article) by Junot Diaz, The New Yorker, April 16, 2018

Junot Diaz has done it. He has finally revealed the secret that has been tormenting him for many years: when he was eight years old, he was raped twice by a grownup he had trusted. Overwhelmed with shame, guilt and confusion, Mr. Diaz resolved never to tell anyone what happened. He spent decades of his life trying to run away from the memory. He assumed a mask so that people would never guess at the blackness in his heart. I don’t think there could be any more vivid and eloquent testimony to the wreckage that such violation can cause: drunkenness, abuse of drugs, multiple ruined relationships, professional wipeouts. Eventually, Mr. Diaz stumbled into therapy and a much healthier appreciation of life, which is not to say that he doesn’t still struggle with some consequences of the trauma.

What makes this article most remarkable is that it’s addressed to an anonymous "you" – a person who had once asked Mr. Diaz, in a line-up for a book-signing, whether or not he’d ever been sexually abused. Mr. Diaz sloughed off the question with some kind of irrelevant gab but now he’s making a heart-felt apology to that person for not having had the guts to answer such an important question. The invocation of that nameless person has the effect of drawing us all in and making us feel, not that somebody is blabbing in a national publication, but that Mr. Diaz is speaking to each of us in an intimate way.  

 

How Did We Come to Know You? (Short Fiction) by Keith Gessen, The New Yorker, April 16, 2018

A young man is living in New York, having spent many years in college and grad school, then three years on the job market, when he gets a call to come to Moscow to look after his elderly grandmother. Normally, that’s his older brother’s job (the two men had grown up there and their parents have since died) but now big bro claims that he has important business elsewhere. A few months after his arrival in Moscow, Andryusha (as his grandma calls the younger bro) is sitting at the kitchen table, checking his email, when he hears a sharp cry on the stairs leading to her apartment. She’s had a bad fall. What follows is, first, his attempt to navigate the Russian health care system, and then, his efforts to find a dacha where his grandma can experience a bit of the Russian summer that she remembers so fondly.

This story is so gentle and sweet that you find yourself wondering: what happened to all those edgy, hip voices that we were hearing in The New Yorker??? But aspects of this piece provoke thoughts that go beneath the surface of the story. For instance, there’s Andryusha’s gradually getting in touch with the more human side of the Russian medical staff who, at first, may seem like bureaucratic functionaries. And, speaking of bureaucracy, there’s the question of how his grandma was unjustly deprived of her own dacha. And the questions about the older brother: what’s with him? Why is he so chippy towards Andryusha? This, then, is the kind of fiction that gives you as much to think about by what it doesn’t say as by what it does say.

 

The State of Nature (Short Fiction) by Camille Bordas, The New Yorker, April 9, 2018

The young woman who narrates this story has a respectable career as an opthalmologist but, in most other ways, her life seems a bit off-kilter. For instance, she has arguments with her cat, "Catapult." There’s a droll, tongue-in-cheek humour to her observations. At times, she sounds like one of those contemporary female comics, like Amy Schumer, Tina Fey or Lena Dunham. On the other hand, her somewhat hapless way of stumbling through life makes her seem like one of those characters from a Roz Chast cartoon. In a slice-of-life narration that includes odd people and weird circumstances, we eventually find out – almost in parenthical fashion – why the narrator’s mother is acting strangely. And that, it turns out, was the underlying tension of the piece.

 

Intermediate Class (Short Fiction) by Sam Allingham, The New Yorker, April 2, 2018

On Kiril’s arrival at his German class, we’re introduced to his teacher, a middle-aged man with a silver beard, and some students: a pale, thin woman; a woman with a close-cropped Afro; a Latino man about Kiril’s age (early 30s); a badly sunburned man in his fifties and an extremely short woman (barely five feet tall), a little older than Kiril. From class to class, we watch in a bemused way, as they struggle to practise their German in laboured statements about themselves. Inevitably, we become familiar with bits and pieces of their lives. I’m thinking: okay, Mr. Allingham, you once took a German course and now you’re trying to capitalize on it, but how are you going to create a coherent piece of fiction out of such disparate stories? Surprisingly, he does. Contrary to what you might expect, no one story emerges as the main one but they all matter.

 

The State (Short Fiction) by Tommy Orange,The New Yorker, March 26, 2018

A man who’s wandering through Oakland on a hot day tells his story with almost a stream-of-consciousness fluidity, but it’s all narrated in the second person "you." The man’s mother was white and his father was indigenous, or as he puts it, "Indian." What the story is about mostly, is the narrator’s difficulty coping with alcohol. What he likes about it, he says, is that it can "...produce a certain state of mind, which you over time began to refer to privately as the State. The State was a place you could get to where everything felt exactly, precisely in place, where and when it belonged, and you belonged, completely O.K. in it..." A reader has to expect that Mr. Orange will likely be criticized for perpetrating what might be seen as a stereotype of a certain group of people, but I found the portrait of this man so compelling and poignant that I could feel nothing but empathy with him. 

 

No More Maybe (Short Fiction) by Gish Jen, The New Yorker, March 19, 2018

A young man and woman of Chinese background, now living in America, are expecting their first baby. His parents have come from China for the big event. Our narrator, the expectant woman, notes – with kindly humour – the many incongruities in her in-laws’ American experience. The older woman is flabbergasted at the clarity of the air, the brilliance of the stars and all the things that are free – like English lessons. On the other hand, her husband, a retired professor, is suspicious of everything; he sees plots and snares in all of America’s seductive offers. While you’re enjoying this mildly comic tale, you begin to wonder if it’s just an affectionate look at some people but, towards the end, you begin to realize that they’re dealing with some underlying problems that bring on tears (theirs, then yours).

 

Cosi Fan Tutte (Opera) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte; production concept by Phelim McDermott; stage design by Tom Pye; starring Amanda Majeski, Serena Malfi, Kelli O’Hara, Ben Bliss, Adam Plachetka, Christopher Maltman; conducted by David Robertson; Metropolitan Opera and Chorus; HD Live Transmission, March 31, 2018.

This was the only Met HD Live Transmission that I was determined to catch this year. My reason for wanting to see it – apart from the fact that any Mozart opera is a must-see – was the modernized production. Among the Met’s contemporary adaptations, I found  LaTraviata superb and Rigoletto very good. I wasn’t so keen on The Marriage of Figaro and Falstaff.

Would this one work or not?

It opens in a place that looks like a Playboy club – dark, with lots of red velvet in the decor. That does seem an appropriate place for the Don (Christopher Maltman) to be taunting the two younger men about their belief in their girlfriends’ fidelity, but I found the comings-and-goings of the skimpily clad servers in the background somewhat distracting. The bulk of the opera, however, is set on Coney Island, circa 1955. When the stage opened up on the silhouette of the Ferris wheel and the other rides in the background, with screeching seagulls against a cloudy sky, it was one of those theatrical moments that somehow cause a catch in the throat.

The whole point of this setting, I presume, was to emphasize the corny (i.e. "carny"?) quality of the work. A band of circus performers – including a contortionist, flame dancer, snake-charmer, a couple of dwarfs and two sword swallowers – was helping the Don to stage the elaborate prank which was meant to demonstrate the fickleness of the two young women. The ensuing razzmatazz helped the production to sidestep the whole question of misogyny. With all that hocus-pocus going on, none of it could be taken seriously.

One of my big concerns about the prospect of such a modern setting was the question of the disguises of the two men when they each try to woo the other guy’s girlfriend. In traditional productions, the men are often garbed in turbans or keffiyehs (headscarves), adorned with beards and such, by way of making them unrecognizable to the women. How could any such ruse be pulled off in a 1950s American setting?

The designers managed it brilliantly. In the first scene, the two men had been spiffy naval officers in their proper uniforms and white caps. By way of disguise, they came back as greasers: lots of hair, rakish moustaches, jeans, leather jackets. The impression given was that the circus performers, at the Don’s request, had spirited the guys away to effect this transformation. The conspirators must also have subjected the men to some quick acting lessons. Maybe that was achieved by exposure to videos of performers like Henry Winkler ("The Fonz") and John Travolta. The two singers (Ben Bliss as Ferrando and Adam Plachetka as Guglielmo), having appeared rather stuffy in the opening, showed themselves to be excellent actors in this context.

Several other costume ideas worked splendidly. Having Fiordiligi (Amanda Majeski) and Dorabella (Serena Malfi) in saddle shoes and baggy skirts helped to establish the era unmistakably. Giving Fiordiligi horn-rimmed glasses was apparently meant to make her seem gawky and unsure of herself – a suitable touch for the character (we often forget, given the maturity of singers needed to sing these roles, that the characters are supposed to be young and naive) – but I found the glasses a bit too obvious as a theatrical ploy. Fortunately, Fiordiligi was allowed to dispense with them eventually. Christopher Maltman, in his yellow suit with a wide tie that was too short, had a cheesy quality that seemed to fit the Don when you stopped to think about it. Another couple of dazzling costume inspirations applied to Despina (Kelli O’Hara). As the "doctor" called to the aid of the "dying" lovers, she appeared as something like a cartoon version of Albert Einstein. At the conclusion of the opera, when she arrives as the justice of the peace who is about to solemnize the marriages of the misled women, she came bounding on like Annie Oakley, guns and all, doing a lively dance with a couple of the show’s dwarfs.

For the complicated business of Despina’s being the maid to the two young women, the designers came up with the clever idea of staging the interaction in a sleazy seaside motel. They must have had great fun picking the tacky wall paper and the kitschy landscape paintings.

This production brushes away the fusty atmosphere of a museum piece that so often accompanies classical productions. (I’m thinking of a DVD of Cosi in which the two women in their elaborate gowns look like over-decorated sofas.) You get the sense of fun and hijinks that must surely have been in the minds of Mozart and Da Ponte when they created this piece. Stately productions with nothing inventive or contemporary about them tend to make us forget that the work was surely meant as a jest.

While the shenanigans of the circus performers helped to liven up a work that can sometimes seem a bit static, there were a couple of places where the stage direction didn’t work so well for me. In the young women’s first scene, a fortune teller was lurking in her booth behind them. At one point, they had a reason to turn to her but she seemed to be lingering there pointlessly the rest of the time. Ms. Majeski had to sing one long aria while floating over the stage in a hot air balloon. That might have seemed like a good idea except that the balloon could never make up its mind where it was going; it kept drifting back and forth and up and down in a way that interfered with your concentration on the music.

All the singers performed magnificently, as might be expected of a Met production. One of the special pleasures of the show was the tenor voice of Ben Bliss, as Ferrando. He is truly a Mozart tenor. His voice is high, light and sweet, with a strong line. He is young enough that there is no wobble to it, just the pure notes. He reminded me a lot of the great Mozart tenor Fritz Wunderlich – and that is about the highest praise you can offer any such tenor. Mr. Bliss’ singing of "Un’aura amorosa" – standing by himself at one side of the stage, as though lost in thought – was the musical high point of the afternoon.

 

Enigma Variations (Novel) by Andr Aciman, 2017

This is the fifth book by Andr Aciman that I’ve read. His Call Me by Your Name, a novel, is one of the best love stories ever. The novel Eight White Nights and the memoir Out of Egypt are good but not thrilling. I didn’t like the novel Harvard Square very much. Enigma Variations? Hmmm.

Not exactly a novel, it’s more like a handfull of short fictions, each featuring the same narrator, with some overlapping of other characters. The book tells about five of the great loves in the narrrator’s life. It’s difficult to say anything meaningful about the book without giving away more plot than we like to do here at Dilettante’s Diary. So let’s just sketch briefly the context of each of the five stories. First, we get the narrator’s adolescent crush on an Italian carpenter during summer holidays on an island with his family. Then comes an adult affair with a woman; the main point of this story is that the narrator is preoccupied with suspicious thoughts on spotting her acting flirty towards another man in a restaurant. Thirdly, there’s the narrator’s obsession with a god-like man at his tennis club. Next, we get the narrator’s passionate reunion with a woman who was a close friend in university. (Both of them are committed to other people at this point.) Finally, there’s a timorous, bemused attraction to a female journalist. Throughout, there’s no explanation or apology for the narrator’s diverse sexual inclincations. Enigma variations, indeed!

If you know anything about Andr Aciman, you will expect that the feelings of these relationships will be conveyed with full-blown, stunning passion. The young narrator tells us about his response to the Italian carpenter’s eyes in one run-on sentence with 16 lines of text including the fragments: "you looked straight back and there was no running for cover" and "I realized that what I’d been craving all this time was his eyes, not his hands, not his voice, not his knees, or even his friendhip, just his eyes" and "I loved the way they hovered over my face and eventually landed on my eyes like the hand of a holy man who is about to touch your eyelids"and "his eyes kept swearing I was the dearest thing in the world, because there was piety, grace, and beneficence in his gaze."

A few other intense expressions of love:

  • The narrator refers to an evening when "I stood on the threshold to our living room and thought why can’t I be him instead of me."
  • He remembers "this never love that altered everything but went nowhere."
  • "Wherever I go, everyone I see and crave is ultimately measured by the glow of your light. If my life were a boat, you were the one who stepped on board, turned on its running lights, and was never heard from again."

Not that Mr. Aciman doesn’t touch on the downside of the great emotion: "The circuit is always the same: from attraction to tenderness to obsessive longing, and then to surrender, desuetude, apathy, fatigue, and finally scorn." But then, when the desire fires up again, he remembers that "indifference was just a reprieve, not a verdict."

Of course, love isn’t the only thing that Mr. Aciman notices about life. He often makes incisive observations that convince you, if you need convincing, that you’re in the hands of a truly inventive writer. For example:

  • "As usual, their large table is meticulously set for a feast, with its thickly starched linen napkins sticking out jauntily from wineglasses like overgrown blooms on steroids."
  • about the rain: "It lacks conviction, has lost its vigor. Don’t bother with umbrellas, it seems to say. I’m about to stop anyway, my heart’s not in it tonight.
  • about pining over someone he can’t have: "I’m like someone who never got off a train that traveled past the last stop."
  • friendship: "It could morph into something more if she wanted, or it could as easily be taken down like unsold clothing from a store window heaped in a pile eventually shipped to discount outlets and hurricane survivors. Friendship on consignment, I called it."

Another trademark of Mr. Aciman’s writing is that he loves to convey the complexity of thoughts and feelings – they can never be simply stated as being of one quality or another. There’s always an almost contradictory mixture:

  • when his mother starts acting sweetly after a conflict with him: "She was pleased to see I still loved her; I was pleased to see how readily both she and I were fooled."
  • re a tutor: "As always, bitterness and humanity, like kindness dipped in venom."
  • "The worst is going to be watching her lie to me and, knowing she’s lying , helping her sidestep the small traps I might unintentionally lay down, and by steering her away from them credit myself both for being so magnanimous and so very clever."
  • about giving money to a needy person: "I didn’t want you to see. But I did want you to see that I had made an effort to hide that I’d given the poor man money."

This waffling tendency, the sense of the ambiguity of everything – a characteristic that runs through the book – could, perhaps, be best summarized by this passage:

Neither of us was quite sure what the other meant, but, as in dreams, our words could be taken in so many ways, which was fine too, because we liked thinking they had more than one meaning, one obvious, one not so obvious, one hinted at but so muddled that neither of us knew which to grasp, because each was so laced into the others that all three ultimately meant one and the same thing.

For about three-quarters of the way, I found the book engrossing, excellent reading. At some point in the fourth episode – the narrator’s reunion with the old college friend – I was beginning to get tired of their carry-on. These two people are so intense that it’s hard to get into their relationship and sympathize with them. At one point, he wants her to smash a champagne flute, cut him with one of the shards, smear his blood on him and her, then do the same with her blood. They say things like: "We were never wrong. You and I are the only thing right in our lives – it’s everything else that’s wrong." Really??? And: "We’re not people. We’re another species." Then: "Because you and I are one and the same person. Everything I said about you is true about me." Are we meant to believe that we’re dealing here with the likes of Cathy and Heathcliff??? Like those famous lovers, these two are a bit much.

The fifth episode – the friendship with the female journalist – was a further test of my patience. Up to a point, the ambiguous, teasing nature of their relationship is engaging but the narrator is so indecisive, so tentative, that he becomes exasperating. Even though a former lover is egging him on, he can’t declare himself. Who are we dealing with here? A contemporary version of J. Alfred Prufrock? It doesn’t seem like the man we’ve come to know up to this point in the recital of his affairs. Why is he going all coy at this point?

A character in one of the episodes says that "patterns are good for stories but rarely mean anything." Is Mr. Aciman suggesting, then, that maybe we shouldn’t be looking for too much in the way of meaningful structure in Enigma Variations? And yet, each story ends with a twist. In some cases the surprises seem more plausible than in others. Is this a case of an author telling us just what life is like or is it a matter of his inserting something to give a story a more satisfying narrative pattern? A bit of both, I suppose.

 

Two Kinds of Truth (Mystery) by Michael Connelly, 2017

You know that feeling: a book is so good that you don’t want it to end. It’s a long time since a book has made me feel that way. But this one did

Here we have Michael Connelly’s star detective, Harry Bosch, grappling with two cases. In some mystery novels, that can feel like padding, as though the author doesn’t have enough material in one case to fill a book. Not here, though. The two stories dove-tail so neatly that they make a legitimate, gripping take on Bosch’s life at a certain time and place.

The first case has Harry dealing with the double murder of a pharmacist and his son, also a pharmacist. They’re found shot to death in their family store. Pills have been thrown around to make it look like a robbery gone bad, but Harry suspects otherwise. This eventually takes us into the world of the criminal drug trade where Harry has to go undercover. At some points, there’s a terrific build up of suspense – something that I don’t remember much of in the previous Bosch novels. Whether or not the precise scenarios that Mr. Connelly creates are factual or imaginative, I don’t know, but he gives an appalling picture of the way that drug dealers can prey on addicts and turn them, almost literally, into their slaves.

The other case – the over-arching one and the one that’s most crucial to Harry in a personal way – is the threat that a rapist-murderer whom he had sent away some decades ago may be exonerated on the grounds of new DNA evidence. It looks like Harry might have screwed up in the investigation. If so, this could completely undermine Harry’s credibility, with the result that all the convictions he has achieved could be thrown into doubt. Not surprisingly, this amounts to a nightmare for Harry. His attempts to cope with it involve his reaching out to his half-brother Mickey Haller, known from some of Mr. Connelly’s other books as the Lincoln Lawyer. This inevitably leads to the culminating trial scene where we know that Mickey – and Mr. Connelly – are going to be at their best. While this courtroom appearance isn’t as thrilling as some of the other Mickey Haller gigs, it is dramatic and it involves some of Haller’s trademark subterfuge and wizzardry.

The few drawbacks to this book would include some trivial exchanges among the cops – routine greetings and such – that would sound natural in a tv show but stick out as being banal in a novel. Also, there are occasional patches of dull prose, usually when Mr. Connelly is giving background. On the other hand, there’s a bit of what strikes me as over-writing, as in the description of a psychopath’s eyes as "glowing like trash-can fires in an alley at night." One other quirk of the writing: Mr. Connelly employs a strange use of ‘alert’ when he speaks of fake ID cards that any bouncer "would’ve alerted to in any club in L.A."

But the writing in some passages stands out as being particularly interesting. Mr. Connelly builds intrigue nicely with little hints of things like "another issue," timing pressures, Bosch’s "feeling worse," his "growing concern" and an evelope that he forgets to open. As for Harry’s character, there’s his reflection on one of his heroes, the explorer David Livingston, who once said that sympathy was no substitute for action. "That was an essential brick in Bosch’s wall," Mr. Connelly tells us. That observation zeroes in on Bosch’s uniqueness and helps us to understand him better than many detectives. I did find it odd, though, that the writer tells us nothing about Bosch’s inner reaction when he’s obliged to strip and he’s left sitting naked in an office for an hour. You’d think Bosch would have had some feelings about that situation which would be worth Mr. Connelly’s noting. But he lets us in on a fascinating bit of cop lore that’s new to me. It’s about how well you trust your partner. The test comes when you’re having to speed through an intersection on a red light. Each cop is supposed to check the intersection on his own side of the car. If you truly trust your partner, you don’t feel the need to turn and check his side after you’ve checked your own. And the title of the book comes from this sample of Bosch’s thoughts:

He knew that there were two kinds of truth in this world. The truth that was the unalterable bedrock of one’s life and mission. And the other, malleable truth of politicians, charlatans, corrupt lawyers, and their clients, bent and molded to serve whatever purpose was at hand.

Much as I enjoyed this book, I did find it strange that it ends with two chapters having mainly to do with other books by Mr. Connelly. One of the chapters ties up loose ends from a Bosch mystery dating back a few years. That might be interesting to readers who remember that novel but I don’t. The other concluding chapter – relating to a character in Two Kinds of Truth – is clearly a prologue to Mr. Connelly’s next book. You’d think Mr. Connelly’s fans would be committed enough by now that he wouldn’t need to rope them in with these sorts of teasers. Are these two chapters, then, the result of an author’s having to produce the number of pages required by his contract?

 

Serving Victoria: Life in the Royal Household (Biography) by Kate Hubbard, 2012

You might wonder whether the world needs another book about Queen Victoria. Surely she’s one of the most written about women in history. Kate Hubbard, however, has a new perspective on the Queen: how she seemed to those who tended to her behind the scenes. What enables Ms. Hubbard to know that is the fact that, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram not having penetrated the walls of the royal residences in Victorian times, the occupants were given to voluminous letter writing. Fortuitously, those written documents remain squirrlled away in archives, waiting to reveal their secrets to an intrepid researcher like Ms. Hubbard.

Of course, it would be impossible to get any such peek behind the scenes of a royal household these days, given the non-disclosure agreements that all royal hangers-on are obliged – quite understandably – to sign. While these private glimpses of the Queen don’t quite contradict the public image that has come down to us, they provide intimate details that help to make the monarch seem more like a real person.

One of the first impressions that comes through in Ms. Hubbard’s take on the royal scene in Queen Victoria’s day is the excruciating boredom for many. The worst times, apparently, were the evenings. Charles Greville, privy councillor and diarist, gave an account of a gathering early in Queen Victoria’s reign. After dinner, he said, everybody had to stand in the drawing room while the Queen walked around, saying a few trivial words to each person, then card tables were set up and then "two mortal hours" were given over to "the smallest possible talk." Anything interesting – politics, for instance – was avoided. The only relief came in the form of silly games or music.

Some of Queen Victoria’s ladies in waiting were assigned to tours of duty lasting only a few months, after which they’d return to their normal lives. One member of that group was Sarah Lyttleton, a wife and mother. Arriving at court fairly early in the Queen’s reign, she was, at first, taken on as lady of the bedchamber but Queen Victoria found Sarah so empathetic and trustworthy that she was eventually given the important assignment of heading up the staff of the nursery. In spite of her tremendous loyalty to the Queen, Lady Lyttleton was capable of distancing herself somewhat from the monarch’s enthusiasms. Around 1849, when Queen Victoria was rhapsodizing about the beauties of Scotland, which she had recently discovered in the company of Prince Albert, Lady Littleton permitted herself to make this remark in a letter to her daughter: "The chief support to my spirits is that I shall never see, hear or witness these various charms. This soothing thought helps me to smile on happily."

Sir Henry Ponsonby, who served as the Queen’s private secretary for many years, had this to say about a rainy summer at Balmoral, where the staff had to resort to badminton and battledore in the ballroom: "I get into states of utter vacuity here sometimes, at breakfast and dinner, and cannot think what to say." Sir Henry did have plenty to say, however, when it came to defending himself on the charge of never standing up to the Queen. He told his wife, Mary, that it was simply a matter of not forcing one’s opinions on the Queen: "... she says 2 and 2 make 5. I humbly point out that no doubt she has some good reason for thinking so, but that I cannot help thinking they make 4. She replies that there may be some truth in what I say but she knows they make 5. Thereupon I drop the discussion. It is of no consequence and I leave it there knowing the fact."

Although Queen Victoria didn’t appear to be much concerned with inconveniencing servants – she thought nothing of making them endure sodden drives in open carriages, rough sea crossings, standing for hours at official functions, being summoned in the middle of the night – she did care about their feelings. Writing imperiously to the Prince of Wales, she said that the servants "ought to be comfortably lodged, but not luxuriously, but I think and so do all right minded people that the chief thing is treating them kindly ... making them feel that they belong to the family and are cared for and not to treat them like other kinds of beings who have no feelings – and who may be abused and spoken to harshly and rudely."

While the image of Queen Victoria that has come down to us portrays a rather dour, forbidding figure, some saw a more attractive person. Randall Davidson, who became her personal chaplain, said her "irresistible charm" was "the combination of absolute truthfulness and simplicity with what had become an instinctive realisation of her position and what belonged to it.""As a woman," he said, "she was both shy and humble ... but as Queen she was neither shy nor humble and asserted her position unhesitatingly."

One of those unhesitating opinions was directed at Davidson himself. It had to do with the Queen’s planned memoir of John Brown, the Scotsman who had become her close friend and confidant after the death of the Prince Consort. Members of the household who’d seen excerpts from the Queen’s planned tribute to Brown after his death found it "painfully almost ludicrously inappropriate." Randall Davidson’s advice against publication got him banned from the pulpit and the Queen’s company for two weeks. Maybe that’s why he said he found Queen Victoria "in many respects like a spoiled child, a nice child, but one who has not been properly handled or subjected to due restraining and there is a good deal more difficulty in dealing with a spoilt child at the age of 60 or 70 than with a spoilt child at 6 or 7." And yet, he wrote: "In the long run, her common sense judgement always prevailed."

That common sense may have been the basis of her attitude to religion. Ms. Hubbard says the Queen "could not abide religious mawkishness," and she dismissed many of the condolence letters she’d received on the death of the Prince Consort as "twaddling religious nonsense." In fact, she disliked "over-churchiness." Except for memorial services – a form of liturgy that she loved – she was a dutiful rather than enthusiastic church-goer. It interested me to find that Queen Victoria didn’t despise Catholicism or Catholics, as such. What she couldn’t abide was Anglicanism that acted too much like Catholicism.

Given that we tend to think of Queen Victoria as strict about morals, it comes as something of a surprise to discover how indulgent she could be towards servants’ failings, as noted by Sir James Reid, her physician for many years: "It is quite astonishing how lenient the Queen is to drunkenness among her servants. When any of the constantly recurring cases comes to her knowledge she always tells me I am on no account to breathe a hint of it to anyone ‘especially the Gentlemen and Sir H. Ponsonby and Sir J. Cowell’, and she often fancies no one knows anything of it, while in reality there is hardly a soul in the house who does not know."

Over the course of his many years as the Queen’s personal physician, Sir James became one of her most trusted allies. That meant that he was often called on to deal with problems having nothing to do with medicine. One of the most challenging issues was the household resentment over the Queen’s favouritism towards her Indian servant, Abdul Karim (best known to us today from the movie Victoria and Abdul, starring Judi Dench as Queen Victoria and Ali Fazal as Abdul). When it came to dealing with someone from India, the Queen was remarkably free from ‘race prejudice’ and snobbery, but her family and household were not. The ranks were seething with dissention over the Queen’s honours bestowed on Abdul.

The Queen’s partiality to her Indian servants was vividly demonstrated in the case of the theft of one of her brooches and its sale to a jeweller in Windsor. Although documented proof fingered Hourmet Ali as the perpetrator, the Queen was furious that anyone could suggest that he could do such a thing. After a conference with Abdul Karim, (Hourmet Ali’s brother-in-law) she insisted that Ali was "a model of honesty and uprightness and would never dream of stealing anything." She accepted Abdul’s explanation that Houmet had picked it up and that it was an Indian custom to keep anything one found and say nothing about it and that he was only acting up to the customs of his country.

Eventually, Sir James became ill as a result of being caught between the Queen and the household on the subject of Abdul. Whereupon, the Queen suddenly turned compassionate and repentent. She wrote to Sir James, saying that she was greatly "distressed" at his becoming ill "from the worry I caused you the last few months and especially the last week which might all have been prevented but for my senselessness and want of thought."

Nevertheless, the Queen kicked up a fuss when Sir James revealed his intention to marry Susan Baring, one of the Queen’s maids-of-honour. Generally, the Queen tried to stop her male staff from marrying because "they were never the same afterwards." Having enjoyed the undivided attention of her doctor for nearly twenty years, she was highly disconcerted that he should feel the need to seek a wife. Realizing that she could not stop this marriage, she made the couple wait three weeks before making their announcement public. Meanwhile, she dictated their living arrangements, his schedule and his duties consequent upon his continuing, as a married man, in the role of her physician. In due time, the Queen produced lovely presents for the couple. When she heard, however, that many of the royal household were planning to attend the wedding in St. Paul’s, while she remained at Windsor, the Queen was heard to inquire plaintively: "And who shall bring me my tea?"

These incidents are just a few highlights from a book packed with such gems. If there’s one drawback to the book, it might be that a reader sometimes runs the risk of being overwhelmed by the plethora of names and personalities. On one gossipy page, for instance, we get references to Charles Canning (the viceroy of India), Charlotte (his wife), Lord Curzon (a future viceroy of India), Johnny Stanley (a young ADC to Canning), Colonel Stuart (Charlotte’s cousin), Minny (Colonel Stuart’s wife), Louisa (Charlotte’s sister) and Lord Waterford (Louisa’s husband). Trying to keep all those connections in your mind is a bit like listening to one of your elderly aunts rattle off names in a complicated network of relatives.

It was to Sir James, her beloved physician, that Queen Victoria wanted to speak privately as she lay dying on the 19th of January in 1901. Having ordered everyone else out of the room, she told him: "I should like to live a little longer, as I have still a few things to settle. I have arranged most things but there are still some left and I want to live a little longer." Reid reports that the Queen "appealed to me in this pathetic way with great trust as if she thought I could make her live." (She died on the 22nd.)

So there you have it – Queen Victoria felt that her life wasn’t quite full enough. She still wanted more. In other words, she was like any mortal. This book shows that Queen Victoria was as full of conflicts and contradictions as anybody could be. It’s just that, in her case, the weirdness was magnified so much because of her eminence. Who’s to say that any of us might not have emerged looking just as strange if we had been forced to live in such an atmosphere of pampering and panoply?

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