For a 128-page novella, The Uncommon Reader is crammed with goodies: there’s the comedy of manners; there's the fable about the pleasures and perils of reading; and, best of all, there's the big conceptual goof that gets you rabid to read another book—one that doesn’t exist, unfortunately: The Big Proustian Epic of Twentieth Century England.
It’s an old story. Anthony Powell slyly pretended that Dance to the Music of Time was going to be the B.P.E.O.T.C.E., while actually composing crisply aimless satires of a world in which everything of significance is reduced to the tittle-tattle of people who don’t really want to be at the party they’re at
Bennett’s mini-mock-epic is more sympathetic. First of all, his protagonist, the Queen is no snob: “to her everybody’s name was immaterial, as indeed was everything else, their clothes, their voice, their class. She was a genuine democrat, perhaps the only one in the country.”
Which is nice, but which makes it hard for her to make sense of some books:
“The essence of Jane Austen lies in minute social distinctions, distinctions which the Queen’s unique position made it difficult for her to grasp. There was such a chasm between the monarch and even her grandest subject that the social differences beyond that were somewhat telescoped. So the social distinctions of which Jane Austen made so much seemed of even less consequence to the Queen than they did to the ordinary reader, thus making the novels much harder going. To begin with, at any rate, Jane Austen was practically a work of entomology, the characters not quite ants but seeming to the royal reader so much alike as to require a microscope. It was only as she gained in understanding of both literature and human nature that they took on individuality and charm.”
Not that she doesn’t have limits. When somebody mentions Harry Potter, she replies, “Yes, One is saving that for a rainy day,”
Bennett is good on the game of mutual make-believe:
“Diligently though Her Majesty might carry out all her duties, that was all she was doing, and never now pretending, as it were, to break ranks and seldom coming out with supposedly unrehearsed remarks (‘Careful,’ she might say as she pins a medal on a young man, ‘I don’t want to stab you through the heart’), remarks that could be taken home and cherished, along with the invitation card, the special car-park pass and the map of the palace precincts.”
Which makes the Queen's escape into reading seem like an escape into reality:
“The appeal of reading, she thought, lay in its indifference: there was something undeferring about literature. Books did not care who was reading them or whether one read them or not. All readers were equal, herself included. … It was anonymous; it was shared; it was common. And she who had led a life apart now found that she craved it. Here in these pages and between these covers she could go unrecognized.”
Piotr Anderszewski didn’t apologize to the audience last Saturday at Disney, and he didn’t once storm off stage in a sulk at not playing to his expectations. He just shuffled out and played Bach Partitas and English Suites, pretty much disappearing behind the music, letting Bach do the talking. An unpopular but rewarding approach. Enlightening about Bach but mystifying about Piotr Anderszewski—which is probably just as well. There was a little theater at the end: for an encore, instead of more Bach, he unleashed some Beethoven Bagatelles, making them sound like the exact midpoint between Bach and Chopin.
No, Lucinda Williams has not gone all happy. Yes, her new album rocks more than usual—the rock of a Seventies alt-country art band obsessed with Grievous Angel and Sticky Fingers. Hence the appropriateness of the duet with Elvis Costello, whose mixture of reverence and irony in Almost Blue certainly lit Lucinda’s path. Their song—“Jailhouse Tears”—updating the immortal Twitty/Lynne “You’re the reason our kids are ugly”—is the funniest thing Williams has ever done, which is something. Rock also appears as subject matter in “Little Rock Star” and Rarity”—the former a rowdy tease, the latter an elaborate late night confession. “Plan to Marry” might have chance of becoming the definitive early-21st century wedding reception ballad, and so to sabotage that fate Williams performs it battered beyond hope. So where do you go from there? The honky-tonk Anne Sexton does a cover of AC/DC’s “It’s a long way to the top" (& it's excellent.)
I would say Antony and the Johnsons last night at the Disney was one of the best rock concerts I’ve ever seen, except I’m not certain it was a rock concert. Rock elements were in the air. The crowd was younger and artier than the Disney regulars. The music was organized into songs with a (loose) verse/chorus structure, but they were too wayward, or too fragmented, or too simple (repeating one phrase over and over) or too short for rock. Instead of guitars there was a chamber orchestra, playing Nico Muhly’s elegantly restrained arrangements. And above all there was the tone: instead of declamation and getting-down, it was an evening of sighs.
Antony put on a mesmerizing show. It has to be seen to be believed. He has a look and manner that is unique, and is not merely put-on. The impression he gives is of earnest, obsessive child. His earnestness is often alarming to witness. There is not one drop of irony.
He cleverly did the opening number in the dark, focusing attention on his voice, and the painstaking way he crafts the passage of each note to the next. Sometimes it got so intricate that I lost track of the words, though others tell me they didn’t (not that I’m complaining). When the lights turned on he was revealed as a substantial lad, wearing a dress that looked like a child’s drawing of an art nouveau gown. The woman sitting next to me snickered (she had been brought by her friend). Then, when Antony started gesticulating nervously, strangely, intensely, she outright giggled. But by the end of the show she said, “You gotta love him.” Agreed.
Just a reminder that the Nobelpriset i litteratur sailed through the 20th century without acknowledging the existence of Akhmatova, Apollinaire, Artaud, Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, Borges, Brecht, Breton, Burroughs, Butor, Calvino, Cavafy, Celan, Chekhov, Cocteau, Colette, Conrad, Duras, Eluard, Firbank, Fitzgerald, Forster, Robert Frost, Genet, Ginsberg, Gorky, Robert Graves, Thomas Hardy, Housman, Ibsen, Ionesco, Henry James, David Jones, Joyce, Kafka, Lampedusa, Larkin, Lawrence, Lorca, Robert Lowell, Mandelstam, Moore, Nabokov, Frank O'Hara, Orwell, Owen, Pavese, Plath, Ponge, Pound, Proust, Queneau, Rilke, Robbe-Grillet, Stevie Smith, Stein, Stevens, Dylan Thomas, Tolkein, Tolstoy, Twain, Tzara, Valery, Waugh, Tennessee Williams, William Carlos Williams, Woolf …
Our L.A. Phil season opened Sunday with a matinee of deluxe Russian art nouveau: Stravinsky’s Fireworks and Firebird, and Tchaikovsky’s first piano Concerto. Bernard Shaw complained about Tchaikovsky’s "thoroughly Byronic power of being tragic, momentous, romantic about nothing at all.” A century later that just makes him seem completely up-to-date, especially with Yefim Bronfman’s alternating pulverization/caress of the keyboard. The Phil nailed Stravinsky’s little outbursts of anxiety and irony, and wallowed in the lush patches.
In his play Mary Stuart, Friedrick Schiller gave his heroine the line, "I am better than my reputation," which I hope also applies to the writer because the Germans don't remember him anymore. According to the Telegraph, he has been receiving warning notices to pay his television licence lately, "despite having been dead since 1805."
And why shouldn't he pay? He would certainly want to see Saturday Night Live's Sarah Palin parodies. Their take on the VP debate, with Queen Latifah as Gwen Ifill, almost makes the election bearable.
California Natural, a pet food manufacturer, now offers Herring and Sweet Potato dry dog food. This appalling combination has proved "beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella" for The Sid. As always, the place to go for real weirdness is
As in the recent case brought before a judge in Hawaii by two men who were trying to get the EPA to prevent the Large Hadron Collider from starting operation. Why? Because it would annihilate the world, that’s all. The judge ruled that the question was out of her jurisdiction (the fate of the world, I suppose). Anyway, after two days of operation the LHC started leaking fluid and overheating like a beater car, and had to be shut down without producing a single world-devouring mini-black hole.