This was my earliest confrontation with Modernism. A simile that made no logical or visual “sense”. A complete non-sequitur except for the shared idea of stillness or perhaps a verbal association between “etherised” and “the ether”. But a patient about to be operated on in a love poem? Still, there it was and it was certainly striking. A real test for the beginner. All I could do was let the poem happen and read on.
Eventually, what lay beyond reason and sense, but not beyond consciousness and the power of words to contain and express it, would become as inevitably right as any other form of verse.
The artwork that left me scratching my head
Matthias Grunewald’s Crucifixion is one of two fixed wings of the Isenheim altar, to be seen now at the Unterlinden Museum, Colmar, in Alsace. Painted between 1505 and 1515 for a monastery hospital for the victims of syphilis, epilepsy and the plague, it shows the crucified Christ as a wretched figure contorted at the highest point of human suffering. With its fingers grotesquely twisted like claws above the cross, and its flesh, after flagellation, torn all over by the metal tips of the whip, what it suggests, as has often been noted, is a giant sky-creature, brought down and plucked of its feathers.
Nothing in this brutally realistic version of the event, where the human body has been subjected to the utmost violation and degradation, seems continuous with what we see in Italian renditions of the same subject, where Christ’s body, an idealised, classically Greek version of the athlete/hero, for all his suffering, retains a human dignity that prepares for the “untouched” Christ of the coming resurrection. The emphasis is as much on what transcends suffering as the suffering itself.
The German version allows no such evasion of brute facts. We may recoil and scratch our heads, but the image is unforgettable.
The character I’d most like to be
Close as I fell to him and have done over three readings of the thousands of pages of his life as a book, would I really want to be the narrator of A La Recherche du Temps Perdu? Better of course, less painful, than to be Prince Myshkin, or Hamlet or Achilles. Closer to the puzzles and complexities of daily living, the discovery, over and over again, of how wrong you have been about a moment in the past that you thought you had been privy to and at home in, that had been a precious and personal experience; or how wrong you had been, for all your closeness and close observation and analysis, about a lover or friend. Moments of loss or grief. Moments of grotesque comedy. Moments of rich enjoyment in the world of the senses, the world of art and ideas, the trivial but engaging world of society and gossip and affairs – including shady political affairs and the divisions and betrayals they bring. A world lost at last, with its dance of steeples and its pavements underfoot, in the destructiveness of war. Too close to the actual, perhaps. Better some more fanciful character.
Too late for Trabb’s boy (from Great Expectations) or Huckleberry Finn. Maybe Bottom the Weaver, ass’ head and all, with his Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The song I never tire of hearing
Cole Porter has the great advantage as a songwriter of being his own lyricist. Cool, risque, but also at times deeply moving, he is a great pattern-maker of rhyme and rhythm. Let’s Do It, Anything Goes, Night and Day are great pop songs; Kiss Me Kate a classic musical.
He also writes what I would call art-songs. Through written settings of a mood or complaint like the contemplative In the Still of the Night and the lighter, more emotionally complex I’ve Got You Under My Skin.
Most popular songs have a simple A-B-A form: melody, a complementary middle section, melody again. I’ve Got You Under My Skin, after the opening statement, “I’ve got you under my skin/ I’ve got you under the hide of me”, over and over again opens up, to change and intensify the emotion as the speaker tries to retain his cool against the doubtfulness of that “I’ve got you”, and the obsessive rhythms that repeat and repeat in his ear as they do in ours. The result is one of the most intense and expansive melodies in the field.
The building that most amazed me
I go back to my favourite building, the Pantheon in Rome, because it allows me, each time, to experience again my first encounter with it. To step under the pediment of the portico, to cross it and step out under the vast dome – 43.2 metres across, the same in height, naturally lighted from above by an eight-metres-wide circular hole like a metaphorical sun in the ceiling – is quite literally to have your breath taken away, as a bodily space opens up and lifts your sense of being bodily in space. A sense too of what space is, both as one of the dimensions of our consciousness and symbolically as “the heavens”. Added to this is what we apprehend in the building’s scale and power, of human – that is, Roman – technological achievement. This building remains, after 2000 years, the largest unreinforced concrete dome in existence, and in terms of its material an engineering achievement unmatched until the late 19th century.
The performance that brought me undone
I arrived in London just before my 25th birthday in March ’59. A university friend, Peter Edwards, had arranged accommodation for me at London House and bought tickets at Covent Garden for a rare five-act version of Verdi’s Don Carlos, with Boris Christoff, conductor Carlo Maria Giulini, director Luchino Visconti. It turned out to be the most extraordinary performance I have ever heard or seen.
This was Visconti in his later, luscious style (already glimpsed in the very operatic film Senso) rather than the spare black-and-white realist. In the Veil Scene with Elizabeth and Eboli, the ladies engaged in an elegant game of shuttlecock, watched by four greyhounds. The auto-da-fe scene was on a vast scale: its crowd of citizens, its sombre procession of monks, the Flemings roped for execution, the music building to its climax of rival choruses and the voices of the six soloists with their conflicting emotions and commitments, and the voice of the heavenly angel breaking through the harmonious din. I had never heard or seen anything like it. It set the standard, Europe-wide, for a brilliant decade to come, and remains unequalled. In fact, in this five-act version, it was not repeated.
The scene I can’t unsee
In October, 1991, I attended the end-of-year recital of what what was then the Aboriginal and Islander Dance Company at the Belvoir Theatre. Arriving just as the lights were being lowered, I was ushered to a set in the very front row.
Two feet from the stage, which was only three feet high, I was barely settled when the lights came up and I was confronted, so close I could have reached out and touched him, by a half-naked old man, one of the company’s Territorian mentors. Stamping his feet and moving his head menacingly from side to side, he was inhabited by the spirit of a giant goanna, and the effect was so terrifyingly real that my first reaction was to leap up and run right out of the theatre.
What I had been struck by was the enormous gap between my own consciousness and that of someone who was also human but had retained a relationship I could only wonder at with the larger animal world.
Later I went on to think how much more unsettling such confrontations must have been to our earliest settlers. It was out of this moment, and these considerations, that my novel Remembering Babylon emerged.
The book that always defeats me
I was brought up on three books that my mother read aloud to me until I was old enough to read for myself: a simplified version of the childhood of David Copperfield, Grimms fairytales, and a Children’s Bible in an evangelical American version. The latter I heard most often because it could be dipped into: Jacob and Esau, Jacob’s Ladder, Jacob at the Well, Joseph and his Brothers, Moses in the Bull-rushes, Ruth, Esther, Samson and Delilah, Daniel in the Lion’s Den, Jonah and the Whale – benign folktales of narrow escapes or separation and reunion. Later I re-read some of them again in the extraordinary language of the King James version, along with The Psalms, The Song of Solomon and Ecclesiastes, but with some misgivings now of what was being revealed.
Over the past 50 years I have several times tried again, but have found myself repelled and defeated by the “jealous” god who is at the centre of all this, with his cruel tests and vindictive punishments; forever “smiting” someone for their disobedience, or for failing to love him enough, or simply because one of them has accidentally stumbled while bearing the ark. Exasperated, I go back to the Greeks, and a dysfunctional family of gods who embody, and allow us to name and confront, the forces of nature, and in our own nature, that we deal with daily, and whose power we may be in awe of but whose fickleness, as Homer shows, can also be mocked.
The book I always return to
Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick is a book I read when I was 14 and went back to yearly over the next decade. Its opening line, the ambiguous “Call me Ishmael”, is unforgettable, as is the quotation from Job that begins the epilogue: “And I only am escaped to tell thee.” In between is a mixture of allegory, the White Whale, as Captain Ahab sees it, as Divine Power, good or evil; the Pequod whaleboats in action on the water; short essays in the manner of the encyclopaedists on every aspect of whale ecology; Shakespearean soliloquies by the Captain, Starbuck the First Mate, the Ship’s Carpenter, and others; and comic interludes as Ishmael, the sceptical Christian, acknowledges the alternative culture of his cannibal soul-mate, Queequeg.
There is also a terrifying chapter, “The Tryworks”, where Ishmael loses his grip on reality, and a wonderfully lyrical vision, in “The Grand Armada”, of sacred otherness as mother whales nurse their young. An anthology, in short, of man’s meeting with man, with the animal kingdom; of nature and its use (or misuse) in what was then America’s largest industry; of man’s meeting with the divine. All in a language of the highest eloquence and at times of the most mischievious, sometimes erotic, sometimes blasphemous play.
The poem that comes closest to perfection
Shakespeare’s sonnet “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” opens on a question. Does this very conventional comparison fit the young man he is writing to? He decides it does not. The young man is more “lovely” (a very homely word), but also more “temperate” – an unexpectedly abstract one, that suggests moderation, lack of excess or extremes, but also stability. Summer is none of these. It can go wrong: “Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May.” Summer ends. It is also unreliable; the sun one day is too hot, on another it barely comes out. As for youthful beauty, that eventually fades, either naturally over time or by mischance. This young man’s youthful beauty will never fade, nor will he ever die, because he exists now not in nature or time (the world of days and seasons) but in the lines of an immortal poem.
The completeness of the argument, its concision, its definitiveness, is extraordinary; so, in the final couplet, are the sound-patterns it creates with its 10 monosyllables and their repetitions: “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,/ So long lives this and this gives life to thee.” Yeats called poetry “memorable speech”. This sonnet in every way fits the bill.