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Thursday, 9 March 2017

The surprise factor

We may be impressed or moved or disgusted by great works of art. More rarely are we surprised. Even if we've led wilfully sheltered lives we've usually absorbed a host of trailers before we come upon the Rembrandt self-portraits, Boswell's Life of Johnson or Citizen Kane. We are prepared and this can interfere with the way we respond. After all, no one wants to admit - at first sight - that Hamlet's a right old load of rubbish. I should add in support of my High Cultural Virginity this wasn't my initial reaction to the great Danish time-waster.

But I was surprised by Madame Bovary. Oh I knew it was a French classic, a true "modern" novel. But even now, forty or fifty years on, I remember my first act on finishing it. I turned back to the title pages searching for small print that confirmed I hadn't read what the French call Texte intégral but rather an abridgement, perhaps even by Reader's Digest. There had been no hindrances, the story moved at great pace and with fearless clarity. Classics usually demand concentration, some allowances for obsolete language; Bovary moved like a rocket.

Moby Dick also surprised me but this was less admirable, I ended up smug. I'd been warned about the density, the detours and the fog coefficient but I read it straight through as if it were an Agatha Christie. What, I wondered, was the problem? Yes, you're right: utterly insufferable! Alas, Tone Deaf is frequently just that.

Nobody in my group much cared for A Quiet Passion, a recent movie about Emily Dickinson, the poet whose external life was a nothingness. I stayed silent, saw it as a masterpiece. Surprise may be incommunicable.


  1. My brain's not up to a truly coherent response (It's early, coffee hasn't gained traction), but I'll offer this. Live performances of works of art can hold the most unexpected and rewarding surprises. I attended a gig by our most local orchestra a couple weekends ago and they opened with Shasta's Festive Overture. Not his biggest work, surely, but I like overtures in general and the Colgate Orchestra always opens with one. Gets the blood flowing...well, you know what overtures are for. the Concertmaster took the stage at 10 seconds past 15:30 Naval observatory time (a disappointment, as the last time I monitored this orchestra's punctuality they were only two seconds late) and conductor Marietta Cheng, vastly accomplished and brilliantly dynamic, strode to the podium in her always sleek fashion (and attire). She scanned the orchestra very briefly then froze into her usually starting position (the moment when one fully knows that good things are one second away).
    Unusually, about one minute into the piece, the precise and demanding conductor accidentally swept her score off its stand with an errant elbow, and it fell to the floor, the floor being approximately ten inches lower than the riser she was conducting from. The score, in its green cover, lay lonely and out of reach. Thinking that M.C. would be fine without the score for the remaining five minutes of the piece, I was in the midst of passing off the incident when she crouched,in her dress, conducting with her right hand held high, and swept the score up in a single left handed pick that was so fluent and quick as to be immediately unbelievable. Replacing the music to the stand she swept a finger vaguely across the page and turned from it, completing the greatest act of athletic improvisation I would see that day. Ten inches below the level of her feet! A Strauss horn concerto (two dreadful movements sandwiching the middle andante, which was overwhelmingly beautiful)followed by a much downsized orchestra performing The Jupiter. Big contrasts in sound and style. Best show I've seen from them.

  2. Art requires patience, at least in my case. And for many years I was too busy and only found time for the snappy, fast, attention seeking kind of art. I think this reduced my ability to be sucked into, overwhelmed by art, be it written or visual in any shape, the way I experienced it as a child and a young person.
    So I set myself tasks. Last year I read War&Peace - finally - from beginning to end one chapter a day, initially. I got carried away and finished it in early July.
    A door was opened. I think/hope. I just completed all of F. Scott Fitzgerald in less than a week, now rereading all Heinrich Böll, one steady short story a day.

    On a Rembrandt note: Many years ago my daughter, aged 10, insisted on Madame Tussaud (Amsterdam) and being an easily persuaded mother, we went (the previous day was entirely devoted to Anne Frank, a contrast may have been in order). On that day, apart from the usual wax figurines display, there was a reenacting of The Anatomy Lesson, wax modelled. It was actually brilliant. Years later, without my daughter, I went to The Hague to see the original painting, which was amazing, obviously, but mostly reminded my of the wax version.

  3. MikeM: I realise I was kinda vague. I might well have reflected that there's only a thin line between being surprised and being impressed. Also that surprise need not necessarily be a cultural experience (as it was with Bovary) - being carried away from the orchestra stalls in a hurricane would inevitably be surprising.

    Your description - with or without coffee - was excellent but also surprising, who or what is Shasta? I'm aware of Brahms' Festival Overture, also four Roman festival overtures by Respighi (Circenses, Giubileo, L'Ottobrato, Le Befano). Not that it matters. "Swept the score up in a single left-handed pick" takes me indirectly into another cultural world: Forbes Field, Pittsburgh, in the late sixties. An outfield fly drops short of Willie Stargell and he, doing what you say, then hums the ball over the plate from left field. Music and baseball! I'm proud I'm not a one-trick pony.

    Disasters in the concert hall are mercifully rare. The leader of the City Of Birmingham Symphony used to be an elegant if petite young woman with a long soft brown ponytail, who always appeared in evening-dress tights rather than the more conventional black dress. She broke a string in the course of one work (name forgotten), whispered to her deputy and he produced a replacement from the pocket of his weskit. Within less than a minute she'd re-installed the new string, tuned her fiddle, and was ready to go. But here's the magic. She contrived to do all this during a passage when the first violins were unemployed. Real professionalism.

    Sabine: That must be some kind of first: Rembrandt via waxworks. I'm glad it turned out well. Such associations can, alas, turn out badly.

    I remember a guy reminiscing on BBC radio about musical curses. Notably the way kids at school were encouraged to remember classical works via regrettable mnemonics. In his case it was Beethoven's Pastoral and the jingle ran:

    The countree,
    The countree,
    It's better than the town.

    I laughed at the time, now I'm stuck with the jingle. I hope you aren't.

    You sound like a prime candidate for Robert Musil's Der Mann Ohne Eigenschaften.

  4. Sorry. Shosta. Shasta is a "pop". -15C here and screaming wind at the moment. Back to sleep.

  5. I have at various times been obsessed with "Moby Dick," but I can't bear "Madame Bovary" even though I admire it. Shall put the Dickinson film on my list.

  6. Marly: I'm beginning to think I'm insensitive when I go on about Bovary. Lucy hates it too. Both of you for good reason. I wouldn't care to have my gender represented by impulsive Emma; nor is the situation ameliorated by the fact that MB is now over 150 years old. It is a very negative view of women but might this be said about a number of classic tragedies? A month or two ago I watched Strauss's opera Salomé; you'd hardly have come away from that feeling ennobled.

    Most movies about poets are cop-outs. Because it's impossible to dramatise the act of creating poetry, movie-makers turn instead to their troubled lives, treating their poems as incidental. Dickinson's claustrophobic life was troubled but on a small scale; she was virtually confined to the same house and to the same family. And yet her steeliness emerges, then - rather terribly - it is supplanted by doubts in later years. I at least am convinced. Did you know Dickinson's complete output is available free as a Kindle download? Or must you have the texture of the paper, the smell of the gum, etc, etc?