Ian McEwan has admitted in an interview that Lessons, his seventeenth novel, is ‘indulgently long’. What is it about? I can’t really answer that question. A ‘baby boomer’ young man drifts through life – all the significant things that happen: the Suez Crisis, the fall of the Berlin wall, the ending of the ‘cold war’… Is this man a drifter because of the startling experience he had as an adolescent with his piano teacher, causing him to arrive at her doorstep ‘twitchy with eroticised terror’?
When I read about this adolescent experience at the beginning of the novel I thought it a vivid fantasy – it couldn’t really happen. But I was wrong. It did happen to Roland Baines. Did it mark and shape the rest of his life? According to a lover, much later in life, it ‘rewired’ his brain. It clearly had an effect, but nothing like the dramatic effect I would have expected.
Roland Baines is an ordinary ‘baby boomer’ man – a not very successful poet. Through circumstance, he is a wonderful father to his son, for whom he is the sole parent from when Lawrence is about seven months old. This is because Roland’s wife suddenly and, seemingly, inexplicably leaves. In her note she says, mysteriously, ‘I’ve been living the wrong life’.
I did not forgive her, leaving her little son in order to become a writer – even though she became a very good writer. There are countless excellent writers who do not totally sever connections with their children. After years of loneliness, Roland does find happiness although, because of the death of the woman he comes to love, it is fairly short-lived.
I have just finished reading Stephen Downes’ The Hands of Pianists. I do think that a big black Steinway on a concert platform looking out onto a sea of mainly unknown faces indeed poses a terrifying challenge for the pianist. The question that intrigues me, however, is whether this situation is more terrifying for concert pianists because they can rarely play on their own instruments — sometimes it would be a case of only a couple of rehearsals to get to know the quirks of the particular piano on which they must perform. Whereas a virtuoso violinist, oboist, trombonist, etc will face the audience holding their own familiar instrument.
But Stephen Downes has written a novel and his protagonist is grappling with overwhelming guilt of having, in an accident, severed the fingers of his sister, who was a talented pianist. And she was ultimately driven to suicide. At times, maybe to try to assuage his guilt, the protagonist seems to suggest that his sister was relieved to escape from her obligation of confronting the concert grand.
One young pianist who did die by suicide was the Australian, Noël Mewton-Wood. I recommend Sonia Orchard’s book about him, The Virtuoso. Orchard’s book describes the strain of high level concert performance, and at the time Mewton-Wood, in London, lived under the additional strain of having to publically suppress his homosexuality, as it was still illegal at the time. Orchard’s book suggests that Mewton-Wood killed himself, desolated by the fact that he had gone out the night his partner, Bill, had appendicitis. Bill’s appendix burst, and he died in hospital some time later. Such a terrible waste. We can never know whether the pressures of virtuosic performance played any part in Mewton-Wood’s suicide, but it seems most unlikely that it was the main provocation.
So I would say that Stephen Downes has an intriguing theory, but he doesn’t manage to support it. And no female concert pianists are mentioned: if it’s the case that no famous female pianists died young and none by suicide, this might be worth mentioning — particularly since the protagonist’s sibling is female. Also, there are a lot of diversions that I found irritating: detailed descriptions of places that don’t really add much to the narrative.
The Hands of Pianists was, for me, an interesting read. It takes us to places (such as piano workshops) where we don’t often have a chance to go. Maybe this is how it came to be nominated for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. But I do have some reservations in recommending it.
A brilliant way to finish the year — four concerts of chamber music played by the talented students of the Australian National Academy of Music. And three of my favourite pieces were included. Even now, four days later, Schubert’s ‘Trout’ Quintet is running through my head.
The first piece provided a bit of nostalgia for me, because I had played it several times years ago and love it. Jan Dismas Zelenka has rightly earned the title, ‘the Czech Bach’. He lived at the same time as Johann Sebastien Bach: Zelenka 1679 — 1745, J.S. Bach 1685 — 1750. His music is different from Bach’s — possibly more influenced by a folk tradition, but it has similarly rich harmonies and ingenious use of fugal themes. I was pleased that on this occasion Trio Sonata number 6 was performed on conventional rather than Baroque instruments (with the exception of harpsichord). The parts, for two oboes, bassoon, harpsichord and double bass are technically challenging even with modern day key systems. I try to imagine how the players of the early 18th century wind instruments managed. Their oboes and bassoons were made with very few key coverings — similar to the recorders we know today. The ANAM players gave an enlivened and thoroughly satisfying performance.
In keeping with the theme of Bohemia, we heard a Piano Trio by Smetana, unfamiliar to me, and then the String Quintet in G major by Antonin Dvořák.
First of three concerts the next day started with Francis Poulenc’s Sextet for Piano and Winds. The ‘winds’ are flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn — essentially a wind quintet and piano. I was familiar with a couple of movements of this piece: the middle movement, a Divertissement: Andantino and the final Prestissimo movement (very fast). Poulenc was self-educated musically as his parents thought he should join the family business. Many of his works are playful and irreverent although, particularly later in his life, he wrote more serious religious music. He joined five other young French/Swiss musicians, Les Six (Auric, Durey, Honegger, Milhaud and Tailleferre) who reacted against the impressionism of fellow countrymen Debussy and Ravel.
We then heard Instruments III by Morton Feldman (1926 — 1987) for flute, oboe and percussion. I pitied the wind players — they blurted out sounds at each other — the oboist had to play oboe (and cor anglais) with a mute, which distorted the sound and tuning.
The next piece I did enjoy, by a composer unknown to me, Amy Beach (1867 — 1944). Amy Beach was the first female American composer of large-scale art music, having written a symphony. When she married, Amy had to agree to live according to her husband’s status (he was a Boston surgeon) — this meant that she had to agree never to teach piano and she gave only two public recitals a year, the proceeds of which went to charity. After her husband’s death in 1910 she would go in summer to the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, where she could meet other women composers. The piano quintet we heard is thought to have been influenced by Brahms, with its lush textures. The piece is for string quartet and piano. During her lifetime, Amy — a very accomplished pianist — would often play the piano part at public performances.
In the afternoon we were treated to some superb chamber works, starting with Rachmaninov’s Trio Elégiaque in G minor (violin, cello and piano) and then moving to one of my favourite pieces of music, Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet. I had heard a fantastic performance of this work in Adelaide earlier in the year and although this was superbly played, it didn’t quite live up to my recollection of Konstantin Shamray and the Australian String Quartet https://wordpress.com/post/jenniferbryce.net/2635 This was perhaps partly because the cellist kept tapping his foot quite loudly on the bare wooden floorboards! It was nevertheless wonderful to hear this work of underlying rebellion.
The Shostakovich was followed by Stravinsky’s Octet (flute, clarinet, two bassoons, two trumpets, trombone and bass trombone), and then Janáček’s Mladi, for flute, oboe, two clarinets (one bass), bassoon and horn. This piece was composed near the end of Janáček’s life and in 1925 (he died in 1928) it was awarded the Prize of the Czech Academy of Sciences.
The final concert was subtitled ‘A Soirée in Vienna. It opened with the Mozart Horn Quintet, the horn part ably played by Stefan Grant. We then moved to a piece new to me, Poem for String Quartet by Rebecca Clarke (1886 — 1979). She was a violist and is described as one of the most important British composers between World War I and World War II. Clarke ended up living and working in America when she was thrown out of the house after criticising her father for his extra-marital affairs. She used a male pseudonym to tie for first place with Ernest Bloch in a competition sponsored by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. At the time, the idea that such music could be written by a woman was inconceivable.
After a short interval we heard Webern’s Langsamer Satz (slow movement), composed in 1905. Webern is recognised as a follower of the ’12 tone’ approach to composition, whereby in a piece no one note in the chromatic scale is favoured (no key note or centre). But the system wasn’t put into use until the 1920s, so this string quartet, composed when Webern was twenty-two was harmonic and tonal.
The concert concluded with a brilliant performance of Schubert’s Quntet in A major (‘the trout’). I love this piece and have heard many live performances, but I felt that this was utter perfection. The music is still ringing through my head. Liam Freisberg, who led on violin, did a magnificent job. Ben Tao played viola, Noah Lawrence cello, Paul Oakley double bass and, especially outstanding, Leo Nguyen on piano.
The winner of the 2022 Booker Prize was announced last Monday. And this year, I hadn’t read it. It is by Sri Lankan author Shehan Karunatilaka, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida. His second novel, it has been described as ‘a searing, mordantly funny satire set amidst the murderous mahem of … civil war.’ As well as his one other novel, Shehan Karunatilaka has written songs, scripts and stories that have been published in Rolling Stone, GQ and National Geographic.
I read one book that was longlisted and didn’t make it to the shortlist: Leila Mottley: Nightcrawling. What I particularly appreciated was being brought into the life of Kiara Johnson, a 17 year-old black girl living in a poor community – her father now dead (after having spent time in prison) and her mother detained in a rehab facility. The first sentence of the novel is: ‘The swimming pool is filled with dog shit and Dee’s laughter mocks us at dawn.’ There is often no money, no food, yet there is love. Kiara sees it as her responsibility to find money for the rent (which is for ever going up) – her older brother is too involved in non-paying music projects. Even in what we might describe as abject poverty, Kiara takes on the care of 9 year-old Trevor who has been abandoned by a neighbour, who also can’t meet the rent payments. Her love for Trevor is central to the book. It seems that the only way Kiara can raise enough money is by sex work. She is, of course, mercilessly exploited – particularly by the police, who invite her to sex parties then get out of paying her. Should Kiara expose the police or keep her mouth shut? She is a loser in all things legal or concerning money, but her love for people shines through and in the end she finds love with her old girlfriend from school days. As I read, all of my senses were alert to Kiara’s grotty home and her generous love.
The 2022 Booker shortlist was announced in September:
Alan Garner (British) Treacle Walker (4th Estate, HarperCollins)
Shehan Karunatilaka (Sri Lankan) The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida (Sort of Books)
Claire Keegan (Irish) Small Things Like These (Faber)
Elizabeth Strout (US) Oh William! (Viking, Penguin General, Penguin Random House)
Neil MacGregor, Chair of the 2022 judges, says: ‘These six books we believe speak powerfully about important things. Set in different places at different times, they are all about events that in some measure happen everywhere, and concern us all. Each written in English, they demonstrate what an abundance of Englishes there are, how many distinct worlds, real and imaginary, exist in that simple-seeming space, the Anglosphere. ‘Two — Oh, William! and Treacle Walker — are about the inner life, as a young boy and a middleaged woman, in their particular ways, come to a new understanding of who they are and what they might become. The other four books address long national histories of cruelty and injustice, in Sri Lanka and Ireland, Zimbabwe and the United States, and in each case the enduring historical tensions provide the dilemmas in which the characters, like their societies, are put on the rack. ‘Why did we choose these six? ‘In every one, the author uses language not only to tell us what happens, but to create a world which we, outsiders, can enter and inhabit — and not merely by using words from local languages or dialects. NoViolet Bulawayo’s incantatory repetitions induct us all into a Zimbabwean community of memory and expectation, just as Alan Garner’s shamanic obliquities conjure a realm that reason alone could never access. Percival Everett and Shehan Karunatilaka spin fantastical verbal webs of Gothic horror — and humour — that could not be further removed from the hypnotic, hallucinatory clarity of Claire Keegan’s and Elizabeth Strout’s pared-down prose. Most important, all affirm the importance and the power of finding and sharing the truth.’
I didn’t get around to reading Glory or (as mentioned) the book that won.
Of the books I read, my winner would have been a toss up between Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These and Alan Garner’s Treacle Walker. Keegan’s book is short — a novella.
Until 1996, the Catholic Church and the Irish government financed Magdalene Laundries, where young women were sent if they were destitute, particularly if they became pregnant out of wedlock. They were hidden from the rest of the community. Records of these institutions have been, conveniently, lost, but according to Keegan as many as 30,000 young women may have been locked away in these places – never to have the hope of living a fulfilling life – always made to feel ashamed of their existence. Furlong, the central character in the book, who is now almost 50, had been born out of wedlock when his mother was sixteen – had his mother not been taken in by a wealthy protestant woman, she would most likely have been consigned to one of these laundries and Furlong might not even have survived.
Furlong is leading what seems a good and worthy life. There is enough money to get by – from his coal business – he doesn’t drink excessively, he has a good capable wife and five daughters who are all doing well. What will go wrong? I wondered. Will he take to drink, or fall for a younger woman? No – although those possibilities are present. One day, near Christmas, when delivering coal to the local convent, Furlong comes across a young girl locked in the coal house. When he hands her to the nun in charge, there is pretense at treating her well – poor girl, she needs breakfast, etc… She said to Furlong that she wanted to see her baby and perhaps feed him one more time (he is 14 weeks old). Furlong lingers, but there is nothing much he can do but leave her there. This plays on his conscience and just before Christmas he returns quietly on foot to the convent, checks the coal house and finds the girl locked there, once again. This time he rescues her. It is as though he is rescuing his mother.
I haven’t read Alan Garner before, although he has written a huge number of books. In the front of the book is a short quote by Carlo Revelli: Time is ignorance. How would we experience the world if we could escape time? Teenage Joe, the hero, has extraordinary vision. He wears a patch over his good eye to try to correct the bad one. He’s a bit of a loner (no parents in evidence) and he measures out the days by watching the passing of Noony, the train, through the valley below. With his lazy eye, Joe can see time collapsed: the eternal is now. Sometimes I was reminded of Alice in Wonderland when with his friends, the naked Thin Amren and Treacle Walker, whose face is both old and young, and comic book characters, Joe tackles a world of shatterless mirrors that he can walk through. The book is most beautifully written – so much is said in about 150 pages and the structure is superb: the first sentence is also the last.
I also enjoyed Elizabeth Strout’s Oh William!, although I didn’t see it as a winner. It is part of a series I haven’t read.
Lucy Barton is a successful novelist in her sixties. The book is about Lucy reconnecting with her first husband William – they are both at a crossroads: Lucy’s second husband has just died and William’s third wife has left him. They travel together to Maine in search of a half-sister that William has just learned about. William and Lucy share two grown daughters and the sort of deep friendship that ex-partners are sometimes able to achieve. The style of writing is conversational – what a Guardian review describes as a ‘confiding intimacy’. The novel is also about class in America. Lucy grew up in severe poverty – didn’t even have a TV. And with her marriage to William she is thrust into an upper class way of life with extravagant holidays, where Lucy feels very out of place. The book reflects on the many things in life we do not know until it is too late and indeed the many things we do not really know. The final words are: ‘We are all mythologies, mysterious. We are all mysterious, is what I mean. This may be the only thing in the world I know to be true.’
I enjoyed Graeme Macrae Burnet’s Case Study and was amused that apparently the main research he did for this book was to read lots of women’s magazines of the 1960s — I remember them well!
‘GMB’, a writer, has become interested in Collins Braithwaite, enfant terrible of the 1960s anti-psychiatry movement. Braithwaite is presented as a very real, if outlandish psychiatrist – a foil to the well-known psychiatrist of the post war years, R.D. Laing, who indeed is a character in this book and an enemy to the fictitious Braithwaite. Among other things, Braithwaite wrote a book titled, Untherapy. GMB is contacted by a Mr Martin Grey, who offers to send him materials relating to his cousin, who was a patient of Braithwaite and who believes that her older sister committed suicide as a result of being a patient of Braithwaite. Under the name Rebecca Smyth, the cousin books herself a consultation with Braithwaite, determined to discover the truth. So the reader considers this ‘case study’ material of six notebooks, just as GMB would – it is presented as though it were authentic source material. The novel is the notebooks. As the notebooks progress, their unnamed narrator becomes ever more confused about her own identity. She wishes she were more like her invented alter ego, and begins to see Rebecca almost literally as a separate person. Collins Braithwaite deteriorates to a point where he can barely function at all and ultimately ends his life. This is far more than a detective story – although there is plenty of ‘investigation’ to consider. I thought it brilliant to put the reader in the place of a writer/ psychologist analysing case study notes.
The book I enjoyed least was Percival Everett’s Trees. He is another author who is new to me. This book has been described as ‘page-turning comic horror’ – a satire about the African American middle class. The small amount I know about the treatment of this American social group draws me away from anything that smacks of ‘comic’. So I probably didn’t fully appreciate what this book is getting at.
We start out in the home of a dysfunctional white family, in the town of Money, Mississippi. We later learn that the somewhat mysterious Granny C instigated a lynching in this town back in 1955, and now her son, Wheat Bryant, is found dead and mutilated with the body of a black man next to him. Another rather clandestine extraordinarily elderly woman, Mamma Z has chronicled lynchings that have taken place since 1913. She outlines these to an academic who visits Money after the situation has escalated to an extraordinary degree – always white men, always mutilated (their genitals cut off), always a dead black or Asian man placed with them. Eerily, murders like these are happening all over the country. And Mamma Z tells him that only a fraction of those involved in the lynchings ever served a sentence: ‘no one cared’. And that seems to be the message of this book. The trees (of the title) are the trees used for execution.
Maybe next year I’ll manage to read the complete shortlist.
And now — about a month after the winner was announced, I have read the winner….
Reading Shehan Karunatilaka’s The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida proved to be quite a slog for me. I forced myself to finish it because it won this year’s Booker prize. A photographer in the afterlife sets out to expose the carnage of Sri Lanka’s civil wars. My problem was that I didn’t know enough about the Sri Lankan civil wars to appreciate or fully understand this exposure and also, I felt that my lack of appropriate religious background meant that I missed some subtleties in Karunatilaka’s often witty writing about the after life.
Maali is an itinerant photographer who loves his trusted Nikon camera. He’s a gambler in high-stakes poker, a closet gay man and an atheist. At the start of the novel, he wakes up dead. To start with, he doesn’t believe he is dead. And a main driver in the novel is his quest to find out how he died, because he can’t remember dying. There are many jokes – early on (in his ‘first moon’) he has to line up public service style to fill in forms. Maali is a witness to the brutality of the insurrections in Sri Lanka. His ambition is to take photographs that will bring down governments. For example, he has photographed ‘the government minister who looked on while the savages of ’83 torched Tamil homes and slaughtered the occupants’. Another challenge is to find out what has now happened to those photographs – or the negatives. Stuck in the underworld, he has only seven moons – one week – to get in contact with his girlfriend Jaki and her cousin, DD, Maali’s secret boyfriend, persuade them to retrieve the stash of photos, and share them throughout Colombo, in order to expose the horrifically violent nature of the conflict. Maali doesn’t want his contribution as a witness to be consigned to oblivion, which will happen if he doesn’t solve the mystery of the location of his photos before his seven moons have run out. Because after that, he will have no memory. At the end of Maali’s seventh moon, in the company of a Leopard, he will be reborn by jumping into a river. The final words of the novel are: ‘And when you jump you will know three things. That the brightness of the light will force you to open your eyes wider. That you will choose the same drink and it will take you somewhere knew. And that, when you get there, you will have forgotten all of the above.’
The film runs for well over an hour and during that time we are with Luma as she goes about the routine of her life — her raison d’être is to provide milk. We first see her giving birth — the film was made over a four year period. The calf is pulled out with rope — this seems to be standard. There is a touching scene where Luma licks her calf clean, the calf tries to suckle, but is taken away and hand fed and, the after-birth still trailing, Luma is encouraged into the electric milking machines.
Cruel? Probably not as large-scale dairy farms go. Extraordinarily, there is no narration, although we hear the farm-workers talk to the cows in a kindly way (even if ‘girlies’ is a bit inappropriate). Luma is called by her name and on the whole gently enticed into the milking machines and the pen where, a few months later, she is mated again and there is another pregnancy. In spring, the cows spend time in lush green fields and they trot willingly (of necessity?) back to be milked. My sense was that they know what is going on. When her calf is taken away from her, Luma’s mooing is plaintive — the calf calls out and she answers — this goes on for some time, some days, I think. Of course we immediately transfer this experience to the thought of a human child being taken from its mother — but Luma was upset. Distraught, one might say.
In an interview, the director Andrea Arnold said, ‘They say the difference between humans and animals is that we can see the past and think about the future, but I could see that Luma knew what’s coming when she’s pregnant. She got particularly mad when she saw the farmer taking away a calf from another cow.’
The film is said to follow the approach of the cinema vérité of Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthasar (1966) about the life of a donkey who ends up with various owners most of whom treat him callously. Andrea Arnold says that the film is not intended to be political, but ‘a presentation of life’. She chose a cow because they work so hard. However, as we left the cinema people were proclaiming, ‘I’m never going to drink a latté again’. I had feared that there would be scenes of slaughter, but Arnold chose a dairy farm. Luma worked until she had provided pretty much every drop of milk possible. By the end of the movie she is old, having had at least six calves. Her udders are grossly enlarged from so much milking — to the extent that she has trouble walking. A humane end? She is taken into a reasonably spacious pen, given a bucket of what I presumed is pleasant food, and quickly shot.
My feeling is that this film will be viewed in a political light by many — even if this isn’t the intention of the director. Luma’s life may well have been better than that of many cattle (in a Q & A after the film we were given some insight into an appalling situation in India — home of the sacred cow). For how long can the world justify industries of this kind? Luma couldn’t have escaped — she was enslaved, albeit in a kinder and gentler fashion than in some other areas of the cattle industry.
I remember being taken to Astra concerts when I was in primary school — a string orchestra of old ladies playing works such as Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Apparently the orchestra started officially in 1951, but there were concerts earlier than that. A little later, Astra was taken over by George Logie Smith — it was then a choir and orchestra, and by the 1970s I was playing oboe in the orchestra. I remember the music as fairly conventional, but perusal of Astra’s extensive archive suggests that this was not always the case https://www.astramusic.org.au/archive/browse/. In 1978, John McCaughey became director, and his vision has led the organisation into exciting territory and has brought to Melbourne leading-edge works and concerts such as the ’21 Rational Melodies…’ we heard on Saturday 27th August.
The Church of All Nations was set up for a concert ‘in the round’, with chairs grouped around an assortment of keyboard and percussion instruments in the middle. The concert was curated by composer Andrew Byrne, who has worked in New York and Australia and is known here in Melbourne for his work with Chamber Made Opera https://chambermade.org/ . Indeed, as he said, the array of keyboard and percussion instruments provided ‘a glittering palette of sound’.
Tom Johnson (b 1939) is one of the American composers who founded ‘minimalism’ — perhaps better known through the work of Philip Glass and Steve Reich. He is believed to have coined the term. One of his compositions dating from 1982, but not performed before in Australia, is Rational Melodies, which, according to Andrew Byrne’s program notes, ‘offers a compendium of minimalist systematic procedures in 21 pieces’.
During the course of the evening we heard these twenty-one melodies, though not in numerical order but, perhaps more interestingly, five Melbourne composers had been invited to write responses to these melodies. For example, David Chesworth wrote two irrational melodies, surd 1 and 2 — an ancient mathematician had called irrational numbers ‘inaudible’. In phonetics, a ‘surd’ refers to voiceless consonants, uttered by breath and mouth: f,k,p,s,t. The program notes informed us that ‘Surd 1 combines phonetic surds with the expulsion of air from various organ bellows to create a subtle force that aerates the performance space, temporarily blowing away any residual pitches and patterns from Tom Johnson’s Rational Melodies‘.
Quite different was Warren Burt’s electronic piece, Through the Studio Door, a reponse, he said, to the general permutation process used by Johnson, rather than to any one particular ‘melody’. As a piece of music I found this more satisfying than some of the other responses. I very much liked Catherine Schieve’s reponse: Three Foghorns for Rational Melodies. She describes her composition as ‘a performed soundscape surrounding a segment of Rational Melody performances… The foghorns appear “out of the mist” and create an ambient environment’. Each of the three pieces was aligned with a particular foghorn — for example, Foghorn 1 was Heceta Head, Oregon USA: ‘During obscure conditions, the horn will blast 3, over a slow count of 6, followed by a count of 7 rests’. The foghorns were performed by organs.
The concert was book-ended by Johnson’s melodies (as well as a scattering throughout the body of the concert). The final piece we heard was rational melody 15, played on the amazing array of harpsichord, organ positiv, celeste, regal, toy piano and qanun. The performers did an amazing job of switching from one (often obscure) instrument to another, they were: Alexander Meagher, Kate Tempany, Kim Bastin, Jennifer Yu, Vahideh Eisaei, Peter Dumsday and Joy Lee.
I was attracted to Sian Prior’s memoir for two main reasons. My experience is a little different from hers (Does anyone have exactly the same experience?), but, like Sian, I have no living childen. In my case, I gave birth three times to premature boys. Secondly, I learned oboe from Sian’s mother, Margot, not long after the tragic time when Sian’s father drowned rescuing two young people in the surf. I had oboe lessons at their home and the children must have been young toddlers — there were often toys scattered on the living room floor and I used to think how desperately awful it must have been for the young mother and her three children — but I was too awkward and clumsy to say anything or even to acknowledge their situation.
Like so many of us, Sian assumed she would have children one day. Her descriptions of her relationships with other people’s children suggest she would have been a wonderful mother. She questioned her desire for motherhood in a world we are destroying through climate change — but her drive to have children eclipsed her perhaps more rational beliefs.
Remarkably, this is not a book of anger. And it is not a book of asking, why me? Sian investigated every possibiity. She weathered the heartbreak of miscarriages of babies conceived with her loving partner, and later, stoically, perhaps, she undertook IVF solo when her new partner had a large family of children already and didn’t want to produce any more.
Intertwined with Sian’s story of trying to have babies is her trying to know her father who drowned when she was only three months old, and wanting to produce a child who would carry some of his genes. She shares various traits: her father’s blond hair, his love of music… how wonderful to perpetuate these things through children.
Each time Sian loses a child is unique. Each time is a particular loss. I remember when I wrote about my experience a friend said ‘That’s probably helped you get over it.’ I expect everyone who has suffered a miscarriage or desperately wanted to conceive would agree, it is not something you ‘get over’. I still find it very difficult to answer the question ‘And do you have children?’
Sian has a special affinity with the sea. Surely it brings her closer to her father. Maybe now that there is no hope of becoming a mother, life has become bittersweet. At the end of the book, we leave her in the sea catching the waves: ‘I catch wave after wave, tasting my fifty years there in the sea. Clean, neutral, bittersweet.’
What is the magic that binds a chamber music trio – that causes three individual musicians, on different instruments to play as one? Maybe the answer is love. Each member of this trio lives in a different country – so it is rare to have the opportunity to come together to rehearse. Violinist, Esther Yoo says, ‘Regardless of how little or how much time has elapsed in between our meetings, we are always able to pick up right where we left off. It is quite easy for us to talk for hours, so we have to keep track of time – especially in rehearsals!’ Even with time together being so precious, just like good friends, the trio makes time to go to movies or shopping together and, each being a solo artist, to attend each other’s performances. ‘Z.E.N.’ is an acronym formed with an initial from each trio member, and a philosophical statement about their performance style.
Above everything else, at the concert I attended last Saturday, I was blown away by the music-making of this trio – a combination of utterly brilliant technique (I’m not sure I have ever heard such clear, crisp, brilliant piano work, or such mellowness on the high register notes of the violin) and breathing and performing as one.
Pianist Zhang Zuo is known as Zee Zee. She started her piano studies in Germany at the age of five, then returned to her native China, completing her studies at the Shenzhen Arts School. She was then invited to the Eastman School of Music and the Julliard School (New York). She continues to receive guidance from Alfred Brendel. She has made recordings with prestigious orchestras such as the Philharmonia.
Cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan seems to have played with most of the major orchestras of the world. His list of recitals and orchestral performances is most impressive. He was mentored by the late Rostropovich. He has won many awards, including First Prize at the Aram Khachaturian competition. Narek was born in Armenia and in 2017 was awarded the title of ‘Honoured Artist of Armenia’.
Violinist Esther Yoo’s interpretation is widely praised. She was born in the US, then was educated in Belgium and Germany – her heritage is Korean. She made her concerto debut at the age of eight. Esther has performed concertos with celebrated conductors such as Vladimir Ashkenazy. She featured prominently on the soundtrack of the film On Chesil Beach.
Thus each member of Z.E.N. is a virtuoso soloist. I think it’s quite exceptional that as well as being brilliant solo performers they can meld together to create the sublime music we heard on Saturday night.
The first item was a trio by a composer new to me: Arno Babajanian (1921 – 1983). He is Armenian – hence the interest of Narek, the cellist. The piece seemed to me a mixture of some familiar Russian music – Rachmaninoff, for example, although some of the folk melodies captured in the music are, apparently of Armenian origin. I particularly enjoyed the lively third movement, reminiscent (to me) of Kossak dancing.
We then had a world première performance. Australian composer Matthew Laing (b 1988) had been commissioned by Musica Viva – Graham Lovelock and Steven Singer – to compose his piece Little Cataclysms. Matthew Laing (who was present at the concert) was able to explain: ‘Piano trios naturally lend themselves to large-scale works, so I wanted to try and recreate that, just in small timeframes’. He said that the music is about ‘intimate, personal disasters in miniature form – like a deep-seeded memory awoken, reimagined changed or unchanged, then gone, where the reimagining informs the memory in the silence that follows’.
For me, the highlight of the evening was Z.E.N.’s performance of Dvořák’s Piano Trio No. 4 in E Minor, Op 90, ‘Dumky’. I am familiar with the trio, but this performance brought out aspects that I hadn’t noticed before. So poignant, so majestic and at times, so lively. I wanted to go away with the themes singing in my brain and was momentarily dismayed when, after much applause, I could see that the trio planned to play an encore. I didn’t want to tarnish the beautiful memory of the Dumky. The encore was the well-known Brahms Hungarian Rhapsody. I was stopped in my tracks. I’d never heard it played like this. Such rippling joy! It was a fitting end to this memorable evening.
My contributor copy of the latest American Writers Review arrived yesterday. San Fedele Press has done it again, and produced a beautiful piece of art – a treasure trove of writing and images. I can’t wait to delve in.
To find out how you can lay your hands on a copy of this terrific literary journal, visit the link below: American Writers Review
Kelly Rimmer was inspired to write The German Wife after a visit to the Parkes Radio Telescope Observatory, New South Wales. In the back of her book she is quoted: ‘I visited an exhibit about the US space program. I saw how there was a line that said how German and US scientists worked together starting in 1950 in Huntsville Alabama to help the space program. I was determined to learn how that could happen and wanted to know about Operation Paperclip.’ Operation Paperclip was a controversial secret US intelligence program that employed former members of the Nazi party (some, members of the SS) at the end of World War II. Instead of going to trial at Nürnberg, Germany, where former Nazi leaders were indicted and tried as war criminals by the International Military Tribunal, these men were quietly transported to the US where their experience and skills could be put to use building the Space Program.
In Germany, these scientists had been working on ‘rocketry’ – the rockets they designed for Hitler were used as weapons. The design of these ‘weapons’ had been possible before the declaration of war because of an omission in the Treaty of Versailles, which forbad the development of weapons, but did not mention ‘rockets’.
Probably the most famous of these Nazi scientists is Wernher von Braun – whom I am ashamed to say, I mainly remember in the comedy Dr Strangelove, played by Peter Sellers.
Kelly Rimmer has developed a character, Jürgen Rhodes, who in some ways resembles von Braun, although the story of his wife and family life is fiction. By using this device, Rimmer can draw us into the situation that may have been faced by Nazi families and can show the degree to which they may have been compelled to carry out the instructions of the Führer.
Records tell us that at the Nürnberg trials, many of the Nazi officials pleaded that, in relation to the abominable crimes they were accused of, they were only carrying out instructions. I have always thought this unspeakably weak. On their shoulders is what is probably the worst genocide known to humanity. They witnessed the killings, the cruelty, the starvation… Kelly Rimmer’s book gives us a moment when we can experience what it may have been like to be under the pressure of the Nazi regime – watching as your children were brainwashed at school, believing that they would be orphaned if you stepped out of line. Indeed, in the last days of the war, Jurgen and Sofie’s son, Georg, an ardent ‘Hitler Youth’ is killed, ‘defending the Fatherland’, at the age of fifteen.
My view, at the end of the book, is that Jürgen and Sofie Rhodes were surely intelligent enough to sense that, given their beliefs were contrary to the Nazi party, they should have left Germany in the mid-1930s. But they didn’t. By 1938 it would have been practically impossible to leave. Sofie was used to an almost aristocratic lifestyle and Jürgen was comfortable only in academia.
I found this book a compelling read. The heading of each short chapter outlines which character’s point-of-view we will have, the year and the place. We move deftly, but not necessarily chronologically, from Berlin in 1930 through to Huntsville Alabama 1951. We learn essential background details of the characters: the 1930s Dustbowl experience of Lizzie and Henry who will become key characters in the Huntsville population that initially detests the Germans who have come to work in their town, particularly Jürgen and Sofie because rumour has it that Jürgen was a member of the SS. Henry does service in World War II and sees evidence of the Nazi atrocities – his experience summed up by the US authorities of the time as ‘combat fatigue’.
Does everything end too happily? Maybe more should be made of the terrible memories that will haunt Jürgen and Sofie all of their lives. Is that sufficient punishment for putting self and family first – going against what one really believes to be right?
When von Braun died in 1977, it seemed that his Nazi background had been forgotten. President Carter eulogised Dr. von Braun as ‘a man of bold vision’ and said:
‘To millions of Americans, Wernher von Braun’s name was inextricably linked to our exploration of space and to the creative application of technology. Not just the people of our nation, but all the people of the world have profited from his work. We will continue to profit from his example.’ [Wikipedia]
Kelly Rimmer’s book encouraged me to stop and contemplate what it must have been like trapped under the Nazi regime and forced to act against one’s beliefs. I don’t think that my views have changed, but I appreciated being dropped into the lives of Jürgen and Sofie and being put in a position where I had to try to take stock of just what that experience was like.