The Planets

The first piece at the Proms this year was Bach’s Toccata and Fugue. The Toccata was played on the hall’s newly refurbished organ and was indeed very impressive, but as far as the Fugue is concerned, I would have been much happier with the original version, possibly Stokowski’s orchestral arrangement or Percy Grainger’s arrangement for piano. As it happened, the Fugue used Henry Wood’s arrangement for full orchestra, which seemed rather excessively jovial (so much so that I almost feared an outbreak of Wood’s horrendously cheerful Fantasia on British Sea Songs). The Toccata and Fugue were originally the product of an austere religiosity and was later rediscovered by Mendelssohn as an example of the gothic revival (as with the later use of the organ for romantic works by Saint-Saens and Poulenc or even Donald Joyce’s organ arrangements of Philip Glass); and the dark, gothic qualities of the work are what it is best known for now; which are simply not present in wood’s arrangement. In fairness, I should say had this been a piece by Mendelssohn or Brahms I would probably not have felt so disappointed, but comparisons with the other arrangements rather darkened my perception in this case.

Elgar’s The Music Makers exhibited all the worst aspect of Elgar’s music, coupled with an egotistical tendency to quote from his own works. The performance of Holst’s The Planets was nothing short of enthralling. Previously, I’d only really paid attention to the more Wagnerian movements like Mars and Saturn, but well performed as those were I found myself listening to some of the other movements (especially to the Dukas-like Uranus, Venus and Neptune) as if I’d heard them for the first time.

For my second prom, I spent a while beforehand in the Natural History Museum. This is one of my favourite buildings, a secular cathedral whose windows are adorned with pterodactyl gargoyles and whose walls writhe with octupi and birds and whose interior is filled with pliosaurs, glyptodons, ophthalmosaurs, coelocanths and sperm whale skeletons. The effect is surprisingly reminiscent of the Sagrada Familia, albeit in more conventional form. Extraordinary that it should be the sciences that have such a building, where, with the exception of the Henry Cole Wing, the neighbouring Victoria & Albert Museum is rather nondescript. This is a good time to go the museum and it still manages to educate rather then being a theme park; I hadn’t realised that some carnivorous dinosaurs had downy plumage before. Outside, a new set of wild gardens have been established as a ‘live exhibit,’ growing native oak woodland, chalk downland, heath, fens and hedgerows.

Arriving at the Albert Hall, the first piece was Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, followed by Janacek’s setting of Moravian folk songs and finishing with the Glagolitic Mass. The folk songs stood out with enormous clarity, being surrounded by sturm und drang, but the Glagolitic Mass was the centrepiece. Janacek was an atheist whose interest in liturgical music was akin to his interest in folk music, and the piece is chaotic rather than being characterised by religious transcendence. The pace is frenetic and much of the densely packed orchestration deliberately leaves each section conflicting with each other, as the trumpets strain to drown out the organ or the choir. Though Janacek was interested in traditional forms, the age of Stravinsky and Schoenberg was not far away.

Hampton Court, much like the Vyne, is an interestingly untidy anomaly, composed of an original Tudor redbrick gothic building, with a pre-copernican clock court, elaborate chimney spires and gargoyles alongside Vanbrugh and Wren’s baroque building. The original design, with its domed turrets, looked akin to the Tower of London, the newer wing is oddly reminiscent of the New Palace at Sanssouci. The interior of some rooms has wooden panelling and Tudor ‘arabesque’ patterning on the ceiling. Others have chinoisserie and mirrors in the rococo style, where some ceilings are painted (one staircase is painted by Thornhill and does indeed look similar to the banqueting hall at the Greenwich Naval College), with trompe l’oeil. The gardens have the same confusion; parterre gardens sit alongside an orangery designed to contain Anne’s collection of exotic plants. Elsewhere, Basildon Park is a perhaps some nondescript Palladian house enlivened by a room full of shells (from nautili to conches to cowries), a beautifully loggia, and an interest in the oriental from Chinese porcelain to medical mannequins used as lamps and paintings of Indian monuments. The surrounding area is also pleasant; white-balustraded redbrick Edwardian houses lined the river until the Basildon’s gates, incongruously cast in grey stone in imitation of the Temple of the Winds.

In terms of film, I’ve watched Hamam and La Fete Ignoranti. The former is a narrative of a cultural other allowing spiritual liberation, as with Forster’s Indian and Italian novels, Bowles and Burroughs in Tangiers, Isherwood in Berlin or Lawrence in Arabia. But setting this in culturally conservative Turkey raises questions that are only answered by the second film, where many of the characters are Turkish exiles in Italy (both films reject labels of sexual identity, but it is only La Fete Ignoranti that suggests the issue cannot be easily evaded, as with one character’s indecision on coming out to her family). La Fete Ignoranti is a much more open-ended, dialogic work, where Antonia’s naive middle-class background is contrasted to Michele’s closeted liberation, but where’s Antonia’s more principled honesty suggests something is amiss with this. Food cooked recently; piri piri chicken, Lebanese garlic chicken and chicken with lamb and pomegranates, duck pasanda, chicken stroganoff, paella.

The second series of The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes has thrown up some interesting differences from the Conan Doyle stories. Firstly, as with the first series, the Victorian view on social matters is not replicated, nor is Doyle’s elision of these issues; in The Tragedy of Hanbury Street and The Saviour of Cripplegate Square self-help and the undeserving poor are replaced with a more modern outlook. Secondly, the approach is more postmodern, in contrast to Doyle’s studied verisimilitude. When Holmes observes that "if this was one of your lurid stories the doorbell would ring with a new case," it invariably does, and with Watson’s observation that this is reality meeting only with "Is it? I wonder." At the same time as setting them as literary creations, Watson and Holmes are set apart from Doyle. Watson observes that his Strand stories were bowdlerised for a family magazine, one character complains that neither look anything like their Strand illustrations (it would have been particularly nice if he could have complained that Holmes never wore a deerstalker).

Finally, where crime fiction traditionally counterpointed the brilliant detective to the hapless police force, most modern crime fiction tends to have someone from the police as its main character. Accordingly, Lestrade has become a rival of whom Holmes is jealous in The Abergavenny Murder, while the detective in The Shameful Betrayal of Miss Emily Smith sees savagery that Holmes is blind to, and in The Determined Client has Holmes conclude that his client is a liar and the police were entirely correct.

The Dedalus Book of Austrian Fantasy, represents an interesting anthology of fantastic, veering from a Germanic obsession with the morbid and violent (in which writers like Leppin reimagined Prague as an other in racial, cultural or even sexual terms, opposing dark and gothic Prague to neo-classical and light Berlin) in the vein of Hoffmann or Poe, to the more metaphorical and surreal work of writers like Schnitzler and Kafka; "The Austrians, according to both Mitchell and Magris, have complementary passions for detail and for the dissolution of boundaries – between the real and the unreal, between dream and waking, between life and death," so that for Meyrink, Rilke and Csokor the inanimate and the animate are closely entwined.

Franz Fafka’s The Trial undeniably represents the highpoint of a modernist aesthetic. It reminds me foremost of Eliot’s essay
Hamlet and his Problems, from The Sacred Wood, where Eliot suggests that art expresses emotion through a suitable vessel, an objective correlative. However, in the case of Hamlet "The artistic "inevitability" lies in this complete adequacy of the external to the emotion; and this is precisely what is deficient in Hamlet. Hamlet (the man) is dominated by an emotion which is inexpressible, because it is in excess of the facts as they appear." With Kafka, none of the events or personae exist in relation to the reality that appears to the reader (just as the text refuses to exist in relation to either allegory or realism). Instead, it is a work of absurdism and surrealism where space is displaced as if it were Alice in Wonderland. The novels take place in the realm of the abstract, where the bureaucratic aspects of existence take on the character of a Platonic idea. As Robert Calasso noted, Kafka is not an ‘organiser’ of human experience in the manner of Proust and Joyce. In Kafka, consciousness is never more than vestigial; ‘for the last time psychology!’ is his watchword, where the central characters of his novels are rarely even fully described. Kafka depicts a world where external determinants have supplanted individual volition and rendered it obsolete. Instead of action and causality being the central aspect (indeed being almost peripheral; the precise narrative voice never hints at the extremity of the events that often follow and never changes register when they occur), undifferentiated bureaucratic time is the substance of his fiction; his characters simply wait. Calasso describes this as plunging the ‘sharpest Ockham’s razor into the substance of the novel,’ utilising the form of the novel in a manner completely opposed to its origins.

If the reader attempts to place the text in relation to reality, the inevitable result is only a greater sense of disorientation. The most obvious and most superficial reading is a political analogue, reading the events through the totalitarianism that followed (just as existential readings compete with political ones relating to Nazi occupation in La Peste). However, the text clearly suggests that the court exists apart from the institutions of the state, with the theme of judgement recurring throughout Kafka (as in the father’s judgement in the original story or the captain’s judgement of Schubal in The Stoker). Another reading is Freudian, with the events with Fraulein Burstner and Leni pointing to a form of sexual repression, where Josef K dallies with Leni to the detriment of the case and it is the vision of Fraulein Burstner that finally renders Josef supine to his fate (or the picture of a woman in Gregor’s room immediately at the start of Metamorphosis; the last thing his human hands had touched). Such a view would be clearly supported by a biographical reading concerning Kafka’s relationship with Felice Bauer (and the parallel with Metamorphosis where Gregor’s decline parallels his sister’s growth into womanhood). If sexuality is seen as sin (and the trial would certainly seem to point to some form of metaphysical corruption) then this would lend itself to a casting of the text as religious allegory intended to quiet the strivings of the self (hence the lack of any centre to the work). However, the darkened paintings that can no more be clearly seen than the shadows on Plato’s cave and are equally suggestive of a godless world (the liminal space between death and life suggested in many fantastic Austrian writings; in the story A Dream, Josef descends into his own grave, perhaps not having yet accepted his death) inverting the traditional Zionist dream of the gateway being opened at the end of time, hence Josef’s conclusion that "it makes the lie fundamental to world order" an almost existentialist conclusion reminiscent of L’Etranger. But equally, Kafka’s other writings often casts all volition as unwelcome, as in Resolutions; "it remains advisable to accept whatever comes, to behave like an inert mass even if one feels oneself being swept away," and the story that formed the kernel of the The Trial, namely The Judgement where self destruction is seen as the outcome of all volition, of being itself, where effect exists in relation to cause only as a disproportionate excess.

Part of the interest in Kafka grows when considered alongside other Czech’s writers, for example the meaningless eruptions of violence in Hrabal, or the ironic absurdism of Kundera (as with the accidental poisoning in The Farewell Party and indeed the comically failed suicide by poison in The Joke). The most striking example of this is Kafka’s contemporary Hasek and The Good Soldier Svejk. As Angelo Maria Rippellino puts it in Magic Prague; "a mysterious bureaucracy makes decisions for him, and whether his name if Josef Svejk or Josef K he has no choice but to devise wily expedients to thread his way through the stifling ritual.". Svejk is marched by two attendants across the Charles Bridge to was as Josef K is marched by two attendants to his execution, but Svejk appears invulnerable and accordingly wins through as an epic hero. Where Kafka occludes all but his character’s perceptions, Hasek writes in a naturalistic vein and in the picaresque tradition (though the absurdism of the novel is in many respects as close to Dickens and Kafka as to Heller; consider that Svejk’s regiment never shows the slightest sign of engaging the enemy). Accordingly, the novel adopts a carnivalesque and satirical pose towards society, but does occlude the perceptions of its character. Svejk can either be seen as both a cunning malingerer seeking to evade hardship or as an imbecile whose actions create hardship for himself.

Bohumil Hrabal’s Closely Watched Trains is cast in the genre of a military narrative as much as Sartre’s Iron in the Soul but curiously evades its genre. Instead it dwells on violence almost as a Freudian drive within civilisation; from Lanska’s slaughter of her rabbits, the station master’s slaughter of his German pigeons to the slaughter of the war itself. Death is seen as part of nature, with the dead rooks killed by the cold being akin to the dead German pilot in his crashed plane, both fallen from the sky. Equally, the movement of pigs by train to Prague slaughter houses that the narrator cannot bear is analogous to the attacked train filled with German refugees from the bombing of Dresden. However, the novel also suggests the civilised qualities of the German soldier’s; "it seemed strange to me that both these SS men were so beautiful to look at them you’d have thought they ought to be writing poetry." As Hrabal writes in Too Loud a Solitude "life is at its most beautiful in rancid, decomposing blood;" just as in Closely Watched Trains the author attempts to disentangle beauty and horror but ultimately cannot regard the concepts as distinct. The civilised repression of nature is foregrounded in the novel with the suggestion that the novel is itself responsible for violating this repression; "To the courts with these writers and educators, these purveyors of pornography! Away with the monstrous imaginings of these young folks!"

Andre Gide’s The Vatican Cellars is an odd combination of genres. Much of the novel concerns the patterns of crime and punishment familiar from much nineteenth century fiction as well as Gide’s own The Immoralist. However, much of the novel is peculiarly postmodern, almost resembling the work of Umberto Eco, where signs replace the objects they purport to signify; as with the counterfeiting of the Pope’s abduction or the false miracle that leads to Anthime’s conversion. Image is seen as a social convention that holds repressed desires in check; "and image of ourselves for which we are only half responsible, but out of whose contours it is indecent not to confine ourselves." However, the subversive aspect is only partial; the other being the denial of the meaning of Lafcadio’s crimes by having a false image imposed on them. In that sense, the two plots cancel one another.