The Grass Pillow

Autumn has arrived once more and brought mists with it, turning the blue skies and gold leaves into blackened shapes against a pale and watery sky. By the time I’ve arrived in Leeds though the mists have dispelled and the sun emerged. The city is beautifully Victorian, with iron markets and glass arcades decorated with allegorical figures and reliefs with oranges and leaves. Belle epoque style statues bear streetlamps alongside the statue of the Black Prince in front of the Post Office. Cuthbert Broderick’s Town Hall towers over the city, in contrast to his rather hidden Corn Exchange. Crests bear images of owls everywhere and gold owls sit atop the Civic Hall’s spires. Unususally, the only obvious sign of gothic seems to mostly lie with the older buildings. The art gallery is home to a small but interesting collection, ranging from various Victorian paintings (Leighton’s Return of Persephone and Lady Godiva, Waterhouse’s Lady of Shalott, Holman-Hunt’s characteristically crude Shadow of Death) to a set of Courbet and Sisley landscapes. More unsually, is a nocturnal street scene by Atkinson Grimshaw and a macabre painting of a dead bird by him. A set of Sickert paintings of pubs and music halls vie for space with Stanley Spencer on the staircase. Upstairs is the modern collection, Vannessa Bell portraits, Mark Gertler landscapes (and an intriguing self-portrait that references the marriage of Arnolfini, Dutch still lifes and Japanese prints) a Wyndham Lewis painting (rather reminiscent of Metropolis). Paintings by Nash, Sutherland, Hitchens and Piper remind me of my recent visit to the Tate. I have some tea in a tiled hall that reminds me of a Turkish Bath or the Cafe Imperial in Vienna.

Walking in the evening along a street filled with fallen leaves and the streetlamps casting halos in the fog, I’m reminded of Atkinson Grimshaw’s paintings. I arrive at the Grand Opera House, for a performance of Reinhard Keiser’s The Fortunes of King Croesus. The building, decorated in Pompeian red and with an enormous chandelier, is presumably similar in period to the Coliseum in London. The opera has been lavishly set, with the stage littered with aircraft wreckage following the enactment of an aerial battle. Lydia and Persia become the Battle of Britain and the Nazis. On the one hand, uniformity, on the other a Sardis that looks like Venetian carnevale, with eightennth century, Egyptian and Roman custumes. The staging does point to a weakness in the narrative; Cyrus serves as an agent of hubris, bringing down Lydian arrogance and decadence but it is rather difficult for a modern audience not to see it as a simple contrast of freedom and tyranny (with Cyrus depicted as a cross between Goering and Napoleon). The stoicism of Solon does not look markedly different to the cynical hedonism of Elcius and a good deal less enjoyable, particularly given that contrived denouement renders all paths equal and identical with few leading to unfortunate consequences. Although nout unlike Handel, earlier influences like Monteverdi are also clear, with the music rather more concise and less repeated than Handel. Also of particular interest is that the part of Atis was performed by a male soprano, Michael Maniaci, giving a rather unexpected insight as to how these operas might originally have been performed by castrati.

I read Natsume Soseki’s The Three Cornered World on the way up to Leeds. I’ve written before about the role of the oriental and occidental in Tanizaki’s work and the same issues apply here, in a book that frequently references both Chinese poetry and Western painting (especially Millais’ Ophelia). Soseki begins by criticising the tendency of Western novels to concern themselves with the ephemeral rather than the transcendent ("escaping from the wearying round of steamers, trains, moral duties and etiquette," although Soseki later praises Turner for showing how a steam train could be beautiful). As in Hardy, the train serves as a metaphor for modernity, epitomising society’s tendency to laud individuality whilst simultaneously crushing it to heel. Within this context, he sees people, and especially the old or the menial, as less than human and simply part of the harmony of the landscape (even suggesting using the bodies of criminals to fertilise orchids out of a sense of disgust comparable to Timon of Athens – an oddly Western model). However, Soseki finds it difficult to see this in the context of other figures, who he compares to Ophelia (he has earlier dismissed Hamlet as profoundly un-Japanese). He seeks to find a via media, noting the serenity on her face (although it is ambiguous as to how much serenity many of the suicides that litter the novel find), something he finds again in the compassion on O-Nami’s face as her lover is sent to die in Manchuria. He criticises Western literature for not being objective and instead resembling a detective story, but the entire novel is told from his subjective viewpoint and is all geared around mysterious figures and this final revelation on her face, something that enables him to finally paint her. Although he sees the artist as standing outside society, he is nonetheless compelled to inhabit it; "I was being dragged back more and more into the world of reality."

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is in many respects a straightforward inversion of the pioneer theme in American literautre (or even the Western film) from Twain to Kerouac, with two male figures travel across the American landscape (women are as largely absent here as they are in Fenimore Cooper). Like Huckleberry Finn much of the novel is concerned with the opposition of childhood innocence to rather more cynical adult experience. However, it also belongs to something I tend to perceive more as a European genre, the apocalyptic novel, although the absence of cities is striking here and seems distinct from the European tradition. Equally, the novel is quite detached from details like the cause of the apocalypse (a nuclear winter, we presume) or the names of the protagonists.

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