Friday, December 30, 2011

Vezdye, vezdye, on predo mnoyu!

When I was a rather shy and extremely inexperienced undergraduate in the early 1980s, I indulged an immoderate enthusiasm for grand opera. That interest has never entirely gone away, but thirty years later I am struck by how inadequately I ever grasped the convergence of poetry and music and emotion in the great love scenes especially—which I was then singularly ill-equipped to appreciate. True, Giuseppe Verdi managed to fire up a certain amount of adolescent passion, never more so than in the love scene in Act I of Otello, but it has taken me half a life-time to learn to listen with the heart, and discover in music drama the expression of real emotions, and not some exciting approximation of something big that might be waiting around the corner, or not. Who has not looked back with a wry half-smile, and said to himself, “I was just too young”?

So it is that I have been listening lately to a crackly old recording of the remarkable Bulgarian soprano Ljuba Welitsch, a star who shone as brightly in the decade between 1942 and 1952 as indeed she shone briefly, and whose glorious voice, alas, faded much too soon. Here is her publicity photograph; talk about star power in living black-and-white! In May 1948, at the height of her powers, Miss Welitsch recorded in London the famous letter scene from Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Eugen Onegin, with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted with exemplary finesse (and an admirably retrained tempo) by Walter Süsskind. Everyone knows, or ought to know the story: Tatiana Larina exchanges only a few words with the coolly detached Onegin when his friend Lensky, a neighbour, brings him to visit her sister Olga and their parents, but that encounter, in her own home, unleashes a torrent of emotion in Tatiana’s mind, and, in the privacy of her bedroom later that night, overwhelmed by a fever of passion, and of doubt, she sits down to write Onegin a letter—pouring out her very soul, with predictable consequences upon which the rest of the story hinge.

What is so remarkable about this particular recording (alas not yet propelled onto Youtube; though Renee Fleming is superb here), with all its technical limitations, and the further disadvantage that the piece was sung in a rather leaden German translation from which the richness of those marvelous Russian consonants was eliminated, is the apparent recklessness with which from the very opening Ljuba Welitsch hurls herself into the performance, as if from an exposed cliff-top: “Everywhere, everywhere I look, I see my fatal tempter! Wherever I look, I see him!” The quality of her voice, moreover—which is also what made her such a sensational Salome, and maybe also conspired at length to ruin it—combines bell-like clarity, urgency, unguarded girlishness, and a visceral unrestraint, which are all, of course, exactly right for Tatiana. You feel she gives it 250%, with all the breathtaking risk that that must have involved. Again, this is somehow right for Tatiana, though no voice teacher would ever these days responsibly recommend it. The internal shifts between torrential passion to doubt and fear and back again are written into the score, with its restive drive and accelerating heartbeat, but the job of making it all hang together is really the soprano’s. Hers is the startling vocal line, and Welitsch is never more believable or moving than in the moment of climax, when, about to sign and seal her letter to Onegin, Tatiana impores him: “I wait for you, I wait for you! Speak the word to revive my heart’s fondest hopes or shatter this oppressive dream with, alas, the scorn, alas, the scorn I have deserved!” I challenge anyone who has ever fallen deeply in love not to recognize at least something of the feeling—though for most of us it is couched in prosaic language: Will he or won’t he? Does he or doesn’t he? What are these feelings, whose sheer intensity I can barely understand? As usual, great artists hold up the mirror, and it is up to us—whether we are in the theatre with Tchaikovsky, in an art museum maybe with Tilman Riemenschneider (I wish), or just listening to the late, great Ljuba Welitsch on the radioto peer into that mirror, and discover there an emotional experience, real and true. Then, with luck, we may shed tears of understanding. Vezdye, vezdye, on predo mnoyu! Everywhere, everywhere I look, I see him!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

What did Thomas Woolner see?

Just before Christmas I sent the following message to the editor of the Paris Review, hoping it might be included in the advice column in the online daily, then promptly forgot all about it:

Dear Lorin, May I once more avail myself of the generous hospitality of your advice column to help solve another of my small mysteries? I am currently editing the 1852–54 journal kept on the Australian goldfields by the Pre-Raphaelite sculptor Thomas Woolner. It is a fascinating document, from which most of the best bits were ruthlessly excised prior to publication in 1917 by his industrious daughter, à la Cassandra Austen, though fortunately they survive in the manuscript. On November 8, 1852, Woolner and his two traveling companions strayed from the main road north from Melbourne toward the diggings, became separated, and got lost in the bush: “I went on and saw—what produced this observation, ‘That [he] who wants to avoid strange sights must shun byways.’ A brutal, worse than brutal sight.” So far I have not been able to identify the quotation, if indeed it actually was one. It seems possible that the inverted commas were merely added for emphasis; it’s a rather clunky aperçu, yet I wonder if any of your readers recognize it? Elsewhere in the journal Woolner recorded without hesitation, and in detail, even a measure of cold detachment, scenes of drunkenness and violence, shady characters, the accidental drowning of a friend, and several murders in and around the goldfields. On this occasion, though, whatever Woolner saw so shocked him that he was obviously not prepared to note any particulars. Bodily, I presume, but what on earth was it? On that gothic note, may I also add my sincere compliments of the season? Angus Trumble.

This minor editorial problem has been rattling around in a quiet corner of my head for many months, and I thought it would be rather satisfactory if someone might come up with a plausible answer, or indeed an implausible one provided it was correct. Yesterday my attention was drawn to Lorin Stein’s extremely generous, flattering and, above all, helpful response:

Dear Angus, When you say jump, The Paris Review does not ask how high. We put our best people on this one. The results—while inconclusive—were revealing. Within minutes, our Southern editor, John Jeremiah Sullivan, wrote in from North Carolina with a passage from Tommaso Grossi’s Marco Visconti in an 1849 translation. This looked promising at first, only it had nothing to do with Woolner’s text, and was rejected. (Sullivan: “Could it have been this? My gut says no [and so does mine].) Next our associate editor, Stephen Andrew Hiltner, proposed a line from the Tao Te Ching, but admitted that Woolner was unlikely to have known Chinese [correct]. Our deputy editor, Sadie Stein, claimed—impressively, and with some vehemence—to recognize the sententia from Horace [much warmer]. The poem has not been found. Our Latin consultant, Brian FitzGerald of Lincoln College, Oxford, doubted a classical provenance. He directed us to some chapters from Proverbs, in which, however, there is no mention of strange sights. Our managing and Web editors, Nicole Rudick and Deirdre Foley-Mendelssohn, came out strong for Dante. So far we are unable to supply the relevant verse. One of Sadie’s contacts, a professor of Greek, suggested Oedipus Rex, either the messenger reporting Laius’s death or else a speech by Oedipus himself. Our close readings have not produced a match. On the other hand, we have now figured out what Woolner saw. (Private letter to follow.)

This last communication I am most eager and anxious to read. Beyond this small army of enthusiastic in-house helpers, a generous reader, who self-identifies as “J. A. Zugot,” submitted the following comment…twice!:

Reading Woolner’s quotation, “That [he] who wants to avoid strange sights must shun byways,” I too was reminded of bad translations from the Chinese or Japanese, or of some clunky re-doings of Sophocles and Horace. Dante, Milton—who not? Your staff isn’t—literarily—alone for the holidays…But that mention of Proverbs, by your guy from Oxford (surely he was thinking of those strange warnings against “strange women”), set me down another, um, “byway.” The Talmud, specifically its section called Avot, is often read separately under the title Pirke Avot, “Ethics of the Fathers.” These fathers are called the tannaim, or “repeaters,” and they, repeating mostly in Jerusalem, essentially committed the Oral Law—the Jewish oral tradition—to parchment, roundabout the first two centuries of the previous millennium. This could go on and on. Better you should search the internet. Anyway, from Avot: “He [their teacher, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai] said to them, Go and see which is the good way that a man should cleave to. Rabbi Eliezer said, A good eye: R. Yehoshua said, A good friend: and R. Yose said, A good neighbor: and R. Shimon said, He that foresees what is to be: R. Eleazar said, A good heart. He said to them, I approve the words of Eleazar ben Arak rather than your words, for his words include your words. He said to them, Go and see which is the evil way that a man should shun. R. Eliezer said, An evil eye: and R. Yehoshua said, An evil companion: and R. Yose said, An evil neighbor: and R. Shimon said, He that borroweth and repayeth not—he that borrows from man is the same as if he borrowed from God (blessed is He)—for it is said, The wicked borroweth, and payeth not again, but the righteous is merciful and giveth: R. Eleazar said, An evil heart. He said to them, I approve the words of Eleazar ben Arak rather than your words, for your words are included in his words.” Now here’s where I’m going to lose you:
Freemasonry. “The Constitutions of Free Masons,” ca. 17something and so among the oldest surviving documents of the Brotherhood, states that God Himself, the Great Architect, is the primeval Grand Master. Fellow lodge members include Adam, the three Patriarchs, Moses, the various Israelite kings and high priests, Jesus and his dozen apostles. And obviously the entire Masonic temple model, symbology to rituals, was based solidly on the two Temples of Jerusalem.
Now, after the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., Judaism lost its geographic center and became wholly bookish. The rabbis of the Talmud kept the secret, at least selective, traditions alive. It was natural that they, and their two local lodges—those of Grand Master Rabbis Hillel and Shammai—would be Masonically adapted/adopted. Freemasonry from the Talmud, a very stupid, stupidly fascinating book from 1905, written by A. (no further clarification) Posman, makes this explicit. Here, R. Eliezer ben Hyrcanus’ responses have been altered to: “A good eye is the right path for man to adhere to.” “An evil eye is to shun the path.” Again, here’s Woolner’s: “[He] who wants to avoid strange sights must shun byways.” Of course, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was itself a type of lodge, and indeed its original members, including Rossetti, Millais, Holman Hunt, and Thomas Woolner, were all Masons. As Albert Boime, in the final volume of his magisterial A Social History of Modern Art, notes: “‘Brotherhood’ carried unmistakable allusions to a Freemason-like fraternity. Significantly, when the group agreed to use the monogram P.R.B., each member had to swear an oath to keep its meaning secret.” So, another year over, another hour wasted. From the Oral Tradition to the Written Tradition (the Talmud), to an English Masonic traducing, to oral Masonic lore—that’s my guess. Strange.

I never knew that Rossetti & Co. were Freemasons, and will—with all due respect, and many thanks to J. A. Zugot for his efforts on my behalf—check in with Barringer and Prettejohn for confirmation. If so, it seems a rather plausible explanation, which nevertheless leaves unanswered the larger and definitely more baffling question as to what on earth was the brutal, worse than brutal sight Thomas Woolner glimpsed in the Australian bush that shook him so.

Sunday, December 18, 2011


We go the whole way back, my bear and I.
His name is “Brownie,” though I’m not sure why:
The threads are dappled grey, not brown, with which
Aunt Anne contrived and made him, stitch by stitch,
Before my birth, love’s labour unremitting:
She never shone more brightly than when knitting.
I miss her still, my thrilling, clever aunt,
Her many skills she never wished to vaunt:
The semaphore she learned and trained to guide
Our ships past Rottnest Island, served with pride
In wartime—Russia was our ally then;
Her letters, and the sharpness of her pen,
But funny too; she taught me how to swim.
Her work was therapy, not mind but limb,
A physio, and “farmer’s wife” as well,
Admittedly far better in that shell
Than Uncle Henry handled sheep or cattle,
Through flood and drought with courage she did battle;
Like Mum, she built in winter massive fires,
Dispatched whole trees, killed snakes with fencing wires.
In town from time to time Aunt Anne would see
A play or concert, kindly taking me:
That’s how aged six or seven at the Palais
I saw Nureyev leap in my first ballet!
To Paris and l’Étoile she took me straight,
And climbed the arc, then let me stay up late.
Though shy, dear Brownie knows these things by heart,
Reminds me, too, how well she learned the art
Of complex origami from Japan.
How lucky that our smashing lives began,
My bear and me, not part of any plan,
But soon enough to know and love Aunt Anne!

Merry Christmas

At Christmas many people draft a letter,

A twelve-month circular of news and stuff.

I think on balance verses can be better,

Two modest sonnets probably enough.

Last winter stank, with record falls of snow;

The summer brought a hurricane, “Irene”!

And staged a local earthquake (impact: low);

Another storm cut power on Hallowe’en

(Because the trees had not yet lost their leaves

Much snow built up, and snapped off mighty branches;

The power lines were cut, then hateful thieves

Nicked farmers’ generators from their ranches.)

Throughout my house stood solid as a rock,

Ein feste Berg, the finest on the block.

But in between I traveled far and wide,

To Cape Town, Perth, Chicago, Stockholm, Leeds,

And London several times, although I tried

To match each trip to really pressing needs.

In Melbourne, to St. George’s we transferred

Our parents’ ashes, laying them athwart

Two pretty cherries, such that Mum preferred,

And long ago convinced them to import

Before that very garden was implanted.

With every end there comes a new beginning:

To Sophie, Simon’s second child, is granted

A brand new baby boy whose name, so winning,

Is Jack—late-breaking news of recent days,

A Christmas gift: To him your glass please raise!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Sir Zelman Cowen

Sir Zelman Cowen, A.K., G.C.M.G., G.C.V.O., Q.C., died in Melbourne last Thursday, thirty-four years to the day since he was sworn in as the nineteenth Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia. In a formal statement, the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has rightly said: “Sir Zelman was a proud member of the Australian community, a proud member of the Jewish community, and a leader of both. He was a humanitarian whose dedication to justice and public welfare will remain one of his great legacies. We will remember him for his warmth, his humility, his integrity, his compassion, and the great dignity he brought to public life.” His appointment was one of the most inspired acts (and not the only one) of Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, who, as time passes, just keeps on looking better and better. Certainly his approach to the problem of who to nominate to the Queen (and who not to) has been praised, perhaps above all, by Gough Whitlam! Not too long ago I was talking with a former official of the attorney-general’s department in Canberra who told me that, of all the prime ministers for whom it was his duty to supply formal legal advice, he thought Malcolm Fraser was the one who most conscientiously exercised the power of the executive specifically to right wrongs, despite the immediate or short-term political disadvantages such actions might well, and usually did generate. Sir Zelman’s death has reminded me of that conversation. I met Sir Zelman on a number of occasions between 1987 and 1991, when I worked at Government House, Melbourne, during the McCaughey era, and well remember the fondness, respect, esteem, and enjoyment of each other’s company exhibited by both statesmen, and indeed by Jean McCaughey and Lady Cowen. Sir Zelman had left office some years earlier, just as Davis had relinquished the Mastership of Ormond College, but their prodigious intellects and interests intersected in many ways, never more so than in the affairs of the University of Melbourne, and of universities in general during the period of the Dawkins reforms, of which it would be fair to say that neither Sir Zelman nor Davis approved. If heaven is a university, then surely both men hold personal chairs.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Passport photographs

Just back from a busy week in London, with many more thoughts about portraiture. I suppose the vast majority of people today experience portraiture at first hand—the production of an image meant in some way to stand in for themselves—only in various banal forms of photography, increasingly biometric for the convenience of computers. And as everybody knows, in the cafe, canteen, public bar, or by the water cooler, when comparing sometimes scarifying, often comical images embedded in our not particular recent drivers’ licenses and other documents with photo ID, we are not often pleased with the likeness, or even convinced by it—even though it evidently performs more or less the function now required by a society in which an ever greater premium is placed upon security and surveillance. By contrast, I suppose it is also true that the merest glance at Facebook demonstrates what very unusual ideas many people entertain about how they would like to be identified, and by what sort of image. It is, after all, not so long since formal black-and-white passport photographs were routinely taken by professional photographers, and many of the lingering conventions of pose, of artful lighting, and of pleasing composition were then still pluckily harnessed in a studio setting to produce a better and more putatively flattering likeness. Such is my memory of going with Mum to have my first passport photograph taken in the old shop-front studio belonging to a Mr. Humphries (no relation) in Glenferrie Road, Malvern, near the corner of High Street. I cannot remember what I wore, but I do remember that Mum prudently brought along my hairbrush, a scratchy one, and that the sitting, which was surprisingly long, involved adopting a most counter-intuitive, cantilevered pose, with an upward turn of the head, and a subtle fall of light across the backdrop. Certainly the finished result was deemed acceptable by the authorities, and perhaps more importantly by Mum, and that passport served me well in the following years. This must have been towards the end of 1971, because I needed it to go to Fiji during the next May school holidays. I was seven years old. The last time I went through a similar process was a few years ago, when the consulate-general in New York sent me out to get a more satisfactory biometric passport photograph taken in a cut-price establishment with which they seemed to have wrought some commercial arrangement, which, because of the assembly-line technique and extraordinarily high cost, seemed dubious then and even more dubious now.

Friday, December 2, 2011


Anniversaries are peculiar, because aside from a mere accident of the calendar there is no particular reason why Mum should seem any more absent today than she was this day last week, the week before that, or through recent months. Yet one feels it keenly: It is two whole years almost to the day since she died, and not quite two years since we buried her. Memories cluster in, all of them happy—above all of Mum’s elaborately rationed sense of the ridiculous, and her infectious laughter—especially the galloping timbre of an unrestrained chuckle, followed by the swooping, follow-up sigh that said: “How silly,” whatever it was. I think, I hope that my brothers and I have inherited this quality, though I also like to think that we ration it rather less than she did—perhaps that is due to the part of us that devolves from Dad. Self-discipline was probably her most admirable quality, that and thrift. She would never think of replacing something if it could be repaired, or of indulging in any luxurious extravagance for herself, more’s the pity because she could easily have afforded it. She took pleasure in The Times crossword puzzle, a cup of tea, her pretty garden, a game of patience, and a good book. She had had a serious respiratory illness in the late 1950s, which left her lungs severely scarred, and therefore vulnerable to respiratory trouble in old age. This combined with serious anti-inflammatory medications for rheumatoid arthritis seem to have destroyed her health in the last few years of her life. After she died, her doctor remarked to me that she had simply exhausted all her reserves of strength. Quite so, but I often wonder whether those reserves might have been better preserved by us, by him, and by her, because she was a stubborn and stoical old lady, and clearly lived with a greater measure of discomfort than anyone really understood. But she soldiered on to the very end, and mercifully the end was as swift as can be. She was spared the distress of leaving her house, losing her garden, the indignities and ugliness of aged care, and the misery of dependence, decrepitude, and senility. Perhaps this is enviable, however I cannot but wish that she was still en poste in Melbourne, for a newsy phone call every Sunday night (Monday morning her time), and regular doses of stern but shrewd advice. In melancholy moments I am reminded of what my old friend Kelly Read remarked just after Mum died: Your parents don’t really vanish so much as move in with you. It is as if they are quietly pottering about in the next room, or in your head. On the whole, I think this is true.