Monday, April 23, 2012

Fragmentation capured in a first novel

Writing on Shakespeare's birthday, I'm tempted to report that my withers are wrung by Samantha Harvey's The Wilderness.  This is a first novel, and it's masterful. From the opening section, written in the present tense, the confusion that so tellingly mirrors the state of Jake's mind began to seep into my understanding of what was happening: is Henry really in that prison? and why was Helen slumped at the kitchen table?

Jake is suffering from Alzheimer's, the condition progressing as does the novel. His story unfolds in a series of episodes, and if I were sitting down to do a study of it - as I might have had I still been teaching, for example - I would confirm for myself the precise uses of past and present tense: I suspect the sections in the past are reliable and rationally perceived while the present is used for the increasingly random impressions conjured up by Jake's disintegrating brain.

Harvey captures convincingly the struggle of the early moments of disease - the strategies adopted to disguise or foil its depredations, the ease with which others can cope with something that is filling the sufferer with dismay. The story goes on its fragmented way, some moments recurring while others open up aspects of the mysteries of life and relationships, until we reach what feels securely like the present - only to find that Jake has almost disappeared.

I can't say I enjoyed this book. It was too disturbing for that - too threatening of the glib reassurances we give ourselves. The writer is in her 30s, and I marvel at the depth of her imagination and - presumably - research. I don't know that I could bear to write such a novel at the age I am now.

But I'm glad to have read it.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Haydn sets me off again ...

It happened again. That sudden tide of memory washing over and through, this time triggered by four notes: the opening of Hadyn's Symphony No. 104, The London Symphony. I opened the door to the room where the radio was on - Radio 3 - and the D minor introduction coincided with my arrival. That was all it took to whisk me back to another spring - yes, spring again - and the earnest preparation for the Glasgow Music Festival. I played second violin in this symphony, and if memory serves me correctly it was the last time our school orchestra competed and failed to win the senior class. The following year - when I was in S5 - we played Beethoven, and we won, and long after I had left my successors won again and again.

But that's not the point. What this memory took me to was a reminder of what a privileged education I had. I attended Hillhead High School in the days when it was a Glasgow Corporation grant-aided school: we paid minimal fees (£3.19.0 a term in secondary) and bought our own books and jotters. The classes were big - 40 was normal - and the classrooms bizarre because the corridors were open to the weather, with partitions that could be slid back to cool the room. Rumour had it that the school was designed for Kuala Lumpur and had somehow ended up in Glasgow. The music department had begun to grow when I was in P6, and by the time I reached The Big School and the Secondary orchestra there were two orchestras. By the time I left there were also several choirs and chamber music groups, and it was possible to forget that anything else actually went on in Hillhead. We played Mozart, Beethoven, Handel, Schubert, we sang madrigals and Parry, the chamber music groups tackled Gibbons. We did Haydn's "The Heavens are telling", complete with orchestra, choir and soloists. We were given no quarter when it came to repertoire, and we were expected to work till we could cope. We performed at the school concert in December - and after the St Andrews Halls burned down, we had three nights of these in the school hall to accommodate all who wished to attend them  - and at the Festival in May.

We took these performances very seriously. I never did learn how to deal with circles in Co-ordinate Geometry because the class did that bit when I was at an extra orchestra practice, and I would take the bus into Hillhead every afternoon of exam leave during my Highers because the Festival was always just after the exams ended. I had my first ever migraine during Festival week when I was in S6, brought on, I'm sure, by the stress of the occasion on my adolescent brain; it vanished the moment the results were announced (we won). I remember Herbert Howells, who was adjudicating one of the chamber music competitions, asking if this school covered the whole of Glasgow; there seemed to be at least one entry from Hillhead in every competition he judged. And I remember walking home with friends, all carrying our instruments, over Gilmorehill through the quiet May evenings, quite convinced that this was the best life would ever have to offer.

When I left school, it was the music that I was most distraught to leave behind. My experiences at school were certainly responsible for more of what happened in later life than any of the subjects I actually pursued formally, though I did study for a Higher Music in S6 and have Ordinary Music as a subject in my MA. But it is this time of year that brings it all back to me, Haydn and all.

Lucky. Pure, dead lucky. As my younger self would say..

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Lilacs out of the dead land

April is the cruellest month - you bet it is. These light, chilly days, the sudden glimpse of primroses by a burn or a lone violet amidst a tangle of dead bracken: all these bring a curious mixture of hope, cheerfulness - and the sense of life passing. It's the cyclic thing again; the more uniform mid-season times, like a perpetual Trinity season, perhaps, make one less aware of the passing of years, while the sudden exclamations of delight over the signs of the season trigger transience all too readily.

I can remember with unlikely clarity being fifteen or sixteen at this time of year. We used to take days away from the city in the moveable Easter holidays of that time - mostly train rides to Helensburgh or Milngavie or Balloch, with at least one remembered trip to Dunoon. We didn't have a car, and all four of us went together - there was no question of staying at home to swot for O-grades or whatever. But what I most remember is the sudden sense of self - the scent of my own, slightly tanned skin, overlaid slightly with the first perfume I had ever owned, combined, bizarrely, with the small horror of a new smallpox vaccination on the scar of my infant one - for that was the era of a sudden requirement to have a valid vaccination certificate if you wanted to travel abroad, presumably because there had been an outbreak of smallpox in the UK such as the one described here.

I remember I went with a friend to my first ever opera at this time of year, and within four days of vaccination. I saw Bizet's The Pearl Fishers, and during it my arm began to itch ferociously and I began to feel distinctly odd. When I read the possible complications of vaccination here, I don't wonder at the latter, but at the time it was a matter of a disprin and getting on with school work.

So - a sudden welter of memories brought on by a bright day with nothing else to think about. Larkin's description of the lighted rooms inside your head  slips unsought into my own head, and I nod yet again to the poet's adept nailing of the minutiae of life. It's as well that normal life is full of music and people and books and East Enders ... did I mention that in these days we didn't even have a telly?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Deeply satisfying

A couple of weeks ago now I finished reading Vikram Seth's An Equal Music - though if I'd read the review published on the Amazon page to which that link takes you, I don't know that I'd have bothered. This book is another of several lent to me by a good friend who knows my taste to such an extent that if she thinks I'd enjoy one I tend to give it a go, and so came to this book cold, as it were, with very little handle on what it was going to turn out to be.

It's a story of music, of love and of loss. The hero, Michael, plays second violin in a string quartet, and though he has a girlfriend - who is a less than satisfactory pupil on the violin - he is filled with regret and longing for the girl he loved when he himself was a student. So in that respect it is a love story, in which I felt he involved himself almost without will, as if he was unable to prevent any of the actions he took after seeing Julia on a London bus. It is significant that it is not the bus he is on at the time - they are bound in different directions and the tension of the situation builds gently but inexorably through the story.

The main player in this novel, however, is music. The tension between the members of the Maggiore quartet rings true, their individual temperaments as taut as the strings of their instruments, the differences between them sublimated in their combined music or - occasionally - wrecking it. I felt I knew these musicians and their constant preoccupation with their art, the way everything is seen in terms of how it will affect their music. When Michael is threatened with the loss of his violin, it is like an impending death; when a fridge in the house where they rehearse makes a noise somewhere between two notes it is identified and it disturbs. Bells sound a perfect G and music enters dreams. And when the Maggiore decide to play Bach's The Art of Fugue it takes over their lives.

The sense of loss permeates the story from the start, although at first I was not sure whose loss it was going to turn out to be. I'm not about to give away this most telling feature, but it works. Seth has brought off the feat of writing about music in such a way as to convince someone who is involved in music-making. And that is where I'll leave this deeply satisfying book.

Friday, April 06, 2012

The Garden

That night there was no
peace in the garden. The voice
beat randomly and wordless
on the shrinking sense as the flames
flickered irritably in the unseen chill.
The struggling prayer faltered
with each startling blow and
died as the God’s voice dwindled and
withdrew. And when the silence fell
blessedly and the night grew still
it was already over, this riven time,
and the marching feet, the harsher
shouts, the drawn steel glinting
in the dark – to this the prayer had led
and left the silence of the grave.

©C.M.M. 04/12

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Queasy among the palms

I think I have never felt good about Palm Sunday. Whether it was reading/hearing the whole of the Passion story, or concentrating on the events of the day itself, I was always so aware of the fickle nature of "the crowd" - and how convenient so to label them: people not like us, you know - we're better than that. Except that we're not, and the cheering, palm-waving crowds who welcomed Jesus on what was today described as a "hot-wired donkey" exemplify so much of what is wrong with us as we sway through life. Cheerful, fearful - and as we change our spots, someone else suffers. The friend we betray, the hurt we do by heedlessly altering an arrangement or blithely finding something else we want to do: all these resonances sound together with the hosannas and leave me with an unpleasant taste.

Was there even an echo of irony in the words of "All glory, laud and honour ..."?