The Music of England: Ralph Vaughan Williams

June 27, 2007 at 6:28 pm (Anglophilia, Eloquence, Music)

This excerpt from the Times review of the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis by Ralph Vaughan Williams was written on the occasion of the piece’s premiere in 1910. It is quoted in the liner notes of a compact disc featuring Vaughan Williams’s works for string orchestra (Nimbus NIM 5019):

“The work is wonderful because it seems to lift one into some unknown region of musical thought and feeling…one is never sure whether one is listening to something very old or very new. The voices of the old church musicians are around one, and yet their music is enriched with all that modern art has done, since Debussy, too, is somewhere in the picture. It cannot be assigned to a time or a school, but it is full of visions.”

This commentary is from the notes in Gramaphone’s Classical Good CD Guide (2002). The writer describes the Tallis Fantasia as a piece “…whose majestic unrelated consonances provided a new sound and a new way into large-scale form. The sound, with its sense of natural objects seen in a transfigured light, placed Vaughan Williams in a powerfully English visionary tradition…”

The Fantasia received its premiere at the Three Choirs Festival at Gloucester Cathedral; it was written specifically to fill the acoustic of that vast interior space. You can, however, play it on the CD player in your bedroom (as I have just done) and still be astonished by its otherworldy magic.

rvwcat.jpg Ralph Vaughan Williams
in 1942, with his favorite cat Foxy.

gloucester_2.jpg The interior of Gloucester Cathedral. For more images, click on Hintermeister – Gloucester Cathedral

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Roberta Recommends: June 26 ’07

June 26, 2007 at 8:27 pm (Book clubs, Book review)

I’d like to suggest six contemporary novels for book clubs to consider discussing. I have a very scientific method for deciding what would be a good choice for book groups. Here it is:

Step One: I read the book.

Step Two: I grab the first fellow book lover that I encounter and exclaim, with the utmost urgency (and preferably while shaking him/her by the shoulders): “Have you read [Whatever]? Please read it immediately – I HAVE to talk to someone about it!!”

Well, there you have it. And here are the suggestions:

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan. I’ve recently posted a review of this novel. All I can say in addition is: It’s a tiny little book that packs a huge wallop. The shoulder-shaking urge mentioned above was powerfully upon me when I finished it.

peterackroyddegree.jpg lambs-of-london.jpg The Lambs of London by Peter Ackroyd. Many of us from my generation grew up with Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb being urged upon us by parents and teachers. The first misconception that Ackroyd’s lightly fictionalized account of their lives clears up concerns the relationship between these two: They were brother and sister, not husband and wife. And Mary had some serious mental and emotional problems, which ultimately manifested themselves by her committing a horrific act of violence. This novel provides a vivid picture of life in early 19th century London; moreover, it is extremely readable – a quality I often find lacking in historical fiction. (Peter Ackroyd is one of my favorite writers and will be appearing in future posts about books that I treasure and wish specially to commend to fellow readers.)

nunez_elizabeth.jpg prosperos-daughter.jpg Prospero’s Daughter by Elizabeth Nunez. In this novel, Shakespeare’s Tempest is re-imagined in the Carribbean. Forced to flee England with his infant daughter, Dr. Peter Gardner commandeers an island, setting himself up, Prospero-like, as the sole ruler of his small tropical realm. Characters analogous to Caliban and Ariel duly appear in the course of this absorbing narrative. This novel might profitably be discussed alongside the Shakespeare play. And Nunez’s descriptions of the tropics are simply gorgeous!

jane-gardam.jpg old-flith.jpg Old Filth by Jane Gardam. I admit, this is really a novel for hard core Anglophiles – like me. The title is unfortunately offputting. I’ve known the word “filth” to be applied by various low life characters to the police – at least, in the British police fiction that I have read. In this case, it is a nickname for a retired barrister, Sir Edward Feathers; the nickname came about as the result of an acronym: “Failed in London, Try Hong Kong.” Having spent almost his entire professional life in that distant city, Sir Edward, now widowed, has returned to live out his retirement in Dorset. These bare bones facts don’t begin to hint at the riches that emerge over the course of this novel, which is in a sense a retrospective of England’s age of empire, now almost wholly over, as mirrored in the life of one seemingly ordinary man.

mary-lawson.jpg other-side-of-the-bridge.jpg The Other Side of the Bridge by Mary Lawson. In 2002, Mary Lawson’s Crow Lake, a slim volume of considerable power, became a great favorite with my library colleagues. It was this Canadian author’s first work of fiction, and in such cases, readers are understandably anxious lest the follow-up be less than stellar. The good news here is that if anything, The Other Side of the Bridge is even better than Crow Lake – deeper and richer. Set in rural Canada (as was her first novel), Lawson’s tale of the fatal rivalry between two brothers has Biblical resonance. Her characters are intensely alive; her storytelling powers are formidable.

The Other Side of You by Salley Vickers. I’ve already written about this book in two previous posts. If I had to choose a book that I myself would like to lead a discussion on in the near future, this would be it.

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Nothing Like the Night by David Lawrence: why did I read this book?

June 23, 2007 at 12:27 pm (Book review, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

david-lawrence.jpg nothing-nihjt.jpg I have asked myself the above question several times in the past year or so, with regard to certain works of crime fiction. The chief problem has been – and perhaps this should not be too surprising, given the genre – excessive violence explicitly portrayed. I’ve encountered not only grotesque scenes of murder, but also meticulous descriptions of decaying corpses. Ugly, loveless sex seems to be on the rise as well.

My most recent reading experience in this vein has been Nothing Like the Night by David Lawrence. I should say right now that this is the second book I’ve read by this British poet and novelist. After reading The Dead Sit Round in a Ring (a rather irresistible, title you must admit), I said to myself, “Enough! Enough of this relentless mortification of human flesh! Give me The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency! Give me The Little Engine That Could! Anything but this – this unadulterated savagery!”

Okay, so what happened?

I was browsing at my “local” – branch library, not pub! – when I came upon the second entry in Lawrence’s series featuring DS Stella Mooney. I recalled my revulsion at some of the goings-on in the first book, but at the same time, I remembered this author’s terse, powerful descriptions, terrific ear for dialogue, and uncanny skill at ratcheting up the suspense. In addition to all this, I find Stella Mooney an extremely compelling character. A woman in a predominantly male preserve (though seemingly less so, in these times), she treads a fine line between toughness and compassion. When I say tough, I mean almost to the point of ruthlessness; if and when you read Nothing Like the Night, you’ll be amazed at what she does while trying to defend herself from dangerous thugs. And this – right at the beginning of the novel!

So anyway, my hand drifted toward the book, I took it off the shelf, I read the flyleaf, I checked it out…and Dear Reader, I raced through it! Was it repugnant? Yes – in many places. Was it riveting? Same answer.

I would be very interested to hear from other readers of crime fiction who find themselves powerfully drawn to (dare I say, seduced by?) narratives that contain the kind of brutality that they abhor and would ordinarily shun. Do you resist the compulsion to keep reading? Justify same by virtue of literary merit? Take a long shower afterwards?

I’d like to offer one further thought, not so much as justification but as an effort to understand: Sometimes, in art as in life, violence precedes some kind of revelation about the human condition. Even if the ability to triumph is not made manifest, the ability to endure, and to retain the essence of one’s humanity in the process, is. (I am actually thinking at the moment of Guillermo del Toro’s astounding – but in places really difficult to watch – film, Pan’s Labyrinth.)

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On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

June 20, 2007 at 12:16 pm (Anglophilia, Book review, Eloquence)

chesil.jpg On Chesil Beach is a gem of a novel, a small and tightly wound masterpiece. Its very brevity makes it tricky to decribe the plot without giving too much away. The story concerns two young lovers at midcentury, just before the decade of the 60’s broke wide open, spreading wild abandon and sexual heedlessness over the youth of several continents. Philip Larkin’s famous lines have been frequently quoted by reviewers of this novel:

‘Sexual intercourse began/ In nineteen sixty-three/ (which was rather late for me) -/ Between the end of the Chatterley ban/ And the Beatles’ first LP.”

Of course this novel is gorgeously written, and in addition, it is elegantly structured. We first meet Florence Ponting and Edward Mayhew at a crucial juncture in their shared history. McEwan then takes the reader back in time to the beginnings of their relationship – and even further back, in fact, to childhood and family life. These were drastically different experiences for Florence and Edward; we are once again reminded that falling in love sometimes has little or nothing to do with shared interests or backgrounds. As we learn more about these attractive young people – Edward the robust, life-loving brawler and Florence the gifted musician – we come to care deeply for them both. Our stake in their ultimate fate grows accordingly. After the sortees into their respective pasts, McEwan returns us again and again to the present, increasingly fraught moment. Thus, urgency vies with memory, washing up and then receding, like the waves on Chesil Beach.

Three more points: First, there is a wonderfully titled article in Spectator Magazine: “The Magus of Fitzrovia, in his Prime,” by Matthew d’Ancona. (Fitzrovia, where McEwan lives, is an area of Central London.) Toward the close of this piece, d’Ancona expresses his unabashed admiration for the author of On Chesil Beach: “I admit that Ian McEwan is a hero of mine: a man of letters and liberty, sceptical, decent and free.” Oh, I shall joyfully jump on that bandwagon with both feet, and my literature-loving heart pounding merrily!


Ian McEwan

Second: There is a two minute video trailer posted on Youtube; have a look at it. If you’re lucky, the full length film may be playing in a bookstore near you:

Third: This is a quintessentailly English novel. It put me in mind of Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach:”


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Christine Falls by Benjamin Black

June 19, 2007 at 1:15 am (Book review, Mystery fiction)

christine-falls.jpgThis mystery begins in Dublin with a faked death certificate and ends in Boston, where a distinguished Irish American family deals with the ramifications of that fateful act. The lives of many others are unalterably affected as well; a young couple and their “adopted” infant are a particularly poignant case in point.

The main character, pathologist Garret Quirke, easily fits the profile of the bereft middle-aged protagonist with a secret sorrow. In addition, there is a potentially explosive secret about Quirke’s life that he himself does not know anything about until halfway through the novel. It is revealed to him by Sarah, the woman he has loved his entire adult life: Sarah, who is married to Quirke’s stepbrother Mal Griffin, a highly respected obstetrician. I had a problem with the character of Sarah, in that she seemed prissy and humorless – anything, in other words, but lovable. But this is an old love that can apparently absorb changes and deterioration – “Love is not love, which alters, when it alteration finds…”

My one other problem with this novel is that the plot turns on a conspiracy involving the Catholic Church and the not-quite-legal adoption of infants of questionable provenance. Oh, no, I sighed, another conspiracy involving the Catholic Church. Fortunately, Black does not dwell long on this aspect of the plot. Christine Falls is as much a novel of character as a novel of suspense, and Quirke himself is the best thing in it: he is an unjustly injured man – emotionally, psychologically, and physically – yet he does his best not to give way to self-pity or resentment. More then that, he is committed to finding out the truth about a dodgy set-up that people in high places wish he would not interfere with. (In my mind’s eye, I’m seeing John Hannah as the actor to play Quirke. Yes, I know: Hannah is Scottish, not Irish – but still…)

Benjamin Black is the pseudonym of Irish novelist John Banville, who won the Booker Prize in 2006 for The Sea. I read that novel, and while I greatly admired the beauty of the writing, I found myself somewhat impatient with its sluggish pace. In Christine Falls, though, Banville/Black’s marvelous prose is in service of a plot with plenty of forward thrust and momentum. A good read, then, and a good choice for book clubs as well.


John Banville

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The ghost of Puccini…

June 17, 2007 at 9:24 pm (books, Eloquence, Music)

This review, which appeared in the Daily Express on June 8, 1927, is quoted by Morag Joss at the front of her extraordinary novel of psychological suspense, Puccini’s Ghosts:

“Covent Garden was haunted last night. It was haunted by the gentle and immaculate ghost of Puccini…who died with the final bars of Turandot still imprisoned within his brain, who disappeared to solve an enigma more terrible and profound than any created by the Princess Turandot. We like to think that Puccini revisited the glimpses of the moon last night to observe the opera’s performance in England, where his works are so universally cherished, to watch his tricksy spirits at their revels. We imagined him pleased with the magnificent production and the sensation it created.”


Giacomo Puccini (December 22, 1858 – November 29, 1924)

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The fictional British policeman, in all his (or her) vulnerable glory

June 14, 2007 at 2:12 pm (Film and television, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

What are the traits that make the British police protagonist so uniquely appealing? In some cases, I would say, it’s the mixture of bravado and vulnerability, possibly including a back story that contains a secret – or not so secret – sorrow. Then, there are the times when the desire for justice trumps, or nearly trumps, the need to do things by the book. In other words: conflict, and potentially more conflict, with co-workers, witnesses, (alleged) perpetrators, even victims – and of course, with oneself.

Some examples:

Adam Dalgliesh, created by P. D. James; Morse (oh yes, despite the smokescreen of smug superiority!), created by Colin Dexter (whom I met last September – What joy!); John Rebus, created by Ian Rankin; Commander John Coffin, created by Gwendoline Butler; George Hennessey, created by Peter Turnbull; Thomas Lynley, created by Elizabeth George (Yes, I’ve had issues with these novels; they have, at times, seemed to me to constitute a long running soap opera masquerading as a mystery series.); Alan Banks (for many readers, including this one, a long running favorite), created by Peter Robinson; DS Stella Mooney, created by David Lawrence – the list goes on, and of course there are plenty of others that I haven’t read – at least, not yet!

This profile by no means applies to all the fictional creations that populate the subgenre of the police procedural. Ruth Rendell’s Reginald Wexford, for instance, is blessed with a wife he loves and depends on, and has two grown daughters he is devoted to. There is no hidden pain in his past, at least none that we readers are made privy to. He does feel guilty about having more intense paternal feelings for one of his daughters – the beautiful, free-spirited Sheila – than he has for the somewhat tight-lipped, judgmental Sylvia. Naturally, he works hard to right this imbalance and sometimes overcompensates; it is an extremely humanizing touch in the make-up of this appealing copper.

The best site for obtaining up to date information about the order of the books in series such as these and others is Stop! You’re Killing me ( )! Also, the proprietary database Novelist provides this information. (You may have access to Novelist through your local public library’s website – Check it out!)

Of course, some of these detecting types have made it to the small screen, almost always with with rewarding results; the Brits have such an uncanny knack for choosing just the right actors and setting the tone in a way that is both subtle and effective.

georgebaker4.jpg john-hannahjpp.jpg roymarsden01.jpg

[Left to right: George Baker as Reg Wexford; John Hannah as John Rebus; Roy Marsden as Adam Dalgliesh]

The Inspector Morse films have gained classic status at this point. The TV series ended in 2000 with the death of Morse – an episode which I have never been able to bring myself to watch, although I have read the final book in the series, The Remorseful Day. Morse’s passing was followed two years later by an even sadder loss; namely, that of the actor who portrayed him, the deeply revered John Thaw. By all means, watch these films (as I have done several times over!), but don’t forget the novels, which still sparkle with Dexter’s trademark wit and mordant observations concerning human nature.

morse-lewis.jpg colin-dexter-autographing-book.jpg

[John Thaw as Morse, with Kevin Whately as Lewis; and Colin Dexter autographing a copy of The Jewel That Was Ours for Yours Truly at the Randolph Hotel in Oxford. Our tour group had the impression that he was enjoying himself hugely. Someone asked him why he had to kill Morse, and he responded, sounding – and looking – somewhat injured: “But I didn’t kill him – He died of natural causes!”]

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Ideas of Heaven by Joan Silber

June 9, 2007 at 2:41 pm (Book review, books)

Ideas of Heaven by Joan Silber is subtitled, “A Ring of Stories.” In each tale, there is embedded a specific link to the next. Looking for these connectors becomes part of the pleasure of reading this book. Ordinarily, I might look with suspicion on a device that comes perilously close to gimmickry, but somehow, Silber pulls it off with great wit and charm. The “ring” becomes yet another reason to be captivated by this slim, highly original volume.

“My Shape”proves to be a great story with which to kick off this collection. It is immensely readable. The voice of Alice, the protagonist, is almost chatty, as though she were rambling through her life story for the amusement of some friends. I found this straight-ahead, almost breezy narrative style extremely appealing, as is the narrator herself. But in the next three stories, “The High Road,” “Gaspara Stampa,” and “Ashes of Love,” Silber introduces us to characters who are increasingly complicated and not always easy to like.

And then, with the title story, she takes what I thought was an inspired imaginative leap: She portrays a family of 19th century American missionaries as sympathetic, decent people about whom we come to care deeply. This is not how I, at least, might have initially expected to feel about missionaries; the stereotyped view has them imbued with an unalterable sense of righteousness, invading an alien culture in order to impose a Western system of belief on the poor benighted natives. I think that what Silber achieves in this story is almost miraculous: she takes this preconception and stands it on its head. Several readers and reviewers have said that it is their favorite in the collection; it is certainly very dramatic and powerful. While reading it, I felt privileged to be in the presence of these simple paragons. Also, I had begun to tire somewhat of the self-indulgence exhibited so freely by characters in the earlier stories, like Duncan Fischbach , Gaspara Stampa, and even Alice herself. All those heated, overwrought passions, all that inward turning narcissism!

With regard to both “Ideas of Heaven “ and “Gaspara Stampa”: I think of historical fiction as one of the few avenues by which we prisoners of time can travel into the past. I’ve read many historical novels, but I had never encountered historical short stories until reading Ship Fever by Andrea Barrett (National Book Award Winner, 1996). In her collection, Barrett alternates the historical stories with the contemporary ones, much as Joan Silber does in Ideas of Heaven. The title story, “Ship Fever,” is about the Irish Potato Famine and the resulting emigration of numerous Irish nationals to Canada and the United States. The description of the shipboard experience was horrific enough that I have never forgotten it. As with “Gaspara Stampa” and “Ideas of Heaven,” I felt impelled to research the historical underpinnings of the story. And, as with the aforementioned two stories by Silber, I got totally caught up in events due to a combination of vivid description and believable and sympathetic characters.

I think one of the trickiest aspects of writing historical fiction is creating believable dialogue. This is especially true if the work is set in the distant past. It seems to me a dicey proposition, trying to re-create colloquial vocabulary and patterns of usage, not to mention slang, from the vantage point of many years down the road. Silber handles this challenge by using somewhat formal (but not archaic) diction which she then employs in sentences that are brief and to the point. Also, she relies almost exclusively on first person narration. The reader becomes privy to a long running interior monologue, which in turn presents the double advantage of minimizing the need for dialog while giving the reader a window deep into the soul of the character.

Gaspara Stampa lived from 1523-1554. It was a brief but colorful life filled with a passion and incident. (I had never heard of her before reading this story.) The actual narrative seems on its surface little more than a catalogue of frustrating and ultimately unfulfilling love affairs and yet I found it very engrossing. I especially enjoyed the vivid recreation of 16th century Venice, with its salons, gossip, and secret and not-so-secret intrigues. (There is a nonfiction book set in 18th century Venice called A Venetian Affair, by Italian journalist Andrea di Robilant. It too offers a splendid recreation of that time and place, and a luminous love story as well.) Here is a passage that sums up Gaspara Stampa’s philosophy quite well, I think:

“ I thought of Petrarch, how he suffered, and how for twenty years he longed for Laura without every living out that love. He made his home in the perfection of that yearning. I would rather….have what I just had. I would rather live in the particulars.” And she proceeds to do just that, with a vengeance!

As for poetry written by Gaspara Stampa: yes, the ache and the sadness are palpable, but I think that it is really difficult to translate verse from one language to another while retaining with any precision the beauty of expression found in the original tongue. Shakespeare is my chief reason for being glad that I was born into an English-speaking culture.

To return to “Ideas of Heaven”: this is a substantially more ambitious story than “Gaspara Stampa.” I think it succeeds on many levels: personal, psychological, historical. In an interview given shortly after Silber received the National Book Award nomination, her editor at W.W. Norton, Carol Houck Smith, said that she thought of these stories as “little novels,” as opposed to the more slender slices of life offered up in many contemporary short stories. Now, the stories in this book are certainly on the long side. At 57 pages, the title story approaches novella length.

Certainly “Ideas of Heaven” encompasses a large world of experience – perhaps one should say, of innocence and experience. In her note on sources, Silber refers to China Journal by Eva Jane Price . Pictured on the cover with her husband and their daughter Florence, Price – “Lizzie” in the story – looks stiff and unyielding, almost like a creature of another species. In this story, Silber humanize her character completely. When she talks about her fears and longings, I believe her utterly and ache with dread for her. And then there is her husband Ben. Here, he offers his rationale for taking up missionary work: “…people all over the world look at a dead bird and feel only dread for themselves and a natural horror of decay. I think they must always live with a taste of horror.” There is no hint of fanaticism in this statement; only humility, compassion, and a genuine desire to serve one’s fellow creatures. (To view photographs of Eva Jane Price and her family, type “Oberlin College Digital Collections” in the Google search box. In that site’s search box at the upper left, enter “Eva Jane Price.”)

And so they embark for China, Lizzie’s father’s anguished, almost Biblical injunction trailing in their wake: “Oh, Lizzie, why are you choosing to set off on this stony path? What have you to do with the Orient or the Orient with you? I had not thought two homebodies such as you would be so reckless.” Just how reckless – though with the purest of motives – would become apparent soon enough.

The fact that this story has its basis in fact makes it all the more compelling. Further information can be found at:

I have read this book three times; each time, I underlined something new. If I read it again, I will probably end up underlining the entire book!Here are some samples of the passages I marked out:

A reflection of a passenger on an ocean cruise: “There is an hour on any ship when twilight turns everything a bright and glowing blue and the horizon disappears, the sea and the sky are the same. The line between air and water is so incidental that a largeness of vision comes over everyone; the ship floats on the sky, until night falls and everything is swallowed in the dark.” [from “My Shape”]

“Suspicion, scorn, hotheadedness about money: these were not traits I admired. I had left other women over behavior much more subtle than this. But I saw that I didn’t care when Peggy was dead wrong. My feelings for her were independent of any opinion. They ran in a different channel; they had their own route. It was an odd, heady sensation to know this. I kissed her neck, in full sincerity.” [from “Ashes of Love”]

“Shutting up is a good research tool.” [from “Ashes of Love]

A man’s thoughts at his brother’s ordination: “During the ceremony, I felt confused and at the same time quite moved, as if a dog in a spangled costume had suddenly spoken profound and beautiful words.” [from “The Same Ground”]

Books discussed in this post:

Ideas of Heaven by Joan Silber. W.W. Norton & Company, 2005

Ship Fever by Andrea Barrett. W. W. Norton & Company, 1996

A Venetian Affair by Andrea di Robilant. Vintage, 2005

China Journal by Eva Jane Price. Collier Books, 1990

I welcome recommendations for historical fiction; please feel free to comment.

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The Girls Who Went Away, by Ann Fessler

June 7, 2007 at 5:37 pm (Book review)

girls-who-went-away.jpg I have been pushing myself to finish this book so that I could write about it. Naturally, now that the time has come to do so, I’m feeling slightly tongue-tied (digit-tied?). There is so much to say about this subject – so much that astonished and enraged me – that it’s hard to know where to begin. To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, here is the book’s full title: The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe V. Wade (Penguin Press, 2006).

I always find it interesting when a cause or a passion unexpectedly takes over a person’s life and becomes that person’s raison d’etre. My favorite recent example is David Brown’s work on the life of Tchaikovsky. (Bear with me; this is relevant, in its way.) When asked to write a biography of this composer, Brown had initially declined. But when he was subsequently asked to pen the entry on Tchaikovsky for the latest edition of the prestigious New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, he acceded to the request. He subsequently agreed to produce a single volume study on this subject in the space of four years. But then, says, Brown, “Tchaikovsky himself took over.” One volume became four, four years became sixteen; ultimately, this work became the most extensive and thorough study of the life and works of a Russian composer ever written. (The official Russian reviewer said, “Frankly, we have nothing like it.”) Here are Brown’s own words:

“Never had I realized how fascinating, how complex a man Tchaikovsky was – even more, how great and varied a composer, and just how much of his vast output I simply had not known.”

With Tchaikovsky: the Man and his Music (Pegasus Books, 2007), the single volume version of his magnum opus, David Brown concludes his career as a scholar of music on the most edifying note possible. He has placed this composer in the proper context as one of the true giants of nineteenth century music.


ann-fessler.jpg Anyway – back to Ann Fessler and the writing of The Girls Who Went Away. Fessler teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design and specializes in installation art. For fifteen years, the subject of her work was adoption. (She herself is an adoptee.) Gradually, as an accompaniment to the visual component of her work, she began collecting the stories of those with first hand experience of adoption. Fessler writes: “Although the stories written by adoptive parents and adoptees were very moving, those contributed by the mothers who had surrendered children were so powerful that they transformed my understanding of adoption.”

As she began focusing on women who had given up babies in postwar America, she began to realize that here were stories that had been hidden away for decades. That act of concealment was part of a huge undisclosed, unacknowledged reservoir of anguish. Almost inadvertently, Fessler had discovered a world of pain. She knew immediately that this was a story that needed to be told. That story took over her creative life, just as the story of Tchaikovsky had done with David Brown.

The Girls Who Went Away is actually comprised of not one but many stories; Fessler has wisely chosen to allow the women whose stories they are to speak for themselves. I have to admit – I came of age in the 50’s and ’60’s, and I had no firsthand experience of what these young women went through. In story after story, we see naive, unworldly girls – who had always thought of themselves as “good”girls – vilified, shamed, and abandoned, even – no, especially – by their own parents. Time after time, they are hustled into cars, driven away from their homes and familiar surroundings to be hidden away somewhere out of view until they give birth. Many of these girls had never before been away from home. And as for the experience of pregnancy and birth, many of them were astoundingly ignorant. No one took the trouble to enlighten them. While experiencing labor, some were left completely alone. (They were equally ignorant about sex, conception, and contraception; this willful ignorance, scrupulously maintained by strangely Puritanical families, was one of the prime contributors to this tragedy.)

It was not only the parents who engaged in this shameful abandonment. The boys and young men most directly responsible took virtually no responsibility. Some of them, of course, were the same boys who had recently declared undying love for their girlfriends. Occasionally, there was a boyfriend who stood by the girl he had impregnated, but clearly this was neither expected nor insisted upon. One woman bitterly remembered that while she was waiting out her time in a home for unwed mothers, her boyfriend was facing tough decisions like which record album to buy next!

Perhaps worst of all, though, was the unrelenting pressure on the girls to give up their babies. They were told that the infants would be adopted immediately (often not the case) and that the girls themselves would forget about this regrettable transgression (not to mention the pain and mortification they had brought upon those dearest to them) and go on to marry and have children in the proper setting. There were scenes in this book of young women being presented with papers to sign while they were actually in the throes of labor. Many of them did not know what they were signing. They were never informed of their rights with regard to keeping the child or changing their minds after surrender. Forget how incredibly cruel all of this was; some of it doesn’t even sound legal.

The social workers involved in these scenarios do not come off well. Much of the pressure, misinformation, and disinformation came through them. Apparently, much the same sort of business was going on in Australia at the same time it was going on in this country, and in 1997, the professional organization representing Australian social workers issued a statement that reads in part as follows:

“The Australian Association of Social Workers Ltd (AASW) expresses its extreme regret at the lifelong pain experienced by many women who have relinquished their children for adoption.” The document goes on to acknowledge that “… decisions taken in the past, although based on the best knowledge of the time, and made with the best of intentions, may nevertheless have been fundamentally flawed.” Judging by the sad litany of shattered lives recounted again and again in Ann Fessler’s book, the foregoing is, if anything, a vast understatement.

I had two problems while reading this book. The first is that, as compelling as these stories are, there is a certain sameness to them; by the time I had reached the half way point – the book is some 330 pages long – I found that a certain tedium had set in. (It is, however, definitely worth persevering; the pace does pick up again.) The other problem was that at various intervals, I would feel rage start to boil within me, and the feeling made it virtually impossible to read with the barest pretense of objectivity. These were, after all, women who came of age at the same time I did. They were my friends and classmates. Fessler states that probably everyone from that era knew, or at least knew of, a “girl who went away.” While I can’t summon up a particular name or face from my own youth, I am sure that those girls dwelled among us, my friends and myself. At the time, there was such a thick veil of secrecy drawn over this whole phenomenon, it makes it difficult to summon up specific names or faces from decades past. Finally, I have admit that along with the intense anger, there came a shudder of recognition and fear: I can’t help thinking, that there, but for the Grace of God…

A big part of Fessler’s purpose in writing this book was to shine the light of day on these women and their past lives, to bring them out of that realm of shadows and give them a chance to be heard and known by the rest of us. Was any kind of redemption ever experienced by these bereft mothers? Yes – when they were re-united with the (adult) children they had given up at birth. Yet even these stories were often fraught with anxiety. These tentative new relationships could take a while to reach a level of relative comfort for all those involved; some never did. And yet these stories are for the most part happy ones, and the reunion of mother and child after so long an absence was often a joyous event. And finally, this is where the basic goodness of the people touched by these events had a chance to emerge. In particular, many adoptive parents were generous and supportive of this most urgent and fundamental quest for the truth about their children’s lives.

I admit that I’m a bit surprised that this book did not generate more attention when it was published last year. Why was it not more widely reviewed? I read book reviews all the time, yet I had not heard of The Girls Who Went Away until a friend recommended it to me. Okay, this is a pain-filled book and people naturally desire to avoid pain. Possibly potential readers also felt that these stories had nothing to do with them. Ah, but they do. I think of Linda Loman toward the end of Death of a Saleman crying out, “Attention must be paid!” Indeed.

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Michael Dirda’s review of The Other Side of You by Salley Vickers

June 7, 2007 at 12:10 pm (Book review, Eloquence)

As I was preparing for a program of book talks to be presented at a public library branch this past Saturday, I came upon a review by Michael Dirda in the Washington Post. The book under review was The Other Side of You by Salley Vickers, a novel I love and have taken every available opportunity to recommend to people. I now remember that it was Dirda’s piece that alerted me to this book in the first place; I had not previously heard of it, nor of its author.

I deeply appreciate the beauty and incisiveness of Dirda’s writing. Here is a link to the review on Amazon:

Referring back to an earlier work by Vickers, Dirda notes “…that Henry Jamesian sense of a missed life — of what might have been — suffuses The Other Side of You and reminds us that Vickers is a novelist in the great English tradition of moral seriousness. Her characters suffer, they struggle to be true to both themselves and the promptings of the human heart, and they eventually accept that a quiet accommodation to one’s lot may be the most that any of us can hope for. Yet sometimes, during even the most seemingly drab existence, a moment or a memory of real unclouded happiness may be unexpectedly snatched from the maw of time.”

As I have said before (in a previous post on this blog), maybe they should build a statue to a critic!

[Recent books by Michael Dirda are Book by Book: notes on reading and life (2006), and Bound To Please: an Extraordinary one-volume literary education: essays on great writers and their books (2005).]

I have posted my own review of The Other Side of You .

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