At 12:30 AM on March 18, 1990, two men gained entrance to Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Employing subterfuge – they were dressed as policemen – they had deceived the two duty guards, whom they tied up and left in the basement of the building. As of that moment, the impostors had the run of the lightly secured premises. They proceeded to help themselves to some of the world’s most priceless objets d’art. At 2:41 AM, they left as they had entered, through the building’s side entrance:
“The thieves were inside for a total of eighty-one minutes and nabbed thirteen works of art, valued today at over $500 million. They’ve just pulled off the largest robbery in history. In the wet, empty streets, the thieves and their faceless associates start up their cars and speed down Palace Road, and as their tail-lights disappear into the night, so do the Gardner masterpieces.
Thus did an audacious dead-of-night caper instantly attain the status of legend, giving rise to questions that have perplexed police, federal agents, private investigators, and art lovers for almost two decades: Who masterminded this heist? And where is the stolen art?
This is the question that at first intrigued, then perplexed, then ultimately obsessed journalist Ulrich Boser. Boser’s quest led him first to Harold Smith, a man who, in the course of a career as an international expert on art theft, had amassed an enviable track record when it came to locating stolen art work and jewelry. For years, Smith had focused on the Gardner theft and occasionally came tantalizingly close to cracking the case. But he died without solving the mystery.
Spending time with Harold Smith was an edifying experience for Boser; it was, vicariously, for me as well. Despite being ravaged by an aggressive form of skin cancer, Smith never lost his drive, his acuity, or his generosity. Up to the end, he maintained a vigorous work ethic enlivened by a sense of humor that was probably his salvation. When Smith died in 2005, Boser vowed to take up the search where his mentor had left off.
As the investigation proceeded, Boser encountered, among others, members of the so-called New England Mafia, the most notorious of which is the famously elusive James “Whitey” Bulger.
Bulger and others of his ilk have long been suspected of, at the very least, harboring guilty knowledge concerning the Gardner theft and the whereabouts of the stolen treasures. Now, I admit that I often think of Boston as an island of cultural riches amid the sea of vulgarity threatening to engulf the rest of the country. I have heard about the existence of a criminal underworld in the environs, but I was rather taken aback by the viciousness of some of its denizens, as described by Boser. I found myself thinking back to Martin Scorsese’s harrowing film, The Departed.
In addition to the aforementioned mobsters, we meet members of various law enforcement agencies. My particular favorite among these was Charlie Sabba, a New Jersey police officer with a Bachelor of fine Arts degree from the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. A painter himself and passionate about art in general, he put me in mind of Susan Hill’s Simon Serrailler and P.D. James’s Adam Dalgliesh.
The list of dramatis personae goes on. There are run-of-the-mill grifters, art and antiques dealers, and a few who are a bit of both. Boser followed the trail of the missing masterpieces to Ireland, where many in the know believe they are hidden. (Whitey Bulger himself is rumored to be concealed somewhere on the Emerald Isle.)
The book features an intriguing section about how great painting affects some viewers:
“Philosopher Richard Wollheim made three trips to Germany to view the Isenheim Altarpiece, Matthias Grunewald’s sixteenth-century masterwork, but each time he looked at the canvas, he found it unbearable and had to turn away. There is a book dedicated to people who cry in front of paintings, and a disease called Stendhal’s Syndrome, where extensive exposure to Old Master paintings can cause dizziness, confusion, and hallucinations.
The book referenced in this passage is Pictures & Tears by James Elkins, a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. And as for the Isenheim Altarpiece, read this description, provided by Hungary’s superb Web Gallery of Art. Then gaze upon the altarpiece itself (by clicking on links at lower left). You may then better understand Richard Wollheim’s reaction.
Generally the pace of The Gardner Heist is lively, although as events unfold, Boser has some difficulty keeping the suspense ratcheted up. I think this is primarily the fault of the narrative arc of the story. It starts with a bang – the lightning strike, in the dead of night, by the two daring thieves. Boser then goes on to detail the investigation, which is, alas, a tale of fizzling leads, dashed hopes, and profound frustration. Ultimately, one does tire of all the evasive tactics, coyness, legal maneuvering, posturing, and outright lying on the part of many of the individuals interviewed by Boser. Especially since the stakes are so very, very high…
The Rembrandt is the only known seascape by that great master. The Vermeer is one of only thirty-four works positively identified as being by him. And as for Chez Tortoni, there is such mystery in that man’s expression… More than once, while engrossed in The Gardner Heist, I wanted to stand up and shout, enough already! Give us back our paintings, our art, our patrimony.
In the fall of 1990, my husband and I visited the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum for the first time. Just beyond the entryway, there was a table displaying reproductions of the stolen art. Contact numbers for the FBI and the Boston Police were provided. “If you have any information…” Since then, there has been plenty of information, ranging from tantalizing to fraudulent, virtually all of it useless.
In 2005, The Boston Globe published this multimedia review by Steve Kurkjian of the facts of the case. And in “A Wounded Museum Feels a Jolt of Progress” (New York Times, March 13, 2009), Abby Goodnough updates us on the Gardner’s efforts to move into the future – this, despite the strictures forbidding change that “Mrs. Jack” placed in her will. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum remains, after all, a repository of countless treasures placed in the most gracious of settings.
A final note: one of my favorite mystery authors, Jane Langton, sets most of her novels in the greater Boston area, where she is a long time resident. Langton published Murder at the Gardner in 1988. I often wonder what she thought when she opened her paper on that March morning two years later.
Few things gladden my heart like opening my morning paper (the Washington Post), or any periodical for that matter, and seeing my brother’s name. This has happened more than once. And it’s up to me to find it; I get no advance warning from the source.
In “American Capitalism Besieged,” columnist Robert Samuelson quotes Richard Tedlow (the brother in question) on the fate of Richard Whitney, who was head of the New York Stock Exchange in 1928. Richard Tedlow has focused on business history for most of his professional life; he is currently the MBA Class of 1949 Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School.
Regina “Reggie” Lee, a curator at London’s National Gallery, is trying to put together an exhibit featuring several paintings by Caravaggio. A task that should have been relatively straightforward becomes anything but when two of the four lenders suddenly go back on their promise to provide works for the exhibition. What is going on? Reggie is determined to find out.
Her investigation takes her deep into the French countryside. Reggie has an affinity for the paysage; one of her grandmothers was French. The reader will be similarly enraptured by author’s deliciously evocative descriptions of the region. I was reminded of a DVD I watched recently which showcased the attractions of the Dordogne, with its ancient, still-preserved villages and medieval strongholds perched at cliff’s edge. And a river runs through it!
I wanted to pack my bags and go there at once, preferably with Reggie Lee as my guide.
I found Reggie quite appealing. A brainy woman passionate about art, she’s also passionate about – well, passion. As the novel opens, she has just been left by a lover she still longs for. Later, in the course of her investigations, she has an ill-advised one night stand with a journalist whose wife she considers a friend. She even finds herself attracted to the steely, sinister Jean-Jacques Rigaut. Luckily, she has no opportunity to act on that (potentially very dangerous) feeling.
My one reservation concerning Caravaggio’s Angels is that by the time I was halfway through the novel, the plot lines had become so tangled that I was having some trouble figuring out exactly what was happening and why. We fans of crime fiction have all experienced this phenomenon, and often more than once. Sometimes we throw up our hands in despair; other times, interesting characters and a great setting are sufficient compensation. For me, with this novel,the latter was the case. I stayed with it and was glad that I did.
The angel on the book’s cover is a detail from St. Matthew and the Angel. Here is the painting in its entirety:
One cannot help but be fascinated by Caravaggio, with his supreme talent and his turbulent, occasionally violent life (and inevitable premature death). It is not surprising that novelists make use of this mother lode of dramatic material. One of my favorite examples of this paradigm occurs in The Other Side of You by Salley Vickers. On this post you’ll find images of two of Caravaggio’s works: The Supper at Emmaus and The Taking of Christ. The latter is the subject of one of my favorite nonfiction titles of recent years, The Lost Painting by Jonathan Harr:
Click on the Wikipedia entry for this masterpiece and read the first section, entitled “Description.” Then click to enlarge and look to the extreme right of the image. Be prepared for chills…
Caravaggio’s Angels comes to us courtesy of Soho Constable, a new imprint launched a little over a year ago by one of my favorite publishers, Soho Press. Peter Lovesey’s terrific contemporary novels featuring Peter Diamond and also, of late, Henrietta “Hen” Mallin have long been published by Soho. While scrolling down the Soho Constable Frontlist, I noted with pleasure the inclusion of this fine writer’s excellent Sergeant Cribb historical series as well. And then, I exclaimed with delight! Why? Because I had spotted, just below the Lovesey titles, slated for an August 2009 release, this book:
So why am I so excited? In 2005, this mystery by Olive Etchells arrived in the library:
The following year brought this sequel:
What was so special about these two novels? The characters were fascinating, the writing was excellent, as were the plots – and the Cornwall setting was utterly captivating. Meanwhile, 2006 came and went, then 2007… Nothing further was heard from, or about, Olive Etchells. So yes, I could not be more pleased that at last, the third DCI Channon procedural is on its way to us.
With My Dog as My Co-Pilot. Some readers consider pieces featuring pets to be overly cute, but if you love dogs, I think this travelogue by Melanie D.G. Kaplan will bring a smile to your face. It appeared in last Sunday’s Washington Post. (Don’t miss the accompanying slide show.)
Kudos to Newsweek (March 16) for featuring Death Be Not Allowed By Claire Messud. The thrust of this article is that the subject of death has been all but banned from contemporary fiction. Messud reminds us that the works of Tolstoy exemplify the willingness to stare with unblinking directness at the fact of mortality.
“Ivan Ilych saw that he was dying, and he was in continual despair.
In the depth of his heart he knew he was dying, but not only was he not accustomed to the thought, he simply did not and could not grasp it.
The syllogism he had learnt from Kiesewetter’s Logic: “Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal,” had always seemed to him correct as applied to Caius, but certainly not as applied to himself. That Caius — man in the abstract — was mortal, was perfectly correct, but he was not Caius, not an abstract man, but a creature quite, quite separate from all others. He had been little Vanya, with a mamma and a papa, with Mitya and Volodya, with the toys, a coachman and a nurse, afterwards with Katenka and will all the joys, griefs, and delights of childhood, boyhood, and youth. What did Caius know of the smell of that striped leather ball Vanya had been so fond of? Had Caius kissed his mother’s hand like that, and did the silk of her dress rustle so for Caius? Had he rioted like that at school when the pastry was bad? Had Caius been in love like that? Could Caius preside at a session as he did? “Caius really was mortal, and it was right for him to die; but for me, little Vanya, Ivan Ilych, with all my thoughts and emotions, it’s altogether a different matter. It cannot be that I ought to die. That would be too terrible.”
Such was his feeling.
“If I had to die like Caius I would have known it was so. An inner voice would have told me so, but there was nothing of the sort in me and I and all my friends felt that our case was quite different from that of Caius. and now here it is!” he said to himself. “It can’t be. It’s impossible! But here it is. How is this? How is one to understand it?”
He could not understand it, and tried to drive this false, incorrect, morbid thought away and to replace it by other proper and healthy thoughts. But that thought, and not the thought only but the reality itself, seemed to come and confront him.
From her discussion of Tolstoy, Messud proceeds to sing the praises of The Spare Room, a new work by Australian novelist Helen Garner: “It does not seek to instruct or uplift: it seeks, rigorously and unflinchingly, to tell the truth.”
Messud herself is the author of this wry, acerbic, and hugely entertaining novel:
The Listening Walls begins with the death, in Mexico, of Wilma Wyatt – accident, suicide, something else? – and the subsequent disappearance of her friend and traveling companion Amy Kellogg. The scene quickly shifts to the Bay Area, where Amy’s husband Rupert has been explaining his wife’s absence by claiming that she is taking an extended vacation in New York. Gill Brandon, Amy’s brother, is not having any of it. He proceeds to hire a private detective: “a brash, bushy-haired little man” named Elmer Dodd. Meanwhile, Gill’s wife, the lofty and imperious Helene, harbors suspicions, as well as longings, of her own. Time passes; Amy fails to appear. A poisonous atmosphere takes hold, and spreads.
The Listening Walls came out in 1959. Reading it is like peering into a time capsule. Women dress up to go shopping. They have servants to cater to their every need: “Breakfast, martinis, chocolate creams, tea, magazines, cigarettes–you pressed a button, and bingo, whatever you wanted, there it was.” Women of a certain class led a pampered, cosseted existence, yet at the same time their lives were circumscribed. Living in one of the most cosmopolitan regions in the country, they constantly fret about their reputations. A flight attendant (“stewardess” in the parlance of the times) is instantly fired when it’s discovered that she’s married. The prevailing attitude toward half the human race veers between a sort of condescending affection and outright contempt. Witness this casual disparagement carelessly tossed off by Gill Brandon: “‘Half the time women don’t know what they want. They have to be told, guided.'”
On the other hand, in this particualr instance, we must consider the source. This is how Millar introduces us to Gill:
“He was a short, stocky, vigorous man with a forceful manner of speaking that made even his most innocuous remark seem compelling, and his most far-fetched theory sound like self-evident truth. To heighten this effect he also used his hands when he talked, not in any dramatically loose European style, but severely, geometrically, to indicate an exact angle of thought, a precise degree of emotion. He liked to think of himself as mathematical and meticulous. He was neither.
As depicted by Millar, the America of the late 1950s was a place where appearances counted for everything – or almost:
“It was a street of conformity; where identical houses were painted at the same time every spring, a place of rules where gardens, parenthood and the future were planned with equal care, and even if everything went wrong the master plan remained in effect–keep up appearances, clip the hedges, mow the lawn, so that no one will suspect that there’s a third mortgage and that Mother’s headaches are caused by martinis not migraine.
This kind of wry, deadpan shrewdness of observation is what I’ve been missing lately in American fiction (with the very notable exception of the novels of Anne Tyler). I read The Listening Walls straight through, feeling hypnotized by the mystery at its heart. In a plot blessedly free of extraneous complications, the central conundrum becomes increasingly compelling as events unfold and characters are forced to reveal their hidden selves. Millar’s style is engaging , her wit rapier-like but controlled. She may lack the tragic sense of life so poignantly bodied forth in the works of her husband, the great Ross MacDonald, but she more than makes up for it by the irony and precision with which she exposes human foibles to the pitiless light of day.
Do yourself a favor and have a look at Letters from a Hill Farm. This has become one of my favorite blogs!
Be sure to watch the Dusty Springfield video; it is a moving reminder of why so many of us cherish this artist.
Not to mention, downright synchronous. Because six days ago I posted “Feeling Scottish,” and lo! here is an article on visiting Jura in the Travel section of the Sunday Washington Post. (Yes – that’s the same Washington Post that recently discontinued the much-beloved Book World insert.)
As its title implies, Paul McHugh’s “Finding Orwell’s Source of Hope” is primarily about the author of 1984 and his island hideaway and only incidentally about Jura itself. McHugh does note that once you’ve made the trek to Barnhill, “…you appreciate the isle of Jura as Scotland’s best wilderness, home to 5,000 red deer but only 170 people.”
One small quibble concerning this piece: McHugh states that “Blair [Orwell’s real name] attended college at Eton.” Eton College – the name can be misleading, especially for Americans – is an independent preparatory school whose students range in age from 13 to 18. Almost all of them go on to university, with approximately one third of those matriculating at either Oxford or Cambridge.(Orwell himself did not receive any higher education. His family had no money for it, and he was apparently not a candidate for a scholarship.)
It’s official: Ron and I hereby declare that the best restaurant meals we’ve ever eaten have been served at Tersiguel’s, located downtown in Historic Ellicott City. Wednesday night I had the pan roasted seasonal salmon, while Ron had the rockfish special. Now I note that on the menu, my entree is more precisely called “saumon mignon.” I don’t exactly know what “mignon” means when used to describe seafood, but I do remember being 21 years old, standing on a street corner in Paris, and having this word applied to me (“Que tu es mignonne”) by a gendarme, no less. Ah, well, that was another country…
Ellicott City was founded in 1772 by the Ellicott brothers John, Andrew, and Joseph. The town was originally called Ellicott’s Mills, after the flour mills built by the brothers. (To read more about the history of Ellicott City, click here.)
The historic district comprises a short stretch of Main Street; the edifices located thereon are a mix of old and new. The newer buildings have for the most replaced those damaged by either flood or fire. The area has sadly suffered both depredations, more than once, in recent history. Tersiguel’s, originally called Chez Fernand, opened on Main Street in 1975, where it enjoyed great success before being destroyed by fire in 1984. Those of us who prize fine cuisine feared that we had lost this treasured dining venue for good. However, after a stint in downtown Baltimore, the Tersiguel family returned to Ellicott City in 1990 to re-open their eatery as Tersiguel’s Country French Restaurant. (Here is the story, as told on their website.)
Many are the pleasures of dining chez Tersiguel’s: gracious surroundings, a warm, welcoming, and knowledgeable waitstaff, and above all, of course, the cuisine. For those like myself, who can no longer consume with careless abandon the food we once loved – and who still harbor, albeit with some degree of embarrassment, a desire to have a nice big bag of
for breakfast, lunch, and/or dinner! – it has become a matter of some urgency that the meals that we still can eat be delicious as well as nutritious. In addition, when I first started learning to live with dietary restrictions after years of food-based self-indulgence, I came to understand that the anticipation of delicious fare to come is as important as the actual consuming of same. Any outing to Tersiguel’s stokes the flames of that anticipation. We feel blessed to have a restaurant of this caliber a mere ten minutes from our front door! And BTW – from time to time, we have dined at other establishments where, although the food itself may be just fine, the portions are – well, I guess the phenomenon is usually described as “nouvelle cuisine.” Ron, who likes hearty servings and never eats between meals, has been known in such situations to stare down at his plate and exclaim, “Hey – I already had my appetizer – I can’t eat these little squiggles around the edge – where’s the rest of my entree!” (Or words to that effect.) Such has never been the case at Tersiguel’s.
Right now, in this country, we are living in parlous times. All the more reason to allow yourself, when possible, a few of life’s small but exquisite luxuries. Here is Tersiguel’s current bill of fare. If you can’t quite see your way to having dinner, try going for lunch. Ron and I have never had a meal there that was less than excellent. A goodly number have been superb.
In the immortal words of Julia Child, who knew a thing or two about the joys of French cuisine: Bon Appetit!
A painting in the collection at Hatchlands, a stately home in Surrey, has just been identified as a portrait of William Shakespeare.
Until now, there have been two likenesses thought to portray the Bard. The first is the frontispiece in the First Folio, the collection of his plays published seven years after his death in 1616. It’s a copper engraving by an artist of Flemish descent, Martin Droeshout.
The second is the so-called Chandos Portrait, which currently hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London:
The artist may have been one John Taylor; the subject may have been William Shakespeare. There is no absolute certainty on either point.
And now, this:
The work dates from 1610, which means it was executed during the playwright’s lifetime. Stanley Wells, emeritus professor of Shakespeare studies at Birmingham University and chairman of the Shakespeare Birthday Trust, believes that this is in fact the face of Shakespeare. Others, such as Andrew Dickson of The Guardian, have reservations.
I’ve always had a fondness for the Chandos portrait. The hint of a smile, the somewhat indirect gaze – behold, they show us a mystery…
This article in the Telegraph features a video on the subject of this recent, rather significant find. (Stanley Wells is married to Susan Hill, a writer I esteem highly. I love this small world quality of British intellectual life!)
Because I’m listening to M.C Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth mysteries and being mesmerised by Graeme Malcolm’s beautiful, subtly inflected reading and by the author’s loving evocation of the Highlands, and
Because Friday night, I led a discussion of Alexander McCall Smith’s The Careful Use of Compliments. Re-reading this novel, I was enraptured all over again.
I love Isabel Dalhousie, ethicist and intellectual. I love the mixture of elements in her: brainy one minute (and not averse to showing it off), passionate the next; possessed of an insatiably curious nature and yet at times preferring solitude, and the possessor of a heightened aesthetic sense that makes her exquisitely responsive to poetry, music, and art.
I was especially taken this time around by the by the poetry quoted and alluded to in this novel. W.H Auden is a great favorite – Isabel calls him her poet. While she and Jamie are bathing little Charlie, she finds herself reflecting on one of Auden’s best known poems:
Musee des Beaux Arts
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
(I was ready to identify the artist as Pieter Breugel the Elder; however, a Wikipedia entry claims that this attribution is now considered to be highly doubtful. I tried in vain to find additional information about this controversy. The work resides in The Royal Museums of Fine Art in Brussels – aka, ‘Musee des Beaux Arts.’)
As she and Jamie exclaim over Charlie’s perfect little body, the poignant “Naming of Parts” comes to Isabel’s mind:
LESSONS OF THE WAR
by Henry Reed
To Alan Michell
Vixi duellis nuper idoneus
Et militavi non sine gloria
I. NAMING OF PARTS
To-day we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And to-morrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But to-day,
To-day we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighboring gardens,
And to-day we have naming of parts.
This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see,
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
Which in our case we have not got.
This is the safety-catch, which is always released
With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me
See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easy
If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms
Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see
Any of them using their finger.
And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers:
They call it easing the Spring.
They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond-blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
For to-day we have naming of parts.
Later in the novel, when Jamie exclaims that he is falling in love with Jura, their vacation destination, Isabel quotes the following, again from Auden:
Love requires an Object,
But this varies so much,
Almost, I imagine,
Anything will do:
When I was a child, I
Loved a pumping-engine,
Thought it every bit as
Beautiful as you.
Click here to read the poem, “Heavy Date,” in its entirety.
I had trouble finding the full text of “Heavy Date.” Tracking down the other poetry referred to in the novel turned out to be even more of a challenge. I was so determined to locate Hugh MacDiarmid’s “Island Funeral” that I am now the pleased owner of this book:
In this edition of MacDiarmid’s works, “Island Funeral” is eight pages in length. Here’s an excerpt:
“They are weather-beaten people with eyes grown clear,
Like the eyes of travellers and seamen,
From always watching far horizons.
but there is another legend written on these faces,
A shadow–or a light–of spiritual vision
That will seldom find full play
On the features of country folk
Or men of strenuous action.
Among these mourners are believers and unbelievers,
And many of them steer a middle course,
Being now priest-ridden by convention,
But not one of them betrays a sign
Of facile and self-lulling piety,
Nor can noe seee on any face
‘A sure and certain hope
Of the Resurrection to eternal life.’
This burial is just an act of nature,
A reassertion of the islanders’ inborn certainty
That ‘in the midst of life we are in death.’
The poem concludes with these lines:
“The cornet solo of our Gaelic islands
Will sound out every now and again
Through all eternity.
I have heard it and am content for ever.
I have not had the chance to read the other poetry, but “Island Funeral” was powerful and moving and well worth the cost of the entire volume.
When the scheming yet superficially congenial Christopher Dove comes up to Edinburgh to confer with Isabel concerning his upcoming assumption of the post of editor of The Review of Applied Ethics, a post cherished and heretofore admirably filled by Isabel herself, she must struggle to be civil to the man. He mentions that he’ll be returning to London on the sleeper train, an experience he has previously enjoyed. “‘Norman MacCaig didn’t,” she responds, and goes on to quote the following: “‘I do not like this being carried sideways through the night.'” I love that line, especially the rhythm of it, imitating as it does the actually rhythms of riding on a train. Research revealed that the poem is entitled “Sleeping Compartment.” I have not yet obtained the full text.
During the bath scene, the Auden work puts Isabel in mind of yet another poem:
“‘There’s a poet called Alvarez who wrote a lovely poem about angels appearing overhead. The angels suddenly appear in the sky and are unnoticed by a man cutting wood with a buzz saw. But [she adds] then it was in Tuscany, where one might expect to see angels at any time.’
Oh, dear, off to the chase yet again! I’m thinking that the Alvarez in question is A. Alvarez. Years ago, I read a powerful book by this author, a meditation on suicide entitled The Savage God. I have not been able to find the poem alluded to above. The final puzzler is a poem by an Irish poet “which suggested that we could all be saved by keeping our eye on the hill at the end of the road.” No title is given or author named.
I’ve concluded that this novel should come with a concordance!
Near the novel’s end, Isabel attends a concert in which Jamie, a professional musician and music teacher, is playing the bassoon. The second half of the program is to consist of the works of contemporary composers: Peter Maxwell Davies, Stephen Deazley, and Max Richter. There’s a piece by Peter Maxwell Davies that I really like, though I haven’t heard it for quite some time. It’s called Orkney Wedding with Sunrise, and there are bagpipes at the end, which is probably why I’ve never forgotten it.
The Requiem by Gabriel Faure comprises the first part of the program. These are Isabel’s reflections on it:
“It was not complex music, with its cautiously developed melody and its utter resolution; it was a lullaby really, and that, she thought, was what a requiem really was. If one were to be taken up to heaven, then it would be Faure who might accompany one….Grant them rest, rest everlasting; they were such kind words, even in their finality, and the music that accompanied them, as in this requiem, should be gentle.
Not a believer herself, she nonetheless concedes that “this was music which might, for a few sublime moments, nudge one towards belief…” – belief, she means, in some kind of afterlife.
The following are excerpts from the Requiem:
Sanctus, performed by the King’s College Choir, Cambridge
The concluding movement, In Paradisum, performed by the Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Carl Marie Giulini.
I first encountered this music when I sang it with the Chorus of my alma mater, Goucher College. From it I have received both exaltation and consolation all my life, and yes, Isabel, I hope it sees me off into the next!
Now art, of course, is the springboard for the plot of The Careful Use of Compliments. Alas,the group felt that the intrigue, such as it is, surrounding the fate of painter Andrew McInnes is the least interesting aspect of the novel. I couldn’t help but agree with them. Far more compelling are Isabel’s efforts, which seem at times almost desperate, to keep the dominant elements of her life in some kind of harmony. There’s her much younger lover and all the insecurities entailed in that relationship, despite the fact of their having a child together. The intensity of feeling is stronger on her side, and she knows it. To further complicate matters, she is also far more financially secure than Jamie.
Then there’s her niece Cat. Each is the other’s only near relation in Edinburgh – in all of Scotland, for that matter. But Cat is a mercurial, rather shallow young woman who is capable of spiteful and injurious behavior toward Isabel, despite the latter’s kindness .
Finally there is Isabel’s position as editor of The Review of Applied Ethics. Isabel does not have a “day job; her inherited wealth relieves her of the necessity of shouldering that particular burden. But her work for the Review is a labor of love, one that keeps her connected with her chosen field of study and with colleagues from all over the world. When that position is threatened – by the oily Christopher Dove no less! – her first instinct is to acquiesce with as much grace as she can muster. But then another instinct arises within her: the instinct to fight.
Isabel decides to use her vast resources in order to save her position and the Review itself from further interference by potential adversaries. But she has qualms about doing this. Is she using her money in an arrogant, unscrupulous manner? Eventually she overcomes these reservations, and once she has made her move, does not look back.
The group did not have a problem with Isabel’s actions in this case, but in some of the book’s ticklish social situations, we felt she could have acted with more tact. Showing up at Cat’s flat with Charlie in tow seems a particularly egregious act, especially considering that young woman’s prickly nature and extreme sensitivity regarding Isabel’s relationship with Jamie, her own former lover.
Although the mystery surrounding the painter Andrew McInnes does nor engage the reader as it might have, it does nonetheless provide motivation for the journey Isabel and Jamie make to Jura in the inner Hebrides. McCall Smith’s description of this windswept island make you want to go there immediately. Approximately 170 persons currently live on Jura, while the population of red deer is about 5,500.
(I was delighted to read about the Paps of Jura, as they immediately reminded of the Grand Tetons. This, then, is the second time I’ve encountered mountains named after that portion of the female anatomy!)
Included in this portion of the book is fascinating (and factual) background on George Orwell, who stayed at Barnhill, a house on Jura, while he wrote 1984. And here’s news for all you intrepid vacationers: you can now stay at Barnhill yourself! But you’ll need a Land Rover to get there…
My reading of the Dalhousiee novels has awakened me to the rich heritage of Scottish art. I acquired this fine book:
In its opening pages, I discovered an object which I loved (and wanted to hold) instantly: the mysterious Towie Ball.
Here are some portraits by Scottish artists:
And here, a cityscape I find immensely appealing:
With one exception, I had the feeling that group members were not quite as enthusiastic about The Careful Use of Compliments as I was. For one thing, they had not read previous titles in the series, and I think that proved a disadvantage. In particular, they lacked the back story of Isabel’s ongoing and rather tortured relationship with Cat. Even so, I think we all agreed that the conclusion was pure poetry.
Just before drifting off to sleep, Isabel and Jamie are sharing a few intimate thoughts. Then:
” Isabel closed her eyes. There is a sea of love, she thought. And we are in it.”