A Night at the Opera: Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades at the Metropolitan

March 29, 2011 at 1:28 am (Music, New York City, opera)

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky composed The Queen of Spades in the late 1880s. the year 1890 saw the premiere of this opera, which was based on a short story by Alexander Pushkin.  The composer’s brother Modest wrote the libretto.

In this strange story, passions run high – it is Russia, after all – and supernatural elements are deftly woven into the plot. The action opens with  Hermann, an army officer, professing his love for a young woman whose name he has yet to learn. By the time the first act ends, he has  found out that her name is  Lisa, she is the granddaughter of an aged countess – and she is already betrothed, to a fellow officer no less. While Hermann struggles to come to terms with this shattering news, he receives additional intelligence of a curious nature. This has to do with the card games that are such a popular pastime among the young soldiers and aristocrats.  The countess, Lisa’s grandmother, is supposedly in possession of a powerful secret: If three cards are played in a specific order, the player cannot fail to win the hand, and all the money that has been wagered on it. Now at this point, not only is Hermann already in love with Lisa, he also perceives that despite her betrothal to another, she is likewise attracted to him. And so he thinks to himself: why not use this budding liaison to extract this valuable knowledge from the countess?

And so a plot is hatched, a conspiracy that ultimately leads to  disaster. But on the way to this inevitable end, we were treated to much glorious singing, spectacular sets, and gorgeous costumes. God bless the Metropolitan Opera; they never do anything by halves!

Karita Mattila as Lisa and Vladimir Galouzine as Hermann

Dolora Zajick as the Countess, with Vladimir Galouzine

Here are two of the opera’s opulent crowd scenes:

In the scene in this video, Lisa (Karita Mattila) sings a duet with Tamara Mumford, as her sister Pauline. This was a delicate moment, perfectly executed. The audience loved it, with good reason:

I should say that I came to  this opera cold: not only had I never seen it or listened to it, I had no knowledge of the story line. I like to approach a work of art in this manner, sometimes. Of course, loving Tchaikovsky’s music as I do, I was reasonably certain that I would not be disappointed. In the event, it was a thrilling evening. One of the most unexpected delights came in the Second Act. At a masked ball, the guests are treated to an entertainment with a pastoral theme featuring both song and dance. The following video is of the same production we saw, but from an earlier year and with a different cast.

Everything about this interlude is utterly lovable, from the backdrop that is unrolled at the beginning and resembles one of Fragonard’s huge, dreamy canvases, to the music which is such a charming homage to Mozart, a composer Tchaikovsky revered. Aren’t the children wonderful? And those costumes!

Click here for a full summary of the plot of The Queen of Spades. And here are two reviews of this production, one by Anthony Tommasini the New York Times’s wonderfully knowledgeable and articulate music critic, and another from Operaticus, a site new to me.


On Tuesday I bought this collection of Pushkin’s stories; I wanted to get acquainted with the opera’s source material. It turns out that Tchaikovsky (either Piotr, Modest, or both) altered certain aspects of the original story. To begin with, Lisa is not the countess’s granddaughter. She is her ward, and she gets treated like a cross between a companion and a servant. Oddly, this put me in mind of the ingenue in the recently discussed novel Rebecca,  who, when we meet her in Monte Carlo, is at the beck and call at the imperious and insufferable Mrs. Van Hopper. The countess is similar to Mrs Van Hopper, but worse:

The Countess N. was, of course, not an evil soul, but as the spoiled pet of society, she was capricious; she had grown mean and sunk into a cold egoism, like all old people whose fondest memories lay in the past and to whom the present was alien.

In Pushkin’s story, Lisa is not engaged to anyone, is alone and lonely except for the countess’s incessant demands:

Lizaveta Ivanovna was the martyr of the household.She poured the tea and was scolded for using too much sugar; read novels aloud and was blamed for all the faults of the authors; accompanied the Countess on her rides and was held responsible both for the weather and the condition of the pavement.

And on and no it goes, with nary an expression or gesture of affection toward the poor girl. Oh, she is an easy mark, poor Lisa, and Hermann has every intention of taking advantage of that fact. Love – at least, on his part – doesn’t enter into it at all.

This story is artfully wrought. It’s climax is shattering; the subsequent outcome – at least, for some of the characters – is  downright prosaic, though ironically so. Pushkin’s “The Queen of Spades” serves as yet another reminder of the sheer brilliance of the great Russian writers.

Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin

Permalink Leave a Comment

Book news & reviews

March 27, 2011 at 7:18 pm (books, Magazines and newspapers)

These reviews bumped two titles up to the top of my to-read list:

In his review of Started Early, Took My Dog, Kevin Allman compares Kate Atkinson to Ruth Rendell. Judging by my reading of Case Histories and When Will There Be Good News, the comparison is apt. Speaking for myself, this is about the highest praise I can give to a writer of crime fiction.

Michael Dirda speaks of Richard Holmes’s stellar The Age of Wonder as a precursor to the The Philosophical’ Breakfast Club by Laura Snyder.


Maureen Corrigan has some reservations about the latest by Chelsea Cain, an author whom I’ve not read. But I love what she says about The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers:

The problem with reviewing mysteries is that one can’t talk about who-(or what)-dun-it, yet sometimes the story’s ultimate value rests on that revelation. Take Dorothy Sayers’s 1934 classic, “The Nine Tailors.” If you’ve read it, you know what I’m talking about; if you haven’t read it, do so. Now. The atmosphere of the English fen country in the novel is haunting, and the character of Lord Peter Wimsey is, as always, blandly erudite. The ending, however, in which the murderer is unmasked, is so brilliant that it boosts Sayers’s creeper into the Golden Age of Mystery Hall of Fame.

I second Corrigan’s exhortation, but with a warning: it’s easy to get bogged down in the lengthy exegesis on campanology with which the book opens. One way to assist with this difficulty (besides skimming, the obvious one!) would be to listen to Ian Carmichael’s splendid reading. Carmichael portrayed Lord Peter Wimsey in five of the novels in that classic series. These are readily available on DVD and also highly recommended. Here’s a clip from The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club:

(There’s an interesting piece on the PBS site detailing the way in which these films, originally made for Masterpiece Theatre, provided the impetus for the creation of Mystery!)

In a recent Newsweek article entitled “Please Stop Writing!”, Susan Cheever bemoans the tendency of certain authors to continue producing novels in a series that has clearly run out of steam. She has her own examples to offer, but she also makes you think about your own favorite writers and their respective series. Are any of those that you read regularly starting to seem tired and/or stale and/or derivative?

Personally, I’d have to say I’m having the opposite experience. I am deeply impressed by certain contemporary writers who are maintaining an exceptionally high standard with every book they produce: Donna Leon, Alexander McCall Smith, Peter Turnbull, Archer Mayor, Robert Barnard, and Ruth Rendell, to name a few.

And speaking of exceptionally high standards, I’d like to put in a plug for International Anita Brookner Day. The immediate object of this fine event, co-hosted by Thomas at My Porch and Simon of Savidge Reads (a fellow WordPress blogger; Hi, Simon!), is to get folks to read at least one of Ms Brookner’s novels by July 16, which happens to be the author’s 83rd birthday. Tantalizingly, Thomas alerts us to “expect prizes!!”

Here’s the entry for Anita Brookner on the Contemporary Writers site. All her novels are listed, as well as her nonfiction works on art history.  In an article posted in this space two years ago, I listed some of my personal favorites from her oeuvre.

Permalink 3 Comments

A sojourn in New York City begins at The American Museum of Natural History

March 24, 2011 at 8:43 pm (books, New York City, Travel)

When my friend Helene and I are together, the talk of books is inexhaustible. I always come away with urgent recommendations that grow out of whatever we’ve been talking about. This time it was Russia and the Russians, and our perennial fascination with medieval Europe. I was receptive to the suggestion of the Stoppard play, having recently seen and hugely enjoyed his Arcadia. The Lewis title was new to me. I confess that I’ve had trouble reading this venerated author in the past, but I shall give it another go with this book.

I began my first full day in the city by going to the American Museum of Natural History. This is a place I used to visit as a child. I hadn’t been back in many years, but at Helene’s suggestion, I made it my destination. As I entered, I noted with satisfaction that the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall looked wonderfully old. (Was it always called that? I didn’t remember it being so.) The place was thronged with visitors. It took half an hour just to clear admissions – and I got there ten minute before the ten o’clock opening. I headed straight for the Rose Center for Earth and Space, inspecting some of the fascinating exhibits on view; from thence, to the Hayden Planetarium.

This was not the planetarium of my youth. The original building was demolished in 1997, to be replaced by a new state of the art facility. When it reopened in 2000, even sophisticated seen-it-all New Yorkers were stunned by what they saw:

The Hayden had also been equipped with the latest technological innovations. The the show that I attended was entitled “Journey to the Stars:”

Once inside the sphere, the visual and audio effects are mind boggling.

My next stop was the Hayden’s Big Bang Theater. In this venue, visitors arrange  themselves around a circular railing and gaze down rather than up, while Liam Neeson tells you about the origins of the universe. Shorter than “Journey” (which was narrated by Whoopi Goldberg), but no less impressive.


Upon leaving the Rose Center I got lost, finally fetching up at “Body & Spirit: Tibetan Medical Paintings.” At the front of the long hall serving as the display space for this exhibit was a sign proclaiming: “This is a quiet gallery.” That alone was enough to persuade me to enter. Due most likely to the rather esoteric nature of the subject matter, the exhibit was sparsely attended. After the raucous exuberance of the crowds in other parts of the building, I was very grateful for the respite.

Here’s a brief video concerning the medical paintings:

Click here for more images from the exhibit.

I savored the contemplative interlude afforded me, and I loved this exhibit.


Next up: Helene and I go to the opera…. 

Permalink Leave a Comment

Written on the fly, while getting ready to catch a train…

March 19, 2011 at 12:13 pm (books, Music)

As of tomorrow, Books to the Ceiling will be on hiatus for a few days while I take in the sights and sounds of New York City with my friend Helene. We’ve known each other for going on fifty-three years now, so we can finish each others’ sentences, etc. She is a dyed in the wool New Yorker, much as my mother used to be. Charlotte – the third member of our longstanding triumvirate – was supposed to be joining us, but will not be able to. She’ll be remaining in Phoenix, where she’s helping her daughter and newborn grandson. Sean Patrick was born prematurely but is gaining ground every day. So in this season of celebrating Saint Patrick, we wish him and his Mom all the best!

I’ve written before about the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall. Yesterday afternoon we watched a live performance of Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto. This is a work of transcendent nobility and beauty. The soloist was Leif Ove Andsnes; the conductor, Bernard Haitink. Ron and I marveled how great Haitink looked, and how quielty commanding at the podium.  Lucky Berliners – and lucky us, to be seeing and hearing one of the world’s greatest orchestras conducted by one of the greatest living conductors, with a world renowned pianist into the bargain. Philharmonie Hall was packed, as well it should have been. As this memorable work came to an end, the audience could barely restrain their enthusiasm. This openhearted love of great music is one of the joys of watching these broadcasts.

Bernard Haitink

Leif Ove Andsnes


Today I read of the return of Jean Bertrande Aristide to Haiti. The event puts me in mind of Brain Moore’s  No Other Life, whose protagonist, a charismatic “priest/president,” is modeled on Aristide. I strongly recommend this novel, which was written in 1997. Brian Moore is a wonderful writer whose works are well worth revisiting.

In his review in yesterday’s Washington Post, Michael Dirda is rather moderate in his praise of Sarah Bakewell’s How To Live. Right now I’m on page 102 and I can assure you, this book is an absolute joy!

Permalink 2 Comments

“‘No one got the better of her, never, never….'” – discussing Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca

March 16, 2011 at 3:24 am (Book clubs, Book review, books)

[The following post contains spoilers.]

Last Tuesday night, the Usual Suspects hit the ground running and never slowed down until the end. Ellen, our leader, provided background on the life of Daphne Du Maurier. Fascinating material, but when it came  time to talk about the novel itself, we were bursting with comments, observations, and questions. To begin with, just about everyone felt profoundly frustrated with the young heroine’s behavior at Manderley. Far from asserting herself as the head of the household, she continually deferred to the servants. As a result, they regarded her with contempt. Mrs. Danvers, with her idolatry of Rebecca, could probably never have been entirely won over, but she might have been brought to heel if the second Mrs. de Winter had had the backbone to put her in her place. But instead, the opposite happened: Mrs. Danvers used every arrow in her considerable arsenal to wound the new mistress of Manderley and make her feel hopelessly inadequate and inferior. It did not have to be this way! Or at least, that is what we all thought.

Mrs. Danvers was not the only villain in the piece. Maxim de Winter came in for considerable criticism. He drops his vulnerable young bride into this fraught domestic situation, hedged about as it is with rules of protocol and propriety, and leaves her to fend for herself, knowing full well that she’s had absolutely no experience of living in this manner (or perhaps I should say, this manor). He is secretive and remote, absenting himself from the house for long periods of time and grudging his new wife the barest amount of help, let alone companionship. 

When Maxim finally acknowledges his need for his young wife – in other words, when Rebecca’s body has been found and he knows he’s in deep trouble – he admits that he’s  been “…the worst sort of husband for you.” She cries out “No!” But we Suspects cried out “You got that right!” Up until that time , he had confined his expression of affection to patting her hair and kissing her on top of her head. At one point, I exclaimed in exasperation, “It’s as though he wanted a daughter, not a wife.” But Frances responded perceptively: “He wanted an innocent.” And that, it seems to me, is the key to her attraction for him. She was as far from the worldly, superficially glamorous, corrupt Rebecca as a female of the species could possibly be. Her mistake was in thinking that Maxim wanted her to emulate this famous first wife, whereas he actually desired just the opposite. Frank Crawley, the estate manager, tries to point this out to her:

‘…I should say that kindliness, and sincerity, and if I may say so–modesty–are worth far more to a man, to a husband, than all the wit and beauty in the world.’

A word here about Frank Crawley. I think other readers will agree with me that he is the unsung hero of this novel. In fact, his many gestures of unforced friendship toward the second Mrs. de Winter made me wonder how she could not come to prefer him to the distant and aloof Maxim.

Everything changes when the divers discover that Rebecca had never escaped from the wreckage of the sailboat she loved to take out in all kinds of weather, a boat ironically named Je Reviens (I will return).  Maxim had already identified the body of another woman, an unknown drowning victim, as being that of his deceased wife. A farrago of lies and deceptions was  about to be exposed. Finally – finally! – he comes clean with his young bride: He had never loved Rebecca, never known a moment’s happiness with her. They had put on a good show for the smart set in which they moved, but when the parties were over and the celebrations at an end, they were miserable. Or rather, Maxim was miserable. Rebecca seems to have hugely enjoyed herself at his expense – literally and figuratively. She seems to have triumphed even in death, having goaded her hapless husband into shooting her.

Once Maxim has bared his soul to his new wife, he becomes positively ravenous for her love. Now, there’s nothing paternal or indulgent in his feelings for her. There’s adult passion, the real thing. As for the second Mrs. de Winter, she is so thrilled to know that Maxim had never loved Rebecca that she too feels utterly liberated. Some in our group were surprised that she didn’t recoil from the knowledge that she was married to a man who had murdered her predecessor. But no – instead, she becomes his staunchest defender, determined to help him slog through this morass of his own making, so that  they can be together blissfully as man and wife.

The relationship between Maxim de Winter and his bride is central to this novel, but the shadow of Rebecca, demon or goddess, falls across them in virtually all that they do. And Mrs. Danvers, a somewhat demonic presence herself, hovers within that shadow as well, invoking her adored mistress at every opportunity and engineering the disastrous gaffe committed by the naive bride on the evening of the fancy dress ball.  From the standpoint of the present time, it seems fairly evident that the relationship between Rebecca and Mrs. Danvers possessed an erotic component – at least, where the housekeeper is concerned. (For information on a related aspect of Du Maurier’s own life, see the article “Daphne Du Maurier: Venetian Tendencies,” by Cathy Pryor, from The Independent in 2007.)

We considered the situation of servants in England’s great estates.  They led difficult, restricted lives, working very long hours and reaping relatively little from their labors. But they made it possible for the privileged classes to live in almost unimaginable luxury and idleness. And what, we wondered, did these people do with all that free time? The second Mrs. de Winter keeps being asked: Do you hunt? Do you play bridge? In the evenings there was a seemingly endless round of dinner parties and balls. They changed clothes multiple times in the course of a single day. And why not? Just drop your gloves and other items on the bed or the floor; a servant will collect them and return them to their proper place. One could almost say that it’s not surprising that English country houses became such popular settings for crime  fiction. Perhaps murders were committed simply in order to while away the time! (And yes, I’m being facetious.)

Then there is Manderley, the estate that looms like a malevolent force over the novel’s characters. In a previous post I discussed Manderley’s origins in the imagination and life experience of Daphne Du Maurier. It is this large – and largely vacant – domicile that gives the novel its heavily Gothic atmosphere. Rebecca is part of the great literary tradition in which young unworldly women find themselves, for all intents and purposes, alone as they fight to overcome the threat posed by a house full of sinister secrets. Sometimes the house itself must be destroyed in order to liberate the heroine and her beloved. Think Rebecca and Jane Eyre (Thornfield Hall). Sometimes the house (Bly) wins, as in Henry James’s terrifying masterpiece, The Turn of the Screw. (In an article entitled “Du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca,’ a Worthy ‘Eyre’ Apparent,” critic Jonathan Yardley examines the novel and its place in the Gothic literary tradition.)

It had been suggested that we view the 1940 film before our meeting date. Most of us did that, and knowledge of this cinema masterwork – Alfred Hitchcock’s first film for an American studio and an American producer, the notoriously controlling David O. Selznick – greatly enriched the discussion. In some cases, whole sections of dialog from the book were used in the film; in other cases, however, significant changes were made. The most notable of these concerns Rebecca’s death: in the film, her demise is the result of an accident, albeit one that follows an angry confrontation between her and Maxim. (According to the Wikipedia entry, this alteration was in keeping with the Motion Picture Production Code that was in force at the time.)

I strongly recommend viewing “The Making of Rebecca,” a feature included with the DVD. One of the most interesting revelations has to do with Maxim’s recounting of what happened in the cottage between him and Rebecca on the night of her death. It’s rather a lengthy expository passage, and the filmmakers had to decide whether or not to present it by means of flashback. This, of course, would have necessitated the appearance of Rebecca herself. They decided, I think wisely, to let Maxim tell the story with no additional visuals. Thus Rebecca – tall, darkhaired commanding Rebecca – retains her ghostly powers.

Ellen presented us with a very astute list of discussion questions. One of my favorites had to do with the second Mrs. de Winter. This was formulated with the help of a quote from 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die: : “One of Du Maurier’s achievements is to secure readers’ loyalty to this jealous, insecure narrator.” We were then asked if we did in fact feel this loyalty? Then we were queried about our reaction to the destruction of Manderley. Now I already knew that Manderley burned; yet when I saw the film version of the fire, I gasped aloud in shock. It seemed such a violent conflagration . (I wonder what materials they used to construct that table top model….)  (Images from the film courtesy of Hooked on Houses.)

I want to say something about my personal experience of reading Rebecca. I mentioned in a previous post that the book surprised me in a number of ways. First of all, it was quite a bit longer – 386 pages – than I had expected it to be. Hitchcock’s film is so tightly wound, I had thought the novel’s plot would proceed at a similar pace. I was mistaken in this assumption, especially as regards the first half.  I listened to the narrated version until I was about two thirds of the way along, when I switched to the print version. The reader of the recorded book was Alexandra O’Karma, an actress with whom I was not familiar. Her voice initially struck me as not being very expressive; gradually, however, it gained a sort of hypnotic hold over me and began to seem well suited to the material. Nevertheless, I found the story of the young bride’s early tenure at Manderley to be very slow going, at times almost tedious. (At this moment I’m thinking of that phrase from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” – “a tedious argument of insidious intent.”) Granted it was tedium punctuated by attacks of acute anxiety. It may just have been my own perception, but the pace seemed to quicken when I switched from the recording to the actual book. This I did shortly after the disastrous scene that occurred just before the fancy dress ball. The heroine accuses Mrs. Danvers – correctly – of having deliberately set her up. It was a relief to see her finally standing up for herself. I wanted to shout, “That’s the spirit!” This is just before the explosion that heralds the shipwreck and forces the stunning revelations from Maxim. From that point on, the novel hurtles toward the final cataclysm. I could scarcely put it down.

I was particularly affected by a scene, about half way through the novel, in which the young bride – oh, it is awkward not having a name for her! – and Maxim’s sister Beatrice pay a visit to Maxim’s grandmother. This scene does virtually nothing to advance the plot and hence was entirely omitted from Hitchcock’s film. But it has really stuck with me. For one thing, it is so emblematic of the strangeness of English country life in those days. Here is an old woman, surrounded by servants, living out her remaining few years in a huge and nearly empty house. Indeed, her waning existence might stand for a way of life that was itself waning, that would be dealt a death blow by war and a changing world.


Two more things I’d like to mention before concluding this post:

Ellen herself had neither seen the movie nor read the novel before embarking on her task as discussion leader. Pauline commented  that that was probably the best way to approach the subject. It certainly gave her a uniquely fresh perspective with which to approach the material.

Carol told us of the time when she was touring Cornwall with a group when they passed the home of Daphne Du Maurier’s son. This gentleman happened to be outside at the time. The tour leader introduced herself, and he spoke to the group for a while. (I hope I’m recalling this anecdote correctly.) I was reminded of our encounter, while on tour some four years ago, with an elderly gentleman who claimed to have been a  gardener at Greenway, Agatha Christie’s nearby home in Devon. He had such a pronounced West Country accent that we had some difficulty understanding him (though I am sure our Blue Badge Guide, the fantastic Roz Hutchinson, had no such trouble.) 

Permalink 7 Comments

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley….”

March 12, 2011 at 7:34 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books)

There was never any question in my mind as to what the title of this post would be.

Ever since it was announced that the Usual Suspects would be discussing Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier, the lines spoken at the start of the Hitchcock film had been resonating in my mind:

There is something hypnotic and haunting here that goes beyond the  actual story to which the famous opening sequence is a preface. It has to do, I think, with memory, with loss, and with the inexorable passage of time.

I’ve seen this film several times in the past, but not recently. I had never actually read  the book. And so there were surprises in store, right from the beginning. For instance, the  descriptive passage at the novel’s beginning is far more extensive than the segment from the film would indicate. And oh, the writing!

The drive wound away in front of me, twisting and turning as it had always done, but as I advanced I was aware that a change had come upon it; it was narrow and unkempt, not the drive that we had known. At first I was puzzled and did not understand, and it was only when I bent my head to avoid the low swinging branch of a tree that I realised what had happened. Nature had come into her own again and, little by little, in her stealthy, insidious way had encroached upon the drive with long tenacious fingers. The  woods, always a menace even in the past, had triumphed in the end. They crowded, dark and uncontrolled, to the borders of the drive. The beeches with white naked limbs leant close to one another, their branches intermingled in a strange embrace, making a vault above my head like the archway of a church. And there were other trees as well, trees that I did not recognise, squat oaks and tortured elms that straggled cheek by jowl with the beeches, and had thrust themselves out of the quiet earth, along with monster shrubs and plants, none of which I remembered.

Rarely if ever has the menace of untamed nature been so vividly evoked. It reminds one of nothing so much as Dante “In a dark wood wandering,” preparing for his descent into the infernal regions. (Toward the end of our discussion, Anne commented on Du Maurier’s exceptional knowledge of the natural world and her use of flowers and trees to convey states of mind.)

At length the narrator – the oddly unnamed narrator – catches sight of the house itself:

There was Manderley, our Manderley, secretive and silent as it had always been, the grey stone shining in the moonlight of my dream, the mullioned windows reflecting the green lawns and the terrace. Time could not wreck the perfect symmetry of those walls, not the site itself, a jewel in the hollow of a hand.

Manderley was for the most part modeled on Menabilly, the house Du Maurier lived in with her family from 1943 to 1969. An essay entitled “The House of Secrets” is included in my edition of the novel (Harper, 2006). In it, Du Maurier describes how, when her family first came to spend the summer in Cornwall, she and her sister Angela took their dog and went out walking in search of Menabilly:

The trees grew taller and the shrubs more menacing. Yet still the drive led on, and never a house at the end of it. Suddenly Angela said, “It’s after four…and the sun’s gone.” The pekinese watched her, pink tongue lolling. And then he stated into the bushes, pricking his ears at nothing….

“I don’t like it,” said Angela firmly. “Let’s go home.”

“But the house,” I said with longing, “we haven’t seen the house.” She hesitated, and I dragged her on. But in an instant the day was gone from us. The drive was a muddied path, leading nowhere, green no longer but a shrouding black, turned to fantastic shapes and sizes. There was not one owl  now, but twenty. And through the dark trees, with a pale grin upon his face, came the first glimmer of the livid hunter’s moon.

They were forced to turn back before reaching the house.. The family soon returned to London for the winter. But they came again to Cornwall the following spring, and with that return came Du Maurier’s determination to see Menabilly. This time, setting out at daybreak instead of dusk, she took a slightly different route:

I followed the path to the summit of the hill and then, emerging from the woods, turned left, and found myself upon a high grass walk, with all the bay stretched out below me and the Gribben head beyond.

I paused, stung by the beauty of that first pink glow of sunrise on the water, but the path led on, and I would not be deterred. Then I saw them for the first time–the scarlet rhododendrons. Massive and high they reared above my head, shielding the entrance to a long smooth lawn. I was hard upon it now, the place I sought. Some instinct made me crouch upon my belly and crawl softly to the wet grass at the foot of the shrubs. The morning mist was lifting, and the sun was coming up above the trees even as the moon had done last autumn. This time there was no owl, but blackbird, thrush and robin greeting the summer day.

I edged my way  on to the lawn, and there she stood. My house of secrets. My elusive Menabilly…

I’ve been continually revisiting this essay and getting chills every time I read it. One is grateful for the chance to draw  close to the wellspring of an artist’s creativity. But there is more here than just that. In her search for Menabilly, Du Maurier gives voice to an indeterminate longing felt by all too many of us, to penetrate to the heart of a mystery, to gain access to the sublime – in short to discover some fundamental truth of our existence. At times, we attain the place of our dreams and find only a charred ruin in a desolate place. Ultimately, this is what happens to the second Mrs. de Winter in Rebecca. Innocent and unworldly, she is swept up in a whirlwind romance by a handsome but enigmatic Prince Charming in the form of Maxim de Winter. After a hasty marriage and blissful honeymoon, Maxim installs his new bride in Manderley, the ancestral home of his family. She is assured by all that the place is glorious, a kind of paradise. And so it would seem to be, at first glance. But it’s a paradise with a sinister underbelly – and a particularly venomous snake nestled at its heart, just waiting to strike.


Menabilly was owned by the Rashleigh family, whose considerable wealth and ancient lineage were well known in Cornwall. Eventually, Daphne Du Maurier secured from them the lease of the house. At thetime, it was unoccupied and had fallen into a state of decrepitude . She set about restoring it and was finally able to move in with her children in 1943. (Her husband, Lieutenant-General Sir Frederick “Boy” Browning, was away at war.) She lived there until 1969.

Slowly, in a dream, I walk towards the house. “It’s wrong,” I think, to love a block of stone like this, as one loves a person. It cannot last. It cannot endure. Perhaps it is the very insecurity of the love that makes the passion strong. Because she is not mine by right. The house is still entailed, and one day will belong to another….”

I brush the thought aside. For this, and for this night, she is mine.

And at midnight, when the children sleep, and all is hushed and still, I sit down at the piano and look at the panelled walls, and slowly, softly, with no one there to see, the house whispers her secrets, and the secrets turn to stories, and in a strange and eerie fashion we are one, the house and I.

In this film clip, Du Maurier and her children are seen in the grounds of Menabilly. The author is wearing her “Marlene Dietrich” suit:

[Wikipedia defines the law of entail as “…an estate of inheritance in real property which cannot be sold, devised by will, or otherwise alienated by the owner, but which passes by operation of law to the owner’s heirs upon his death.” Click here for further information.]


Daphne Du Maurier

This edition of Rebecca also contains an Author’s Note written more than forty years after the initial publication of the novel. In it, Du Maurier tries to answer some of the questions that have continued to be asked about her most celebrated work of fiction. One of the most recurrent concerns the protagonist’s Christian name, or rather, lack of one. Why is this most basic piece of information never divulged? The author’s response: she could not think of a name, by which I assume she means, she could not decide upon one. It then, she says, became “a challenge in technique,” made workable by the fact of the novel’s being written in the first person.

As to the plot, the inspiration came from several sources. In the early years of the war, Du Maurier and her children were with her husband while he was stationed  in the Middle East. She was deeply homesick for Cornwall and had decided to set her next novel there. She was friendly with Foy Quiller-Couch, daughter of the distinguished author and editor Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. With Foy as her guide, she had visited several of the great houses of Cornwall: “Houses with extensive grounds, with woods, near to the sea, with family portraits on the walls….” She was also thinking of Milton, an estate in Northamptonshire where she had stayed for a time as a child. She and Foy also visited Menabilly, and Du Maurier recalls, or seems to recall, that the Quiller-Couches had told her that the owner of the home had divorced his beautiful wife and soon married again,  a much younger woman:

I wondered if she had been jealous of the first wife, as I would have been jealous if my Tommy had  been married before he married me. He had been engaged once, that I knew, and the engagement had been broken off–perhaps she would have been better at dinners and cocktail parties than I could ever be.

Seeds began to drop. A beautiful home…a first wife…jealousy…a wreck, perhaps at sea, near to the house, as there had been at Pridmouth once near Menabilly. But something terrible would have to happen, I did not know what…I paced up and down the living room in Alexandria, notebook in hand, nibbling first my nails, and then my pencil.

Thus did the story of Rebecca de Winter and Maxim and the nameless heroine and the great landed estate to which they are all three inextricably bound begin to take shape in the mind of Daphne Du Maurier.

Daphne Du Maurier and her children at Menabilly


Manderley: according to an article in Architectural Digest: "The one exterior view of the house was actually a miniature built on a table and then blown up to appear as an imposing mansion."


More on the discussion will follow in another post.

Permalink 8 Comments

“Death, ancient and patient, waited in Quebec forests for the sun to set.” – Bury Your Dead by Louise Penny

March 7, 2011 at 7:05 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Bury Your Dead is the latest novel by Louise Penny featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Surete du Quebec. I was amazed to realize that this is only the sixth entry in the series – I would have been less surprised had it been  the sixteenth. I say that because the world Penny has created is so fully fleshed out; one could be forgiven for thinking it much older  than it is. And never has that world resonated more vividly than in does in Bury Your Dead.

Penny tracks three separate crimes in this novel. One is a holdover from the book immediately preceding it, The Brutal Telling. It involves the denizens of  Three Pines, a semi-rural village in southern Quebec that has a timeless, Brigadoon feel about it. The second involves a planned act of  terrorism. Through their resourcefulness and heroism,  the officers of the Surete have averted what would have been an unmitigated disaster, both for Canada and the northeastern U.S. But by doing their jobs with selfless dedication, members of the force have paid a terrible price. As Bury Your Dead opens, Gamache and others are struggling to recover from the operation’s traumatic outcome.

Armand Gamache is the very model of decency and generosity; he’s book-loving and family oriented in the tradition of sleuths such as Reg Wexford and Peter Pascoe. (Admittedly, this last attribute makes me wonder why he chooses to recuperate away from his wife.) It is while the Chief Inspector is staying in Quebec City with Emile, his old friend and mentor, that the third crime occurs. Augustin Renaud is an elderly eccentric whose passion is Samuel de Champlain. Champlain is considered by many to be the father of Quebec.

Yet there is no place where the citizens of the province can go to pay hommage to the founder. Through a series of complicated maneuvers, his burial place has been lost. After years of relentless searching, however, the hallowed  ground may at last have been found. By none other than Augustin Renaud.

Renaud’s purported discovery has weighty implications for the small English speaking community struggling to survive and to preserve its own history in Francophone Quebec. The consequences for Renaud prove fatal.

I’m still trying to decide in my own mind whether Louise Penny tried to cover too much ground in this novel. To begin with, there are the three criminal investigations, of varying degrees of complexity. Then there is the (admittedly fascinating) history of Quebec, going back several hundred years. With novels like this, some narrative strands are bound to emerge as more  compelling than others. And when this happens the reader, eager to follow the most riveting thread, can become impatient with the rest.

But basically I loved this book. The reason has mostly to do with the author’s vibrant evocation of Quebec City, a place of whose existence I was only dimly aware. Several people familiar with the city and its environs have spoken feelingly to me about the bitter winters. Yet this is the season about which Penny is writing, and to my mind, she makes it seem positively alluring:

Lights were appearing in homes and restaurants, reflecting off the white snow. It was a city that lent itself to winter,  and to darkness. It became even cozier, even more magical, like a fairy-tale kingdom.

Click here for video from this year’s Winter Carnaval. This celebration is ongoing during Gamache’s stay in the city.

Linguistic confusion is a source of comic relief in this novel. I love the matter of fact way in which Penny reproduces the garbled results when English speakers gamely try to express themselves in the lovely but challenging langue francaise:

She’d even given some of the more brazen a brief tour of the library, pointing out the fine pillows on the walls, the collection of figs on the shelves asking if any of them would like to become umlauts.

(You well ask yourself: what kind of library is this anyway?  In fact, it’s the library of the Literary and Historical Society, an actual place where, Penny informs us on her acknowledgments page, she and her husband spent many happy hours deep in research for this book.)

There’s a real need for some lighthearted intervals in Bury Your Dead. I’ve rarely read a work of crime fiction so freighted with grief and remorse.

This is an eloquent, poignant, beautifully written novel.

Louise Penny


In her Acknowledgments, Penny recommends Champlain’s Dream by David Hackett Fischer. During their sojourn in Quebec City, she and her husband had the good fortune to hear Fischer speak at a government sponsored symposium. (Isn’t that a gorgeous cover? The painting is The Geographer by Vermeer:  .)

This novel also introduced me to Le Chateau Frontenac, a luxury hotel with an illustrious history. It’s located  high on a bluff overlooking the St. Lawrence River; the views from its restaurant windows are spectacular. Just ask Chief Inspector Gamache, who confidently asserts that for a Quebecois such as himself, no other vista can touch it. He then adds, in yet another of the historical asides that enrich this novel:

From the bar he could see up and down the great river, the view so distant it broke into  the past. From there, Gamache could see four hundred years into the past. The ships, surprisingly small and fragile, sailing down from the Atlantic, dropping anchor at the narrowest spot.

Kebek. An Algonquin word. Where the river narrows.

Le Chateau Frontenac

Permalink 4 Comments

“Every healthy Englishman who saw him longed earnestly and fervently to kick him!” – Cards on the Table by Agatha Christie

March 4, 2011 at 4:48 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

This is a strange book.

To begin with, the focus at the outset is on a thoroughly odd character: a Mr. Shaitana. (If there’s a first name given, I missed it.) Here’s how Christie describes him:

He was tall and thin; his face was long and melancholy; his eyebrows were heavily accented and jet black; he wore a mustache with stiff waxed ends and a tiny black imperial. His clothes were works of art–of exquisite cut–but with a suggestion of the bizarre.

In addition, we’re told that Shaitana strove for what Christie terms “a Mephistophelian effect.” In fact, his name is derived from an Arabic word meaning “devil.” Unfortunately, he is more than once referred to as a “Dago,” an all purpose slur for anyone possessed of a Latin or Semitic countenance.

Here’s the set-up: Mr. Shaitana gives a dinner party to which he invites eight guests. Hercule Poirot is one; Superintendent Battle of Scotland Yard is another. Present also is Ariadne Oliver, celebrated author of detective fiction, who serves as an alter ego for Christie herself.

After the meal, he arranges his guests in two groups of four and installs them in two different rooms.. They’ll be playing bridge for the rest of the evening. That’s the plan – or part of it, at least. The other part involves a shocking crime. It would almost have to: four of the individuals present that evening had, in the past and in widely varying circumstances, already committed murder.

I’m not giving anything away here. This information is clearly spelled out by the author herself in a foreward to the novel proper. But to say much more about the plot would involve giving too much away after all, so I’ll stop here. Just a few more general comments:

I found the plot of Cards on the Table exceptionally convoluted. The challenge of following the various threads of the plot was made even more difficult by frequent references to the game of bridge. I know nothing about bridge, except that it seems to have become an obsessive pastime among England’s idle rich during the early years of the last century. (This novel was published in Britain in 1936 and in the U.S. the following year.)

A bright spot was provided by the irrepressible Ariadne Oliver, who supplies badly needed comic relief. (She performs a similar function in The Pale Horse and several other Christie works.) At one point, when Superintendent Battle is in the process of talking to suspects, she disagrees with his choice of whom to interview next. If this were one of her novels, she avers,  she would have had her detective speak to that particular person last. When the superintendent reminds her that this is the real world and not a fictional one, her immediate riposte is: “I know….Badly constructed.”

Later on, Oliver expressed her regret at having chosen to make her detective – his name is Sven Hjerson – Finnish:

‘I don’t really know anything about Finns and I’m always getting letters from Finland pointing out something impossible that he’s said or done. They seem to read detective stories a good deal in Finland. I suppose it’s the long winters with no daylight.’

I decided to read Cards on the Table after watching the made for television version of the novel.  This film, made in 2005 and starring the dependably superb David Suchet, contained plot elements which seemed to me at the very least anachronistic, given the period in which the book was written. There were other ways in which the movie deviated substantially from the novel. These divergent aspects are enumerated in the Wickipedia entry, toward the bottom. Please be aware of the spoilers contained in this article.

Even more interesting are the reviews posted on Internet Movie Database. (The spoiler alert applies here as well.) They range all the way from: “Excellent drama: striking characters, good plot and the always grand Suchet” to: “The Worst Agatha Christie Adaptation I Have Ever Seen” Lots of territory in between is covered, but the write-ups are mostly negative. Alas, they’re the ones with which I tend to agree.

David Suchet as Hercule Poirot and Zoe Wanamaker as Ariadne Oliver

Permalink 5 Comments

I hereby beg your indulgence…

March 1, 2011 at 8:18 pm (architecture, books, Family, Magazines and newspapers)

…as I emerge from a weekend of intense immersion in Baby Love:

Efforts to feed Etta mashed bananas met with only moderate success (see above). Fun was had by all parties anyway.  Rolling over practice went better, with parents and grandmother cheering her on from the sidelines. (Video to follow, at some point.)

Okay. I’m done. Except for missing her powerfully, from the moment I left for the airport on Sunday.


As a result of this delightful interlude, I have fallen behind where adding content to this blog is concerned. No, I didn’t stop reading – I never stop reading – but the experience took on a fragmentary nature.  I need to get back on track, if only to keep myself grounded until I see my granddaughter again.

I have a confession to make: until Etta was born, I was often times impatient with people whose brains seemed to get mushy as soon as they became grandparents. But when I first took Etta Lin in my arms, I was astonished at the sudden uprush of feeling. I know now, as I should have known at the outset, that as long as you live, life will keep teaching you things. The lesson this time? It is difficult, if not impossible, to know in advance how you will feel about an event you’re experiencing for the first time.

Oddly enough, I find myself reflecting on Ebenezer Scrooge in The Christmas Carol. This powerful fable shows us that grace and enlightenment can come at any time in life. In Scrooge’s case, it arrived just barely in time. He became a sentimental lover of life in general, and of Tiny Tim in particular, and he didn’t care who knew it:

Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.


This is the edition that I own and recommend. Published by W.W. Norton & Co.


Blog posts on the following are in the works:

In the meantime, I’d like to recommend several articles:

From The  New Yorker of February 14: Middlemarch and Me: What George Eliot Teaches Us, by Rebecca Mead. I so enjoyed reading about George Eliot’s life and work in Phyllis Rose’s Parallel Lives. At the time, I was reminded of the riches I’ve encountered in her novels: Adam Bede, The Mill on the Floss, Daniel Deronda – and of course, Middlemarch. Now Mead’s marvelous piece has evoked in me a desire to revisit Eliot’s masterpiece.

From the March issue of The Atlantic, a magazine whose coverage of books and the arts remains superb, I learned of the publication of this landmark work on the architecture of Dankmar Adler (1844-1900) and Louis Sullivan (1856-1924).  

I’ve become interested in the buildings of Chicago since my son Ben took up residence there in 1997. I have another reason to be interested in Louis Sullivan. He was a principal designer of the Harold C. Bradley House in Madison, Wisconsin. Built in 1909, ownership of this domicile passed to the Sigma Phi Society in 1915. While attending the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Ben was a member of that fraternity and enjoyed the privilege of living in that gracious abode, along with his fraternity brothers, for nearly all of his time there as an undergraduate. Devastated by a  fire in 1972, the building was completely restored and 1976 became the first National Historical Landmark in Madison (a delightful city which I miss visiting).

The Bradley House in 1975

Benjamin Schwarz, author of this review, has this to say about Louis Sullivan:

Along with his protege and one-time chief draftsman, Frank Lloyd Wright, he is universally hailed as the greatest architect to emerge from Chicago, the city that has produced America’s greatest architecture.

Also in this issue is a brief but eloquent piece by Schwarz on The Hare with Amber Eyes, a book that continues to haunt me.

Finally, in “Those Things with Feathers,” writer Mark Bowden chronicles his experience trying to raise guinea fowl in accordance with advice gleaned online. How does it turn out? Here’s the article’s subtitle: “The author’s guinea fowl defy the internet and stage a comeback.” Read it. Really! And  be sure to watch the accompanying video.

Permalink 7 Comments