Last time I saw the Welsh National Opera I was dipping a toe into Wagnerian waters with their Flying Dutchman, which was set on … a spaceship in outer space. Not great. That was a few years ago, but you can’t go wrong with Mozart, can you? No, not really. It was fine, glad I went – for all the spareness of the set, it was a nice spectacle, fine ensemble playing and voices, some fine melody lines and a real orchestra. Still comes as a surprise to me how rhythmic Mozart can be; had a good beat.
The WNO Marriage of Figaro started off all Brechtian with the main performers just sauntering on with the lights still up, ‘doing’ their stretches and other prep stuff, which has a certain charm the first time it’s done. Then there was the shock of them singing in English – a first for me. I didn’t like it; still had the sub-titles over the top of the stage, because it remains difficult to actually hear the words being sung, but where you could some of the rhyming was treacherous. And I was thrown by the wedding coming in the third act of a four act opera, and, to tell the truth, didn’t have much of a clue as to what exactly was going on in the forest in the fourth, given they were all in black cloaks and distinguishable only by the colour of their masks as the intrigue unfolded. Should have done some homework. No, really: I had a good time.
There are four Mrs. Hemingways in Naomi Wood‘s beautifully constructed novel Mrs. Hemingway (Picador, 2014), though no actual marriage ceremonies feature in the action. The cover’s a superb piece of book design – subject, period, delicate visual balance: great job. And what is inside is up to it – a lovely, compelling piece of work.
Mr. Hemingway is writer Ernest Hemingway. If it were a movie you’d say starring four women and featuring a man. You don’t get inside his head, but, of course, it’s more than a bit part. On one level you could say it’s a case study of the old chestnut: how come strong intelligent women fall for selfish bastards? But there are plenty of good times, and this is no hatchet job. Nevertheless, from the time when he and Hadley got together in the ’20s to the distressing end with Mary nearly half a century later, he never spent a single day as an unattached single man.
It’s Mrs.Hemingway number 3 – fellow war correspondent and writer Martha Gellhorn, the one who was able to get over him – who, at the house in Cuba, in 1944, is allowed a judgment:
He sat down by her; his T-shirt smelled of the cocktail. “What can I do for you, Marty?” His words were gentle now. Poor Ernest. He had never loved another more than he himself was loved.
But it was still her who describes him, in August in Paris later that year, during a caddish episode that does not show him at his best:
A man stands with his hands deep in the garbage cans. Somehow, among the empty wine bottles, broken wooden crates, slimed scraps of food, Ernest still has the air of a man in touch with the gods.
Mrs. Hemingway is arranged in four sections, arranged chronologically by wife as each of them picks up the narrative baton, though it jumps around, criss-crossing in time and place within and between those sections, taking in Chicago, Paris, Arkansas, Antibes, Florida, Havana, London and, finally, Ketchum, Idaho, and ranging over the years from 1920, when Hadley first met Ernest in Chicago (which is not the opening chapter), to 1961 and Ernest’s suicide. It’s quite a story, skillfully and stylishly handled. “My wives,” he tells Mary, the last wife, who stayed with him longest, to the distressing end, “They have a way of finding each other without me being involved a jot.” It is precisely the discovery of this aspect of it all that, the author says (in a bonus afterword in the Richard & Judy Book Club edition I read), prompted her to write the novel: “I was swiftly realising that though the wives and mistresses of Ernest Hemingway were enemies, they were also, quite often, friends.“
The end – Mary witnessing his physical and mental deterioration – is painful to read:
Sometimes she walks out to the woods: the leaves of the cedar and birch are just on the turn. fall has come so quickly, and the forest is all mustards, rust and blood. Having loved its beauty so intensely, it amazes her that Ernest is blind to it now.
This is a tremendous, ultimately sad, novel. It’s clear an enormous amount of research went into it and, again in that afterword, Naomi Wood admits “… sometimes, in the midst of love letters and torn-up photographs, I felt like the fifth mistress.” Mary Chapin Carpenter has a song called Mrs. Hemingway; it’s Hadley looking back on her time with Ernest in Paris in the mid-1920s, the time celebrated in A moveable feast, Hemingway’s memoir of those times which was assembled by Mary from his manuscripts and notes, and published after his death. It’s a lovely piece of work that is on YouTube with an atmospheric slideshow of photographs, mostly from that era, including some of the couple. Here’s the link; have a hankie ready: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j68s-C1ikO0
Another Scribal goodie. We got a full complement of Roses and Pirates, previously mentioned in despatches minus a cello player, and mighty fine they were too. The cellist (“Amy Farrah Fowler” said my companion) kicked off with some charming pizzicato and added a lot to the mix, even when, “relegated to percussion” (and I quote a fellow band member). Three women with some decent songs and stirring harmonies, delivered with humour and zest.
Lee Nelson – the Lutonia poet, not the alleged London comedian – gave us a great set. We had the Human League’s Don’t you want me completely re-written in sonnet form, which worked delightfully; the recognition of the sentiments re-imagined in a different lingua franca, without any resort to easy laughs (the concept is wry enough), was illuminating. Lee has published a slim volume giving each track on the Dare album the treatment, so he asked for requests; inevitably someone asked for the instrumental. Lee, you should get that slim volume a mention on the Dare Wikipedia page. He’s now working on Abba, and he gave us one of those too. Highlight of a varied set, though, was the epic 97, a funny and ultimately moving memoir of his father, written in part as a response to a request for something to go in a prime numbers-themed anthology, leavened by beautifully crafted tangents concerning the writing of the piece and other things on the way. Outstanding.
Mid-month Vaultage saw a fine 30-minute spot to host Pat Nicholson in DADGAD mode. I knew there was something different about him … he was performing … without a … hat.
The regular Milton Keynes Humanists April meeting was given over entirely to a look at poetry on humanist themes, and an absorbing evening it turned out to be, with featured poets Danni Antagonist (who sold some books!) and Sam Upton in fine form, and members of the group doing their own stuff, reciting old favourites or texts chosen specifically for the occasion. Of the latter, Abul Al Al Ma’arri, a blind Arab eleventh century poet was something of an eye-opener. There’s an article by Kenan Malik (The poetry of an old atheist) which is well worth a look, from which this short poem is taken;
Traditions come from the past, of high import if they be True;
Ay, but weak is the chain of those who warrant their truth.
Consult thy reason and let perdition take others all:
Of all the conference Reason best will counsel and guide.
Yup, dateline: 11th century, Aleppo and Baghdad.