Thursday, March 29, 2007


Introducing the book, the proposer said that he had re-read it with some trepidation about its appropriateness, given the length of the book and the fact that his passion was as much for the music as for the book. Would the book appeal to someone not interested in the music? He had first read it at a time when he had been very enthused about Berlioz by some outstanding performances of his music, and had gone on to read the second volume of the biography and the Memoirs.

Berlioz was a very interesting man, both obsessed and self-obsessed. His music was grandiose rather than subtle. Much of the attraction of the book lay in its account of the creative process, and his struggles throughout his life to get his music performed and to finance himself. The book was very well written, and gave an engaging account of the times as much as of the man. The picture of the rigidities of French bureaucracy –by reputation still formidable – was extraordinary. It was ironic that his parents never heard his music played, and that as his career developed he became better appreciated in Germany and Russia than in France, despite being one of France’s greatest composers.

The reaction to the book of those who were not devotees of classical music was in fact very positive.

Much of the book had the quality of an early nineteenth century French novel, although from time to time it broke off from novel mode and went into musicology. It was also a portrait of a creative person. The roominess of the book was enjoyable, as one relived in detail a bygone era. It shed interesting light on Romanticism, and also had considerable historical interest, in its portrayal of revolutions (and the disillusion that followed them) and the post-Napoleonic era. All felt it was, in the main, very well written. For example, it brought alive rural life in La Cote St Andre and in Italy, student life in Paris, his relations with friends, family and lovers, and the incredibly negative and conservative French establishment.

It was a formidable work of scholarship to produce such an exhaustive study, nearly forty years after the only other major biography, and the author had left no stone unturned in examining sources and contemporary writings. He displayed a deep knowledge of literature as well as music. Even to the non-musical expert, it was intriguing to read of how musical form had changed with Romanticism, and how it had been commonplace in France to adapt foreign works to local taste. He was also very perceptive in how he deduced people’s psychology from his source material – for example in working out the reasons for Berlioz’ father’s opposition to his musical career.

The biography was very stimulating and whetted the appetite for the non-expert reader, and a number planned purchases of Berlioz’ work (the proposer had kindly already compiled a CD of highlights for members).

But did the book need to be so long? Although in some places he belaboured points unnecessarily, we concluded that the author had given priority to writing a major academic study rather than a novel, and therefore had been right to go into exhaustive detail. Similarly he would sometimes for analytical purposes reveal what happened later in the drama of Berlioz’ love life, rather than maintain suspense.

Some also had a few quibbles with his style. He assumed the reader already had a comprehensive knowledge of Romantic composers and writers, as well as of several languages, and could have usefully provided more context. Perhaps this was because, as a newspaper music critic by background, he felt he should adopt a high academic tone. On the other hand, the book was much better written than most academic theses. He was also prone, particularly early on, to sentences of excessive length. It was rather irritating that references were relegated to an appendix, although admittedly they would have made the text even longer. And there was the odd infelicity – “anomalousness” instead of “anomaly”, and “desolateness” instead of “desolation”.

Cairns’ use of sources was interesting. He did rely heavily on Berlioz’ Memoirs (although they were not totally reliable) but he also used a mass of other material, including letters, his father’s accounts book, and the Institute’s competition records. The many letters were striking in their elegance and intimacy – for example the letters of his sister Nancy were very open and candid - and it was remarkable that so many had been kept. Cairns’ detective work on his sources such as the accounts book was fascinating.

We noted gloomily that the biographer in the age of the E-mail, telephone, memory stick and internet will have much less in the way of evidence. Electronic data is perishable, with the memory in a hard disc decaying within twenty years. We were not going to leave much of a footprint on the world.

We were not sure we would have liked to meet Berlioz (although despite the mass of evidence in the book, it was difficult to be quite certain what he was really like). He clearly was very moody and self-absorbed, but obviously also had charm when he wished to use it, and was a natural leader. The moods must have been very difficult to live with.

The quotations from Berlioz’ writing, however, showed him to be a remarkably engaging, incisive and witty writer. It was intriguing that he was quite an Anglophile (and indeed Scottophile) in his liking for Scott, Ossian, Shakespeare, and Moore, and in his idealisation of Harriet Smithson. Scott’s popularity on the continent at this time was well-known, but less well-known was the immense impact of Shakespeare on French Romanticism which Cairns brought out.

His love-life was fascinating, with his obsessive idealization of successive women. Indeed his behaviour in trying to catch glimpses of Harriet would nowadays be classed as stalking. In the second volume there was a remarkable moment when Estelle sent him a picture of herself to show that she was no longer the beauty he had idealized in his youth. And his reaction to being jilted by Camille Moke – a planned triple murder and suicide – was extreme and obsessive.

We wondered if Berlioz were depressive or bipolar, but concluded we could not tell, and Cairns deliberately does not pursue psychoanalytical speculation. Perhaps most composers – or at least most great composers – were very highly strung? On the other hand, such traits were particularly common amongst the Romantics. We wondered if they were a product of Romantic ideas of individual expression and the cult of the suffering artist – and therefore perhaps largely a form of self-indulgence.

This led us to debate the nature of Romanticism in music and more generally. We noted that earlier composers had sought to please their audience directly, whereas the Romantics had sought to express themselves and then persuade an audience it was worth listening to their music. There was a similar movement in the change from Neo-classical to Romantic poetry, with formal, balanced verse of decorum giving way to the much more expressive, emotional and individualistic. Although Romanticism was a clearly identifiable zeitgeist across the arts, it was unwise to attempt to define it in the sense of identifying a common set of elements – rather, there was a set of family resemblances.

Nevertheless we relished Cairns’ quote from Scott’s introduction to “Waverley”, saying that, if his title page had said it was “ a Romance from the German”:

“what head so obtuse as not to image forth a profligate abbot, an oppressive duke, a secret and mysterious association of Rosycrucians and Illuminati, with all their properties of black cowls, caverns, daggers, electrical machines, trapdoors, and dark lanterns?”

The book brought out well how Berlioz’ early experiences had affected his music; this contrasted with Dylan’s “Chronicles Vol. 1”, which we read in 2006, where the formative influences seemed to be other music rather than experiences. Berlioz had done well from an unpromising start, with little musical background or encouragement. It was surprising that the level of musical achievement in France seemed so low, with Beethoven not being known for a long time and Romanticism in music coming much later to France than to Germany or Russia. The technical level of instrument playing in France emerged as fairly poor (though even worse in Italy). It was also surprising that the French musical establishment was so reactionary and obstructive to new work, given that the Revolution might have been expected to make them more progressive. Why had composers in Germany or Russia - or indeed painters in France - not faced similar barriers?

We speculated that the culture of the French establishment was unusually controlling, noting similar traits to this day in its resistance to foreign takeovers of businesses and foreign words being imported to the language. It must have been much easier for the innovatory painter or writer of the day to make their work known than the innovatory composer, who needed to finance an orchestra and an auditorium, or indeed a whole opera, which was considered the pinnacle of music in Berlioz’ youth.

Berlioz’ music even now had a cutting edge quality to it – he was never one for compromises. Even so, it was difficult to grasp how many in his contemporary audience could not understand his music. One had to make an effort of imagination to realise how they were not used to music of this kind. It had been the orchestra players who had been the first enthusiasts for Berlioz’ work, perhaps because they would have gained most familiarity through rehearsals.

It also required an effort of imagination to realise how little orchestral music people of the day would have heard, in the complete absence of radio, television, records, tapes, CDs and iPods. Perhaps nowadays we suffered from the opposite problem, with over-familiarity with music, and a surfeit of opportunities to hear it, breeding contempt.

Sunday, March 18, 2007


The proposer put forward two American books: “In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote (1966) and “No Country for Old Men” (2005) by Cormac McCarthy. Introducing the books he said that, when recently reading the McCarthy book for the first time, he was forcibly struck by its resemblance to “In Cold Blood”, specifically in the theme of cold-blooded killing. This had made him re-read “In Cold Blood” for the first time since the Eighties.

Cormac McCarthy was an award-winning novelist born in 1933 - intriguingly only nine years after Capote. McCarthy was famous for “Blood Meridian” and for his “Border Trilogy ”, which included “All the Pretty Horses”. That trilogy had focussed lovingly on horses, but in recent times he had focussed mainly on “post-modern” westerns, and in this story the lovingly described pick-up truck had replaced the horse. This book had received mixed reviews, and would probably be judged as a minor work compared to the former, or indeed “The Road”, also published in 2005.

However, “No Country for Old Men” had gripped the proposer from the outset, and he had found it impossible to put it down. The plot fizzed right from the start, and there was a constant curiosity - and dread - about the evolution of events. The main characters – Llewlyn Moss, Sheriff Bell, Carson Wells and Anton Chigurh, were entwined in a death ritual.

An important theme was that of pre-destiny and fate, and particularly significant were the two scenes where Chigurh asked his victim to toss a coin to determine life or death. Another example was at the defining moment where Moss found the drug money, and sees his life sitting in front of him:

“His whole life was sitting there in front of him. Day after day from dawn till dark until he was dead. All of it cooked down into forty pounds of paper in a satchel”

Alliteration helped give the passage its impact.

McCarthy had been noted earlier in his career for an ornate writing style (“wisteria-like prose” or “battered ormolu” as described by two critics) yet this book was written in an exceptionally sparse, staccato, minimalist style. The plot is dialogue-driven. This striking new style had attracted very mixed responses, but such a transformation in style was remarkable for a novelist in his seventies.

The novel was a moral lament for the loss of the old West and the current moral degradation of America. This emerged in the monologues of the Sheriff, who had spent his whole life trying to make up for sacrificing his buddies in the war.

Chigurh was an astonishing character – an extreme psychopath whose cold-blooded killing links to the Capote book. There was an element of the angel of death about him. Intriguingly he said to Carla Jean that “Most people don’t recognise I exist” which raised the question of whether he was a real character.

Truman Capote (1924-1984) was an American writer whose non-fiction, stories, novels and plays were recognised literary classics. He remains a major literary figure, best known for “In Cold Blood” (1965) and for the novella “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1958). At least 20 films and TV dramas have been produced from his works.

The book was such a classic that it required less by way of introduction. Re-reading it he had wondered if the Clutter family had been overly idealized. There were similarities between the two books in the innocent towns affected by the killings, and in the characters of the policemen, Dewey and Bell, neither of who had seen anything as degraded and vicious before. However, Dewey was a more successful Sheriff than Bell, and did not give up. The moral degradation theme of “No Country for Old Men” is picked up by Dewey:

“I’ve seen some bad things, I sure as hell have. But nothing as vicious as this.”

The questions of motive were also different: in “In Cold Blood” motive was a very big issue. It was a “whydunnit” rather than a “whodunnit”. Capote tries to build up an understanding of the killers, their backgrounds and their meeting, and to establish a motive, or cause, for their actions – were the killings the product of nature or nurture? While there is an ostensible motive – the supposed safe – the killings according to the confessions seem to result from a loss of control when trying to extract the location of the safe from Clutter, and then the next three killings are to prevent them being identified. Capote is very slow and painstaking in describing the factual events from several perspectives – this creates an illusion of scientific truth, of verisimilitude, which may or may not be true. Capote’s leisurely style, as he tries to draw you inside the minds of the murderers, is in sharp contrast to McCarthy.

By contrast McCarthy seems to say you do not need a motive other than logic and fate. There is a drugs plot in his book, but it seems almost incidental.

The bulk of the discussion focussed on “No Country for Old Men”, with three issues dominating: McCarthy’s style, the plot structure, and the significance of the character Chigurh.

McCarthy’s pared-down style provoked very different responses. For some, the short sentences and the lack of quotation marks or conventional introductions to sections of speech heightened the tautness and suspense of the narrative. He effectively conveyed the sense of emptiness of the Mexican border landscape, although his prose lacked fluidity. Even if it were sometimes confusing to work out who was speaking or who the “he” was who was acting, the reader was kept on his toes in trying to figure out what was going on.

Others, by contrast, found his style irritating – a pretentious gesture in the direction of modernism. The lack of quotation marks and the lack of direction as to who “he” was simply confusing, affected and a failure in the writer’s basic task of communication. For example, it took quite a while to work out who was giving the monologues. The novel lost rather than gained from such a lack of narrative clarity.

We had some discussion about influences on McCarthy, suggesting Hemingway for the succinct type of description that influenced so many, and Elmore Leonard for some of the pared-down style. James Hadley Chase frequently used the plot motif of the small-time player finding a cache of criminal money. We noted that the title came from Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium” (“That is no country for old men. The young/ in one another’s arms, birds in the trees/ - Those dying generations – at their song, ….”). To quote from the later Yeats is suggestive, given that Yeats’ style had undergone a transformation from the adjectival, aesthetic style of his fin de siecle period to the much tauter and sparser style of his later books such as “The Tower” (1928), from which this poem is taken. We also noted that the book sometimes read like a film script, and that the number of killings rivalled a Tarantino film such as “Pulp Fiction” (although lacking the Tarantino sense of humour).

The plot structure was unusual: instead of good triumphing over evil as in the traditional Western or crime thriller, the sheriff reverted to his war-time pattern by deciding to cut and run, leaving the field to the evil Chigurh. You were denied the comfortable moral conclusion that you expected in a novel concerned with crime. While many killings took centre stage, the protagonist Moss was strangely killed off stage, while even Chigurh disappeared for the last section of the novel.

Even in a tragedy there is normally something asserted about human life which is uplifting, but here one was left with a sense of emptiness, with the only possible positives being the good nature of the sheriff and his relationship with his wife Loretta. It was a profoundly pessimistic, indeed nihilist book. Some felt that there was always danger in a writer thus departing from the traditional narrative forms and sense of an ending, such was their archetypal force. On the other hand, the downbeat ending and the unconventional structure signalled clearly that the novel was not intended to be a conventional thriller.

So what was it about? The evil of Chigurh and the modern world of drug-running, guns and senseless murder was counterpointed against the traditional values of the West, as espoused by the sheriff (the old man of the title) and expounded by him in the folksy monologues that were interspersed with the narrative.

The moral focus of the book was to be found in the sheriff’s monologues. To a left wing woman who says she wants the future America to allow her daughter to have an abortion, he observes:

“The way the country is headed…I don’t have much doubt that…not only will she be able to have an abortion, she’ll be able to have you put to sleep.”

Moreover, “someone the other morning asked me if I believed in Satan…I guess as a boy I did. Come the middle years my belief I reckon had waned somewhat. Now I’m startin to lean back the other way…” .

However, for one who disliked the book because he did not know who was doing what to whom, the Sheriff’s monologues were a contrived and clumsy superstructure, which could have been removed without loss. Others also felt that there was a dissonance between the moral message as expounded by the Sheriff and the undisguised relish, and excessive detail, with which the author describes killings and guns. All the dramatic energy goes into the description of evil.

We had different ideas about the significance of Chigurh, although we all agreed that he was central to the book. Knowing that McCarthy likes to play with the names he gives characters, we sought the significance of the unusual name “Chigurh” (e.g.was it an anagram of the type “Britney Spears” = “Presbyterian”?) but could not find it. We learn little about him as a character, except that, surprisingly, he is interested in art. Most of us felt, however, that he was more the personification of a force of nature than a character as such. Was he an immoral, or perhaps an amoral, force? Did he characterise the forces of fate? Did he represent the lack of reason and justice in the world – the force of suffering? Or did he represent the force of the US Government (at one point the book suggests that the drug-smuggling is so profitable that the Mexican Government is likely to move in)? Was he a Satan figure as hinted at by the Sheriff?

For many of us, he was the personification of the type of radical evil that takes a sadistic pleasure in killing, as shown in the coin-tossing scene, where he relishes trying to persuade Carla Jean that her death is inevitable. This was the type of wanton “in cold blood” killing that Capote explored, that had manifested itself in the Nazi concentration camps, and that evolutionary scientists found difficult to explain in terms of contributing anything constructive to evolution. In literary terms it was also the type of killing found in “A Clockwork Orange”.

It was common in Britain to view us as dominated by the past whereas the US was dominated by the future. However, in fact it was common to find twentieth century American literature idealising the recent past, such as the West of the sheriff’s youth, or, in other books, baseball. Indeed most old people idealize their youth. On the other hand, it was the novelist’s legitimate role to mythologize, to imbue recent developments with emotions, as Dickens had done with urban development in Britain. But despite the elegiac title, the problem here was that much of the mythologizing, the loving emotion, was focussed on killing and on guns.

Although we therefore had a number of different perspectives on “No Country for Old Men”, it proved a very stimulating and provocative choice. We felt it could best be assessed in context of the work of a writer nearing the end of his career, and as such it was an interesting coda to the discussion of Marquez’ late book “Memories of My Melancholy Whores”, which we discussed in October 2006. We looked forward to seeing the forthcoming Coen Brothers film of the McCarthy book.

By contrast “In Cold Blood” met with more uniform approval, but less debate. Here was a fully realised work of art, which was Capote’s masterpiece. It was superb, and fully merited its classic status. It was of a different and higher order of achievement than “No Country for Old Men”. The book was a delight.

His prose style was a “Rolls Royce” of writing ability, which had manifested itself in his earliest published work at the age of 19. It was very easy to read, effortlessly fluent and evocative, yet very precise. The beginning of the book lyrically captured the Kansas plains and their seasonal rhythm, and the cadences of the prose marked it out immediately as being of a very high order (although for some the passage was rather self-consciously crafted, and perhaps not quite appropriate for the subject matter to follow).

There was a burning intensity of effort, a great imaginative pressure, to establish the full and precise truth of what had happened, and the personal history and psychology of the murderers, which might explain why. He showed the skill of journalism at its best, and the empathetic novel at its best, in even-handedly viewing the events from the perspective of the murdered family and the murderers, and indeed from the wider perspective of the whole local community. Was to understand all to forgive all?

The book was structured with well-concealed skill, so that suspense and interest were maintained as the personal histories of the protagonists were woven seamlessly into the narrative. The only structural weakness came at the end, where the book lost its flow by diverting from its main theme and characters into giving the personal histories of the Death Row convicts, and for the first time revealed something of a personal agenda in opposing “in cold blood” judicial executions.

The book was a remarkable change of tack for Capote well into his career, and we debated whether there were any real precedents for the book. The American detective novel had just reached its high point in the work of Raymond Chandler, but his works were not psychological studies of this kind. The “Notable Scottish Trials” series (with later English and British versions) had publicised and analysed famous murders in the early part of the century, but did not create the novel-like quality of Capote’s work. Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms” did turn events that were largely factual into a novel, but we concluded that, to the best of our knowledge, Capote’s work was a major innovation. There had of course been plenty of imitations afterwards, up to and including recent “faction” such as the film “The Queen”, and it had also become more common to write biographies of ordinary people.

Given that Capote lived for another 19 years, it was surprising that he did not try another book in the same genre. The reason must be the intensity of the emotional and imaginative effort in researching and writing the book. He said to his biographer that:

“No-one will ever know what “In Cold Blood” took out of me. It scraped me right down to the marrow of my bones. It nearly killed me…” .

Indeed it has been argued it led to his alcoholism and death.

We took the view that “In Cold Blood” needed to be taken on its own terms and assessed on its own merits as a book, without straying too far into the question of the process of the writing of the book, an issue that has preoccupied other writers and two recent films. We did, however, note that Capote became very friendly with Perry Smith, and, rightly or wrongly, presented him as the almost innocent victim of events, with Hickock as the real villain. Capote might have identified with Smith because of a shared personal history involving suicide and alcoholism. Intriguingly the gay Capote was coy on the subject of Smith’s sexuality, other than to bring out a psychiatrist’s suggestion that sexual inhibition was a common trait of “motiveless” murderers.

On re-reading the book the proposer had found it implausible that the murders had been triggered in the meaningless way described. Perhaps if Hicock and Smith had found a safe filled with money the murders would never have happened: a more plausible supposition for him was that Smith had been enraged into murder by Hickock’s sexual advances to Nancy Clutter, given a prior homosexual relationship with Hickock in prison.

We also thought that Kenneth Tynan’s accusation – that Capote needed an execution to round off the book, and had not done all he might have to prevent the execution – seemed far-fetched. Nevertheless, Capote was certainly guilty on some occasions of exploiting friendships for literary purposes – he had made many friends in high society, as shown by the remarkable guest list at the launch party of this book, but he had used these friends to write an exposure of the high society he had fed off. As a result he had been blacked and died friendless.

Both books were products of a culture dominated by guns and cars. They were exploring what kinds of events were possible in a country of great distances - where people could appear out of nowhere in the middle of the night, commit random murder, then disappear again - and in a society where everyone owned a gun.

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