Commonplace Book: Anne Enright

Forgotten WaltzAfter slogging through a few disappointing novels recently, decided to treat myself to Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz  to reset a bit. (Reading The Gathering a few years back was one of those gobsmacking moments in a reading life, up there with my first encounter of Penelope Fitzgerald.)

Here is the narrator introducing her husband to the reader in a chapter headed, “Love is like a cigarette”:

Let’s start with Conor. Conor is easy. Let’s say he has already arrived, that afternoon in Enniskerry. When I go back into the kitchen he is there, lingering and listening, having a good time. Conor is low and burly and, in the summer of 2002, he is my idea of fun.

Conor never takes his jacket off. Under the jacket is a cardigan, then a shirt, then a T-shirt and under that a tattoo. The wide strap of his bag is slung across his chest, keeping everything tamped down. he is on the mooch. This man never stops checking around him, as though for food. In fact, if he is near food he will be eating it – but neatly, in an intelligent, listening sort of way. his eyes keep traveling the floor and if he looks up it is with great charm: he is caught by something you have said, he thinks you are funny. He might seem preoccupied, but this guy is ready for a good time.

I loved Conor, so I know what I am talking about here. He comes from a line of shopkeepers and pub owners in Youghal, so he likes to watch people and smile. I used to like this about him. And I liked the bag, it was trendy, and his glasses were trendy too, thick-rimmed and sort of fifties, and he shaved his head, which usually annoyed me but it suited him because his skin was so brown and his skull so sizeable. And his neck was large, and his back bulged and sprouted hair from the shoulders down. What can I say? Sometimes it surprised me that the person I loved was so fantastically male, that the slabs of muscle were covered in slabs of solid fat and that the whole of him – all five foot nine, God help us – was fizzed up with hair, so that he became blurred at the edges, when he undressed. No one had told me you could like that sort of thing. But I did.


If this style speaks to you, you should go read it. I assure you she manages this deft tonal control–as well as providing an extraordinary vision of a very commonplace set of human predicaments–for all 259 pages.

Commonplace Book: People and Pianos

piano_shopReading a sweet book about coming back to pianos and piano playing in mid-life (a story I, a perpetual musical ‘advanced beginner’ can relate to). Thad Carhart turned his back on corporate life, and wandered into The Piano Shop on the Left Bank where an enigmatic, brilliant piano technician and dealer (he calls Luc) puts him together with a baby grand, with cinematic results.

This time at the atelier I did bring sheet music, and Luc nodded approvingly when he saw me set it on the music stand. I’ve never been comfortable playing in front of others, but somehow this was different; his presence seemed encouraging as we listened together to the particular voice of this instrument among so many other pianos. I played for perhaps ten minutes, pieces I knew reasonably well and could listen to while I sight-read: some Beethoven bagatelles, a few of Schumann’s pieces for children, an early Mozart fantasy. I was not disappointed The Stingl’s resonance filled the room with tones at once clear and robust, and a sharp sense of pride welled up at the prospect of owning this distinctive piano, of seeing and playing it daily, of living with it. Good God, I thought, this is a kind of love; and, as in love, my senses amplified and enhanced the love object, all with an insouciance and willing enthusiasm.

A magical performance of the Arabeske in C major by Wilhelm Kempff (with less than magical camera work).

Holiday Words: Henry James, Christmas in Paris

In the 1870’s, Henry James agreed (apparently somewhat unwillingly) to write sketches of Paris for the New York Herald Tribune. Here is his Christmas portrait of the city of light, as it was in 1875.

But why should I talk of pictures when Paris itself, for the last few days, has formed an immense and brilliant picture. French babies, I believe, hang up their stocking or put a shoe into the stove on New Year’s Eve; but Christmas, nevertheless, has been very good-humoredly kept. I have never seen Paris so charming as on this last Christmas Day. The weather put in a claim to a share in the fun, the sky was radiant and the air as soft and pure as a southern spring. It was a day to spend in the streets and all the world did so. I passed it strolling half over the city and wherever I turned I found the entertainment that a pedestrian relishes.

parisWhat people love Paris for became almost absurdly obvious: charm, beguilement, diversion were stamped upon everything. I confess that, privately, I kept thinking of Prince Bismarck and wishing he might take a turn upon the boulevards. Not that they would have flustered him much, I suppose, for, after all, the boulevards are not human; but the whole spectacle seemed a supreme reminder of the fact so constantly present at this time to the reflective mind the amazing elasticity of France. Beaten and humiliated on a scale without precedent, despoiled, dishonored, bled to death financially, all this but yesterday, Paris is today in outward aspect as radiant, as prosperous, as instinct with her own peculiar genius as if her sky had never known a cloud. The friendly stranger cannot refuse an admiring glance to this mystery of wealth and thrift and energy and good spirits. I don’t know how Berlin looked on Christmas Day, though Christmas-keeping is a German specialty, but I greatly doubt whether its aspect would have appealed so irresistibly to the sympathies of the impartial observer. With the approach of Christmas here the whole line of the boulevards is bordered on each side with a row of little booths for the sale for the sale of everything conceivable. The width of the classic asphalt is so ample that they form no serious obstruction, and the scene, in the evening especially, presents a picturesque combination of the rustic fair and the highest Parisian civilization. You may buy anything in the line of trifles in the world, from a cotton nightcap to an orange neatly pricked in blue letters with the name of the young lady Adele or Ernestine to whom you may gallantly desire to present it. On the other side of the crowded channel the regular shops present their glittering portals, decorated for the occasion with the latest refinements of the trade. The confectioners in particular are amazing; the rows of marvelous bonbonnieres look like precious sixteenth-century caskets and reliquaries, chiseled by Florentine artists, in the glass cases of great museums. The boribonniere, in its elaborate and impertinent uselessness, is certainly the consummate flower of material luxury; it seems to bloom, with its petals of satin and its pistils of gold, upon the very apex of the tree of civilization.

I walked over to Notre Dame along the quays, and was more than ever struck with the brilliant picturesqueness of Paris as, from any point opposite to the Louvre, you look up and down the Seine. The huge towers of Notre Dame, rising with their blue-gray tone from the midst of the great mass round which the river divides, the great Arc de Triomphe answering them with equal majesty in the opposite distance, the splendid continuous line of the Louvre between, and over it all the charming coloring of Paris on certain days the brightness, the pearly grays, the flicker of light, the good taste, as it were, of the atmosphere all this is an entertainment which even custom does not stale. In the midst of it the good people were trudging in thousands, on their various festive errands, well dressed and well disposed. Every tenth man one sees in the streets at present is a soldier, and though this fact has doubtless a melancholy meaning in the moral scale, it has a high value in the picturesque. The cuirassiers especially are numerous, and their glittering helmets light up the crowd.

The mass of buildings in front of Notre Dame has been removed within the last couple of years, and the open space across which you approach the church is of immense extent. It is quite the ideal “chance” for a great cathedral. Notre Dame profits by it, and her noble facade looks more impressive than ever. I went in and listened to vespers, and watched the sounding nave grow dusky and the yellow light turn pale on the eastern clerestory, and then I wandered away and crossed the river farther, and climbed that imperceptible eminence known as the “mountain” of St. Genevieve, and bent my steps to the curious Church of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont, the church that hides its florid little Renaissance facade behind the huge neo-classic drum of the Pantheon. Here I was only in time for the sermon, but, with all respect to French pulpit eloquence, which often has a most persuasive grace, it was time enough. I turned, before long, a deaf ear to the categories of virtue and vice it was like the dreadful nomenclature of chemistry and wandered apart to the shrine of St. Genevieve. The bones of this holy woman repose in a great brazen tomb in one of the chapels, surrounded with votive tapers. The scene was very picturesque. A number of women were on their knees around it, in the illumined dusk, presenting various objects to be blessed. A young priest opened a sort of circular lid in the sepulcher, held the object down into the hole, murmured something over it, and restored it. Some of the articles exposed to the influence of the beatific ashes were singularly prosaic. One, for instance, was a clean shirt, rigidly plaited and starched.

The motive of this application puzzled me; was the applicant a laundress? She was probably the pious relative of a sick man who was contemplating a change of linen. In either case, I seemed to have walked far away from the boulevards, and from the Christmas Day of 1875.

HENRY JAMES, JR. January 22, 1876

Poetic Words: Jill Osier’s Snow Poem

Snow Becoming Light by Morning

by Jill Osier

In case you sit across from the meteorologist tonight,
and in case the dim light over the booth in the bar still shines
almost planetary on your large, smooth, winter-softened
forehead, in case all of the day—its woods and play, its fire—
has stayed on your beard, and will stay through the slight
drift of mouth, the slackening of even your heart’s muscle—
. . . well. I am filled with snow. There’s nothing to do now
but wait.

Boston snows of yesteryear (from the BPL Flickr stream.)
Boston snows of yesteryear (from the BPL Flickr stream).