As some of you may know I love watching the Tour de France. I have been doing so in my summer vacations since I was a child. I have pleasant memories of sitting indoors on sunny afternoons with my family yelling at riders trying not only to reach the fourth peak of the day but also to do it faster than their closest enemies.
And then there is the doping.
I was happily unaware of the extensive doping programmes until 1998 when the Festina scandal exploded. I believed in Miguel Indurain, Bjarne Riis and Jan Ullrich when they won the race and I believed in them for quite some time after the Festina scandal. I cheered for Bugno, Chiappucci, Virenque and Zülle and was sorely disappointed when the two latter turned out to have been doped.
My disappointment in doped riders have changed since. If I get disappointed it has more to do with my favourite riders not being allowed to race. It doesn’t relate to the doping itself anymore. What I want is not a clean race…I want drama.
This also means that I find Bjarne Riis’s confessions last week uninteresting. Of course he was doped when he won in 1996. I have known that since he said in an interview: “I have never been tested positive”. That was so pathetic – but the confession? Nah – I don’t care. I have found a short clip of his very long confession (in which he also says that he only admits because he has been forced to by fellow riders’ confessions). And it has subtitles.
Riis was doped as the rest of the riders, and he gave us one of the most interesting Tour de Frances ever with his continuos attacks on the summits of the Alps and the Pyrenees. Doped or not – this was epic.
Of course cycling is an unhealthy sport and of course doping is awful. But the fact is that I love the race because these men have sacrificed their health for my entertainment. It looks grim on paper (screen…), but there you have it. And now all there’s left for me is to dream about the happy years when the riders were doped and we didn’t know! I will never enjoy the race as much again since the clean race leaves us with two options:
1. A truly clean race with one slow, boring stage after the other
2. A fake clean race with drama and speed but with our knowledge that they are doped.
My weakness is that I prefer the latter.
And since I am already surfing immoral waters of double standards I have to admit that seeing Lance Armstrong admit an extensive use of drugs would be a great pleasure. What makes the Tour de France interesting is also to see the kings dethroned. Armstrong never allowed to be dethroned and his arrogance left me completely cold.
Just to close with a smile here is part one of a press conference of the Danish Team Easy On. For non-Danish speakers I can recommend to go to 4:45 to hear the list of drugs read out loud in English.
I have been busy! Hence my long silence on this blog. But as recent additions to our flickr account show the last week has been full of good stuff.
Wednesday night Marie and I tempted the deluge and drove to the museum of modern art, Louisiana, North of Copenhagen to see works by the Queen of Staged Photos, Cindy Sherman. And what a great time we had! The exhibition was very large and included photos and videos from all of Sherman’s carrier. Most of them with a humorous edge, some of them disgusting and some of them combining those two strains. Besides from her recent clown portraits (sju jætter?) I think this exhibition showed what an extremely skilled artist Cindy Sherman is. Not only are her photographs technically amazing they also capture the spirit of an age and of the person (herself in disguise) she portrays. Marie and I stopped by every piece and talked and talked about them. Nothing was of little importance or dull. I think she is fantastic.
As a curator to be I think the exhibition was very serene and nice and with a good selection of works. Some of the wall colours were odd but when it comes to hanging I think they did a good job. Look at this wall for example where Sherman’s Old Master photos have been arranged in a traditional hanging a’la Parisian Salon. Just the right thing to do if you ask me.
I am completely taken by these. Sort of an acting out of a make-a-match memory game for art historians.
On Thursday I went with my family to Sweden to do some more painting in the vicarage my parents bought. We spent a whole four days there working hard. Here are some pictures.
This is the dining room with me and my sister painting with grey (and me trying to make a straight line). Ever since entering a grey room in some friends’ house I have wished for some room of my own in grey. I think it is enchanting and with old furniture it just makes perfect sense.
After the dining room we painted the neighbouring living room. Yellow. A very difficult colour but beautiful together with grey and with the big white porcelain stove in the corner it looks great. Here again my sister and I painting.
Of course we weren’t alone – far from it. My brother, dad, uncle and brother-in-law made a great effort too as did my aunt and mom. This is my brother with his protective glasses. The staining annoyed him a good deal and when this wonderful pair turned up he just has to use them.
When not painting we went on trips in the wonderful area, Österlen which is the Easternmost part of Scania (Skåne to the locals). They live on apples in this part of the country so at this time of year Österlen is one big blooming apple garden.
Actually scenes from the Cherry Valley (apples…cherries…) in the adaptation of Astrid Lindgren’s The Brothers Lionheart were shot here and when driving through the scenery it is breathtaking.
The apples are used for cider and apple juice…and cakes.
Besides from apple trees there are fields, woods and steep hills. And a waterfall just five minutes from where we are.
We left Sweden on Sunday and on Monday it was my birthday. And look at all the great stuff I got from my wonderful family:
I have to admit I am ridiculously fond of presents and this year was perfect. I got what I wished for and I got what I had wished for but had forgotten again. Besides I had some more cake and a wonderful dinner with same wonderful family which just made the day perfect.
What a week!
I’m in a bit of a hurry, and April’s almost over, so I’m going to give you a very short version of my musical calendar this month.
Good old H.C. – affected and brilliant as ever
I’m going to honour Hans Christian Andersen in this post as well, celebrating his birth-month, and I’m going to do so by proposing what I think would have been a great and proper act for a Hans Christian Andersen 200th Birthday Show two years ago: Soprano Inger Dam-Jensen singing one of Schumann’s renditions of HCA’s poems. Voila: Inger Dam-Jensen, singing Schumann’s “Spillemanden” (“The Fiddler”) with lyrics by HCA, accompanied by Christen Stubbe Teglbjærg on piano.
Beautiful Inger Dam-Jensen
Inger Dam-Jensen has got the beauty of voice to match HCA’s poetry and she’s got the glittering, golden, cornfield-like authencity in her timbre to match HCA’s endearing naivité.
The lyrics are in Danish, but here’s a translation into English. Read ’em and weep:
In the village it is merry
A wedding is celebrated with dancing and music
Toasts are made in wine and mead
But the bride looks like an adorned dead
Yes, dead is she for her beloved one
for he is not there as her bridegroom
In the corner he stands with his sorrow
and plays his fiddle so merrily
He plays till his locks turn gray
He plays till the strings burst
Till the fiddle with sorrow and dread
He crushes against his heart
It is so heavy, so crushingly heavy
to die while one’s heart is still young
I can’t stand to look at it any longer!
I feel it going through my head.
See, the men hold him tightly
– but why do you call me by name?
God keep us all!
I am a poor fiddler myself.
Sniff. Happy Cruelest Month, everyone!
April is the cruelest month, said T.S. Eliot, and I did consider choosing his ”Waste Land” as the April submission for this literary calendar, but wouldn’t that have been predictable and clichéd? Yes, it would.
Instead I have chosen to celebrate Danish national poet Hans Christian Andersen, since April was HCA’s birth month. He was born on April 2 1805, which means that this marks the two-year anniversary for that absolutely hideous and very embarrassing Las Vegas-wannabe show they arranged in celebration of his 200th birthday, featuring a selection of completely arbitrary, non-HCA-related artists, such as Tina Turner singing “Simply the Best”, Olivia Newton-John singing “Xanadu”, and some random comedian whose act consisted of dressing up in paper-clothes to music. It was horrible. Very bad taste. And about as far away from poetry as it could possibly get.
So this year, I’ve decided to celebrate old H.C. the best way one probably can anyway; by reading one of his amazing stories. The story is “Ole Luk-oie – the God of Sleep” (also known, in some translations, as “The Sandman”), which is probably my favourite Hans Christian Andersen story.
The edition of “Ole Luk-Oie” that I grew up with – the illustrations are by excellent illustrator Lillian Brøgger.
Ole Luk-Oie (or “Ole Lukøje” in Danish) means “Ole Close-Eye”, and the story revolves around the question of what exactly happens when we dream. The story answers the question quite unambiguously: When people (especially children) go to sleep, they are visited by Ole Lukøje, an elflike little creature, who blows softly on their necks until their heads grow heavy and throws fine dust into their eyes until they blink with fatigue, and as soon as the children are in their beds he spreads an umbrella over the children’s heads. He’s got two umbrellas, one for the good children and one for the bad ones, but they both basically work like a kind of parabolas, channelling either pleasant or grim stories to the perceptive, sleeping children. Ole Luk-Oie is the network executive so to speak, he makes up all the stories and “there is nobody in the world who knows so many stories as Ole Luk-Oie” as the narrator informs us at the beginning of the story. We, the readers, are introduced to Ole’s skills in the story through the sleep-bound boy Hjalmar, and the short story consists of the seven stories that Ole tells Hjalmar in the course of a week. I had this story read to me countless times as a child, completely in love with the fantastic imagery of the stories and then I sort of forgot about it by the time of my adolescence, but I re-discovered the story as an adult three years ago, when the excellent Copenhagen children’s theatre Anemone teatret staged the story as a play. In the staging they stressed very beautifully the point that will naturally be an adult’s approach to the story: The reading of the seven stories as the depiction of seven stages of a human life, with Hjalmar as a kind of Everyman persona. I absolutely love that interpretation, and I think it’s a great example of how HCA’s tales work just as well for children as for their parents. It’s also funny to see in this tale of nightly dreams how Freud virtually existed before he existed, or at least before he had had the chance to share his ideas with the world: The first dream, the Monday dream, of Hjalmar’s is dominated by repressed feelings – childish guilt feelings as it is. The Monday dream depicts one of the first trials a human being suffers through; that is going to school and coming face to face with one’s own inadequacy. Ole Luk-Oie tries his best to create pleasant dreams for his young client, but the nagging guilt stemming from poorly done homework threatens to wreck Hjalmar’s fantasy of pure childish, sensual pleasure “…all the flowers in the flower-pots became large trees, with long branches reaching to the ceiling, and streatching along the walls, so that the whole room was like greenhouse. All the branches were loaded with flowers, each flower as beautiful and as fragrant as a rose; and, had any one tasted them, he would have found them sweeter even than jam. The fruit glittered like gold, and there were cakes so full of plums that they were nearly bursting. It was incomparably beautiful. At the same time sounded dismal moans from the table-drawer in which lay Hjalmar’s school books.” Hjalmar’s school accessories are lamenting their poor state, and I particularly love the description of the copy-book’s sorrow: “On each leaf stood a row of capital letters, every one having a small letter by its side. This formed a copy; under these were other letters, which Hjalmar had written: they fancied they looked like the copy, but they were mistaken; for they were leaning on one side as if they intended to fall over the pencil-lines.” Last year I was in the street and I was struck – somewhat pathetically, I admit – by an everyday image that has haunted me, and which reminds me of this paragraph in Ole Luk-Oie: I saw a toddler pushing his own big stroller in front of him with much trouble, his mother smiling and laughing beside him. There was something so significant about that image, I thought, something so sad: This is what we do most of our childhood, we try to grow up as quickly as we possibly can, pushing our stroller in front of us while it’s still twice our own size, or trying to copy neat letters in a copy-book, and failing. Childhood is, to me, a great mixture of fantastic dreams of sensual pleasures like delicious treats and trees growing wildly into the sky, and the harsh reality of our incapability. The Monday story in “Ole Luk-Oie” depicts this so well I think, ending with the words: “…[Ole Luk-Oie] drilled them till they stood up gracefully, and looked as beautiful as a copy could look. But after Ole Luk-Oie was gone, and Hjalmar looked at them in the morning, they were as wretched and as awkward as ever.” The Tuesday story was my favourite as a child, and actually I think it has something appropriately April-like to it. Hjalmar, trapped in the previous dream within his own little room, goes off into a beautiful Spring landscape, and drifts in a boat down a stream which is significantly headed for the vast sea: Hjalmar is on a adolescent Wanderung in this story, and it is a wonderful experience. Beyond the pure pleasure-seaking fantasies of childhood, Hjalmar encounters fantastic creatures: “..six swans, each with a golden circlet round its neck, and a bright blue star on its forehead, drew the boat past the green wood, where the trees talked of robbers and witches, and the flowers of beautiful little elves and fairies, whose histories the butterflies had related to them. Brilliant fish, with scales like silver and gold, swam after the boat, sometimes making a spring and splashing the water round them, while birds, red and blue, small and great, flew after him in two long lines. The gnats danced round them, and the cockchafers cried ‘Buz, buz’.”There are women there, too, two of them, each playing an important part in Hjalmar’s life: One is a princess who is the likeness of a little girl Hjalmar knows, with whom he playfully shares a piece of candy, and the other is his old nurse from his infancy, who only nods at him and then sings a melancholy little song: “How oft my memory turns to thee,/my own Hjalmar, ever dear!/When I could watch thy infant glee,/or kiss away a pearly tear/’Twas in my arms thy lisping tongue/first spoke the half-remembered word,/while o’er thy tottering steps I hung,/my fond protection to afford./Farewell! I pray the Heavenly Power/to keep thee til thy dying hour.” I was very fond of this verse when I was a child, thinking it was beautiful. When I saw the staging of “Ole Luk-Oie” at Anemone teatret, I was momentarily shocked and sad to find that they had chosen to portray the nurse as a ridiculous looking matron, accompanying her loud, insisting singing on a squeaky accordion, but then I thought about it, and I realized that it was actually a rather good presentation of this woman from Hjalmar’s past: The verse is sentimental, bordering on the saccharine, and while Hjalmar may feel a sting of nostalgia upon hearing her singing and thinking of the care she offered him, his boat is still flowing down the stream and the nurse will necessarily be contrasted by the pretty young princess-girl who has something to offer him. But of course youth isn’t all fun and games and fairy tales, and Hjalmar learns as much from the Wednesday story, where he’s confronted with the force of peerpressure and slander. One of the things that makes “Ole Luk-Oie” such a great story is that the multitudinous of stories obviously made it possible for HCA to use many of his different talents as a story-teller. In the Monday story he demonstrates his ability to understand the sentiments of a young child, in the Tuesday story he uses his imaginative skills in the wonderful descriptions of a fairy tale landscape, and in this story, the Wednesday story, he uses his talent as a satirist. As stories such a s “The Shepherdess and the Chimney-Sweeper” and “There is No Doubt About It” bear witness, HCA was more than a light-headed dreamer, he was a poignant and humorous observer, and this is very clear in the Wednesday story. Hjalmar reaches the sea in this dream, and he follows a stork, who is placed in a henhouse among hens, ducks and turkeys as he grows tired from travelling. HCA depicts very accurately that certain high school kind of atmosphere among the rural fowl as the in-crowd that isn’t about to accept an outsider into their group, and who, xenophobically, would rather miss out on some great in-puts than to admit to their own significance: “…the stork told them all about warm Africa, of the pyramid, and of the ostrich, which, like a wild horse, runs across the desert. But the ducks did not understand what he said, and quacked amongst themselves, ‘We are all of the same opinion; namely, that he is stupid.’ ‘Yes, to be sure, he is stupid,’ said the turkey-cock; and gobbled. Then the stork remained quite silent, and thought of his home in
Africa. ‘Those are handsome thin legs of yours,’ said the turkey-cock. ‘What do they cost a yard?’ ‘Quack, quack, quack,’ grinned the ducks; but the stork pretended not to hear.”Luckily, Hjalmar is able to learn the right lesson from the encounter: Recognising the worldliness of the stork and the beauty of its storytelling, he dismisses the feathered clique as the temporary, uninteresting creatures they are: “‘Tomorrow you shall be made into soup,’ said Hjalmar to the fowls; and then he awoke and found himself lying in his little bed.”
The stories of Thursday and Friday are connected in a sense, in as much as they both depict a wedding ceremony. While Thursday, however, is all about glamour, Friday has something remarkably prosaic to it, and as such one might say that the two stories depict a youthful, and a more disillusionized, mature approach towards love and marriage, respectively. Hjalmar is attending the wedding between two mice in the Thursday story, and it’s all about show and illusion right from the beginning. Hjalmar must get dressed up in his tin soldier’s uniform in order to look proper for the ceremony, and the ceremony is imbued with the satirical take on artificiality that HCA did so well (for instance with his depiction of the Princess in “The Swine-Herd”). The bridal pair’s love for each other is scarcely mentioned and the party is dominated by a sense of unfulfilment and shallow showiness: “The room had been rubbed over with bacon-rind, like the passage, which was all the refreshment offered to the guests. But for the dessert they produced a pea, on which a mouse belonging to the bridal pair had bitten the first letters of their names. This was something quite uncommon. All the mice said it was a very beautiful wedding, and that they had been very agreeably entertained.” Hjalmar is obviously fascinated with the splendour, but also aware of the violence he’s had to do to his own nature: “He had certainly been in grand society: but he had been obliged to creep under a room, and to make himself small enough to wear the uniform of a tin soldier.” It’s a different atmosphere, if not a less satirical one, we find in the Friday story, which describes the wedding of Hjalmar’s sister’s dolls Herman and Bertha. Hjalmar frets somewhat upon being invited to the wedding by Ole, noting that the two dolls have easily been married a hundred times already by his sister. “’Yes,’” says Ole, “’but tonight is the hundred and first wedding, and when that has taken place, it must be the last, therefore this is to be extremely beautiful.’” Yes, this is the last wedding, and the irrevocability of it hangs heavily over the story, which is dominated by the limitations and fixation that comes with marriage. HCA does love his fowls, so there’s a swallow and a hen present at the wedding to advise the bridal pair about where to settle down, and while the swallow speaks beautifully of all the sights to be seen abroad, the hen wins with her prudent, prosaic defence of their home country: “’Cold weather is good for cabbages,’ said the hen; ‘besides we do have it warm here sometimes. Four years ago, we had a summer that lasted more than five weeks, and it was so hot one could scarcely breath. And then in this country we have no poisonous animals, and we are free from robbers. He must be wicked who does not consider our country the finest of all lands. He ought not to be allowed to live here.’ And then the hen wept very much (…)”The best part of this satirical take on stupidity and cowardice in the name of patriotism is, however, the song the hilariously bad song that has been written by one of the guest (the led pencil) for the occasion: “’What merry sounds are on the wind,/as marriage rites together bind/a quiet and a loving pair,/though formed of kid, yet smooth and fair!/Hurrah! If they are deaf and blind,/we’ll sing, though weather prove unkind.”Hee! This never fails to crack me up. And having applied to go abroad to study next semester, of course this is totally grist to my mill. The Saturday story revolves around the Big Questions in life, and Hjalmar is torn between superstition and fact as the imaginative Ole has a battle of words against the portrait of Hjalmar’s grumbling great-grandfather who insists on reason and science. Ole, however, wins, and with him the power and omnipresence of imagination and dreams over petty nitpicking: “I thank you; you may be the head of the family as no doubt you are, but I am older than you. I am an ancient heathen. The old Romans and Greek named me the Dream-God. I have visited the noblest houses and continue to do so; still I know how to conduct myself to both high and low (…)’”
This serves as a countdown to the last story which is, very appropriately, a story about Death. HCA ventures into meta-fiction here, one might say, as he describes Death as an older brother of Ole’s, that is, a storyteller just like the Dream-God. The afterlife is described as follows: “Hjalmar saw that this Ole Luk-Oie [Ole’s older brother, Death] rode on, he lifted up old and young, and carried them away on his horse. Some he seated in front and some behind, but always inquired first, How stands the mark-book?’ ‘Good,’ they all answered. ‘Yes, but let me see for myself,’ he replied, and they were all obliged to give him the books. Then all those who had ‘Very good’ or ‘Exceedingly good’ came in front of the horse, and heard the beautiful story; while those who had ‘Middling”’ or ’Tolerably good’ in their books, were obliged to sit behind and listen to the frightful tale. They trembled and cried, and wanted to jump down from the horse, but they could not get free, for they were fastened to the seat.” Apart from the fact that Death sounds kind of like a – well, like a horse’s ass, actually, it’s very interesting in a meta way that HCA makes storytelling the premise for the afterlife. Rather than frolic actively in the meadow’s of Paradise or writhe in pain in the flames of Hell, in the afterlife described in this story, we become forever subjects to our imagination, like passive children being told stories at bedtime. As such I think “Ole Luk-Oie” is an important part of HCA’s life’s work and a wonderful celebration of imagination and dreams – a celebration that I hope I haven’t sucked all the life out of with this interpretation. I love the story dearly and recommend it to any lover of stories out there.
Happy 202nd Birthday, Hans Christian. And Happy April, everyone.
A friend sent me this wonderful picture. I have not much to add, but I’ll post it to celebrate a wonderful spring Wednesday and it’s the Liberation Day of Italy (1945) and the day of The Carnation Revolution in Portugal (1974) – as the same friend reminded me in a letter I received today (grazie!).
I think Bette Davis looks victorious and liberated (or ready to liberate herself if necessary) in this picture. Besides: someone covered her eye with a carnation.
As earlier mentioned my parents bought an old vicarage in Southern Sweden from whence I have returned after having spent some days of my Easter vacation painting the kitchen, eating Swedish meatballs and trying not to laugh too hard at the local dialect (since they were very nice people). The kitchen was very 70s in all its orange-brownness but is after our intervention very light and bright and nice.
The vicarage belonged to my father’s aunt and uncle. Auntie lies buried in the cemetery just up the hill and uncle lives in Gothenburg and wanted to sell this much too big summer house. None of them were ever vicars but Sweden seems to have too many churches and vicarages to fill them all with vicars, so they were able to buy this house 18 years ago. And now my parents have it.
It’s a wonderful and very large house still filled with aunt and uncle’s stuff. And with dead mice (fortunately dead…). Some of them long, long gone like this one my dad found in a cupboard when cleaning the kitchen:
Maggots seem to like everything but bone and excrement… at least that was all they left.
But still – a beautiful place, not least because of the amazing scenery just outside the window. The vicarage is situated in the Eastern part of the province Skåne (Scania) where the landscape is quite rugged and hilly with a mix of forest and pasture and known for its apple groves. It is not very populated and the village of Andrarum where we are consists in something like five houses plus the church. Just down the road is the beautiful manor house Christinehof.
This is the church seen from our backyard.
Every day a flock of sheep came jumping round the hill to graze in front of the house. Very Easter-like with a lot of lambs. They made quite some noise and we had a lot of fun screaming “maaah” back at them while painting. Simple pleasures in the countryside that comes from not having internet access 😉
Easter is almost here and I will be in Sweden for some days painting walls in an old vicarage my parents just bought. I think it will be great, and with some beautiful weather coming up I expect it will be all spring-time-yay!
So happy Easter to you all – eat lots of chocolate eggs!
My friend Miriam gave me this red eyed bunny. I have always dreamt about such a wind-up bunny. How did you know, Miriam? I’m flabbergasted – and so is the cat!
Earlier today I talked about how I associate the month of March with a kind of lack of reliability when it comes to the weather. This is also the theme for my choice in the “musical year” category (I’m still thinking about re-naming that category. It makes me envision year-long renditions of Les Miserables and Cats. Ugh.), which is “Interlude IV – passacaglia” from Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes, an opera that I always imagine to be taking place in March, because March is such a stormy month, and there’s much talk of storms in this opera.
“Who can turn skies back/and begin again?” – storm as a force of nature plays an important part in Britten’s opera Peter Grimes.
The main theme of Peter Grimes is the helplessness of man against Nature: The population of the borough is painfully aware, constantly, of the raging of the elements and their own insignificance in contrast. “Oh tide that waits for no man, spare our coasts!”, so goes one of the choruses in the opera, and each of the inhabitants of the town has his or her own way of dealing with the helplessness. Bob Boles turns to the fanatic religious (“Repent! Repent!” he shouts ad nauseam to his fellow men during storms), Mrs. Sedley takes to drug abuse, Ned Keene runs a drug-dealing business, and almost all the men seek comfort from time to time in the prostituted arms of Auntie’s euphemistic nieces. And when all these pass-times aren’t enough, they turn to the scapegoat, who just happens to be the fanciful loner Peter Grimes.
Interlude IV musically sums up these themes so movingly, I think: It starts off with a sense of loneliness and isolation depicted through a very quiet version of the conspiratorial chorus “Grimes is at his exercise!” (which marks the climax of the borough’s rising suspicion against Peter Grimes) with a single cello as the predominant instrument, backed up only by a contrabass, which sort of trails off and is overpowered by animated, forte brass players who imitate to perfection the merciless blows of a storm (I regret that I was unable to find a soundfile of this particular part of the interlude), which in turn slide into an almost manic-harking performance by high-strung strings and eventually intwines with the slandered Peter Grimes frustrated, tyrannic out-let at his young apprentice: “Go there!”. I think it’s a most beautiful piece of music, and it illustrates perfectly what I like so much about Benjamin Britten – his attentive depiction of atmospheres. Another example of this, from the same opera, may be seen here:
This is Jon Vickers, probably the most famous portrayer of Peter Grimes, in Peter Grimes “madness”-scene. The borough really is shouting “Grimes!” in the distance at this point in the opera, but as depicted through Britten’s music, in Peter Grimes’s plagued and deranged mind their angry shouts become ghostly moaning, creating a very powerful eerie atmosphere that is backed up by the shrill violins at the beginning of the scene. “Ghosts” is the keyword here, Peter Grimes’s life has become defined by the dead, by the corpses of the little boys that he is accused of murdering, and he dreams in vain of “[turning] the skies back/and begin again.” Absolutely unnerving, but brilliantly so. Peter Grimes remains one of my favourite operas.
We really have had a lot of storms in Denmark this March, and I hope we’re through with it by now. I agree with Benjamin Britten’s depiction of our mortality through the raging of the elements, but that doesn’t mean that I find it to be particularly pleasant. 😉
March has been a rollercoaster-ride here in Copenhagen this year – it is warm and sunny now that we’re approaching April, but for most of the month the weather has been changing a lot, from bright, warm sunshine to storms and sleet, and more than once I’ve been tempted by a sunshiny morning to slip on my ballerina flats when heading off to the library or the university, only to fight my way back home later that day in a storm, with cold, wet feet and scolding myself for not having had the sense to wear my Uggs. Perhaps this is how I caught the cold I’m reluctantly sporting at the moment, I don’t know, but fact remains that I have caught one, and I have suffered from a case of sore throat for three days.
That’s what March is to me; it’s the month where you catch a terrible cold, because you’ve gone out wearing too little clothes, beckoned by the deceitful early signs of Spring. As such, the month reminds me of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther!
Young Werther meets Lotte for the first time. You know it’s love, I suppose, when it gets your motor running to see the object of affection handing out black bread….
Werther and I go way back, and he’s very special to me. I read the novel with all the passion and ardour of youth when I was a teenager and took an instant liking to the passionate, ardent protagonist because he reminded me of my then-boyfriend, an equally passionate, ardent young man, who even took to affectionately calling me “Lotte” for a while, and I wrote my very first university paper on the novel, bearing the pompous title: “Escapism as a Theme in The Sorrows of Young Werther”, and given that the paper was written with all the ardour and passion of youth, I hope I’ll never, ever have to read it again. *cringe*
But that’s an important part of the appeal of Werther, I think, and part of what makes it so special: It’s a literary study of that Spring-like stage of our youth where we metaphorically run around like idiots in the rain with way too thin clothes on and willingly subject ourselves to all kinds of dangers and sorrows, because we are not ready to accept the fact that life, well, just kind of sucks most of the time. In my previous post, about Per Fly’s TV-series Forestillinger, I mentioned the literary tradition of the Tristan-figure, and how Werther may be said to be such a figure: He is, in a sense, courtly love gone awry. Instead of accepting the fact that his adored Lotte is unobtainable and let his platonic love and yearning for her cultivate him, he refuses to accept such a thing, refuses to accept that the world might be anything less than perfect, and lets his love and yearning for Lotte break him down.
The paragraph I’d like to quote does not take place in March, but it certainly nails that March atmosphere, right down to the bad, changeable weather. Being an epistolary novel that ends with the correspondent’s death, the fatality of the protagonist’s state of mind can be said to be perceivable through the lack of his letters (the last part of the novel is defined by such a lack: Werther has become to distraught for writing and the accounts of his last hours is left to the fictitious editor), and significantly, Werther has neglected his correspondence for a while at this point in the novel, which describes his fatal first meeting with Lotte. I found the translation on online-literature.com, and I hope I’m not violating any copyrights by quoting from it here. If I am, let me know and I will of course remove it immediately. But for now, treat yourselves to some youthful passion and ardour! (Ooh, and take care to notice that wonderfully over-the-top climax of the esoteric “Klopstock!”-exclamation. I imagine that this is just about the 18th century equivalent of wearing a t-shirt with an obscure movie quote on it, and then have somebody recognising the quote and then tell that person that “OMG, you, like, totally get me!” and then take that person to the local indie coffee house and talk for, like, hours.)
“Why do I not write to you?” You lay claim to learning, and ask such a question. You should have guessed that I am well — that is to say — in a word, I have made an acquaintance who has won my heart: I have — I know not. To give you a regular account of the manner in which I have become acquainted with the most amiable of women would be a difficult task. I am a happy and contented mortal, but a poor historian.
An angel! Nonsense! Everybody so describes his mistress; and yet I find it impossible to tell you how perfect she is, or why she is so perfect: suffice it to say she has captivated all my senses.
So much simplicity with so much understauding — so mild, and yet so resolute — a mind so placid, and a life so active. But all this is ugly balderdash, which expresses not a single character nor feature. Some other time — but no, not some other time, now, this very instant, will I tell you all about it. Now or never. Well, between ourselves, since I commenced my letter, I have been three times on the point of throwing down my pen, of ordering my horse, and riding out. And yet I vowed this morning that I would not ride to-day, and yet every moment I am rushing to the window to see how high the sun is.
I could not restrain myself — go to her I must. I have just returned, Wilhelm; and whilst I am taking supper I will write to you. What a delight it was for my soul to see her in the midst of her dear, beautiful children, — eight brothers and sisters!
But, if I proceed thus, you will be no wiser at the end of my letter than you were at the beginning. Attend, then, and I will compel myself to give you the details.I mentioned to you the other day that I had become acquainted with S–, the district judge, and that he had invited me to go and visit him in his retirement, or rather in his little kingdom. But I neglected going, and perhaps should never have gone, if chance had not discovered to me the treasure which lay concealed in that retired spot. Some of our young people had proposed giving a ball in the country, at which I consented to be present. I offered my hand for the evening to a pretty and agreeable, but rather commonplace, sort of girl from the immediate neighbourhood; and it was agreed that I should engage a carriage, and call upon Charlotte, with my partner and her aunt, to convey them to the ball. My companion informed me, as we drove along through the park to the hunting-lodge, that I should make the acquaintance of a very charming young lady. “Take care,” added the aunt, “that you do not lose your heart.” “Why?” said I. “Because she is already engaged to a very worthy man,” she replied, “who is gone to settle his affairs upon the death of his father, and will succeed to a very considerable inheritance.” This information possessed no interest for me. When we arrived at the gate, the sun was setting behind the tops of the mountains. The atmosphere was heavy; and the ladies expressed their fears of an approaching storm, as masses of low black clouds were gathering in the horizon. I relieved their anxieties by pretending to be weather-wise, although I myself had some apprehensions lest our pleasure should be interrupted.
I alighted; and a maid came to the door, and requested us to wait a moment for her mistress. I walked across the court to a well-built house, and, ascending the flight of steps in front, opened the door, and saw before me the most charming spectacle I had ever witnessed. Six children, from eleven to two years old, were running about the hall, and surrounding a lady of middle height, with a lovely figure, dressed in a robe of simple white, trimmed with pink ribbons. She was holding a rye loaf in her hand, and was cutting slices for the little ones all around, in proportion to their age and appetite. She performed her task in a graceful and affectionate manner; each claimant awaiting his turn with outstretched hands, and boisterously shouting his thanks. Some of them ran away at once, to enjoy their evening meal; whilst others, of a gentler disposition, retired to the courtyard to see the strangers, and to survey the carriage in which their Charlotte was to drive away. “Pray forgive me for giving you the trouble to come for me, and for keeping the ladies waiting: but dressing, and arranging some household duties before I leave, had made me forget my children’s supper; and they do not like to take it from any one but me.” I uttered some indifferent compliment: but my whole soul was absorbed by her air, her voice, her manner; and I had scarcely recovered myself when she ran into her room to fetch her gloves and fan. The young ones threw inquiring glances at me from a distance; whilst I approached the youngest, a most delicious little creature. He drew back; and Charlotte, entering at the very moment, said, “Louis, shake hands with your cousin.” The little fellow obeyed willingly; and I could not resist giving him a hearty kiss, notwithstanding his rather dirty face. “Cousin,” said I to Charlotte, as I handed her down, “do you think I deserve the happiness of being related to you?” She replied, with a ready smile, “Oh! I have such a number of cousins, that I should be sorry if you were the most undeserving of them.” In taking leave, she desired her next sister, Sophy, a girl about eleven years old, to take great care of the children, and to say good-bye to papa for her when he came home from his ride. She enjoined to the little ones to obey their sister Sophy as they would herself, upon which some promised that they would; but a little fair-haired girl, about six years old, looked discontented, and said, “But Sophy is not you, Charlotte; and we like you best.” The two eldest boys had clambered up the carriage; and, at my request, she permitted them to accompany us a little way through the forest, upon their promising to sit very still, and hold fast.
We were hardly seated, and the ladies had scarcely exchanged compliments, making the usual remarks upon each other’s dress, and upon the company they expected to meet, when Charlotte stopped the carriage, and made her brothers get down. They insisted upon kissing her hands once more; which the eldest did with all the tenderness of a youth of fifteen, but the other in a lighter and more careless manner. She desired them again to give her love to the children, and we drove off.(…)
The two Messrs. Andran and a certain N. N. (I cannot trouble myself with the names), who were the aunt’s and Charlotte’s partners, received us at the carriage-door, and took possession of their ladies, whilst I followed with mine. We commenced with a minuet. I led out one lady after another, and precisely those who were the most disagreeable could not bring themselves to leave off. Charlotte and her partner began an English country dance, and you must imagine my delight when it was their turn to dance the figure with us. You should see Charlotte dance. She dances with her whole heart and soul: her figure is all harmony, elegance, and grace, as if she were conscious of nothing else, and had no other thought or feeling; and, doubtless, for the moment, every other sensation is extinct.
We set off, and, at first, delighted ourselves with the usual graceful motions of the arms. With what grace, with what ease, she moved! When the waltz commenced, and the dancers whirled around each other in the giddy maze, there was some confusion, owing to the incapacity of some of the dancers. We judiciously remained still, allowing the others to weary themselves; and, when the awkward dancers had withdrawn, we joined in, and kept it up famously together with one other couple, — Andran and his partner. Never did I dance more lightly. I felt myself more than mortal, holding this loveliest of creatures in my arms, flying, with her as rapidly as the wind, till I lost sight of every other object; and O Wilhelm, I vowed at that moment, that a maiden whom I loved, or for whom I felt the slightest attachment, never, never should waltz with any one else but with me, if I went to perdition for it! — you will understand this.We took a few turns in the room to recover our breath. Charlotte sat down, and felt refreshed by partaking of some oranges which I had had secured, — the only ones that had been left; but at every slice which, from politeness, she offered to her neighbours, I felt as though a dagger went through my heart.
We were the second couple in the third country dance. As we were going down (and Heaven knows with what ecstasy I gazed at her arms and eyes, beaming with the sweetest feeling of pure and genuine enjoyment), we passed a lady whom I had noticed for her charming expression of countenance; although she was no longer young. She looked at
Charlotte with a smile, then, holding up her finger in a threatening attitude, repeated twice in a very significant tone of voice the name of “Albert.”
“Who is Albert,” said I to Charlotte, “if it is not impertinent to ask?” She was about to answer, when we were obliged to separate, in order to execute a figure in the dance; and, as we crossed over again in front of each other, I perceived she looked somewhat pensive. “Why need I conceal it from you?” she said, as she gave me her hand for the promenade. “Albert is a worthy man, to whom I am engaged.” Now, there was nothing new to me in this (for the girls had told me of it on the way); but it was so far new that I had not thought of it in connection with her whom, in so short a time, I had learned to prize so highly. Enough, I became confused, got out in the figure, and occasioned general confusion; so that it required all Charlotte’s presence of mind to set me right by pulling and pushing me into my proper place.
The dance was not yet finished when the lightning which had for some time been seen in the horizon, and which I had asserted to proceed entirely from heat, grew more violent; and the thunder was heard above the music. When any distress or terror surprises us in the midst of our amusements, it naturally makes a deeper impression than at other times, either because the contrast makes us more keenly susceptible, or rather perhaps because our senses are then more open to impressions, and the shock is consequently stronger. To this cause I must ascribe the fright and shrieks of the ladies. One sagaciously sat down in a corner with her back to the window, and held her fingers to her ears; a second knelt down before her, and hid her face in her lap; a third threw herself between them, and embraced her sister with a thousand tears; some insisted on going home; others, unconscious of their actions, wanted sufficient presence of mind to repress the impertinence of their young partners, who sought to direct to themselves those sighs which the lips of our agitated beauties intended for heaven. Some of the gentlemen had gone down-stairs to smoke a quiet cigar, and the rest of the company gladly embraced a happy suggestion of the hostess to retire into another room which was provided with shutters and curtains. We had hardly got there, when Charlotte placed the chairs in a circle; and, when the company had sat down in compliance with her request, she forthwith proposed a round game.
I noticed some of the company prepare their mouths and draw themselves up at the prospect of some agreeable forfeit. “Let us play at counting,” said Charlotte. “Now, pay attention: I shall go round the circle from right to left; and each person is to count, one after the other, the number that comes to him, and must count fast; whoever stops or mistakes is to have a box on the ear, and so on, till we have counted a thousand.” It was delightful to see the fun. She went round the circle with upraised arm. “One,” said the first; “two,” the second; “three,” the third; and so on, till Charlotte went faster and faster. One made a mistake, instantly a box on the ear; and, amid the laughter that ensued, came another box; and so on, faster and faster. I myself came in for two. I fancied they were harder than the rest, and felt quite delighted. A general laughter and confusion put an end to the game long before we had counted as far as a thousand. The party broke up into little separate knots: the storm had ceased, and I followed Charlotte into the ballroom. On the way she said, “The game banished their fears of the storm.” I could make no reply. “I myself,” she continued, “was as much frightened as any of them; but by affecting courage, to keep up the spirits of the others, I forgot my apprehensions.” We went to the window. It was still thundering at a distance: a soft rain was pouring down over the country, and filled the air around us with delicious odours. Charlotte leaned forward on her arm; her eyes wandered over the scene; she raised them to the sky, and then turned them upon me; they were moistened with tears; she placed her hand on mine and said, “Klopstock!” at once I remembered the magnificent ode which was in her thoughts: I felt oppressed with the weight of my sensations, and sank under them. It was more than I could bear. I bent over her hand, kissed it in a stream of delicious tears, and again looked up to her eyes. Divine Klopstock! why didst thou not see thy apotheosis in those eyes? And thy name so often profaned, would that I never heard it repeated!”
Denmark is witnessing a dramatic struggle between winter and spring these days. Stormy weather, abrupt changes from sun to hard rain. But no doubt about it – spring is here.
And my house is full of flowers. Pie!