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Compositions

Auden: An American Friendship

by Charles H. Miller
Scribner’s, 180 pp., $14.95

Glenn Gould: Variations

by Himself and His Friends, edited with an introduction by John McGreevy
Doubleday, 319 pp., $24.95

Balthus: Drawings and Watercolors

by Giovanni Carandente
A New York Graphic Society Book/Little, Brown, 120 pp., $29.95

Have the experiences of living together been assembled; for example, the experiences in the monasteries?

—Nietzsche, The Gay Science

This book tells us more about its author than about W.H. Auden. To even the most trivial remarks of the poet, Mr. Miller gives his own reactions in full: “‘Aren’t the fireplaces handsome?’ Wystan enthused, and yes, I thought of the previous century when those fireplaces heated the generous rooms.” Noting that after a certain incident he never again heard Auden mispronounce the word “ate,” Mr. Miller feels it necessary to add: “Though he may have said it outside my hearing.” What did Wystan “get” from him? Mr. Miller asks at one point. And he answers himself: “My offbeat, ‘amiable anarchist’ wisdom, my ability (finally!) to laugh at life.” Lucky Wystan.

What did Charles get from Wystan? Not much in the way of literary inspiration. Abraham Lincoln is described as “that lanky New World Napoleon of emancipation.” On one page Mr. Miller recalls that “we stood in equinoctial sunlight,” and, on another, he refers to an “equinoctal [sic] afternoon”—apparently unaware that these occasions, unlike etesian days and nights, occur only twice a year. Unfortunate, too, are his attempts to spell out Auden’s accent, and the failure to mention the distinctive timbre, intensity, and tessitura of his voice. To this reviewer, in any case, Auden’s speech is not evoked by “deah me,” “I caaahn’t,” “nevah,” “veddy nice,” “nah-sty,” etc.

Miller and Auden met in Ann Arbor in January 1940, during the poet’s lecture-visit to the University of Michigan. In New York one day in the autumn of the same year, Miller attended Auden’s class at the New School and was introduced to Chester Kallman. Returning to Ann Arbor as a faculty member in September 1941, Auden invited Miller to become his cook and housemate, an arrangement that ended with the war, when Miller left to work on a farm. A further meeting took place while Auden was at Swarthmore (1942-1945), and in later years Miller frequently visited Auden in New York. Thus Miller was well placed to observe Auden throughout his American period. Yet the book is stronger on the squalor of his apartments than on the brilliance of their tenant, and the only comment about poetry that the author has chosen to repeat is not Auden’s but Robert Frost’s: “I’m often asked which tower belongs to that poem. But a poem is written about a feeling a poet has in him.”

Miller quotes Auden, “Freud points out, correctly, that a homosexual may be normal in every way, except the sexual…I am normal in most ways,” and this theme, “normal in every way except the sexual,” is repeated as if it were true. But surely Auden’s transcendent intellect cannot be described as “normal,” not to mention his cultural prejudices(“The French, my dear, are hardly white”) and eccentricities of behavior (going to dinner, getting out of the elevator on the wrong floor, ringing the wrong doorbell, being admitted—he was recognized—and asking for and imbibing a martini before departing, apparently unaware that he was the only guest). What may have been most normal about Auden, at least from present perspectives, was precisely his homosexuality, a principal subject of the book and one that apparently fascinated Mr. Miller, who preserves remarks by Chester Kallman on the conspicuous quantity of vaseline kept by his bed, by a homosexual friend from Ann Arbor on transvestite activities in the Auden ménage there, and by Auden himself, horrifyingly, on a trip to the home of his father-in-law in California: “At the Manns’, we took turns screwing a friend on Thomas’s big bed when the family was away.”

The portrait of Chester Kallman is accurate—he “held the coveted key to Wystan as person and poet”—except that Kallman was never self-confident. He did have “pale blue eyes…a large moist mouth…light yellow hair,” and he was “well-fleshed” and smoked “compulsively.” Also, to some, he exuded sex(Auden’s verb). But Mr. Miller does not mention Kallman’s intelligence, sense of humor, and musicality (which was much deeper than Auden’s). On the other hand, Mr. Miller’s portrait of David Protetch, Kallman’s roommate at the University of Michigan and Auden’s physician thereafter, is totally wrong. So far from being “plump with a rosy complexion, a merry face, ever warm with animal joy,” Protetch was tall, not heavy, very dark complexioned, and puffy faced (as a result of illness). He was also suicidal, especially after his marriage( in April 1968), and his death shortly afterward—by fire, evidently while in a diabetic coma—might be compared to that of Sylvia Plath or Ingeborg Bachmann.

The “brevity” of this review is determined by the book’s limitation to a specialized readership. The crucial chapter, “Let’s Write a Symphony,” and important points throughout will make little sense to musical dyslexics: Mr. Burgess gives some sixty-five examples in music type. Yet the essay on Hopkins contains helpful guides to “The Wreck of the Deutschland” and “The Windhover,” the one on Joyce offers new discoveries in Finnegans Wake, and that on Eliot should be read if only for the perceptive digression on Lorenz Hart.

The transcription of the rhythms of poetry and prose into musical notations is the unifying subject of the book, and Mr. Burgess’s ability to fit individual lines to notes, with or without pitches, is remarkable. His setting of Pope’s heroic couplet on “the proper study of mankind,” for example, would be difficult to improve upon in both rhythm and melodic style. So,too, the rewriting in note-values of the jazz rhythm of “Some men don’t and some men do” (“Sweeney Agonistes”) is an admirable illustration of the theory that “an honest musical setting of speech…fights against regularity of accent.” In the discussion of “The Windhover”—which includes a convincing explication of the word “buckle”(Empson’s seventh type)—Mr. Burgess observes that

The meaning does not yield itself until we fully understand the distribution of stress and pause, and the variations in tempo enforced by the syllabic patterning. Ultimately the poem cannot be appreciated at all without a skilled performance…or a mode of notation which…indicates precisely what sonic patterns we are meant to hear.

Mr. Burgess bravely offers his interpretation in musical notation of the rhythms of the sestet in “The Windhover,” and the result, though stiff and foursquare, must be applauded for ingenuity in relating rhythmic patterns, and for the imaginative application of the musical sign for an appoggiatura to indicate Hopkins’s slack syllables:

Times told lovelier

The weakness of the Burgess version is that the stresses, particularly in the rhymed endings, are too long.

To turn from Mr. Burgess’s acute discussions of verbal music in the latter part of the book to his naive account of writing a symphony near the beginning is to experience a jolt. He does not think in music but in programmatic terms, for all his protestations to the contrary and his definition of music as “a non-referent” language. He describes one passage in his symphony as “an attempt to avoid a serious meditation on death in battle.” But what could be the difficulty in “attempting to avoid” writing anything? This statement is followed with a music example in which he calls attention to “the tendency to avoid the major third.” Yet this interval is the melodic peak of the excerpt, and, though used only once, it confirms that “the theme is in, as it seems to be, E flat major.” Mr. Burgess goes on: “We do not want, these days, the unambiguous blatancy of such modal assertion: the major third seems vulgar.” The theme, which might have been composed by a first-year conservatory student forty years ago, makes the pomposity of the added comment, and the triviality of the point, embarrassing. And in truth, almost all of the music in the examples is characterized by dull diatonic tunes, rhythmic poverty, flatfooted parallel chords, and numbing sequences. Finally, one of the musical quotations, said to be “a bitonal canon,” is neither canonic nor tonal (letaione a combination of two tonalities).

A subsequent chapter, “Music and Meaning,” contains several pronouncements of a fatuity scarcely believable from the author of a great popular biography of Shakespeare. “Behind all music of an instrumental nature lies the dance,” Mr. Burgess writes, forgetting the countless arias for instruments in Mozart’s concertos and serenades, and leaving us to imagine what kind of dance is behind the Tristan Prelude. The oboe solo in the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth “must have a private significance,” Mr. Burgess argues, because it breaks “the consistent rhythm of a public utterance.” But the oboe cadenza, as public a part of the symphony as any other, is obviously no more than a calculated, necessary interruption of the rhythmic overdrive.

I used to suspect Anthony Burgess of trying to employ more obscure words per line than any other writer and of experiencing his greatest satisfaction when introducing a term that absolutely nobody understands. Reading in this new book that he attributes Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “choice of little-known words” to a “concern with exactness of expression,” I felt that I had been uncharitable to Mr. Burgess—until I came across the sentence: “I never learned to sound a note…that was not, as they say, vaccicidal.” Who, may I ask, says “vaccicidal”?

This memorial volume’s most revealing contributions on Glenn Gould the person and performer are by those who knew him as a fellow student or through a lengthy professional collaboration—respectively John Beckwith (“Shattering a Few Myths”) and John Roberts (“Reminiscences”). For the rest, Curtis Davis’s interview captures some of the originality and quickness of Gould’s musical mind and at the same time displays his articulateness to advantage. Gould on his own, especially in the interview with himself but also in two of his other texts, is self-indulgent and, worse, cute. Some of his metaphors, moreover, are inapt: “A series of small islands overlap with one another like a crossword puzzle and protect Toronto Bay.” (Overlap? Protect? With what does the crossword puzzle overlap? Can islands overlap without becoming something else?)

The editor should have caught this and such other bloopers as Yehudi Menuhin’s “Schoenberg is not amongst the 20th-century composers for whose music I have an immediate and irresistible appeal.” But Mr. McGreevy is not responsible for the book’s chief handicaps, first, the inevitable repetition in the descriptions of Gould’s oddities of dress and deportment, and second, the absence of any reference to the woman with whom he had an intimate relationship in later years. The second, though unmentionable, challenges the whole concept of his personality, as set forth, for example, in William Littler’s “The Quest for Solitude” and in the essay by Richard Kostelanetz who writes that: “His major exclusion…appears to be intimate personal relationships; he lives with no one, never has…and probably never will.” Another, lesser shortcoming is that almost all of the authors adopt Gould’s own reasons in defense of his early retirement as a concertizing pianist. The exception, Judith Pearlman, a co-producer of one of Gould’s radio documentaries, believes that Gould “had robbed the world…of one of the rarest gifts any interpreter can offer, that of direct public communication at the highest level.” Clearly Gould was temperamentally unsuited to the concert platform. Within a very short time of his sudden celebrityhood (in the mid-1950s), the best-known quip about him was Goddard Lieberson’s: “available for a limited number of cancellations.”

The chapter by John Beckwith, a fellow pupil of the Chilean-Canadian pianist Alberto Guerrero, identifies both the foundations and the props of Gould’s world with his musical upbringing:

Guerrero and Gould had an unusually close teacher-student relationship spanning the decade between Glenn’s tenth and twentieth years….

Guerrero…sat lower in relation to the keyboard and played with flatter fingers than most players; his performances [had]…exceptional clarity and separation of individual notes…. Virtually no hand-action was applied—the fingers did it all….

Gould’s physical appearance at the keyboard was in my view more like Guerrero’s than was any other pupil’s—the finger-angle very similar, the low-seated position similar too….

The Bach keyboard repertoire was in many ways the core of Guerrero’s work and must be accorded a similar centrality in Gould’s….

I myself was encouraged to learn the Goldberg Variations partly by Guerrero….[Gould’s] decision to learn this piece [was] no doubt [influenced by Guerrero]. Guerrero himself knew the Variations intimately and had performed them in Toronto in the 1930s….

Gould’s enthusiasm for Schoenberg derived in part from Guerrero’s. Guerrero had performed the Opus 11 and Opus 19 pieces on several occasions….

It was…Guerrero who advocated soaking the hands in hot water before a performance….

Gradually…they had a fallingout…. Guerrero disliked to watch the “platform antics,” as he called them…. [Later, Gould] found he could refer to Guerrero only anonymously, or else not at all….

From John Robert’s “Reminiscences” I—the first person is unavoidable—was flattered to learn that Gould had chosen me to conduct his recording of Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto (January 1961). I will spare the reader my impressions of Gould at that time, but I am obliged to amplify Mr. Robert’s Toronto-confined account of the relationship between Gould and Stravinsky. After agreeing to conduct his Oedipus Rex at the Vienna Staatsoper in November 1958, the composer was invited to give an orchestral program during the same visit. When it was discovered that Gould had been engaged to play the Schoenberg concerto with the same orchestra on Stravinsky’s only free date, Stravinsky proposed that Gould become his soloist. But Stravinsky decided he could not conduct the Schoenberg concerto (after studying the score), and Gould declined to play Stravinsky’s Capriccio (without looking at it), which was also on the program. Eventually Gould canceled. (He was bedridden in a Hamburg hotel for a month, and during a few days of it I happened to be in the next room; he telephoned several times to sing the Schoenberg concerto to me, but also, I think, because he was lonely, at least for talk.)

Stravinsky and Gould were introduced (yes, Gould shook hands) by Leonard Bernstein at the taping of a New York Philharmonic telecast in January 1960: the composer and the pianist were Bernstein’s guest performers. They next saw each other when Gould had breakfast with Stravinsky at his hotel in Toronto two years later. Thereafter, Gould attended many of Stravinsky’s Toronto recording sessions, and one of their meetings can be seen on film. Stravinsky liked Gould—thought him remarkably handsome—and admired both the technique and the intensity of his playing.

None of the other friends of Gould represented in this book can have looked after him with more devotion than John Roberts. He recalls that at their last meeting Gould as “exhausted,” and the book’s late photographs confirm, disturbingly, to what extent this was true. Gould apparently aged overnight, like Dorian Gray. (The face on page 296 is scarcely recognizable from the portraits of even a few years earlier.) On the occasion that Mr. Roberts specifies, he correctly divined that Gould was silently singing one of Strauss’s Four Last Songs. Months later, Roberts remembered its last words, Eichendorf’s

We sense the night’s soft breath
Now we are tired, how tired!
Can this perhaps be death?

A long review of any book on Balthus would be premature, for although the Balthus boom has grown by several decibels with the Metropolitan Museum’s acquisition of The Mountain (1937), the forthcoming retrospectives there and at the Beaubourg will no doubt engender a whole shelf of new studies.

Balthus has not been advantageously represented by exhibitions limited to his oil paintings: the 1958 and 1961 Turin shows, three of the four at the Pierre Matisse Gallery (1938, 1957, 1962), even the “Exposition Balthus” in the Louvre in May 1966. Fortunately the same cannot be said of the crucial 1956 exhibition when he shared the Museum of Modern Art with Jackson Pollock, a tortoise-and-hare race of mid-twentieth-century art that is still being run. But the Museum of Modern Art’s side-by-side display of paintings and drawings cannot have pleased the artist, whose notorious indifference to his drawings has not helped to promote them. (One of the portraits of Antonin Artaud was offered for sale in New York in November 1983 for as little as $15,000.) Nevertheless, some of the paintings are better understood when seen together with their preliminary drawings, even when these are finished works in themselves.

Similarly, the most popular publications about the artist either exclude the drawings, as in the monograph by Stanislas Klossowski de Rola, Balthus’s elder son, or, Jean Leymarie’s option, separate them, as if they were a mere sideshow to the development of the easel painter.* Neither volume is entirely satisfactory. Despite the publisher’s claim, Stanislas Klossowski de Rola does not provide “a unique insight into the true aim and meaning of his father’s work,” but, rather, adds to the mystification. Leymarie, though indispensable as a source of information, lacks a critical point of view, which may account for his choosing to open his book with the 1933 version of La Rue. (The superior 1929 version, it may be worth nothing, belonged to Marcel Duchamp.)

Professor Carandente gets off to a bad start even sooner than M. Leymarie, thanks to someone’s selection of Three Apples and a Quince for the cover. Like most of Balthus’s fruit and flower compositions, this one is sweet, pretty, academic, and not so much a still life as lifeless. True, Carandente makes important comparisons, e.g., that in Balthus’s portraits, as in Marino Marini’s sculpted ones, “likeness is a completely secondary consideration.” But the professor is overenthusiastic in rating Courbet, Cézanne, Seurat, and Picasso as “among the few names in modern art which can be placed in the same class.” Moreover, Carandente takes Balthus on his own terms: “Balthus considers the eroticism in his work to be sacred and for this reason he likes it to be neither publicized nor commented on.” Amen. But the viewer is not concerned with Balthus’s personal relationship with this eroticism, and whether or not he may be a kind of Lewis Carroll of painters. No matter how remarkable Balthus’s best portraits and landscapes are, his pictures of nude young girls, with legs spread, are even more so because of the dramatic overtones—Camus saw many of the supine ones as “victims”—or active drama, as when the pictures include predatory presences such as the dwarf in the mysterious and terrifying The Room.

The chief novelty of the new book is in Balthus’s work as scenographer, though the three graphite and India ink stage designs for Artaud’s The Cenci, and the two watercolors, a stage design and a costume sketch, for Così fan tutte, are insufficient for us to imagine what Balthus, might have accomplished in theater design. The Cenci set (1935) seems to owe something to decors from Bibbiena to Berman (in whom, of course, the debt would be the other way around). Professor Carandente rhapsodizes over the “Parthenopean vista” for Cosi fan tutte, but to this opera-goer the view is like many others.

The Balthus question today centers on the two-dimensionality of his late (from about 1964) painting: Are the canvases and watercolors after he renounced the perspective of depth as powerful as earlier ones? Considered as a portrait, the Turkish Room (1966) is virtually an icon, since the background appears to be on the same optic level as the subject. Theoretically the merging into space should make the figure “timeless,” though only time will tell. Balthus’s admirers are divided over the later work, but perhaps they should look more closely at such early pictures as Place de l’Odéon, in which scarcely any attempt is made to stimulate the third dimension. But Balthus might be flirting with the fourth, as his son’s references to mystics and alchemists seem to hint.

If the letters to Juliet Duff—the first of Maugham’s correspondence to be published—are representative, perhaps his most entertaining book is yet to come. Here, for instance, is an excerpt from his explanation of the mechanics of the matriarchal system in the State of Travancore:

Inheritance is through the female…. The Maharajah…should he marry, would not produce an heir. His heir is his sister’s child, and his children would not even belong to the royal family… The father of the future Maharajah…does not live with his wife the princess, but in a separate establishment; the princess sends for him when she wants a bit of nonsense….

Maugham spent World War II in the United States, sending the book’s most surprising letters from Hollywood, New York, Oyster Bay, and a plantation near Charleston. Reminding Lady Juliet that “I am a writer and it is my instinct to put myself in other people’s shoes,” he sides with the Americans against the “many English people over here [who] seem to go out of their way to make themselves offensive,” a statement provoked by the antics of Sir Thomas Beecham. Aldous Huxley, Gerald Heard, and Christopher Isherwood are the exceptions, their only fault being that “they’re all very busy with their soul’s welfare and can’t spare much time for social intercourse.” But Maugham did not linger in Los Angeles, having already resolved in the late 1930s to do no more work with “pictures,” though “gosh, I wish they would not offer me so much money.”

Loren Rothschild provides candid notes—as in the reference to Rosamond Lehmann and C. Day Lewis as “lovers”—and a divertingly anecdotal account of the background. Lady Juliet, like her mother, the Marchioness of Ripon, Diaghilev’s chief London patroness, spoke fluent Russian. Lady Juliet’s English, one might add, did not exclude some of the expressions of a navvy. Thus, when walking with her in her garden, Maugham mistook Queen Olga of Wurtenburg roses for the Queen Hortense variety, she ridiculed him as a “silly old bugger.”

  1. *

    Stanislas Klossowski de Rola, Balthus (Harper and Row, 1983); Jean Leymarie, Balthus (Rizzoli International, 1979).

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