Archive for April, 2009
Dandelion Wine (1957)
Ray Bradbury (William Morrow, 2006)
281 p. First reading.
When I was five or six years old I was riding in the car one day with my parents. I remember that I was standing in the back seat, leaning over the seat-back between them. (This was in the days before mandatory seat-belt laws.) We were talking about something or other, and my father said, in passing, “When I was a boy…”. I remember that I began to laugh at him — he was always joking around. “You were never a boy!” I cried, giggling at the absurdity of it. The idea was really funny. At this, I distinctly recall that they both began laughing, but it was a peculiar kind of laugh: they were laughing at one another, around me, not with me. It was a grown-up sort of laugh, and I began to suspect that there might after all be something to what my dad has said. But what?
The memory of this episode is among the most vivid of my childhood; I was delighted to find it represented within the pages of Dandelion Wine. Nor was this the only point on which Bradbury rang the bell of boyhood memory truly. The book is a superb evocation of childhood, with its surprises, unguessed wonders, and adventures. It is the summer of 1928, and young Douglas Spaulding, twelve years old, resident of Green Hill, Illinois, has discovered that he is alive, and is determined to live this summer with his eyes, ears, and heart wide open. His story is told through a series of short episodes, interweaved with glimpses into the lives of other residents of his small town.
What I admired most about the book was Bradbury’s success at capturing the special qualities of childhood: the immediacy of experience, the sense of the world full of possibility, the tireless play through long summer days, the hot nights under stars, the sheer alertness of the mind and senses. I was reminded of Chesterton’s observation, from his autobiography, that childhood is “…like a hundred windows opened on all sides of the head.” Bradbury has thrown those windows open and let the summer air, filled with the warmness of clover breath and the buzzing of bees, blow through his pages.
There is more to the book than summer idylls. There are some dark corners here and there, in this town as in any other. Douglas not only discovers that he is alive, but also that he will one day die. But this only makes each day more precious, and Douglas more alert and alive, treasuring up memories like summer’s yield of dandelion wine: “The words were summer on the tongue. The wine was summer caught and stoppered.”
My thanks to Janet for recommending this book to me.
A number of people have written to inquire about the names we have given to our daughter: Iona Maria Scholastica Barthos Burrell. Where do they come from? How are they pronounced? What in tarnation?! Since I don’t have time to respond to everyone, this post briefly addresses these and related questions.
Iona: Iona (pronounced “eye-OH-nah”) turns out to have a fairly rich set of associations. It is, among other things, the name of a resort island in Greece, the name of a village on Cape Breton Island, and Iona Nigrovittata is the name of a species of spider from Tonga. (Thank goodness we did not choose “Nigrovittata” as her middle name.) In Hebrew the feminine noun HNWY, transliterated yownah, means “dove”, which is surely a happy connection.
More to the point, Iona is a feminine name of Scottish provenance. Its popularity tanked on these shores in the 1930s, but it has remained popular in the land of kilt and haggis. We have some Scottish heritage in our backgrounds. It is an old name, ultimately derived from the Isle of Iona in the Scottish Hebrides, site of the famous Iona Abbey and an important pilgrimage destination for many generations of medieval Europeans.
Several years ago my wife and I spent a few days on Iona. Afterwards I wrote a rather melancholy reflection on that experience, more or less in sadness for the passing of the long Catholic tradition of prayer and devotion centered there. Naming our daughter after the island is, in part, our way of marking our love for old Iona and its place in our history. We hope that our daughter will one day have the opportunity to visit the island herself.
Maria: Maria is a variation on “Mary”, the name of the mother of Jesus. You may have heard of her. She is also known by various honorific titles, such as Seat of Wisdom, Gate of Heaven, Tower of Ivory, Ark of the Covenant, Mother of God, Blessed Virgin, Mirror of Justice, Vessel of Honour, Tower of David, Mystical Rose, Morning Star, Queen of Angels, House of Gold, and many others. We thought a simple “Maria” was sufficient.
Scholastica: Not, as some have supposed, a way of burdening our daughter with expectations of scholarly brilliance, this name refers to St. Scholastica, the sixth-century Italian (or, if you prefer, Roman) saint, foundress of a contemplative community, and sister of St. Benedict. Her feast day is February 10. Much of what we know of her is derived from legends, but they are good and memorable legends (found, for instance, in The Golden Legend). This name was originally my idea, and is my way of acknowledging my debt of gratitude to the Benedictines. It is a good, solid, Catholic name, and I hope that it will give Iona a special connection to this strand of our spiritual tradition.
Barthos: Her mother’s maiden name, ultimately of Hungarian origin. It is a variation on “Bartok”, but I don’t believe there is any family relation to the composer.
Burrell: Our family name. It is apparently of Old French origin, borne by craftsmen working with wool (“bovre”). The oldest occurance of the name that I have discovered is from the year 1194, in Wiltshire, where it was borne by a certain Roger Burel. It has a relatively short history in our family, having been adopted by my great-grandparents when they emigrated to Canada from Sweden (where their name had been Johnson). The reasons for this abrupt change in surname are not known to me, but I can imagine some colourful possibilities.
So there you have it: Iona Maria Scholastica Barthos Burrell. It has a nice ring to it.
Today is two weeks since the birth of our daughter. She is doing very well. Thank you to everyone who left comments during the last fortnight. I’ve not had time to respond, either here or through e-mail, but rest assured that your well wishes are much appreciated. We’ve been having a great time together, the three of us, but tomorrow I must return to work. I am sorry that this “honeymoon period” is coming to an end, for I have thoroughly enjoyed spending my days, and nights, with her, getting to know her moods, singing her songs, and watching her very expressive face for hours. But of course it had to end eventually. Somebody has to put bacon and bread on the table.
For those who are interested, here are two sets of photographs taken during these last weeks:
I hope that there will be a slow return to something like regular posts around here. I’m doing my best.
We are happy to announce that our daughter, Iona Maria Scholastica Barthos Burrell, was born Tuesday, 7 April 2009, at 10:03 a.m. She weighed 7 lbs 8 oz., and was 19.5 inches long. A healthy baby!
Both she and her mother are doing well. We all returned home from the hospital on Thursday, and Iona is settling in to her new home. It turns out that looking after a newborn is an exhausting job. She ignores the distinction between day and night, eats more meals than a hobbit, and, even when sleeping, has the power to wholly absorb the attention of anyone whose gaze falls on her.
Already we begin to see ways in which she resembles each of her parents. For instance, she takes after her mother insofar as she:
- has cold hands and feet
- dislikes the thought of delayed gratification
- likes to stay up all night
- is a ravishing beauty
She takes after her father insofar as she:
- has a prodigious appetite
- likes to sleep after lunch
- has hair on her ears
- loves to sing (so far only vowels)
Please join us in giving thanks to God for this new life which has already so greatly enriched ours! Your prayers and well wishes are much appreciated.
Have a happy and blessed Easter. Things are likely to be quiet around here for the next little while.
MacMillan: St. John Passion
Christopher Maltman; London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
Sir Colin Davis
(LSO Live; 1.5 h)
The tradition of writing musical settings of the Passion of Christ has its roots deep in the Middle Ages, and came to full flower in Europe during the early eighteenth-century, most eminently in the music of J.S. Bach. Then, for two centuries or more, the genre seems to have fallen out of favour. In the last few decades, however, we have, perhaps unexpectedly, witnessed a revival of the form: in the mid-1960s Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki wrote a St.Luke Passion that boldly combined the traditional form with avant-garde musical techniques; in the 1980s Arvo Pärt wrote a beautiful, contemplative setting of the St.John Passion; the millenium saw a flurry of Passion settings from modern composers Wolfgang Rihm, Tan Dun, Osvaldo Golijov, and Sofia Gubaidulina. Here, with his 2008 St.John Passion, the excellent Scottish composer James MacMillan steps into the ring.
He isn’t shy about throwing his weight around: this is an urgent, thoroughly dramatic telling of the Passion, and he brings the full force of his large orchestra and chorus to bear. Horns blare, timpani rumble, cymbals crash, and the narrative is carried irresistibly forward. He makes use of two choruses: a small, light one in the role of the Evangelist (singing the non-dialogue portions of the text), and a large one in the role of the turba — the crowd.
MacMillan’s text, in English, adheres faithfully to Scripture, beginning at John 18:1 (the arrest of Jesus) and continuing through John 19:30 (the death of Jesus). He has divided the story into eight narrative sections, at the end of each inserting an appropriate Latin prayer for chorus. These interludes are wonderful, the music opening up in glorious meditations on the events of the story. These prayers have been thoughtfully chosen: the section narrating the arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane ends with Christ asking, “Shall I not drink the cup which the Father has given me?” MacMillan continues with a setting of the Eucharistic prayer over the wine: Accipite et manducate ex hoc omnes…. Another example: the section which ends with the words “Peter again denied it; and at once the cock crowed” is followed by a setting of the triumphant Tu es Petrus…. The tender section in which Jesus, hung on the cross and near death, commends his mother to the care of St. John is followed by a few stanzas of the Stabat mater. You get the idea.
The final narrative section, on the death of Jesus, is magnificently and movingly done, and the Passion closes with a ten-minute orchestral epilogue that is fittingly sorrowful and subdued, but grants, at the end, a glimmer of hope: the gentle ringing of bells. It is a superb finish.
This Passion setting has a great deal going for it: ambitious and dramatic writing, and genuine theological insight and piety. On this recording it is sung and played to the highest standards.
It is a pity, therefore, that it is marred by a terrible flaw. The problem is the manner in which MacMillan has set the words of Jesus. It is traditional to set Christ’s words in the bass register, signifying his profundity and sovereignty. MacMillan has followed suite, but has written most of the music in the highest part of his singer’s range. And rather than giving Christ simple and direct melodies, he has written florid, jagged vocal lines, most unlovely. The result is that Christ sounds strained and weak, more like a vascillating Pilate than a heavenly king. Baritone Christopher Maltman copes manfully with the demands placed on him, but it is a thankless job. It is a shame — not enough to overwhelm all the wonderful things that MacMillan has accomplished here, and on balance I would still recommend this to those with an interest, but a shame nonetheless.
Silence imposes itself on us inwardly in two ways. It issues from our poverty and it springs from our plenitude. Silence may sometimes be an expression of our poverty. This happens when we realize that we are not yet capable of speaking the word as we should. Jesus was very severe about the useless words a believer might speak thoughtlessly (Matthew 12:36)…
But there is another kind of silence which springs from a fullness within us. . . A moment comes when silence alone can express the extraordinary richness of our heart. Such a silence unfolds a person gently and powerfully and always comes from within. Prayer governs it and teaches us when we should be silent and when we should speak. It is very pure praise and at the same time it radiates outward to others. Such silence never hurts anyone. It establishes a zone of peace and quiet around the one who is silent, where God can be irresistibly felt as present. ‘Keep your heart in peace’ says St. Seraphim of Sarov ‘and a multitude around you will be saved’.
– Andre Louf, The Cistercian Way.
Annie Dillard (HarperCollins, 2007)
224 p. First reading.
It would be churlish to actually hope that someone’s first book fail, yet it is true that initial success, especially when spectacular, can be a kind of curse. When that first burst of sustained applause continues to ring in the ears, nobody can speak about any subsequent book without being distracted by it. Annie Dillard has found herself in that enviable, or unenviable, position for her whole career. Her first book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, won praise from all quarters, and over thirty years later it continues to attract crowds of admiring readers. Justly so, I hasten to add, for it is a wonderful book. Yet it has tended to overshadow her subsequent work, and not always justly so. Her slim meditation Holy the Firm, for instance, and certain essays in her collection Teaching a Stone to Talk, bear comparison with Pilgrim, and even those of her books that suffer in that comparison still compare favourably when set against books by others. She is an immensely talented and interesting writer.
The Maytrees is only her second foray into fiction. The first was The Living in 1993, a tale about the lives of pioneers in the Pacific Northwest of America. That was a solid effort, though I think few would consider it among her best work. With The Maytrees she has surpassed it, creating a story in which the simple story-line becomes a vehicle for a rich reflection on human lives and relationships. It is a love story, of sorts. It is about a marriage, but it is not exactly a paean to the joy of marriage; it is not a romance. It is about that quiet, unspectacular, forgiving love that serves as the only buttress against disaster in lives lived badly.
A major stylistic difference is evident between this book and her previous novel. Whereas The Living was told using the familiar conventions of the nineteenth-century novel, The Maytrees is written in a compressed, austere style that at times seems undecided between being prose or poetry. I am told that her original manuscript was some 1400 pages long, and from that beginning she cut, compressed, and distilled until what remained was the essential core, shorn of all unnecessary ornament. The result is quietly beautiful and deceptively simple, with a lucid surface that conceals depths.
Much of Annie Dillard’s non-fiction has been an effort to interpret the meaning of the natural world, and one presumes that she has lived, as she has helped her readers to live, with an awareness of the natural backdrop against which we “swell, circle, and die”. In The Maytrees she succeeds in bringing that silent, ever-present world into the mental and spiritual world of her story: the sand dunes of Cape Cod and the night sky are unobtrusive but unavoidable presences that break in upon consciousness now and then:
Maytree left town on impulse and headed toward his shack. The planet rolled into its shadow. On the high dune, sky ran down to his ankles. Everything he saw was lower than his socks. Across a long horizon, parabolic dunes cut sky as rogue waves do. The silence of permanence lay on the scene. He found a Cambrian calm as if the world had not yet come; he found a posthumous hush as if humans had gone. He crossed the low swale and climbed a trail his feet felt. He ate a sandwich. Now he knew, but did not believe, she loved him. Her depth he knew when he kissed her. His brain lobes seemed to part like clouds over sun.
If I should ever re-read The Maytrees, and I think I may, it is this aspect, this traffic between our earthen foundations and our heavenly ambitions, on which I will focus my attention.
[Living and learning]
Three days a week she helped at the Manor Nursing Home, where people proved their keenness by reciting received analyses of current events. All the Manor residents watched television day and night, informed to the eyeballs like everyone else and rushed for time, toward what end no one asked. Their cupidity and self-love were no worse than anyone else’s, but their many experiences’ having taught them no little irked Lou. One hated tourists, another southerners; another despised immigrants. Even dying, they still held themselves in highest regard. Lou would have to watch herself. For this way of thinking began to look like human nature — as if each person of two or three billion would spend his last vital drop to sustain his self-importance.