Archive for December, 2022

Favourites of 2022: Music

December 30, 2022

Of all the many recordings I listened to this year, my ten particular favourites were, in no particular order (though with my “record of the year” at the end):


Busoni: Bach Transcriptions
Holger Groschopp
(Capriccio, 2014)

I have a weakness for transcriptions of Bach’s music. There’s a little cottage industry devoted to making them, and they range from the dubious to the delightful. Some years ago Hyperion did an entire series devoted to transcriptions for piano, and they are terrific. One composer, though, made so many piano transcriptions of Bach that he has the honour of actually having his name married to that of the great man. I refer, of course, to Bach-Busoni. Maybe the best known of his transcriptions is that of the Chaconne, and it is indeed magnificent, but he made many more, and here Holger Groschopp plays two hours’ worth of them. Many are transcribed from the organ; there is a set taken from the Musical Offering; there are chorale transcriptions; and an assortment of other things. All of the music is good, naturally, and it’s nice to hear it on a big, warm piano, and played so beautifully.


Romantic French Arias
Joan Sutherland, L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Richard Bonynge
(Decca, 1970)

A golden oldie from Joan Sutherland. First issued in 1970, I only heard this classic record for the first time this year, and it is a knock-out. Sutherland lets loose her dazzling vocal pyrotechnics in a programme of nearly two hours of French opera that reaches as far back as Charpentier, but is focused on nineteenth-century music: Delibes, Meyerbeer, Bizet, Gounod, Massenet, and Offenbach. Singing doesn’t get any better.

Here is a very brief excerpt from Meyerbeer’s L’Etoile du Nord in which she sings a messa-di-voce trill (in which the dynamics are varied in the pattern piannissimo-fortissimo-pianissimo). Stupendous!


Chamber Music Arrangements
Linos Ensemble
(Capriccio, 2018)

Speaking of adapting music, here is a beautiful set: 8 CDs of orchestral pieces arranged for chamber ensemble. The music dates from around the turn of the twentieth century, give or take a few decades: we get several waltzes of Johann Strauss II, Bruckner’s Symphony No.7, lots of Mahler, healthy doses of the Second Viennese School, and a few pieces by Debussy, Reger, and Zemlinsky. Personally, I usually prefer the intimacy and clarity of chamber music over big orchestral pieces, so these transcriptions, scaled down to fewer than ten musicians, have been very enjoyable for me. They have a certain historical importance, too, as many (all?) of them were made for the Viennese Society for Private Musical Performances founded in 1918 by Schoenberg. Schoenberg himself made several of the transcriptions. Webern’s transcriptions of his own Op.6 Pieces are also here. It’s a delightful collection, full of fascinating details and wonderful music, that has given me many hours of enjoyment.

Here is the arrangement of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, which I think sounds wonderful in this smaller, more transparent setting:


Mozart Momentum 1785
Leif Ove Andsnes, Mahler Chamber Orchestra
(Sony, 2021)

What I love here is the concept: it’s a two-disc set of music that Mozart composed in one calendar year: 1785, when Mozart was in his late-20s. (There is a companion set that focuses on 1786 as well.) He wrote 15 or 20 pieces that year, and 5 of them, suitable for this ensemble to play, are included: we get the famous piano concertos Nos 20-22, the Piano Quartet in G minor, a bit of Masonic funeral music, and the Fantasia in C minor for piano. It’s a nice mix of orchestral music, chamber music, and solo recital, with the piano part taken by Andsnes, who also leads the orchestra, just as Mozart would have done. We get a sense for how Mozart changed gears between pieces, or worked on things of quite different character simultaneously. The music is wonderful, of course, and the music-making is fleet, the sound is clear and warm, and it all works together marvellously well.

Here they are playing the final movement of the Piano Concerto No.21:


Shostakovich: Symphonies 1, 5, 6, 8, 10, 15
Kurt Sanderling, Berlin Symphony Orchestra
(Berlin Classics, 2006)

I embarked on a major Shostakovich symphony voyage this year, and of all the recordings I heard, this is the set that stood out to me. Kurt Sanderling and the Berlin Symphony Orchestra play fewer than half of the symphonies, whether for contractual or artistic reasons I do not know, but they are magnificent. Shostakovich’s music can be emotionally ambiguous — is this real feeling, or sarcasm? — but Sanderling goes straight to the heart, choosing to bring out the qualities of darkness, brooding menace, and, when appropriate, ferocity. The symphonies sound big and bad, in the best sense. It’s music-making to haunt your dreams.

If you have the time, here is the whole of Symphony No.5:


A Meditation: St. John Henry Newman
The Sixteen, Harry Christophers
(Coro, 2022)

John Henry Newman was canonized in 2019, and here the great British choir The Sixteen gives us a meditation on his spiritual legacy and ongoing influence. The disc features four new compositions based on texts by St. Newman by Will Todd, Anna Semple, Eoghan Desmond, and James MacMillan. (These latter two set the same text, which gives us a nice opportunity to compare their different approaches to it.) The disc also includes a few older Newman settings of “Leady, Kindly Light” (W.H. Harris) and “Praise to the Holiest” (R.R. Terry), and is filled out with a few classics by Elgar. It’s a truly lovely disc with a pleasing mixture of romantic and modern music, and it does honour to a great man. The singing, as always with The Sixteen, is beyond criticism.


Weinberg: Sonatas for Solo Violin
Gidon Kremer
(ECM New Series, 2022)

It wouldn’t be another year without another outstanding recording of the music of Mieczylsaw Weinberg. Gidon Kremer has emerged as one of his most eminent champions, and on this ECM record he tackles the three sonatas for solo violin. This music has been recorded a number of times in recent years, and I recall that in 2016 I picked Linus Roth’s recording as one of my favourites. My comments about the qualities of the music on that occasion still apply. Not having done side-by-side comparisons of the two, I’ll not venture to make comparisons between Kremer and Roth, but suffice to say that this newcomer is excellent in every respect, and maybe has the edge sonically. The ongoing rediscovery of Weinberg’s music is one of the most cheering subplots in the world of classical music today!


Sisask: Gloria Patri
Chamber Choir Eesti, Anne-Liis Treimann
(Finlandia, 1994)

Urmas Sisask is an Estonian composer, still active, whose music I had heard in bits and pieces over the years, but whom this year I began to explore in earnest. The jewel from those explorations is his Gloria Patri…, a collection of 24 choral pieces on sacred texts. There’s are Marian hymns (Ave Maria, Ave Regina Caelorum, O Sanctissima), Eucharistic hymns (O salutaris hostia, Ave verum corpus), almost an entire Mass (only the Gloria is missing), and a variety of other things, even a Stabat mater! It’s a cornucopia, and the music is glorious. Sisask is of a younger generation than Arvo Part, and I think I can hear the latter’s influence in the crystalline textures and directness of expression, though the music is Sisask’s own. It is unfailingly lovely. A real discovery. The disc is filled out by Sisask’s large-scale (35 minute!) setting of the Magnificat, which is equally splendid.


Josquin’s Legacy
The Gesualdo Six, Owain Park
(Hyperion, 2021)

At the start of 2022, it had been some years since I’d been to a concert, not just because of the Covid-related matters, but because, you know, babysitters and all that, but this year my wife and I ventured out to hear the Gesualdo Six when they visited our parish. What a great evening it was! The first piece was sung from the back of the church, and I’ll not soon forget that first chord, so perfectly tuned, that made the hair on my neck stand up. And the rest of the night was no less fine.

Anyway, the programme that night was not exactly what we find on this disc, but there was a good deal of overlap. The music is structured around a year that Josquin spent at the court of the Duke of Ferrara, one of the musical hubs of Europe at the time. The music was either copied and performed there, or was written there, or was written by composers who spent some time there, or otherwise had some sort of relationship to it. Highlights include Josquin’s lament on the death of Ockeghem, Nymphes de bois, and his lovely Marian motet O virgo prudentissima. Wonderful music, gloriously sung, and a fine souvenir from a memorable evening!


Josquin: In memoria mea
Rebecca Stewart, Cantus Modalis, Seconda Prat!ca
(Carpe Diem, 2021)

Last year (2021) was the Josquin anniversary year, and in last year’s review I highlighted my favourites of the records made to mark that occasion, but here is one that I missed at the time. Rebecca Stewart here leads two ensembles, Cantus Modalis and Seconda Prat!ca (yes, the exclamation mark is part of the name), in a selection of unaccompanied choral music of Josquin, centered around his Missa mater patris. I have praised Rebecca Stewart in the past, when she directed other ensembles, and I am happy to do it again. Here is a musician who brings a highly personal musical vision and sensibility to the music of this period, without any gimmickry. Under her direction, the music has space to breathe, and it develops an intense inwardness, a sense of attention and contemplation. You might think this describes much music of this period, but I’m pointing out that this is something special, not at all standard issue. It’s a treasure, and my favourite of the records I heard this year.

Favourites of 2022: Film

December 28, 2022

Of the films I saw for the first time this year, here are brief remarks on the ten that I most appreciated.


Le rayon vert
(Eric Rohmer, 1986)

One of the goods of film is that it allows us the opportunity to see through another’s eyes, to live someone else’s life for a time, to experience things outside our ordinary ambit. A number of the films on this list are films that are good in this way.

But another, rarer, good, by contrast, is that, once in a while, I myself appear on screen, and I have opportunity to see myself from the outside, and to reflect on the life I am living.

Well, Delphine, c’est moi.

Or, at least, Delphine, c’est moi dans une autre vie. Who knows? Had things not gone so well as they did, maybe I would be as stuck and frustrated and hapless as she is. Her personality and mine overlap a good deal: bookish, reserved, a bit melancholic. We are much alike.

As I watched, I reflected, with a kind of astonishment, that somehow I did not fall into the quagmire in which she is struggling. And what would I have done under those circumstances? No better than her, probably, and perhaps not so well.

In any case, I finished The Green Ray feeling a profound gratitude for my family, who give so much meaning to my life, and who fill it with so much love. Though, considered specifically visually, this is about as subdued and drab as most of Rohmer’s films, it is nonetheless my favourite film of the year.


The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek
(Preston Sturges, 1944)

The proximity of soldiers stirs the hearts of certain young women, and Trudy Kockenlocker — yes, Kockenlocker — is one of those. And so, when a local regiment is preparing to depart overseas, she can’t resist going to the send-off bash. One thing leads to another, as they do, and she wakes next morning wearing a wedding ring, but can’t recall the name of the young man. (Was it Ratzkywatzky, or was it Zitzkywitzky? Something with a ‘z’, she’s pretty sure.)

It’s a wonderful premise for a screwball comedy, and Preston Sturges delivers on the promise. A remarkable thing is that our temporal distance from the film’s creation has only increased its value, for it comes to us from a time when attitudes toward marriage and family were quite different. Rules were stricter, social norms were stronger, expectations were clearer, stakes were higher. Were the same story attempted today it might well end in tragedy, but Preston Sturges finds comedic gold.

There are so many wonderful touches. The screenplay is full of delights.  It rises gradually to a magnificent comic crescendo in the closing quarter-hour. I haven’t laughed so much, nor so well, in a long while. Bravo!


The Northman
(Robert Eggers, 2022)

Full immersion in the Viking world is what Robert Eggers gives us. No modern sensibilities smuggled in. No bromides about liberal values being natural and universal. No traces, either, of Christian compassion or forgiveness. Instead: fate, and honour, and vengeance.

The film, as far as I can tell, is totally consistent to its premises. It begins with the voice of Odin himself, and ends with our Northman, blood-soaked, riding to Valhalla. It’s an approach that allows us to see and experience another world, but also to see and experience our own world afresh, by way of contrast. It’s a wonderful gift.

Cinematically, this is magnificent. It is beautifully and atmospherically shot. There are bravura filmmaking sequences, such as fighting scenes done in continuous tracking shots. It is big-boned and confident filmmaking, a very exciting return to form for Eggers after the (for me) disappointment of The Lighthouse. In fact, as much as I admired The Witch, I think this may be his best film yet.


L’amour l’après-midi
(Eric Rohmer, 1972)

Eric Rohmer made a series of films he grouped together and called Six Moral Tales. This year I watched them in sequence, and while I still maintain that the one previously familiar to me — Ma nuit chez Maud — is the best of them, I also loved this one, a beautifully constructed, excruciating tale of the slow, all too understandable way in which a man is led, step by tiny step, into infidelity.

What starts with a general, unfocused “appreciation” of women passing on the street leads, as opportunity arises, to a man pulling off his shirt while a strange woman lies in bed. The film is a triumph for how it documents this slowly boiling frog.

Equally impressive is the means by which this man is rescued and returned home. It is perfectly judged: a sudden realization, conveyed entirely visually, that he is a man with responsibilities, accountable to others for his actions, whose integrity hangs in the balance. Rohmer’s style can be drab, but moments as economical and finely judged as the crucial moment in Love in the Afternoon make me realize just how good a filmmaker he was.


Memories of Murder
(Bong Joon-ho, 2003)

After Bong Joon-ho’s triumph with Parasite, I wanted to explore some of his previous films. Memories of Murder follows a group of small-town detectives grappling with a string of gruesome and mysterious murders. They have no particular talent for their work, and bumble their way through the investigation as the bodies accumulate. The film’s particular strengths are intricate plotting, an ensemble of interesting characters, and a zany undercurrent that gives us a feeling that anything might happen.

The film impressed me with its tonal complexity. It is often extremely funny, though the subject matter is grave. It might have become a black farce, or a sadistic comedy, but I don’t think it does. There is always some thread that remains in earnest. Somehow Bong manages to hold the pieces together into something complex but coherent.

In a murder mystery the all important question is usually “whodunit?”. That is not the all-important question here, though of course it is a catalyst for the story. Instead, Bong shows us human frailty and failure as his characters make mistakes, follow cockamamie theories down dead ends, abandon their principles, trust their faulty guts, and generally fail to protect the innocent. The ending makes it a very unconventional whodunit indeed.


La Maison en Petits Cubes
(Kunio Katou, 2008)

What a filmmaker can do with 10 minutes of wordless imagery is limited, but nothing is wasted in this brief animated film. A beautiful visual metaphor is used to explore the shape of a man’s life. The past cannot be recovered, but neither can we be separated from it. It remains with us, submerged, supporting us. Each of our lives passes through stages, building on what came before. If we had the presence of mind to live with the awareness that each stage — this present stage! — is bound to pass, how much more we would treasure it. I know nothing about the filmmaker, but his film is touching, warm-hearted, and wise, and I have been thinking of it all year with gratitude. Available on YouTube.


Secret Sunshine
(Lee Chang-dong, 2007)

I still don’t know what to expect from this filmmaker. Poetry, the first I saw, was gentle and careful; Burning was dramatic, violent, and a bit of a puzzle. Secret Sunshine begins as though it’s going to be more like Poetry, but it takes a number of turns, and ends up being one of the more intriguing explorations of Christian faith that cinema has given us in recent decades.

The film introduces us to a young mother, Sin-ae, whose husband has recently died, and she is in the process of moving to a new town. The tone is casual and quotidian, at first. But something happens, which I shan’t spoil, that sends the film veering into emotionally difficult terrain, and plunges Sin-ae into crisis. As she grapples with her problems, she joins an evangelical Christian church, and discovers a life of faith.

You might think, as I did, that this crisis and this discovery were the main substance of the film, but, in a brilliant scene, a further crisis arises when Sin-ae tries to forgive the person who harmed her. The character arc leading up to this disastrous episode, in which she had discovered her identity — her true identity — as a beloved child of God, continues afterward along a bent but not broken path. Her docility turns to rebellion, but it is specifically rebellion against God, a lover’s tryst turned to a lover’s quarrel. The course of love never did run smooth.

It’s an unusually perceptive and thoughtful film, then, about faith and the spiritual life. Lee Chang-dong uses a light touch throughout, with an appealingly subtle sense of humour threaded through the often difficult and troubling story. Jeon Do-yeon won at Cannes for her portrayal of Sin-ae, but I think the marvellous Song Kang-ho deserves praise also in the role of the spurned but undefeated lover, whose dogged and earnest pursuit of Sin-ae leads him, also, to a surprising place.


Il peccato
(Andrei Konchalovsky, 2019)

This historical film follows Michelangelo during the transition of power in the Vatican from the Della Rovere family (Pope Julius II) to the Medici family (Pope Leo X). The popes were his patrons, and Michelangelo was caught in the rivalry between the families. This would have been in about 1513, I guess, when Michelangelo was approaching 40 years of age.

Michelangelo is played wonderfully: passionate but undisciplined, almost childlike in his naivete about politics and power. If there is an aspect of the film that disappoints me, it is that we see little of him as a creative artist. Maybe it would have been foolhardy to try to go there. Instead, the film focuses on the complexities of the patronage system, the rivalries between artists, the nuts and bolts aspects of quarrying, and the hubbub of life outside the studio.

Konchalovsky’s Rome is a tornado of ambition and filth. Everything is covered in grime. Life is a chaos, and it is well-captured by an Altman-esque approach to dialogue and sound. Everybody talks at once, but in Italian, which makes it even better.

Vasari tells us that Dante was Michelangelo’s “best beloved poet”, and most touching to me is the way the film honours that admiration. At one point Michelangelo gets to sleep in a room where Dante slept, and he is overwhelmed by humility and awe. Later, in a development that made me leap from my seat, his devotion is repaid.

All in all, I found it an often fascinating film that, despite a certain lack of focus, gave me much enjoyment and food for thought.


The Worst Person in the World
(Joachim Trier, 2021)

The title hovers over the film like a presiding spirit. Julie is certainly a person who doesn’t know herself, and who makes a series of terrible decisions that harm herself and, in time, those around her, so she’s not a particularly good person, but she is trying, in her faltering way. She’s probably not actually the worst person in the world.

I was impressed especially by the emotional rawness. Both in its joy and its misery, it felt compelling and honest, even when the joy was foolish and the misery well-earned. Trier allows his characters to sit in silence, which is, as is so often the case, richer than anything else. There is a strange streak of dry humour — and I mean Sahara dry — running through the film, as it treats remarkably tasteless material with perfect equanimity. And it has the guts to poke fun at sacred causes like environmentalism and wokery. All of this was delightful.

The film rolls out as a study of a wayward, lost soul, but, reversing the figure and ground, we might see it as a critique of a wayward, lost society that no longer provides guidance and expectations to its younger generations. Norway, in this film, seems a moral, social, and spiritual wasteland. Julie makes mistakes, certainly, but she is working under difficult circumstances.

As Julie is trying to figure out how to be in the world, the film seems to be doing the same thing. It switches from frank naturalism to magical fantasy, from earnest to acerbic, from realist to surrealist. I could see this working against it, in theory, but personally I thought it was creative and thematically apt. The Worst Person in the World has been my first film by Joachim Trier, and I’m very interested to see another.


The Oresteia
(Peter Hall, 1983)

Not “films” in the conventional sense, these are filmed stage productions of Aeschylus’ trilogy. Nonetheless, I am sneaking them onto the end of this list just because they are so good.

Filmed in the 1980s in Britain, they were an attempt to realize Greek tragedies on the stage in something like the manner in which they might have been performed in ancient Athens. The ensemble is all male, and the actors wear oversized masks, so that the drama relies on gestures and intonation to convey the meaning.

Specialists, I’m sure, can quarrel with aspects of it, but the overall impression is the main thing for me. The plays become solemn, almost ceremonial, events. The chorus, which on the page I’ve usually found hard to manage, comes to life beautifully in these productions, with individual members taking individual lines, and becoming a kind of super-actor, far-seeing, multifarious, and ominous.

A major part of the success of these productions is the music, written by Harrison Birtwistle. It creaks, bleats, and plucks its way along, adding a spare, eerie ambience to the drama. The rhythm of the music provides a beat for the actors’ lines to follow, and the overall effect is that this very strange, very slow drama attains, at times, the quality of song. It is superbly done.

The translation used in these productions was by Tony Harrison. Without knowing anything about him or his intentions, I think I am safe in saying that he took his bearings from alliterative English verse, like that in Beowulf. The text is thick with compound neo-logisms, and raw.

Choler for choler, bloodgrudge for bloodgrudge,
while Zeus the high-he-god is still the gods’ clanchief
the law for the living is killers get killed.

Granted, this feels worlds away from Richmond Lattimore’s (purportedly) more literal translation, and maybe we should talk about an “adaptation” instead of a “translation” when the target is so different from the source, but I found I really appreciated the tough, primitive rhythms and blunt, Anglo-Saxon diction, which suited this blood-soaked story very well.

All three plays — Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides — were filmed, with a total performance time of about 3-1/2 hours. Film productions of Greek tragedies, I have discovered, are rare, and these are, so far, the best that I have found.


Honourable mentions: Pickpocket (1959), The Bakery Girl of Monceau (1963), Cries and Whispers (1972), The Sting (1973), An American Werewolf in London (1981), Where is My Friend’s House? (1987), Dead Man (1995),  Joint Security Area (2000), Mommy (2014), November (2017), A Quiet Place 2 (2020), Man of God (2021), Licorice Pizza (2021), The French Dispatch (2021).

Abandoned unfinished: The Trojan Women (1971), Top Gun: Maverick (2022).

Disappointments: Koyaanisqatsi (1982), The Card Counter (2021).

Watched again: Sherlock, Jr. (1924), The Sound of Music (1965), Ma Nuit chez Maud (1969), The Black Stallion (1979), Henry V (1989), Much Ado About Nothing (1993), Pride and Prejudice (1995), The Thin Red Line (1998), 300 (2006), Les Signes (2006).

2022 films: Nope, Top Gun: Maverick, The Northman, Everything Everywhere All at Once.

Oldest films: Pool Sharks (1915), The Immigrant (1917), The Battle of the Century (1927).

Actor of my year:  Song Kang-ho. With two films in my top 10, and one honourable mention, he is the rather surprising winner. But he’s a wonderful actor who chooses wonderful films.

Multiple films by same director: Eric Rohmer (6), Ingmar Bergman (2), Kenneth Branagh (2).

Quod linguam dicent? French (12), Korean (3), Italian (3), …

Favourites of 2022: Books

December 27, 2022

C.S. Lewis once said that an unliterary person may be defined as someone who reads books only once. It’s a remark that’s always stung a little, but in 2022 I enjoyed, for a limited time at least, the pleasure of being a literary person according to Lewis’ standard, for I did a good deal of re-reading. In fact,  my favourite books of the year — Homer’s Odyssey and Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment — were both re-reads, and I wrote at some length about them in this space.

It was also a year in which I completed the Roman reading project in which I’d been engaged for a few years, and launched a similar Greek reading project that will occupy me for a few years more, if all goes as planned.

But today I’d like to highlight my favourites of the books I read for the first time this year. There are plays, biographies, novels, and a few nonfiction titles. It was a great year of reading!


In alphabetical order:

Blake: A Biography
Peter Ackroyd

I like to pick a particular poet and spend a few months with him. I began the year in the company of Robert Frost, was irritated for quite a while by Walt Whitman, and am ending the year perplexed by Gerard Manley Hopkins’ grammar, but mid-year I spent time with William Blake, and read this biography as an adjunct. Neglected in his own lifetime, we now look back on him as an important figure, not only on account of his positive achievements, but for how his figure stands out against the historical ground, and Ackroyd’s careful and meticulous biography greatly improved my understanding and appreciation of the man.


Susanna Clarke

Susanna Clarke’s slender Piranesi unfolds as a kind of metaphysical science fiction story, where the setting and the situation are so strange and unfamiliar that it takes time for us to get our bearings, and longer still to understand where the story is going. Yet it’s also a compelling tale from the outset because of its winsome central character. The book is concerned with such matters as the honour we owe the dead, the duties of friendship, and the virtues that make a man great. It adds up to a thoughtful exploration and presentation of natural piety in the guise of a cosmic mystery. A remarkably beautiful book.


I have continued my tour of early-ish modern drama, reading mostly lesser-known playwrights of the generation or two after Shakespeare, both in England and on the continent. Of the dozen or so plays I read in 2022, two stood out for their excellence and, as it happens, for their opposite tendencies. John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, from 1633, is a sordid business that puts disturbing sexual depravity on the stage, and John Milton’s Comus, from 1634, is a celebration of chastity and purity. Both are beautifully written, both, I would think, dramatically effective, and both, though by contrary means, a portrait of the destructive power of lust in action. A brilliant double-bill!


The Mayor of Casterbridge
Thomas Hardy

Another trip to Wessex, another tragic tale. It’s a story about a man who rides fortune’s wheel up, then down again, but is fundamentally, I think, about the importance of truth-telling, and of the dangers that attend concealment and deception, especially between those who love one another. Hardy is a master, and it was a consolation just to read such a superbly well-written novel.


Kenogaia: A Gnostic Tale
David Bentley Hart

In a world where authority keeps a strict watch on its people, and access to information is restricted and curated, sometimes the thing to do is to train your eyes on things above. Maybe you’ll see something. That’s what happens to the hero of this rousing adventure story, and it sends him careening through a series of amazing discoveries en route to a revelation that breaks his world open, almost literally. I’ve had a hard time keeping up with Hart’s breakneck pace of publication over the past few years, but I’m glad I found the time for this one. [notes]


Child of God
Cormac McCarthy

McCarthy’s novels are often dark and disturbing, and Child of God is more dark and disturbing than most. It’s a truly harrowing tale about a man who commits unspeakable acts of violence and disgrace. We have a right to ask why we should trouble ourselves to read it, much less to recommend it to others, as I am doing here. McCarthy has an established habit of introducing into his bleak and troubling stories some glimmer of light, some shred of hope, some rumour of grace or justice. It can be slight and subtle — it is certainly so here — but it is there nonetheless. We are to see, I think, that evil can never be completely triumphant, A green shoot always arises from the ashes. And that is worth knowing. A second reason to endure the tale is the tough, spare beauty of the prose; nobody else writes like this.


Art & Scholasticism
Jacques Maritain

Over the years I’ve accumulated a sizable stack of books by Jacques Maritain, but for one reason or another I’ve not got around to reading them. This year I pulled down this relatively slender volume in which he gathers up various scraps of commentary about the arts let fall from the workbenches of the scholastic philosophers, especially Thomas Aquinas, and arranges them into something like a systematic treatment. I found it a fruitful enterprise. Despite a certain amount of pedantry about species and genus, the book contains lively analyses of, among other things, what counts as art, how art relates to beauty, how art relates to morality, and how the arts can be corrupted. Do the scholastics ever disappoint?


The Figure of Beatrice
Charles Williams

Beatrice was for Dante much more than just a love interest, and in this study of Dante Charles Williams explores what we can learn from Dante about what he learned from her. In so doing, he develops a kind of theology of romantic love that I found surprisingly creative and insightful, and which helped me to deepen my understanding of my own experience of love. Much food for thought, and a fine guide to the Divine Comedy as well. Beautifully written.


A Pelican at Blandings
P.G. Wodehouse

This was the last Blandings novel that Wodehouse completed, and, since I was reading them in order, it has served for me as a kind of milestone. I have walked the extensive grounds, but have now reached a neighbouring hilltop where I stand, looking back. I see Beach, the butler, arranging flower pots on the balcony. The Hon. Freddie Threepwood is on the lawn, setting out a bowl of Donaldson’s dog biscuits for somebody’s pooch. Rupert Baxter, secretary to Lord Emsworth, is around back of the house studying the eaves, and he appears to be wearing yellow pyjamas. I see Galahad Threepwood lounging easily on a chair down by the fish pond. Away in the distance, partly concealed behind a tree, I think I see Sir Gregory Parsloe-Parsloe with binoculars pointed in the direction of the pig-pen. And, yes, sure enough, following his gaze, there is Lord Emsworth himself, plying the Empress of Blandings with apples and potatoes. I’m going to miss this place. [notes]


Read again: Plato: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Gorgias, Protagoras, Meno; Shakespeare: The Taming of the Shrew, Much Ado About Nothing, Macbeth; Homer: Iliad, Odyssey; Aeschylus: Oresteia; Sophocles: Theban Plays, Philoctetes; Euripides: Medea, Hippolytus, The Trojan Women, The Bacchae; Lewis: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, The Magician’s Nephew; Dostoyevsky: Crime and Punishment; Tolkien: The Hobbit; MacLachlan: Sarah, Plain and Tall; Herodotus: Histories; Burgess: The Adventures of Prickly Porky, The Adventures of Grandfather Frog; Pressfield: Gates of Fire.

Multiple things by the same author: Plato (12), Sophocles (5), Aeschylus (4), Euripides (4), Robert Frost (4), William Shakespeare (3), Gene Wolfe (3), Arthur Conan Doyle (3), Homer (2), Hesiod (2), P.G. Wodehouse (2), Philip Massinger (2), C.S. Lewis (2), Pedro Calderon (2), Thornton Burgess (2).


As is my custom, I made a bar graph of the publication dates of the books I read this year. It looks like this:

This year I had a double-humped distribution: the cluster on the left contains the things I’ve read for the Greek reading project, and the cluster on the right is everything else. Coverage since 1500 was not too shabby this year. That yawning gap in the medieval years is sad.

All in all, though, it was a pretty good year of reading.

Christmas Day, 2022

December 25, 2022

Merry Christmas!


Here is a new setting of Chesterton’s Christmas poem “The Christ-Child Lay on Mary’s Lap”, by Mark Nowakowski.

The Christ-child lay on Mary’s lap,
His hair was like a light.
(O weary, weary were the world,
But here is all aright.)

The Christ-child lay on Mary’s breast,
His hair was like a star.
(O stern and cunning are the kings,
But here the true hearts are.)

The Christ-child lay on Mary’s heart,
His hair was like a fire.
(O weary, weary is the world,
But here the world’s desire.)

The Christ-child stood at Mary’s knee,
His hair was like a crown.
And all the flowers looked up at him,
And all the stars looked down.

— G.K. Chesterton —

Vega: Fuente Ovejuna

December 19, 2022

Fuente Ovejuna
Lope de Vega
Translated from the Spanish by Gwynne Edwards
(Oxford, 1999) [c.1613]
80 p.

My course of reading in early-ish modern drama has, until now, been confined to the sceptered isle, but now, after a few dozen plays made for the London stage, I am soaring south and east, to Spain, and the plays — or, at least, a play — of Lope de Vega.

I confess I didn’t know anything about him prior to picking up this volume. According to the introduction, he was one of the principal architects of Spanish drama in the seventeenth century, responsible for developing several of the conventions that subsequent playwrights relied on. His plays broke with the classical unities of time and place, were not shy to mix comedy and tragedy, and were often explicit about the moral lessons conveyed by the play’s action.

He was also tremendously prolific. Cervantes called him monstruo de naturaleza — a monster of nature — because of his incredible productivity. Some contemporaries reported that he had written over 2000 plays, and he himself boasted that he could write a play in a single day. Impious exaggeration, perhaps, but over 350 of his plays are extant, so he was, at minimum, ten times more prolific than Shakespeare.

The present play, Fuente Ovejuna, is a history play based on events that happened in a town of that name in the late 15th century. The ruler was cruel and tyrannical. When he was found murdered, an investigation was opened by the royal court, but the townspeople, when ordered, even under torture, to reveal the identity of the murderer, would only answer, “Fuente Ovejuna”. This solidarity was their protection, and no-one was ever convicted.

It’s a good story, then, with a winsome portrait of ordinary people resisting unjust power through friendship and loyalty. De Vega embellishes the plot with some romance. There are a few scenes with Ferdinand and Isabella, for pomp and circumstance. But the play, on the whole, felt to me rather thin and forgettable. The characters felt generic, and the language — at least in translation, and that is an important caveat — fell far short of the richness I’ve grown accustomed to from the English playwrights. There were no neat aphorisms, no impressive speeches, nothing much going on linguistically beyond serviceable verse to move the story forward.

By way of brief illustration, the play ends, as many English plays of the period do, with an actor turning and speaking directly to the audience. But compare this

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
if you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.

to what we get here:

And so, my friends, we end Fuente Ovejuna.

It is possible that this apparent lack of depth and richness is traceable to the aforementioned haste with which he was reputed to write; I don’t really know. I do know, however, that my original plans to read all three of the plays in this Oxford edition are being shelved for now, and I plan to move on to one of the Spanish playwrights of the next generation, Pedro Calderon de la Barca.


Hart: Kenogaia

December 15, 2022

A Gnostic Tale
David Bentley Hart
(Angelico, 2021)
432 p.

Imagine you were to live in the aftermath of an “Age of Ilumination”, in a society that prizes reason and progress above all, in which old books, and the ideas they contain, are forgotten or forbidden, and in which it is believed that the nature of the cosmos, conceived of as a great machine of gears and wheels governed by “rational principles of force and structure”, implies that human nature is also mechanical, and so suitable for rational and scientific manipulation. Maybe you don’t have to imagine very hard.

Imagine further that you have reason to doubt certain aspects of the prevailing story. Maybe some family lore hovers in your memory, maybe an intuition or an intellectual difficulty bothers you in quiet moments, maybe your curiosity about older ideas got the better of you and you learned something that you can’t forget. And imagine that this doubt and discomfort leads you into conflict with the reigning powers.

Put this way, the contemporary relevance of the scenario in Kenogaia is obvious. Hart plunges us into an imagined world which is, in many respects, quite different from our own, but puts his characters into an historical situation we recognize. Michael is a young man whose life is disrupted when his father discloses to him a secret about a reality from beyond the immanent world, an incursion of the transcendent, that calls into question all he has been taught, and in so doing brings him under peril of the reigning powers — or the reigning powers under peril of him.

The story that plays out is one rich in fantasy and incident, replete with mysterious beings, stirring adventures, and startling revelations that unveil realities long and carefully concealed. The imagined world is a curious mixture of scientific dystopia and religious theocracy in which those who question the existence or benevolence of the “Great Artisan” are accused of “epistemic and psychic malfeasance” and subjected to all the corrective powers that its drug-wielding psychiatrists can muster. Much of the drama of the tale — and it is a tremendously dramatic tale — is generated by Michael’s efforts to resist the lies and blinders imposed by the authorities and penetrate to the truth of things.

This truth of things, as it is gradually revealed (and I shan’t reveal much here), brings us, in a way that surprised me, to the book’s subtitle. Gnosticism is, in my experience, a slippery word for a slippery set of ideas, but that we are beings imprisoned in this carnal world, that the cosmos is the creation of a powerful being of massive and foundational malevolence, and that our spiritual task is to escape this shell into a higher, brighter reality are all claims that I associate with Gnosticism, and, as such, this is indeed a Gnostic tale.

I was surprised because a plain reading of the novel is that it is an apologia for Gnosticism, an attempt to portray all the beauty and majesty that can be found therein, and I didn’t expect that from Hart, who is a Christian, and a theologian of considerable subtlety and ability. Nobody, of course, is forbidden to explore, in a work of fiction or otherwise, a metaphysical and religious system at odds with his own. It might be done with both subtlety and success. But there are enough authentically Hartian notes embedded into the story — his universalism, for example — that I began to wonder if the book might be meant straightforwardly and sincerely, revealing a turn in his religious thinking that is carrying him into a sublime heterodoxy. Riddles in the dark.

Thumbing back through my copy, I see that I marked up and bent the pages much more frequently in the early going. As the story progressed I was not losing interest, but was simply more and more contented to follow the twists and turns of the story. These twists and turns also surprised me. His earlier fiction collection, The Devil and Pierre Gernet, was wonderfully erudite and intricate, but could not be described as twisty nor turny. Kenogaia is comparatively unbuttoned, more hurtling and rollicking, more inclined to a glass of fresh juice than a smoky whiskey. I almost would not have pegged it as coming from Hart’s pen but for the reassuring prevalence of obscure words sprinkled everywhere. Gleed, daedal, bedizen, imbricate, diamantine, wimpling, insufflation, plosive, contumacious, susurrous, complect, mephitic, fuliginous, lazuline. Eat your philological heart out.

Despite some perplexities, therefore, about the drift of the whole affair, I enjoyed the book, and I hope he has more stories up his sleeve.

Sappho: Poems

December 12, 2022

Stung With Love
Poems and Fragments
Translated from the Greek by Aaron Poochigian
(Penguin Classics, 2009) [c.600 BC]
xlvi + 95 p.

There is, at this cultural moment, something of a chic for Sappho’s poetry. The market is flooded with dozens of translations, but it is perhaps a little unclear to what extent the attention is due to the intrinsic quality of her poems and to what extent to extrinsic factors. This collection, like all the others, consists of “poems and fragments,” but mostly the latter.

She lived roughly 630-570 BC, and was prolific, and famous through the Greek world in her lifetime. Her poetry was originally collected into nine substantial books, estimated at about 9000 lines of poetry in total. We know that in the first century BC the complete collection was still extant, and the notes in this volume say that she was likely one of the influences on Catullus and Horace (and, I would suggest, Tibullus). Over the subsequent centuries, however, the poems were lost. It is suspected that the Sack of Constantinople in 1204 was one of the sad occasions of destruction. The upshot was that for centuries her poems were known only in tiny fragments. This started to change in the 1870s, when modern archeological techniques began turning up new fragments, and scholars even recovered one entire poem. In 2004 another entire poem was reconstructed.

In this volume Aaron Poochigian has collected about one-third of the roughly 230 known poems and fragments, excluding mainly indecipherable and single-word fragments. This, it appears, is about the extent of readable Sapphic poetry at this time.

Many of the modern translations render Sappho in free verse. (I got a stack of them from the library and looked through them.) Sappho herself, however, did not write free verse. Her poems were largely written, it will come as no surprise to learn, in Sapphic stanzas. For his translation, Aaron Poochigian chose to put them into English lyric forms, with rhymes, both because the lyric poem calls to mind the fact that many of these poems were songs, and because the rhyme underlines the emphatic endings that are characteristic of Sappho’s Greek lines. Not a bad strategy, I think, and I was happy to have chosen this collection to read front to back.

What about the poems themselves? To be honest, their fragmentary state makes them hard to enjoy. We get a gradual impression that the poems were highly personal, and contained beautiful or striking imagery, but it’s nearly impossible to form any view of the structure of the poems from what we have. Thematically, Poochigian has gathered the fragments together into groups: there are a substantial number invoking goddesses, another group related to the Trojan War (which surprised me!), some erotic poems, and a fairly large group of wedding poems.

Let’s look at a few examples. This night scene, I thought, was quite beautiful:

Star clusters near the fair moon dim
Their shapely shimmering whenever
She rises, lucent to the brim
And flowing over.

But that’s the whole fragment, so it doesn’t amount to much more than an impression. Another with similar qualities, but even less substance, was this:

Over eyelids dark night fell

I like it, as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far.

As you might expect, when the pickings are slim there can be a tendency to make the most, or even more than the most, of what we have. I laughed a little, along these lines, when I read this fragment:

A handkerchief
Dripping with…

and found Poochigian describing it (in his often excellent notes) as “tantalizing and elliptical”. Apparently this little fragment has even “acquired a cult status in some literary critical circles.” Maybe so!

Some hard-to-specify-exactly amount of Sappho’s chic today arises because she may have been a lesbian.  She did write love poems, some of them addressed to women, but it’s not clear — it’s never clear in these poems — whether she is speaking in her own voice or an assumed one. Certainly the number of poems celebrating heterosexual love (in the form of weddings) is greater than the number that could be construed as homosexual. This might be due to historical selection bias. The lesbian poems, if that is what they are, are not “erotic” in any pornographic sense; they just have to do with attraction between women, as in this example:

Either I have slipped out of your head
Or you adore some fellow more, instead.


Sappho seems, based on her contemporary fame, to have been a major talent, and it is a shame that so much of her work has been lost. The arc of recovery over the last 150 years gives us some grounds for hope that future generations will have more than we have, but the sad fact remains that we have very little of what once was. For me, she has to remain a poet who, like so many of these poems, is alluring, but finally elusive.

Wodehouse: A Pelican at Blandings

December 8, 2022

A Pelican at Blandings
P.G. Wodehouse
(Overlook, 2010) [1969]
240 p.

Wodehouse’s novels are by reputation frothy larks, so readers can be forgiven for being caught off guard when, early in A Pelican at Blandings, something happens that strikes cold dread in the heart: Lord Emsworth’s prize pig, the Empress of Blandings, refuses to eat a potato.

When, in a subsequent scene, a large painting of a female nude is installed at Blandings Castle, I began to feel my palms sweating, and when, in a still more subsequent scene, not just one but two coteries of thieves plot to steal the painting, I was confirmed in my judgment that this is an uncharacteristically disturbing and unwholesome entry in Wodehouse’s canon, and by a significant margin.

To be sure, some of the elements that are familiar from earlier Blandings novels recur here, but typically with some shocking twist. A young woman wants to marry against her family’s wishes, but she wants to marry a man pretending to be a looney doctor’s junior assistant. A rich woman arrives as a guest under false pretences, but Wodehouse, in a move that must have imperiled cross-Atlantic diplomatic relations at the time, chooses to make her an American. Even more outrageous calumnies occur, or are suggested, but for propriety’s sake I won’t mention them here.

Obviously, and notwithstanding the admitted truth that the writing in A Pelican at Blandings is a dream, I cannot recommend the book unreservedly. Mature readers might enjoy aspects of it — rather, I suspect, as some people apparently enjoy those Saw movies — but I would advise, in that case, that it may be best to keep near at hand a cold compress and a hot toddy — and perhaps a potato.

Greek lyric poetry

December 5, 2022

Greek Lyrics
Translated from the Greek by Richmond Lattimore
(Univ. Chicago, 1960) [c.650-450 BC]
xiii + 82 p.

If ever you are happy, one way to bring yourself down is to think about the literature that has been lost to the vicissitudes of history. There are particularly agonizing cases: Aristotle’s dialogues, most of the Greek tragedies, swaths of Livy and Tacitus. But spare a tear as well for early Greek poetry, much of which has come down to us in shreds.

In this little volume, Richmond Lattimore gathers together an assortment of surviving verses from several dozen Greek poets who were writing between the seventh and fifth centuries BC. I believe we don’t have much lyric poetry from earlier times, but I don’t know why he drew the later chronological boundary where he did. He has called these poems “lyrics,” perhaps simply to distinguish them from epic. In any case, the designation does not seem a strict one; there is a huge variety here: invective, epitaph, epigram, love poem, political poem, historical poem, inscription, song, myth, and more. It’s a very difficult sort of book to size up.

We’ll look at a few examples.

Maybe the earliest of the poets represented here is Archilochus of Paros (c.680-640). He was apparently a soldier with an avocation as a poet. Based on his showing here, his poetry is among the better preserved, and we may even have some complete poems, such as this one offering counsel to a soldier:

Heart, my heart, so battered with misfortune far beyond your strength,
up, and face the men who hate us. Bare your chest to the assault
of the enemy, and fight them off. Stand fast among the beamlike spears.
Give no ground; and if you beat them, do not brag in open show,
nor, if they beat you, run home and lie down on your bed and cry.
Keep some measure in the joy you take in luck, and the degree
you give way in sorrow. All our life is up-and-down like this.

At the other chronological end is Praxilla of Sicyon (mid 5th c.), for whom Lattimore gives us a fragment from a poem about the death of Adonis, who, in his last throes, uttered these lines:

“Loveliest of what I leave behind is the sunlight,
and loveliest after that the shining stars, and the moon’s face,
but also cucumbers that are ripe, and pears, and apples.”

It’s rather beautiful, but Lattimore remarks that this mention of cucumbers, in this context, gave rise to a Greek saying whereby one who says the wrong thing at the wrong time might be judged “sillier than Praxilla’s Adonis.”

We have a number of anonymous poems, as you would expect. Most of the inscriptions are so, though the famous epitaph for the Spartans fallen at Thermopylae —

Traveler, take this word to the men of Lakedaimon :
We who lie buried here did what they told us to do.

— is a notable exception, being attributed to Simonides of Ceon. An especially intriguing sub-genre is the anonymous drinking song, like this one:

Underneath every stone there lies hidden a scorpion, dear friend.
Take care, or he will sting you. All concealment is treachery.

It probably sounds better with music.

The most famous of the poets represented here are Solon, the great Athenian reformer and lawgiver, from whom a number of poems survive, including argumentative verse in which he defends his policies; Sappho, about whom we’ll have more to say on a later occasion; and Pindar, whom we’ll also spend more time with later. To my considerable surprise, a full quarter of the book is devoted to a single poet, Bacchylides of Ceos, a contemporary of Pindar for whom a number of relatively long poems have survived. I confess these were among my least favourite of the batch, so I’ll say no more about them.

Lattimore is a renowned translator of the Greeks, prized for his dedication to retaining as much as possible the shape of the Greek verse in his English renderings. Personally, though, in my previous experience with him, I have found that I don’t especially like the result much of the time. It often feels awkward to me, and too much like prose. These poems didn’t change my mind, but they were serviceable and good enough to get the point across.

And what is the point? Why sit down with a mess of tattered pages like this? The question presses more firmly in an anthology, when we get, in most cases, barely more than a taste of individual poets, not really enough for their personalities to come through.

Often a motive for reading old books is to penetrate a way of thinking and seeing the world that differs from our own customary habits. Maybe in so doing we can see ourselves more clearly, and perhaps be startled at what we see. There’s a bit of that here, but it’s not ideal because the points of view are too numerous. Maybe the motive is the opposite: not to see our differences, but to see what we share. If we have something in common with these men and women, given all that separates us, perhaps there we are getting close to what is fundamental to human life. It is a good experiment to take one of these poems, even a couple of lines, and ask ourselves what  we recognize in them. And it is not surprising, I expect, that we find love, and hatred, and admiration of the beautiful, and fear of death, and sadness, and curiosity, and many, many more things that constitute the texture of our lives, then as now. Welcome home!


Pindar: “War is sweet to those who have not tried it.”


Ford: ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore

December 1, 2022

‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore
John Ford
(Methuen, 2003) [c.1630]
176 p.

“Peace! Thou hast told a tale whose every word
Threatens eternal slaughter to the soul.”

I don’t know if Romeo and Juliet was a reference point for John Ford when he wrote this play, but it’s a convenient one for us. Those star-crossed lovers violate the wishes of their parents, and so are, in that sense, in the wrong. But Shakespeare, at least in the most common interpretation of the play, brings us around to their side, so that we hope their love succeeds. Imagine, though, how it looked to Signor Capulet: the whole romance was grotesque and intolerable, a sin against filial piety, headstrong and very probably wanton, and so impulsive and uncontrolled that it was likely to lead to destruction.

John Ford has written Signor Capulet’s Romeo and Juliet. There are two young lovers pursuing a forbidden tryst. There is an intelligent and enterprising Friar who gives them counsel. Our Juliet character — here called Annabella — even has a serving lady who is in on her secret. But Ford ensures that we, like Capulet senior, oppose the young lovers with all the opprobrium at our command, and he does it by one neat change: instead of our lovers coming from warring families, they come from the same family. Giovanni and Annabella are brother and sister.

This disturbing premise plays out in about as disturbing a manner as you would expect. The attraction between the two is portrayed as overwhelming and irresistible. When Giovanni first reveals his feelings to his sister, he confesses that he cannot help it:

O, Annabella, I am quite undone:
The love of thee, my sister, and the view
Of thy immortal beauty hath untuned
All harmony both of my rest and life.

And she, for her part, puts up no resistance whatsoever, for she too has fought in vain against her feelings:

Thou hast won
The field, and never fought: what thou has urged,
My captive heart had long ago resolved.
I blush to tell thee (but I’ll tell thee now),
For every sigh that thou hast spent for me,
I have sighed ten; for every tear shed twenty;
And not so much for that I loved, as that
I durst not say I loved, nor scarcely think it.
(I, ii)

Overlooking the family ties between the two, this is not so different from what we find in Romeo and Juliet, nor indeed in a thousand other romances, and maybe that is the point. Plato saw being “in love” as a kind of madness likely to lead a man astray while he suffered under its influence, and this “anti-romantic” view has a distinguished tradition, albeit a minor one in our culture since the chivalric tradition triumphed in medieval Europe. I think it’s plausible that John Ford belongs, at least in this play, to that anti-romantic tradition: look, he says to us, at these wanton fools, out of their minds.

I didn’t do much in the way of background reading on the play, but I did come upon the claim that Ford presents this incestuous plot without passing judgement on it. This is true in a way; there is no Don Giovanni-like epilogue in which the lovers are dragged to Hell. But there is one character in the play who condemns the lovers in the strongest terms, and that is the Friar. He is the first person to speak in the play — indeed, the play opens in medias res with him denouncing Giovanni’s infatuation:

Alone within thy chamber, then fall down
On both thy knees, and grovel on the ground,
Cry to thy heart, wash every word thou utter’st
In tears, and, if’t be possible, of blood.
Beg Heaven to cleanse the leprosy of lust
That rots thy soul. Acknowledge what thou art,
A wretch, a worm, a nothing.
(I, i)

The Friar is presented throughout as a wise, thoughtful man who has enough distance from the situation to judge it fairly and disinterestedly.  As in Romeo and Juliet, I think his response guides ours.

Despite the Friar’s warnings, Giovanni and Annabella pursue their fateful course, and it appears, for a time, that perhaps no reckoning will come. Giovanni even hazards a few attempts at self-justification, arguing, for instance, that posterity will approve of their actions because, as they say, love wins:

If ever aftertimes should hear
Of our fast knit affections, though perhaps
The laws of conscience and of civil use
May justly blame us, yet when they but know
Our loves, that love will wipe away that rigour
Which would in other incests be abhorred.
(V, v)

But the actual responses of the play’s other characters, when they learn the truth, belie this rosy future. Judgement, when it comes, is swift.


The plot is complicated by a number of subplots involving double-crossing servants, a bevy of suitors, and jilted, vengeful lovers. (One character, contemplating revenge on the man who seduced and abandoned her, says at one point, “On this delicious bane my thoughts shall banquet.”  A nice line.) In all cases, lust and infidelity lead to suffering and destruction. It gets pretty gruesome, and, naturally, the play ends with bloodied bodies lying everywhere.


So extreme is the premise that I think there must be a particular point to it. Nobody sits down to write an incest play just because they are interested in the scenario. I’ve suggested above that maybe it can be seen as a kind of re-do of Romeo and Juliet, or of any number of other, similar romances, but done in such a way that we are forced into disapproval. Or maybe it was an attempt to write a reductio ad absurdum of the wayward-lust play. Or maybe, I guess, it was just an attempt to provoke and scandalize the public and earn notoriety for the author. If the latter, then it has had a certain amount of success.

At the level of craft, it’s a well-written play with generally fine verse, and I expect it would work effectively on the stage. Not that I’m especially eager to see it.