The Dylan Review, Vol. 3.1, Summer 2021

The by now well-established Dylan Review has a new issue online – Vol. 3.1, Summer 2021, at:

The various authors scrutinise multiple aspects of Bob Dylan’s work. The issue opens with a timely multi-author set of tributes to the artist on his 80th birthday, by Anne Marie Mai, Timothy Hampton, Alessandro Portelli, Michael Gray, Alessandro Carrera, Andrew Muir and John Hughes. Jacqueline Osherow contributes a tribute poem. The articles include pieces on Dylan and Wallace Stevens (Jim Salvucci) and the influence of evangelist Hal Lindsey on the Christian Dylan (Jeffrey Lamp), and an in-depth analysis of ‘Gates of Eden’ (Sarah Gates). David Thurmaeir reviews the recently issued three-disc set Bob Dylan 1970, while the books reviewed include Luca Grossi’s Bob Dylan in Hell: Songs in Dialogue with Dante and Alessandro Portelli’s Bob Dylan, pioggia e vento: ‘Hard Rain’, una ballata fra tradizione e modernità (both reviewed by Michele Ulisse Lipparini); Jim Curtis’s Decoding Dylan (reviewed by John H. Serembus); and The World of Bob Dylan, edited by Sean Latham (reviewed by Christopher Rollason).

The last-named review being by myself, I have posted on it in a separate entry on this blog (today’s date).     

Reviewed: The World of Bob Dylan, edited by Sean Latham

Published in the latest volume of the Dylan Review (3.1, Summer 2021, pp. 37-47) is my review of:

Sean Latham (ed.), The World of Bob Dylan, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2021, xix + 349 pp., ISBN 978-1-108-49951-4

The review can be found online at: https://thedylanreview.org/2021/07/25/review-of-the-world-of-bob-dylan/. For DR 3.1 as a whole, see my note on this blog (today’s date).

A extract from the review and summary of the book chapters follow.

EXTRACT

The volume under review is a multi-author study of the figure and work of Bob Dylan from an extremely wide range of points of view. It is edited by Sean Latham, Walter Professor of English and Director of the Institute for Bob Dylan Studies at the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Tulsa – also home to the Bob Dylan Archive and the Woody Guthrie Center – hosted the major conference held from 30 May to 2 June 2019 under the title ‘The World of Bob Dylan’ (in which this reviewer was a participant), although it should be stressed that this volume, despite the shared name, is not the proceedings of that conference. It may also be useful here to distinguish between: the Institute for Bob Dylan Studies (an academic research cell); the Bob Dylan Archive (a collection of over 100,000 objects for consultation on appointment, purchased in 2016 by Tulsa’s George Kaiser Family Foundation in partnership with the University of Tulsa, and held at the city’s Gilcrease Museum); and the Bob Dylan Center (to be the public face of Dylan in Tulsa, scheduled for opening to the general public in 2022).

The World of Bob Dylan is presented as ‘the first published project to emerge from the Institute for Bob Dylan Studies’. It brings together 28 texts (introduction, chronology and 26 chapters proper) by a total of 26 contributors, the editor included. 18 are male and 8 female, while 22 are described as based in the US, one in Canada, two in the UK and one in Denmark. Most chapters appear to have been purpose-written for the volume. Two at least, however, originate in the 2019 Tulsa conference. The chapter by Greil Marcus is explicitly credited to his Tulsa keynote speech; that by Ann Powers, another keynoter, reads as if the publication of her text from the event; and there may be more. The role of the archive as a new determinant in Dylan studies is reflected in the fact that two of the contributors quote and formally credit material retrieved via their personal research activities there (…)

THE WORLD OF BOB DYLAN: MAIN CHAPTERS

Introduction – Sean Latham

A Chronology of Bob Dylan’s life – Kevin Dettmar and Sean Latham

The Biographies – Andrew Muir

Songwriting – Sean Latham

The Singles: A playlist for framing Dylan’s recording art – Keith Negus

Folk Music – Ronald D. Cohen

The Blues: ‘Kill Everybody Ever Done Me Wrong’ – Greil Marcus

Gospel Music – Gayle Wald

Country Music: Dylan, Cash and the projection of authenticity – Leigh H. Edwards

Rock Music – Ira Wells

Roots Music: Born in a basement – Kim Ruehl

The Great American Songbook – Larry Starr

American Literature – Florence Dore

World Literature – Anne-Marie Mai

The Beats – Steven Belletto

Theatre – Damian A. Carpenter

Visual Arts: Goya’s Kiss – Raphael Falco

Borrowing – Kevin Dettmar

Judaism: Saturnine Melancholy and Dylan’s Jewish Gnosis – Elliot R. Wolfson

Christianity: An exegesis of ‘Modern Times’ – Andrew McCarron

The Civil Rights Movement – Will Kaufman

The Counterculture – Michael J. Kramer

Gender and Sexuality: Bob Dylan’s Body – Ann Powers

Justice – Lisa O’Neill-Sanders

The Bob Dylan Brand – Devon Powers

The Nobel Prize: The Dramaturgy of Consecration – James F. English

Dylan: Stardom and Freedom – Donald R. Shumway

The Bob Dylan Archive – Mark A. Davidson

Shadow Kingdom: Bob Dylan In Performance, 18 July 2021

The streaming event announced to much fanfare as featuring Bob Dylan’s first public performance since Washington DC on 8 December 2019 turned out to be less a live concert as such than a 45-minute film, self-defined as an ‘exclusive broadcast event’, signed by Israeli-American director Alma Har’el and titled Shadow Kingdom – The Early Bob Dylan.  The show had an audio and a video component: the video has not been universally liked and we will not discuss it on this occasion, but for many, including this reviewer, the audio – for purposes of this review we will still call it ‘the concert’ – exceeded all expectations and marked a triumphant return to performance by the now octogenarian Bob Dylan, a feast after a year and a half’s fast.

The concert was made available for streaming, subject to purchase of a ticket priced at $25, at 2 pm Pacific Time on 18 July 2021, remaining accessible for viewing or re-viewing for the next 48 hours. Dylan’s performance consisted of 13 songs at a venue believed to be in Santa Monica, California, accompanied by a five-piece band and (for the video and as a symbolic audience) a select cohort of actors. The instrumentation included acoustic and electric guitar, bass, accordeon and mandolin: Dylan played guitar or harmonica on some of the songs (there was no piano). Musically the concert was excellent, occupying a terrain somewhere between the worlds of country and electric blues. Above all, Dylan’s singing was remarkably good. No blurred vocals this time round: ‘every word of those words rang true’, with the clearest of enunciation and the sense that Bob Dylan, no longer tired of his creations, was revelling in the power of his own wordcraft.

This review will look at the 13 songs played from the viewpoint of two different kinds of sequencing that both inevitably mark Dylan concerts – first, the order of the songs played as reflected in the setlist, and second, the historical chronology of the originals of those same songs.

The show opens with ‘When I Paint My Masterpiece’, which will prove to be the only song repeated from Washington 2019: for the rest, the setlist will be totally refreshed. ‘Masterpiece’ is given a country-rock treatment and features some rewriting of the lyrics as compared to the original, the most arresting change being that the lions now have a ‘mean and hungry look’, which is interestingly close to Cassius’s ‘lean and hungry look’ in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Dylan’s clear enunciation already impresses.

Next up is ‘(Most Likely) You’ll Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine’, in an arrangement with accordeon resulting in a countrification of the Blonde and Blonde original. ‘Queen Jane Approximately’ follows, slower and more reflective than on Highway 61 Revisited. ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’ is done fast and a shade raucously. The Highway 61 album is then again raided for ‘Tombstone Blues’ (Dylan sings five of the six stanzas, omitting only the fourth) and ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’ (done complete), in both of which he caresses the words almost conversationally.

‘To Be Alone With You’ has been almost completely rewritten, with little but tune and title phrase remaining from the Nashville Skyline original. The new lyrics appear as if from the mouth of a later-Dylan narrator from Time Out Of Mind or Modern Times: ‘Did I kill somebody? / Did I escape the law?’, ‘I’ll hound you in death / That’s what I’ll do’. This is virtually a completely new song that will require time to assimilate.

A complete contrast follows with ‘What Was It You Wanted?’, performed with a keen sensitivity (all seven verses complete) in a rendition close to the original with eloquent harmonica: this song, from 1989 and Oh Mercy, will prove to be the show’s most ‘recent’ number. Next comes a heartfelt ‘Forever Young’, followed by ‘Pledging My Time’ – perhaps not the profoundest song on Blonde and Blonde but certainly a surprise – whose classic blues sound, again, does not diverge far from the original.

The surprise factor continues with a moving rendition of ‘The Wicked Messenger’, probably this concert’s darkest song – and arguably its highlight. Against an arrangement denser than on John Wesley Harding, Dylan’s vocal is word perfect, with a dramatic elongation of ‘burning’ at the end of stanza two.

Next comes a rollicking ‘Watching the River Flow’, with some lyric changes but an atmosphere close to the original. Then Dylan returns to slow mode with an eloquent rendering of ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ – a suitably valedictory song to close the show. There is no encore and, indeed, it’s all over.

There remains to be considered the second sequencing, namely the order of composition of the originals (all 13 are Dylan songs, no cover versions). The earliest song, ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’, dates from Bringing It All Back Home in 1965, the latest, ‘What Was It You Wanted?’, from 1989: confounding many fans’ expectations, there is nothing ‘new’, nothing from Rough and Rowdy Ways. At the other end, there is nothing from the first four albums, thus nothing from the ‘folk period’. Overwhelmingly, the songs chosen date from between 1965 and 1971: that is the case for eleven of them (if we include the rewritten ‘To Be Alone With You’, with only two hailing from later than 1971. In addition, Dylan has not on the whole chosen the most famous songs from the period preferred – there is no Like a Rolling Stone, no Mr Tambourine Man: this is a 60s Dylan mainly for connoisseurs.

The Dylan of this concert is essentially the ‘rock Dylan’ of the second half of the 1960s: this is confirmed by the director’s subtitle, ‘The Early Bob Dylan’. That period, though not the era of Dylan’s first fruits, is now sufficiently far away in time to be considered ‘early’. The ‘shadow kingdom’ of the title may, then, suggest a Bob Dylan revisiting the shadows of that faraway time when he was a rock idol and the hippest person on the planet – a confrontation with the past which he has, in this excellent performance, magisterially shared with his audience.

**

Setlist

When I Paint My Masterpiece (More Bob Dylan Greatest Hits, 1971)      

(Most Likely) You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine (Blonde on Blonde, 1966)

Queen Jane Approximately (Highway 61 Revisited, 1965)

I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight (John Wesley Harding, 1968)

Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues (Highway 61 Revisited, 1965)

Tombstone Blues (Highway 61 Revisited, 1965)

To Be Alone With You (Nashville Skyline, 1969 – rewritten)

What Was It You Wanted? (Oh Mercy, 1989)

Forever Young (Planet Waves, 1974)

Pledging My Time (Blonde on Blonde, 1966)

The Wicked Messenger (John Wesley Harding, 1968)

Watching the River Flow (More Bob Dylan Greatest Hits, 1971)

It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue (Bringing It All Back Home, 1965)

Salman Rushdie, Essayist: Review of ‘Languages of Truth’

Salman Rushdie, Languages of Truth: Essays 2003-2020

London: Jonathan Cape, 2021, 356 pp., ISBN 978-1-787-33193-8

Salman Rushdie is not only a major presence in contemporary world literature as the author of fifteen works of fiction (one of them alas with non-literary fame attached): his non-fiction count is now, with this new volume, five, and this is his third essay collection, following on from Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991 and Step Across This Line: Collected Non-fiction 1992-2002. This note will concentrate on the new volume, but we may presume that the set of three essay collections will now prove invaluable to Rushdie scholars seeking to map his ideas over four decades.

Languages of Truth takes its pluralistic title from one of the book’s essays, ‘The Liberty Instinct’, in which Rushdie declares: ‘The magic of the languages of truth is the only magic in which I believe’ (256). Most of the pieces have been previously published, though in a Note on the Texts the author adverts: ‘All the pieces in this book have been thoroughly revised. None of them appear in their original form’ (354). The book differs from its two predecessors in that the pieces are not systematically dated, though dates may be attached to some via brief presentations or internal data. All this suggests that Rushdie would prefer scholars and critics to use his updated versions when citing his opinions on their subject-matter. 

Many of the texts relating to issues of literature or liberty (or both) are institutional in origin, reflecting Rushdie’s established status as major writer. A number originated in lectures given by the author at Atlanta’s Emory University during his stint there as distinguished writer in residence from 2007 to 2012. Other pieces reflect his active participation in PEN America, of which he was president from 2004 to 2006, founding the PEN World Voices Festival. ‘Another Writer’s Beginnings’, in which he relates how he became a novelist, was given in 2016 as the Inaugural Eudora Welty Lecture at the National Cathedral in Washington DC.

Other literary pieces include tributes to Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Gabriel García Márquez and Philip Roth (we learn that the last-named emailed Rushdie in 2017 to congratulate him on his then latest novel, The Golden House, which Rushdie ‘was … surprised and flattered to know that Philip had read and liked’ – 85), and a disquisition on Cervantes and Shakespeare marking the death quadricentennial of both in 2016. There is an obituary for Rushdie’s fellow contrarian Christopher Hitchens, written on the day he died in 2011 and including his heartfelt thanks for Hitchens’ support in the worst years of the fatwa, praising him as ‘the most indefatigable of allies and the most eloquent of defenders’ (238). There are also pieces on photography and visual art, including a detailed account of the classic collective work of Mughal art, the Hamzanama. Politics as such does not get a major look-in, but Rushdie’s hostility to both Trump in the US and Modi in India is evident whenever either is mentioned.

Rushdie is known to dislike feeling obliged to discuss the fatwa today, a position more than understandable if one recalls that The Satanic Verses, his fourth book to be published out of today’s toll of twenty, appeared over thirty years ago. Nonetheless, significant evocations of the matter appear in the Hitchens obituary and the Pinter tribute, in ‘Another Writer’s Beginnings’ (in relation to the Cambridge history course on the origins of Islam where he first learnt of the legend that was to underpin his novel: ‘Twenty years later … I found out just how good a story it was’ – 71); and in a passage in ‘The Liberty Instinct’ where he argues that in reality the novel ‘wasn’t really even about religion. It was about migration’ (252) – an authorial reading evidently alien to his detractors, even though the Islam-related parts which all supposedly ‘know about’ occupy only some twenty per cent of a 547-page novel. Meanwhile the word ‘fatwa’ occurs a mere four times in the collection, and all in all the reader may conclude that Rushdie has successfully decentred the fatwa as leitmotiv, while, equally, not attempting the impossibility of occluding it altogether.

From the Rushdie/fatwa issue it is but a step to the ever-present topic of freedom of expression, and it will be to no-one’s surprise that Rushdie defends that freedom in these pages with all the commitment and eloquence which his readers have come to expect of him as internationally known free speech icon. The issue is dealt with in the PEN pieces (the anti-free speech climate generated in Modi’s India is especially targeted), and again in ‘The Liberty Instinct’. In that essay, Rushdie offers a discussion of the First Amendment which, unlike far too many second-hand evocations of a brief but complex text (which he quotes in full, and how many do?), unequivocally recognises that the amendment simultaneously protects freedom of expression and freedom of religion: ‘Religion and freedom got married on the northern American continent, the First Amendment was the marriage certificate, and the United States was the result’ (245). Elsewhere critical of religion, Rushdie nonetheless recognises the very particular symbiosis between religion and free speech that exists in his adoptive land.

At all events, in the general texts on literary matters the accent is on Rushdie as professional, as a practising  writer with the weight of knowledge and experience, acquired over decades, which that implies. Particularly interesting in this regard are the essays ‘Autobiography and the Novel’ and ‘Wonder Tales’ (both originally delivered at Emory). In the former, Rushdie inveighs against those readers and critics who insist on an autobiographical or roman à clef reading of every novel that falls into their hands, arguing that even where a narrator or character has origins in the real, the creative process confers on the characters an autonomy that allows them to break loose from their real-life antecedents.  Rushdie laments in particular that two of his novels, Midnight’s Children and Fury, were received by many as thinly disguised autobiography, and rather than incur such misunderstandings vows never to use own-life material in fiction again: ‘Nor will any image of the author be discernible in any future fiction I may succeed in writing. I have learned my lesson’ (158).

In ‘Wonder Tales’, Rushdie explores the phenomenon of magic realism, stressing how it is neither fully magical nor fully realist, and is thus a particularly suitable fictional form for signifying cultures imbued with a story-telling tradition of the marvellous. He evokes the Indian origins of the text that started it all, the Thousand and One Nights, and traces how the tradition of the wonder tale, as embodied in that celebrated book, migrated from India to the Arab world and then to Europe, and later from Europe into the Latin American novel and its famed magic realism – and then how Rushdie himself, influenced by García Márquez, repatriated that tradition of the marvellous back to India through the success of Midnight’s Children. Rushdie affirms his pride in this act of bringing it all back home: ‘When  I, in my turn, used some of those devices, I had the feeling of closing a circle and bringing that story tradition all the way back home to the country in which it began’ (10).

Languages of Truth closes on a note different to those sounded earlier. Technically, the last piece in the book consists of two pages of answers to a magazine questionnaire. However, much more substantial as a proper ending are the twelve pages of the eminently contemporary essay entitled ‘Pandemic: a Personal Engagement with the Coronavirus’.  Here we learn how in March 2020 Rushdie contracted what fortunately proved to be a mild form of Covid-19, how he felt under the diagnosis (‘It was dispiriting, but I was lucky’ – 341), but also how he fortified himself in self-isolation by revisiting his favourite auteur films, and how he came out at the other end  (‘regained my health and strength’ – 348) with a renewed vitality of which this book’s existence is the proof. The greatest fear was that the person who had survived Khomeini would succumb to Covid. Instead, we have the voice behind Languages of Truth, a resurgent and resilient Salman Rushdie ready to confront, as ably as ever, both the act of writing and the pressing realities of our day.

**

Note 1

For a portrait of today’s Rushdie, see his conversation with the Guardian’s Hadley Freeman, published on 15 May 2021:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/may/15/salman-rushdie-i-am-stupidly-optimistic-it-got-me-through-those-bad-years

Note 2

I regularly track the allusions in Rushdie’s writing to Bob Dylan, and for Languages of Truth can report that in the essay ‘Heraclitus’ (original publication date not given), Rushdie mentions Dylan’s portrayal of a character named Alias in Sam Peckinpah’s film of 1973, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. In the same breath, Rushdie’s text offers an embedded Dylan quote, in the form of ‘knocking on heaven’s door’ (51) – that is, the title of Dylan’s celebrated song first heard on the soundtrack of that same film.

New Writing on Bob Dylan: Chris Gregory, ‘Determined To Stand’

This year of grace 2021 is also the year of Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday. The occasion is being marked with the appearance of numerous books, new or updated, on the great songwriter, and over what remains of this year I shall be noting some of them on this blog, beginning with the volume by Chris Gregory which I examine below.

Chris Gregory, Determined to Stand: The Reinvention of Bob Dylan, London: Plotted Plain Press, 2021, 336 pp., ISBN 978-0-955-7512-1-9

**

The addition to Dylan lore that Chris Gregory offers us is nothing if not ambitious. Its title reflects something of that ambition: it is a quotation not from a song, but from a 1997 Newsweek interview in which Dylan declared: ‘I’m determined to stand … I’ve got to go out and play these songs. That’s just what I must do’ (42-43).  The resulting title has an air of resilience and ‘Restless Farewell’-type defiance about it, which feels appropriate too for the subtitle, ‘The Reinvention of Bob Dylan’. For Gregory, ‘the extent of the cultural impact of Bob Dylan’s work is almost impossible to measure’ (6), while Dylan as artist ‘remains so much more than just a « popular entertainer »’ (15), and the focus of his book implies that such statements are as valid for the later as for the earlier work.

The ‘reinvention’ referred to concerns the period from 1997 to the present day, in other words the creative renaissance which is generally seen as first manifesting itself with the release of Time Out Of Mind. The author takes this period as a whole as constituting the ‘later Dylan’, and proposes a reading of that period that throws light on it by alternating two different types of text. The first type takes the form of close textual analysis of, if I mistake not, every single song from the period’s six albums of originals (Time Out Of Mind, ‘Love and Theft’, Modern Times, Together Through Life, Tempest and 2020’s Rough and Rowdy Ways), supplemented by a number of non-album songs (‘Things Have Changed’, ‘’Cross the Green Mountain’, etc). The second text type consists of concert narrations from what until recently we knew as the Never Ending Tour: Gregory sets the scene for a given concert and, typically, then offers a detailed appraisal of a particular song (famous or otherwise) performed within it. Structurally, the book thus alternates between lyric analyses and concert recollections.

The song analyses are arranged not chronologically but thematically, with songs juxtaposed according to their subject-matter (dream narratives, murder ballads …), rather than which album they are on. They consist of a mixture of source information and textual exegesis. The author is commendably careful not to identify the songs’ narrators with Dylan himself, correctly reading them as invented characters – and by no means always sympathetic or reliable. Thus, following Michael Gray’s pioneering lead from years ago, Gregory locates these songs (albeit he does not actually use the term) in the genre of the dramatic monologue, à la Robert Browning. For certain songs (‘Workingman’s Blues #2’, ‘Beyond the Horizon’  …), lyric variants are important, and the analyses take due account of such variants, be it in live performance, in released outtake versions or found on the official website (though the Christopher Ricks variorum edition has not been used).

A substantial part of many of the analyses is taken up with the identification of sources, musical, biblical or literary. Alongside Robert Johnson and Hank Williams, Shakespeare and Keats are there, and Edgar Allan Poe, seen as ‘the master storyteller of American darkness’ (46), gets frequent mention, notably for his use of the unreliable narrator. This is the aspect of the book probably most useful to students of Dylan. Intertextuality is a later Dylan watchword: as Gregory states, ‘the fact that his [later] songs were partly constructed of quotations from and references to other songs, works of literature and even obscure informational texts [has] become common knowledge’ (185), and to have the source information at one’s fingertips can only improve our appreciation of songs like ‘Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum’, ‘Highlands’ or of course the recent ‘Murder Most Foul’ (which song, as is only fitting, gets the book’s longest analysis).

The concert sections interspersed with the analytic parts range from the well-known (the 1995 Sinatra birthday event, the papal gig in 1997) to what might seem the randomly selected (indeed. the book opens with 11 March 1995 in Prague and homes in on that night’s ‘Man in the Long Black Coat’ – not the most obvious of choices).

There is much to be harvested from Chris Gregory’s study. The live accounts are richly atmospheric, and the song analyses seek (and attain) a comprehensiveness not always to be found in Dylan studies. I do, however, feel that while the book has considerable potential as a research aid, its effectiveness in practice is somewhat limited by the organisation the author has chosen. The book’s structure privileges what might be called the ‘poetically effective’ over considerations of practical utility. There is a (not always reliable) index and a bibliography, but no footnotes. Equally there are no subheadings or detailed chapter breakdowns, and with the songs not being arranged by album navigation is not always easy. Cavils apart, however, Chris Gregory is to be praised for paying so much detailed attention to the later Dylan, and for the freshness and sheer interest of the interpretations that he offers, in a book that needed writing. 

Happy 80th birthday Bob Dylan!

ITALY AND THE INNER LIFE: JHUMPA LAHIRI’s ‘WHEREABOUTS’

Jhumpa Lahiri, Whereabouts, London: Bloomsbury, 2021, 157 pp. Translated by the author from Italian original, Dove mi trovo (Milan: Ugo Guanda, 2018).

**

This fine, distinctive short novel is the latest work by Jhumpa  Lahiri, who rose to prominence, globally and in the genre known as Indian Writing in English (IWE), in 2000 with her first book, the Pulitzer Prize-winning short story volume Interpreter of Maladies. The London-born author, child of Bengali parents, was educated in the US but now lives in Italy, a circumstance which marks out her new novel as unusual within the IWE genre, since it was originally written and published in Italian and subsequently translated into (American) English by the author herself – a history which should attract the attention of scholars in the field of Translation Studies. The three-year lag between versions means that Lahiri’s English text appears in the time of the pandemic but describes the pre-pandemic world – and thus may be read by some with a nostalgia which was not originally intended.

 

The novel is narrated throughout in the first person, by a woman protagonist who lives alone in a big city and has never married, but is deeply observant of her surroundings and the people she encounters. The woman is not named, and nor are either her city or the country she inhabits. However, internal evidence makes it clear that the country is Italy, as given away when she speaks of trattorias, piazzas or decaying villas, while the city would appear to be Rome. She is presumably of Italian extraction, given her recollections of her family, which give out a sense of them being long-established there.

The book consists of forty-six monologues of varying length, with titles like ‘At dawn’, ‘On the balcony’, ‘In the bookstore’ or ‘At the supermarket’. We accompany the protagonist in her day-to-day activities, observing people and things, sometimes interacting with others but returning home alone. There is some narrational development: towards the end, she decides to go away for an extended absence, to somewhere across the border in an unnamed foreign country, and we last see her on the train heading for her new destination.

The narrating voice is sensitively and cohesively maintained across the novel. The protagonist is characterised by a rich inner life, and there are passages whose introspective depth recalls the Fernando Pessoa of The Book of Solitude/O Livro do Desassossego. Her thoughts and feelings strike parallel chords in the reader: in a time of divided identities, this narration, set in Italy by an author of UK/US/Indian origins, comes across in its emotional accessibility as a plea for a shared humanity and its universalism.

LIGHTING UP THE WORDS ON THE PAGE: JOHN MULLAN’S ‘THE ARTFUL DICKENS’

LIGHTING UP THE WORDS ON THE PAGE: JOHN MULLAN’S ‘THE ARTFUL DICKENS’

John Mullan, The Artful Dickens: The Tricks and Ploys of the Great Novelist, London: Bloomsbury, 2020, 428 pp.

**

The appreciation and study of the work of Charles Dickens are notably enriched by John Mullan’s ambitious and impressive The Artful Dickens. The author, noting that ‘Dickens’s very popularity seems to have made it hard to recognise his technical boldness and his experimental verve’, conversely stresses that ‘our enjoyment of Dickens does not come despite our better judgement, but because of his extraordinary skills as a novelist’ (34). Mullan reminds us that despite the deadlines of serial publication, Dickens was a keen and frequent redrafter, as is abundantly clear from the various archive collections, notably at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.

Over fourteen chapters, the author ably lights up multiple facets of Dickens’ writing – essentially the fifteen novels, with occasional forays into the shorter works and non-fiction – always being careful to demonstrate his assertions with palpable quotes from the books themselves, and gliding effortlessly from novel to novel to home in on just the right passages to evidence his theses.

The aspects of Dickens’ work explored are both substantive and formal. Concrete themes examined include death by drowning and the ins and outs of ghosts and haunting; more formal elements include the naming of the characters, the individuality of their voices, the use of coincidence, repetitions and lists, and, in perhaps the most revealing chapter, Dickens’ masterly manipulation and subversion of the cliché. With all this, characters like Alfred Jingle, Flora Finching or the Veneerings come to be known by the reader as rarely if ever before.

This book is guaranteed to send the reader back to the novels and re-read Charles Dickens’ words on the page with more alert and attentive eyes. This is a feat not all works of criticism can achieve, but John Mullan’s study is exemplary in this regard, and it is hoped it will inspire similar studies of other writers too!

RICHARD THOMPSON’S ‘BEESWING’: A MUSICAL GENRE IS BORN

Richard Thompson with Scott Timberg: Beeswing – Losing My Way and Finding My Voice 1967-1975, Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Algonquin Books, 2021

Gifted singer-songwriter, virtuoso guitarist and co-creator of the folk-rock musical genre: Richard Thompson, now aged 72, is recognised by the cognoscenti as a vital figure in British popular music, has achieved a degree of commercial success and has been awarded an OBE, but it would be an exaggeration to call him a household name. Nonetheless, he has built up a loyal following over the years and is seen as eminently British despite living today in the US, and as long ago as 1996 his career merited an excellent write-up in the form of Patrick Humphries’ Richard Thompson: Strange Affair – the Biography. That volume is now complemented by Richard’s own memoir, written with the assistance of author and journalist Scott Timberg (who sadly died in 2019 before the project was finished).

Beeswing (named after a Thompson song from 1994) is not a full autobiography, taking in – and here it resembles Bob Dylan’s memoir Chronicles from 2004 – only a part of the artist’s working life, namely the formative years from 1967 to 1975. Over those years, Richard recorded and performed as a member of the legendary group Fairport Convention, as a solo artist and session musician, and as half of a duo with Linda Thompson (née Peters), his wife with whom he recorded six albums between their marriage in 1972 and break-up ten years later. Fairport began as a US-influenced psychedelic folk group, and gradually moved towards traditional music. The high point so far of Richard’s career is generally considered to be Liege and Lief, the historic album which he recorded with Fairport in 1969 and which ushered in a new popular music genre, in the form of British, roots folk-rock.

As far as personal life is concerned, Richard begins at the beginning and takes us through his London childhood (his father was of Scottish origin, his mother English) and his education at William Ellis, a grammar school whose usual Oxbridge ambitions for its bright pupils left the budding artist cold. Once he has discovered his true musical gifts, the narration weaves an equitable tissue balanced between, for both Richard and his associates, ‘life’ and ‘work’ (en route we learn a lot about Sandy Denny, the great vocalist who as lead singer contributed so much to Fairport’s unique sound and who died tragically young in 1978). Key biographical events are given their due weight, from the 1969 motorway crash which claimed two victims (Fairport’s drummer and Richard’s then partner) and could have killed Richard himself, to the much-publicised conversion of the Thompson couple to Sufism in 1974. At the same time, the book contains a feast of music-related information – origins of the songs, making of the albums, recording techniques, performances at a host of venues – which will delight connoisseurs of the sounds of the period. Thompson has, I believe, succeeded in striking the right balance, as – to compare similar publications – achieved by Sylvie Simmons in her 2011 life of Leonard Cohen, and, as I see it, missed by Bruce Springsteen in his autobiography of 2016, which I found too often lacked in-depth discussions of the music.

We learn about the multiple influences on Richard Thompson’s music and songwriting. His musical enthusiasms are centred on the folk tradition but also take in jazz (Fats Waller, Django Reinhardt), music-hall, rock’n’roll, the American roots-rock of The Band, and English classical composers including Vaughan Williams, Elgar and Delius. His reading ranges from classic authors such as Walter Scott and Thomas Hardy or a poet like Robert Burns to contemporaries like Jack Kerouac and esoteric writings by the likes of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky (for years he was a regular frequenter of Watkins, London’s premier esoteric bookshop).

As is only to be expected, the influence of Bob Dylan looms large. Our songwriter does not raise the influence of the US master on his own writing (though it is certainly there!), with the one exception of the Fairport title ‘It’s Alright Ma, It’s Only Witchcraft’, an obvious nod to Dylan’s ‘It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding’). However, he does go into detail over a number of the Dylan songs covered by Fairport.  Recording obscure Dylan material was one of the early Fairport’s trademarks, and Richard sheds light on how the group managed to access two such songs, finding ‘I’ll Keep It With Mine’ on a Judy Collins B-side and discovering ‘Percy’s Song’ from a cut with Joan Baez in the Dylan film ‘Don’t Look Back’. We also learn that Bob Dylan was in the audience – provoking a fit of nerves in Sandy– at a Fairport gig in New York in 1971.

The book contains valuable information on the genesis and history of many of Richard Thompson’s and Fairport’s finest recordings. We learn how Fairport’s producer, the highly professional Joe Boyd, gave the nascent band ‘Chelsea Morning’ and ‘I Don’t Know Where I Stand’, unreleased songs by a protégée of his called Joni Mitchell which were to feature on the group’s debut album, called simply Fairport Convention and released in 1968. We are allowed to relive how Fairport auditioned Sandy Denny and she then proceeded to audition them! Richard narrates Fairport’s (and his) one and only appearance on the TV chart show Top of the Pops, featuring ‘Si Tu Dois Partir’, their French-language, Cajuned-up cover of Dylan’s’If You Gotta Go, Go Now’, which gave them a surprise novelty hit, peaking at No 19, and featured on their 1969 album Unhalfbricking. We are also given a detailed account of the recording for the same album of ‘A Sailor’s Life’, the traditional song which marked out a new direction for Fairport and brought folk violin maestro Dave Swarbrick into the group.

Richard left Fairport in 1971 and released the solo album Henry the Human Fly the next year. It was followed by a sequence of six Richard and Linda Thompson albums.

In Beeswing, Henry and the first three Richard and Linda albums – I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, Hokey Pokey and Pour Down Like Silver – receive in-depth song analysis (albeit for the last-named there is no mention of its stellar track ‘Dimming of the Day’, despite that song being one of Richard’s most covered compositions). There is next to nothing on the fourth and fifth albums (First Light and Sunnyvista), and the sixth and last, the magnificent Shoot Out The Lights, gets little more, but that is no doubt because those albums fall outside the book’s timeframe.

What I found to be the most interesting thing in the book is the account of the making of Fairport Convention’s masterpiece, the great Liege and Lief album, and above all its textual side. The then five members of Fairport, with ethnomusical expert Ashley Hutchings at the helm, worked their way through multiple versions of the traditional ballads chosen for consideration for the album, collating and comparing texts from the famous Francis Child collection, the English Folk Dance and Song Society archive and other sources. They did not hesitate to combine versions and add or subtract verses with a view to creating the most singable version and that which told the best story. It was a process similar to that employed by Walter Scott when compiling his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, and the result was the renditions of ‘Tam Lin’, ‘Matty Groves’, ‘Reynardine’ and ‘The Deserter’ that graced Liege and Lief when it came out in 1969.

Liege and Lief may be the narration’s apex – as Thompson says near the end, ‘We really did invent a genre of music, and not many can say that’ – but Beeswing as a whole offers a rich abundance of musically and historically fascinating material. As the book winds down, the reader may ask if this is really the end of the road for Richard Thompson’s reminiscences: if more is to come, the appreciation of British folk rock and history will be enriched even further.

**

NOTE : I have written on Richard Thompson and Fairport elsewhere at:

*Review of Patrick Humphries, Strange Affair,  1996 –  https://groups.google.com/g/rec.arts.books.reviews/c/90N6LZTsqJ0/m/0D1cEFyDyS4J

*Entry ‘Richard Thompson’, The Bob Dylan Who’s Who, Expecting Rain website, 1996 –  https://www.expectingrain.com/dok/who/t/thompsonrichard.html

*CD review:  ‘“A Tree with Roots”: Fairport Convention and friends and the Songs of Bob Dylan”, The Bridge (Gateshead, UK), No 62, Winter 2018, 75-79; online at: https://rollason.wordpress.com/2018/08/25/review-of-a-tree-with-roots-fairport-convention-friends-and-the-songs-of-bob-dylan/

THE RULE OF INFLUENCE: ALEX ROSS’S ‘WAGNERISM’

I have recently finished reading Alex Ross’s epic tome Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music (London: Fourth Estate, 2020, x + 769 pp.). The New Yorker’s music critic has produced a remarkable volume indeed, part life of Wagner and part catalogue and analysis of the composer’s influence in and beyond his time, mainly outside his own realm of music and in such disparate fields as literature, philosophy, visual arts, theatre, dance and cinema.

The reader is shown how Wagner – as bearer of what was everywhere proclaimed as ‘the music of the future’ – looms large in the work of a massive swathe of artistic creators of the period, across a span of names including not only an obvious case like Friedrich Nietzsche, but also Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, Thomas Mann, Henry James, Willa Cather, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, Bernard Shaw, Wassily Kandinsky, Aubrey Beardsley, Isadora Duncan, Rudolf Nureyev, Sergei Eisenstein … the list goes on. Ross ably summarises the well-worn political and ideological controversies surrounding Wagner, and examines the Bayreuth phenomenon and concepts such as the Leitmotiv and the total artwork, but the main thrust of his argument centres on the question of influence: quite simply, the late nineteenth and early twentieth century arts in the Western world would not have been the same without the informing presence of Richard Wagner.

The book is also a monument to the encyclopaedic capabilities of our time. It was twelve years in the making: the usual acknowledgments are of course there, but the book as a whole bears above all the stamp of its author – illuminating a heritage that is collective, but from a research angle marked by the persistent, overriding vision of an individual committed to his subject. The author’s research has clearly been both meticulous and passionate, the product of a fine-comb exploration of both print and online sources (the latter logged in the notes), in search of Wagnerian allusions and parallels across the cultural heritage. The book would have been possible without the internet, but would inevitably not have been so all-embracing.

Since I read it, Alex Ross’s volume has impacted directly on my own cultural choices, already sending me to the classic Wagnerian essays by Baudelaire and Shaw, both of which I owned but had never read, and impelling me to devote an attentive hearing to Lohengrin (my choice since, years ago, it was the first Wagner opera I swallowed whole) – and appreciate it as never before.

Alex Ross concludes, in response to the complexity of the Wagnerism phenomenon, that  Wagner ‘requires the most active and critical kind of listening’ (659). Such a claim is justified by the breadth and depth of his book. All in all, I would call Wagnerism a major cultural event, as well as a demonstration of the continued possibilities of traditional research in the internet age.