Rohase Piercy's Blog

May 5, 2019

Holmes, Watson and the Spotted Dog ...

When a kind friend offered to take me to a matinee performance of The Sign of Four at the Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne, I accepted eagerly thinking 'Oh, it'll be a bit of fun'. To be honest, I wasn't expecting anything special, and I certainly wasn't expecting to come away with a whole new perspective on the Holmes/Watson relationship! But Blackeyed Theatre's production, adapted from the original by Nick Lane, proved to be quite extraordinary: with just six actors playing multiple parts, the strategic re-arranging of a few simple props and a specially composed background score, they present an intriguing and immersive version of the second Sherlock Holmes story that holds up whether or not one is familiar with the original.

Although Luke Barton doesn't fit Arthur Conan Doyle's original description of Holmes (too blond, too manly), he gives a bravura performance, veering between drug-induced apathy and twitchy, manic focus; and Joseph Derrington's Watson is a delight – handsome, soldierly, kind and intelligent. Stephanie Rutherford is a lively, inquisitive Mary Morstan who's given a bit more to say for herself than Doyle allows her, as well as a rather saucy Mrs Hudson who teases Watson with allusions to a mystery incident that he obviously doesn't want Holmes to know about – 'The Case Of The Spotted Dog'. Ru Hamilton is a brilliantly camp, hypochondriacal Thaddeus Sholto, Zach Lee plays Jonathan Small as a working-class anti-hero, and Christopher Glover manages to win sympathy for poor, bumbling Athelney Jones whilst also playing no less than four Indian gentlemen. All minor characters are shared between the cast, and their versatility doesn't end there: the incidental background score requires anyone not on stage to take up an instrument and play live, and between them they treat us to performances on xylophone, trumpet, guitar, violin, sax, clarinet and flute! It's a gem of a production, and my only criticism would be that the second half is a bit heavy on the explanations and preaching (about the role of the British in India, the attitude of the 'civilised' West towards foreigners, etc – obviously geared to be relevant, but laid on a bit thick for my liking).

However, the main revelation for me was – wait for it – a totally believable relationship between a straight Watson and an asexual, aspergery Holmes! This is something that not only failed to convince me in the original stories with their strong pre-Freudian homosexual subtext, but has continued to evade me in practically every stage and screen depiction of the Holmes/Watson partnership I've seen. Blackeyed Theatre's take on the courtship between Watson and Mary Morstan begins with an obvious spark between them at the initial interview, and continues with hesitant shared moments snatched here and there, an 'accidental' brushing of hands, and finally a shy kiss (in which Mary takes the initiative!) Beautifully done, and Holmes' dry observation and shrugging acceptance of the situation does not, for once, ring hollow. This left me quite gobsmacked as I contemplated the awful possibility that Holmes and Watson might, at a pinch, have been 'just good friends' all along ... fortunately, the impression has proved fleeting ...

Blackeyed Theatre's 'Sherlock Holmes: The Sign Of Four' has been touring the UK since last Autumn, and if you want to catch a performance there's only a month left before they're off to conquer China! But if you can get to one, you won't regret it. Oh, and as for the 'Case Of The Spotted Dog' – don't hold your breath.
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Published on May 05, 2019 07:46

April 18, 2019

'The Trials Of Oscar Wilde'

Last week I was lucky enough to attend a performance of 'The Trials of Oscar Wilde', performed by the European Arts Company at Brighton's iconic Royal Pavilion. It's a two-act play co-written by John O'Connor and Merlin Holland (Wilde's grandson), based on the trials that led to Oscar's downfall and imprisonment – the unsuccessful libel trial he instigated against the Marquess of Queensberry (father of his lover Lord Alfred Douglas) for leaving a mis-spelled card at his club inscribed 'To Oscar Wilde, posing as somdomite', and the two subsequent criminal trials that turned the tables on Wilde and resulted in his conviction for gross indecency and a sentence of two years' imprisonment with hard labour.

The dialogue is closely based on actual transcripts of the trials, interspersed by reflective monologues from Wilde and short excerpts from The Importance of Being Earnest', and the cast comprises just four actors: John Gorick plays Wilde to perfection in silk cravat and embroidered waistcoat, all dandified confidence and sparkling wit until wrong-footed by a reference to a certain young manservant named Walter Grainger:

Sir Edward Carson QC: Did you ever kiss him?

Oscar: Oh dear no. He was a peculiarly plain boy. He was, unfortunately, extremely ugly …

All the other parts are shared between Rupert Mason, Benjamin Darlington and Patrick Knox, who often have to switch characters at lightning speed with the aid of a few simple props and a change of accent and posture – a challenge met effortlessly and seamlessly by all three. The fact that the play was performed in the Royal Pavilion's sumptuous Music Room where Wilde himself once lectured added authenticity to the experience of 'listening in' on the trial, and since there were several references to Brighton, and to neighbouring Worthing, there was a real sense of local involvement. For example:

Sir Edward Carson QC: So, Mr Wilde, you met this young man, whom you'd never seen before, on the beach at Worthing and within a couple of days you'd bought him an entire suit of clothes, a straw hat, a cigarette case ... why? To dress him up and take him to Brighton?

Oscar: No ... no.

Sir Edward Carson (incredulously): You dressed him up for Worthing? (Cue smug Brightonian laughter and applause).

It was a long evening – each act lasting an hour, with a half-hour interval – but the interval included a free glass of wine in the Banqueting Room and the opportunity to wander through the newly refurbished Saloon with its suitably decadent silver, gold and crimson curtains, swags and wall panels. It was a very special experience all round, and my only criticism would concern the excerpts from 'Earnest' that punctuate the play – it may have been playing to packed audiences at the St James' Theatre at the time of Wilde's arrest, but any modern-day audience unfamiliar with the quotes might find them a little confusing, I thought.

The European Arts Company are touring the UK with the play until 1st June, and if you can make it to a performance you won't regret it – here's a link with dates and venues: http://www.europeanarts.co.uk/next

If you can't get to a performance, there's a consolation treat coming up on BBC2 on Easter Saturday from 9.00 – 10.30 – 'The Importance Of Being Oscar', a portrait of Wilde's life and work featuring Merlin Holland, Stephen Fry and a star-studded cast performing scenes from his work. Enjoy!
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Published on April 18, 2019 07:44

April 7, 2019

'The Coward Does It With A Kiss' is out!

Well today (7th April) marks 121 years since Constance Wilde's death, at the early age of forty, from what is now believed to have been Multiple Sclerosis. Several authors have given her a voice over the years, including fellow Goodreads Author Lexi Wolfe in Women Of Forgotten Importance: Three Stories and of course Franny Moyle with her 2011 biography Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs. Oscar Wilde; and now my own contribution, The Coward Does it with a Kiss has been updated and is available in both paperback and Kindle on Amazon! Here's the blurb to whet your appetites:

"It has often been said (how often!) that I could not be blamed for having misunderstood you, that your actions were and are beyond the comprehension of decent people. But I do understand you, Oscar; I understand you perfectly well. It is myself, myself I do not understand."
'Following Oscar Wilde's imprisonment for gross indecency in 1895, his wife Constance seeks refuge on the Continent with their two young sons. She and her husband are never to meet again. Reading through the diaries in which she recorded her thoughts, feelings and reactions throughout their marriage, she writes an extended letter to Oscar in which she tries to make sense of their shared past, examines the truths and deceptions of their relationship, and searches desperately for a handle onto her own identity. Drawing on the recorded facts of the Wildes' marriage and their final years of separate self-imposed exile, this is the memoir Constance Wilde might have written, a moving testimony to a love that was inevitably doomed.'

As I explain in the Preface, much has been discovered about Constance since The Coward was first published back in 1990, and I've tried to be wisely selective in incorporating new material into the narrative as I didn't want to clog the flow of her retrospection with new facts and dates unnecessarily, especially if they would have had no major impact upon her thoughts and feelings during her final months. I do hope that anyone who's read the original version will find that The Coward Does it with a Kiss still offers a plausible picture of what Constance Wilde might have been thinking, feeling and wanting to say during the last three months of her life!
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Published on April 07, 2019 11:50

March 20, 2019

Brush Up Your Shakespeare?

Last Friday (March 15th) a fellow alumna of Mary Datchelor Girls School put up a photo on the Old Girls' Facebook page: a bottle of Kraft Classic Caesar salad dressing speared by a kitchen knife. The comments came thick and fast: “I referred to it being the Ides of March at work yesterday, and had to explain it to a load of blank faces ...” “At dinner with some Portuguese friends I made the mistake of referring to the Ides of March ... wished I'd never mentioned it!” “Et tu, Brute?” etc ...

There followed a long, nostalgic thread about the various Shakespeare plays we Grammar School gals were required to study as part of the 1960s/70s curriculum – Midsummer Night's Dream in First Year, followed by Twelfth Night, Merchant of Venice, The Tempest, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Romeo & Juliet, Coriolanus, King Lear, and for some of the older generation, Henry IV Part 1 – all of which featured in our annual Shakespeare Festival, produced by Head of Drama, theatrical impresario and all-round diva Miss Cronin. Memories of 'Julius Caesar' featured heavily: "I remember this scene where we were all supposed to 'flee' and nobody moved ... Miss Cronin said 'You're supposed to bloody flee!' First time I'd heard a teacher swear!" "I remember during a particularly strenuous 'Hail Caesar!' my Mum's brooch holding my toga together failed me!" "I got a fit of the giggles playing Caesar's corpse …"

We reminisced about school trips to the theatre ("Do you remember Diana Rigg as Lady Macbeth at the Old Vic?") and film viewings ("Who remembers the Zefirelli Romeo & Juliet with Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting? Lots of 16 year old girls sobbing their hearts out …") - not to mention, of course, the dreaded 'O' and 'A' Level exams, quotes memorised, themes analysed, characters criticised ... all of which resulted in us leaving school with quite an impressive (and seemingly indelible) memory bank of Shakespeare quotes.

Has this been an advantage to us in later life? Well, those of us who went on to become English teachers/professors, actresses/producers, journalists or, ahem, writers will obviously answer in the affirmative. But with the Bard being studied less and less in state schools nowadays (I'm sure my own daughters only did Romeo & Juliet and Macbeth), and modern-day language adaptations such as the BBC's 2005 'Shakespeare Re-Told' series doing away with the need to get to grips with iambic pentameter, do we really still need to 'brush up our Shakespeare' as Cole Porter so tunefully advised?

Well, it'd be a shame not to, in my opinion. The four modern interpretations presented in 'Shakespeare Re-Told' had some very witty moments (Macbeth's 'Birnam Wood to Dunsinane' riddle was reinterpreted as the assurance "Pigs'll fly before you go down!" followed by the sound of police choppers whirring overhead) but I still don't think they were a patch on the originals. The 2001 modern language version of 'Othello' starring Keely Hawes and Eamonn Walker did a good job of highlighting racism in high office and felt very relevant, but there was no heartbreakingly succinct "Put out the light, and then put out the light", no eloquent self analysis by "one not easily jealous, but being wrought, perplexed in the extreme …" The 2018 modern-dress King Lear starring Anthony Hopkins preserved the original language, but was so radically pruned and shortened as to lose the psychological integrity of the plot, leaving Mr B (whose Shakespeare education is non-existent) both baffled and incredulous - though he'd thoroughly enjoyed the 'Hollow Crown' series of historical plays, performed in period costume and original language.

Like Jane Austen's novels, Shakespeare's plays are so deeply rooted in human nature and psychological insight that they can, if well acted, easily engage a modern audience without updating the language. And apart from all that, it's quite cathartic to intone "Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war!" in moments of challenge, threaten to "do such things - what they are yet I know not, but they shall be the terrors of the earth", mutter "Out, damned spot!" at a stubborn stain, or step on the scales mouthing "Oh that this too, too solid flesh would melt …"

PS: For those who do like a bit of 'Shakespeare with a twist', I can thoroughly recommend No Holds Bard: Modern LGBTQ+ fiction inspired by the works of William Shakespeare featuring a variety of writers with in-depth knowledge of the plays - including fellow Goodreads authors Julie Bozza and Bryn Hammond.
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Published on March 20, 2019 08:30

February 16, 2019

Cover Story ...

Charlie Raven and I, aka The Raven's Book Bunker, have been putting together a cover design for the new edition of The Coward Does it with a Kiss. Well, when I say 'Charlie and I', I actually mean Charlie – she's the tech-savvy one – I just sit there on the edge of my seat saying 'Ooh, that looks nice', 'No, not that colour, a bit darker', 'Can you get rid of that bit?' and so on …. she's very patient, for which I am very grateful!

The original cover (for the Gay Men's Press edition published back in 1990) features a rather portly, grumpy-looking Constance Wilde with hubby Oscar in the background sporting a green carnation. It's got a nice green background, which I wanted to keep as it was a colour associated with the Aesthetic Movement and one which Constance often wore; but I wanted something a little more symbolic of their relationship than just a picture of the two of them on the front. We toyed with the idea of a theatre programme, green carnation, lily and wedding ring arrangement, but on reflection it seemed a bit too cerebral, as well as confusing to any reader not already familiar with Oscar Wilde's story. So we thought we'd try a set of photographs scattered on a table - Constance, Oscar, their two sons Cyril and Vyvian, and Bosie Douglas (O's lover).

I had several such photos handy, snipped from various books I'd used for research nearly thirty years ago and therefore looking suitably aged – so we set them out in a fan shape, on a table draped with a William Morris style curtain. Then we added my wedding ring, which happens to be of the Russian variety, made up of three bands – because as Constance might have said (though it was Princess Diana who did), 'there are three of us in this marriage'. The result looked both crowded and confused, with no space for the title that did not involve writing over the photos.

So we decided to eliminate the children, as it were, and have just Constance, Oscar and Bosie. This should have worked well, but we ended up with Bosie folded in half along the spine so that he might as well not be there.

We took the hint, and tried it with just Constance and Oscar (as per the original GMP illustration!) with the wedding ring between them – and were presented with an option to place this image half on the front cover and half on the back, with the ring on the spine. The more we looked at this, the more we found we liked it - Constance taking precedence on the front with her husband on the back, by the blurb. It symbolised their separation, Oscar's hidden life, and the fact that their story is told from Constance's point of view, and it left plenty of room to place the title in a nice arty font on the green background. The text on the back will need adjusting – it'll be a shorter blurb than originally intended, to accommodate Oscar's picture – but all in all, it's shaping up nicely.

At this point I expect you're hoping to see a photo - but guess what, technophobe that I am, I can't work out how upload one! Hopefully you won't be too disappointed when you see the end result in a few weeks' time … official publication date is 7th April, the anniversary of Constance's death, so not long to go now. Watch this space!
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Published on February 16, 2019 12:50

January 20, 2019

The Not-So-Happy Prince

Well I finally got round to watching Ruper Everett's 'The Happy Prince'! I'd read some mixed reviews, so didn't set my expectations too high - but I must say I really enjoyed it.

It tackles the final three years of Oscar Wilde's life, spent in exile in France following his release from prison in May 1897 (events leading up to his disgrace and imprisonment are seen in flashback). As loyal friends Robbie Ross and Reggie Turner attempt to support him in exile, exhorting him to at least try and live within his greatly reduced means and shielding him from the snubs and humiliations dished out by fellow expatriates, Oscar drifts helplessly and self-destructively back into the toxic embrace of Bosie Douglas, and thence to recriminations, rent boys, near-destitution and early death (in 1900, at the age of forty-six). Wilde's short story The Happy Prince, whose tragic hero's charmed life is broken in upon by the realities of sorrow, poverty and suffering, is interwoven into the narrative as Oscar retells it, firstly to his sons Cyril and Vyvyan in flashback, and then to the young brother of a Parisian rent boy whom he befriends.

Rupert Everett is a very convincing Oscar, Colin Morgan a suitably pretty, spoilt and vindictive Bosie, Edwin Thomas a loyal and patient Robbie Ross and Colin Firth a long-suffering Reggie Turner. But the character I was most interested in was, of course, Oscar's estranged wife Constance, who also lived in exile on the Continent until her early death in 1898. Emily Watson has only a few short scenes in which to perfect her portrayal, but gives a moving and convincing performance; her Constance is both dignified and stoical, crippled by back pain and walking with sticks, torn between her love for the husband who has brought ruin upon his family and a steely determination to protect her sons from the fallout of their father's disgrace. She is shown in conversation with the legal advisers who repeatedly tried to persuade her to divorce her errant husband; planning to travel to Genoa for an operation to relieve her pain; and visiting Oscar in a dream at the time of her death. It's obviously a simplified snapshot of the long and tortuous three years during which Constance, having adopted the family name of Holland, stayed firstly with her brother Otho in Bevaix, then at a pension in Heidleberg, then in a friend's villa at Nervi on the Italian Riviera while her traumatised sons failed to settle at a series of different schools. Her letters show that her feelings towards Oscar fluctuated wildly during those years, veering from disgust and recrimination to care and compassion. She steadfastly resisted family pressure to divorce him, even when at her most angry and conficted. Her death at the age of forty following a botched operation by gynaecologist Dr Luigi Maria Bossi was tragic – Dr Bossi's theory that all women's health issues were gynaecological in origin led him to perform a completely unnecessary procedure upon her. Her brother Otho tried to take legal action against him after her death but was dissuaded on the grounds that she had freely consented to undergo the procedure.

In 'The Happy Prince' Rupert Everett employs Richard Ellmann's theory that both Constance's and Oscar's early deaths were caused by syphilis, passed from him to her at some point in their marriage; it's used to dramatic effect, but this is not what the medical profession now believes. Oscar died from meningitis resulting from a severe ear infection, and Constance's intermittent pain and partial paralysis were symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis, a recognised but little understood condition in the late 19th century.

I do think one reason The Happy Prince has failed to ignite enthusiasm amongst a wider audience is its reliance upon the viewer having some prior acquaintance with Oscar Wilde's story. I can see that someone who comes to the film completely ignorant about its hero's rise and fall would find it disjointed and confusing. But I myself was impressed, moved and entertained, and it's inspired me to crack on and get Constance's side of the story out there. Hopefully the new edition of The Coward Does it with a Kiss will be available in time for the 121st anniversary of her death, on 7th April 2019!
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Published on January 20, 2019 06:14

December 30, 2018

Happy New Year!

As 2018 draws to a close, I'd like to thank my fellow Goodreads authors for all the pleasure their writing has given me over the past twelve months.

As well as devouring the latest offerings of some of my favourite wordsmiths, I've discovered several new authors whose writing has blown me away – some of them established and successful, others less so (skill and talent being no guarantee of success in these market-driven days); and I want to say a special thankyou to those with whom I've made personal contact, and who’ve been kind enough to encourage me in my own writing.

I'm so grateful to Narrelle M. Harris whose The Adventure of the Colonial Boy and A Dream to Build a Kiss on I absolutely loved, and who's been more than generous in her reviews of my books; to Bryn Hammond whose Against Walls took me to a fascinating place and time that I otherwise never would have visited; to Julie Bozza whose The Butterfly Hunter Trilogy I'm currently devouring with great relish; and to Lexi Wolfe whose play 'Mrs Oscar Wilde in Women Of Forgotten Importance: Three Stories inspired me to update my own Constance Wilde story, and whose Vampire novel Better Off Dead is now on my to-read list. Dan Andriacco's blogs have helped keep me up to date with all things Holmesian/Sherlockian, and his Sebastian McCabe/Jeff Cody mysteries are also on my to-read list for 2019; Elinor Gray's editorship of The Watsonian has made it a delight to read this year and has introduced me to the witty, erudite and sometimes irreverent writing of the John H Watson Society. It was lovely to meet Richard Gough-Buijs at the Brighton Book Fayre in November – his The Gluten Free Mediterranean Cookbookwas greeted with cries of delight by my foodie/coeliac daughter on Christmas day - and to share a stall with Jane Traies, whose ground-breaking book Now You See Me: Lesbian Life Stories contains some interviews that I had the privilege of transcribing, and Val Brown whose biography toupie lowther her life filled many gaps in my inventory of early 20th century lesbians. And last but not least, my old partner in crime Charlie Raven not only wrote the Foreword to the 30th Anniversary edition of My Dearest Holmes but also designed the cover and cast an editorial eye over the text, thereby committing herself to having to do the same for the new edition of The Coward Does it with a Kiss, due out in April.

Thanks so much to you all, and to all those other authors, dead and alive, whose books I've enjoyed over the course of 2018! Here's hoping for lashings of inspiration, creativity, great writing and of course success for all of us in the New Year ahead.
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Published on December 30, 2018 12:51

December 2, 2018

The Book Fayre experience ...

The Brighton Book Fayre (Sat 24th November) was a cheery if cold event at which I shared a stall with fellow LGBTQ authors Jane Traies, author of Now You See Me: Lesbian Life Stories and Val Brown (toupie lowther her life). As well as grabbing the opportunity to make a few Christmas sales it was a great opportunity to make contact with other local authors. It started slowly as these things do, with all of us cradling coffees, rubbing gloved hands together (I speak of the Northern Hemisphere here, apologies to all you sun-kissed Antipodeans!) and beaming encouragingly at passers-by whilst covertly checking out the competition; but the camaraderie soon built up as the day wore on and a steady stream of bemused shoppers drifted into the Open Market seeking shelter from the rain, surveyed the huddle of stalls occupying the central space with some bemusement and then turned their attention to the regular emporia: cafes interspersed with purveyors of hobby crafts, hand-carved stools & walking sticks, hippy-boutique-style clothing, local farm produce, herbal remedies, fresh vegetables and food (Greek, Middle Eastern, Italian, Vegetarian, Vegan, you name it ...)

Our stall displayed laminated blurbs for each of the seven books on offer so that potential buyers could browse without having to handle the goods, but the temptation to leap to one's feet and weigh in with some hard sell whenever someone paused to cast an eye over them was hard to resist, as was the lure of cafes offering sustenance to keep out the cold – our presence boosted their regular income nicely, and I myself disposed of three Cappucinos and an artisan toasted cheese sandwich before noon … but I digress. As I was saying, as the day wore on we authors detached ourselves from our stalls to stretch cramped limbs, stamp some circulation back into frozen feet and make regular trips to the loo (and straight back again if we'd forgotten the entrance code to said convenience) - and of course we took the opportunity to browse one another's offerings en route, striking up conversations and exchanging business cards.

Our stall, 'Wyrd Sisters Ink', made a modest number of sales; but equally importantly we made several new contacts (including fellow Goodreads authors Richard Gough-Buijs, who helped organise the event, and Diny van Kleeff) and were able to swap plans for/information about local events and venues. I even came away with a couple of interesting literary purchases … (Here's a thing though: if an author you've never met or read before suggests doing an exchange, one of their books for one of yours, how do you know if you've got a good bargain? I mean, you know your own stuff is bloody brilliant, and what if you end up swapping your masterpiece for a load of old self-indulgent, badly written dollytwaddle? It's an act of trust, I have to say …)

Anyway, it was an enjoyable learning curve! Wouldn't have missed it for the world. (Note to self: if attending next year, remember to (a) bring fewer books, (b) wear more layers (c) drink less coffee). Merry Christmas, everyone!
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Published on December 02, 2018 08:15

November 4, 2018

Death In Venice Revisited Again!

Well, I said back in May that I was going to re-read Death in Venice following my blog about the Luchino Visconti film, and I finally got round to doing it! Death in Venice and Other Stories, translated and introduced by David Luke, is a fine selection of Thomas Mann's work and preserves his beautiful, vivid and thoughtful style - though it does give the impression, erroneous or otherwise, that his entire literary output centred around the male midlife crisis ...

'Death In Venice' is the final story of the selection, and it is, as the translator says, the best. I was surprised to discover how closely the Visconti film does actually follow the original text, given the critics' observations quoted in my 2nd May blog. I would not now agree that the film 'loses the philosophical content of the Thomas Mann work', or that there is 'no indication in the novel that Tadzio is anything more than vaguely aware of the older man's interest.' Granted, the whole weight of the story rests upon von Aschenbach's struggle to maintain his dignity in the face of his obsession with a fourteen year old boy, and to identify his infatuation as aesthetic appreciation (Platonic Eros) rather than middle-aged lust (Dionysos); but the 'Apollonian/Dionysian' dichotomy so beloved of Mann's hero Friedrich Nietzsche is very evident in the film, heartbreakingly portrayed in Dirk Bogarde's performance.
As regards Tadzio's awareness of Aschenbach's interest, the novella makes it pretty explicit!
'With a surge of joy the older man became aware that his interest and attention were not wholly unreciprocated. Why, for example, when the beautiful creature appeared in the morning on the beach, did he now never use the boarded walk behind the bathing cabins, but always take the front way, through the sand, passing Aschenbach's abode and often passing unnecessarily close to him, almost touching his table or his chair as he sauntered towards the cabin where his family sat?'
'Through the vaporous dimness and the flickering lights, Aschenbach saw the boy, up there at the front, turn his head and seek him with his eyes until he found him.'
'... he would turn his head hesitantly and cautiously, or even quickly and suddenly as if to gain the advantage of surprise, and look over his left shoulder to where his lover was sitting.'
'Tadzio walked behind his family ...he sometimes turned his head and glanced over his shoulder with his strange, twilight-grey eyes, to ascertain that his lover was still following him.'
And inevitably, Tadzio's family notice that something is going on:
'... at the point things had now reached, the enamoured Aschenbach has reason to fear that he had attracted attention and aroused suspicion. Indeed, he had several times, on the beach, in the hotel foyer and on the Piazza San Marco, been frozen with alarm to notice that Tadzio was being called away if he was near him, that they were taking care to keep them apart – and although his pride withered in torments it had never known under the appalling insult that this implied, he could not in conscience deny its justice.'

Aschenbach's attempt to deny the sexual side of his infatuation is of course doomed to failure, and when he collapses and dies on the beach on the morning of the Polish family's departure from the Lido he is a pathetic figure, dyed and rouged in an attempt to recapture his own lost youth - a mirror image of the 'dandified', 'babbling' 'sniggering' old man that so repulses him at the beginning of the story. Platonic Eros who clothes abstract Beauty in human form for mankind's spiritual benefit has been thoroughly vanquished as Dionysos rides roughshod over all his highfalutin pretensions. It's a sad story, but I don't find it a sordid one. It's a very different read from, for example, Lolita; for one thing, no sexual abuse takes place, nor are we made privy to any fantasies implying that, given opportunity, it would. It does however, as David Luke says in his introduction, describe with extraordinary vividness 'the process of falling in love'.

'Death In Venice ' is apparently based on two real-life encounters: the literary giant Goethe Johann Wolfgang von 1749-1832's brief infatuation, at the age of seventy-four, with seventeen-year-old Ulrike von Levetzow during a holiday in Marienbad in 1823; and Mann's own fascination with an eleven-year-old boy, Wladyslaw Moes (called by his family 'Wladzio' or 'Adzio'), while holidaying in Venice in 1911 - a fascination confirmed by his wife, Katia, though she emphasised that it never reached the fever-pitch recounted in Aschenach's story, and that her husband was not in the habit of following the boy and his family around.

Obviously Mann felt the need to increase the age of 'Tadzio' to fourteen in his novella; and just as it is not Visconti's beautiful film but the shocking lack of protection given to its juvenile lead that bothers me about his production, so it is this real-life detail, and not the story itself, that makes uncomfortable reading for me.

Mann's own bisexuality is very apparent in his diaries – no problem there, to a modern reader – but a series of entries regarding his own adolescent son, Klaus (pet name 'Eissi') seem to enter more dangerous territory:
'Delight over Eissi, who in his bath is very handsome; find it very natural that I am in love with my son';
'Eissi lay reading in bed with his brown torso naked, which disconcerted me';
'… surprised Eissi completely naked. Strong impression of his pre-masculine, gleaming body. Disquiet.'
Well, most parents 'fall in love' with our children to the extent of finding everything about them exquisite and delightful – but the delight evoked by our children's bodies is quite different to the delight evoked by a lover's, and when that difference becomes blurred we have more than 'disquiet', we have perversion, we have incest, we have abuse.

So were does all this leave Thomas Mann in general, and 'Death In Venice' in particular? I'm actually not sure. I'm not sure, for example, as the mother of daughters, whether I would feel the same about either the book or the film if the adolescent in question were a young girl. I can only re-state that because neither contain any depictions or fantasies of abuse, and concentrate instead upon the inner struggle of the protagonist without any attempt to excuse, condemn, or sympathise with his self-delusion, I can read the one, and view the other, with appreciation rather than with discomfort. Do feel free to differ!
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Published on November 04, 2018 08:06

October 8, 2018

Step by Steppe ...

Well it's been a month since my last blog, and what with half of it being more or less a write-off due to a horrible sinus infection messing with my mental capacities, I don't have much to report as regards progress on the new edition of The Coward Does it with a Kiss. I'm back in harness now and have just spent the weekend trying to incorporate new material into a particularly convoluted series of (fictional) diary entries – but progress is slow, and rather than aiming to publish on the anniversary of Oscar's death (30th November), I thinking that Constance's Birthday (2nd January) might be both more realistic and more appropriate. As my grandmother used to say (pointing at the framed text enshrined on the wall) - 'Step By Step As Thou Goest, The Way Will Open Up Before Thee'... I haven't yet seen Rupert Everett's film 'The Happy Prince', which follows Oscar into exile after his release from prison, but I gather it's now premiered in the US and will be interested to hear what kind of a reception it gets across the pond – the reviews over here have been positive, but not overly ecstatic. What I'm hoping, of course, is that renewed curiosity about Oscar's final years will pave the way for the question 'But what happened to Constance??' - a question that The Coward does its best to answer. Step by step as thou goest …

Anyway, it's been an interesting month in other ways ... for one thing, I've acquired a whole new cousin (well, not newborn, I mean newly discovered) via DNA matching. It was Mr B's idea to order DNA kits in a bid to explore our respective ancestral origins; to be honest they didn't reveal anything particularly exciting about either of us – we're both solidly Southern English, him practically all West Country, me with a bit of Welsh and a soupcon of Scandinavian/French – the latter being from the Piercy side as it's a Norman name that came over with William the Conqueror. But it was from my mother's side, the Rose side, that this new connection came. I wasn't sure whether to tick the box giving permission for any relatives to get in touch, but I'm so glad I did because now I've made the acquaintance of a lovely lady whose grandfather was my great-grandfather's half brother! And the fact that we're definitely related solves a family mystery: there's been an ongoing debate for years as to whether said great-grandfather, surnamed Rose, might not actually be the son of a Mr Hand who registered the birth, and the DNA connection proves that he was, and that the rumour that we are all 'Roses by name, but Hands by blood' is absolutely true! In my weakened, semi-delirious state (before I finally resorted to antibiotics), I got so excited about all this that tribes of Hands and Roses rode through my dreams, across the windy Mongolian Steppe..

No, there's no Mongolian DNA connection whatsoever (see boring DNA info above) - the reason for this particular backdrop, which admittedly tended to sprout features transported directly from South London, is my current reading material: Against Walls by Bryn Hammond. It's an extraordinary book, first of a trilogy, and I'll to do a review when I've finished so I won't say too much about it here - except to state that the author has immersed herself in the life and times of Ghengis Khan to such an extent as to conjure (I used the word advisedly!) the characters, the customs and the culture from which he sprang with a vividness that makes an entirely alien place and time seem familiar and intimate. I don't usually tackle long books (unless they're Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke) and I fully expected to be giving up less than halfway through this one - but step by step as I went, the world of twelfth-century High Asia opened up before me, and here I am feeling sorry to reach the end, and contemplating tackling the second volume. Do give it a go! You don't have to be running a temperature to be drawn in and amazed ...
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Published on October 08, 2018 06:55