Category Archives: History

Advent and Christmas songs: Coventry Carol

It’s the advent season and I am almost a little overwhelmed with Christmas spirit this year. The snow started falling two days ago, and when I woke up this morning, everything was white and pretty and festive outside. Just look at these lovely pictures I snapped in Fælledparken as I went for a walk in the afternoon:

grantræ i snefoto
I decided that blogging about some of my favorite advent and Christmas songs might provide me with an appropriate outlet for all this snow white festivity, and I’ll start today, on the first Sunday of Advent.

I’ve already blogged about “Coventry Carol” once before, but that was in a completely different context, and I thought it could stand another mention. As a Christmas song, it has a special place in my heart. The thing is, being Danish, I naturally grew up with Danish Christmas carols, and as lovely as some of them are, a lot of them are also kind of, well, toothless. They’re almost always in a major key, and they tend to tip-toe around any potential dangerous subject matter to a point where they manage to not really say anything. A good example is the Danish version of “Silent Night”. I love the original German and the English version of “Silent Night”. I feel like they succeed, lyric-wise, by carefully choosing their motif and focusing on this motif, making the most of it: The (virgin) mother and child in the quiet of night, the shepherds and their angelic visitation, the savior promising an eternal dawn to all of mankind. The Danish version, however, is an extremely free and fairly nonsensical translation. Directly translated, it goes: “Happy Christmas, lovely Christmas, angels descend into hiding. They fly here with paradise green [boughs or leaves, supposedly], seeing what God finds to be beautiful. They walk secretly among us.”

What is this thing about angels falling down in hiding? Did angels ever actually do that in the bible? Not in the story of Christmas, that’s for sure, they were pretty in yer face with those shepherds in the bible. Also, what is this greenery from paradise and what is its significance? And that last line sounds more like a tagline from Invasion of the Bodysnatchers than anything else.  This is all very symptomatic of Danish carols: Even the original Danish ones, especially the ones from the 19th century, will generally go to great lengths in terms of weird imagery in order to avoid mentioning the events surrounding the birth of Christ. Which is a shame because even I, atheist that I am, think that the story of the birth of Jesus is pretty neat.

This is exactly why I like “Coventry Carol” so much. The “Coventry Carol” is very upfront about the story of the birth of Christ, and it certainly does not try to sugarcoat it or tiptoe around anything. Written as a lullaby sung by a mother of a baby boy in Bethlehem (arguably the virgin Mary, but I suppose it could be ascribed to any Bethlehem mother), it deals with the massacre ordered by King Herod, claiming the life of every male child under the age of two.

Lully, lullay, Thou little tiny Child,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
Lullay, thou little tiny Child,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
O sisters too, how may we do,
For to preserve this day
This poor youngling for whom we do sing
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
Herod, the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day
His men of might, in his own sight,
All young children to slay.
That woe is me, poor Child for Thee!
And ever mourn and sigh,
For thy parting neither say nor sing,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
Is this Christmassy in the modern sense of the word? Is it nice and cosy? Not at all! But it lends some gravity to the story of Christmas. The massacre of the innocents was gruesome, but it’s a central part of the canonical Christmas story, and it makes the story of Christmas all the more significant. It’s a little like the advent song “O come, o come, Emmanuel”, and the carol “Maria durch ein Dornwald ging”, both of which describe hardships (of the people of Israel and of pregnant Mary, respectively) rather than merry-making.  And then the melody of the “Coventry Carol” is just so incredibly gorgeous. The lyrics and the music date back from a mystery play from the 17th century, and it does have that pentatonic, old-timey ring to it. But more importantly it is written in a sinister minor key that I think the holidays need as much as they do the major key melodies.I grew up with a recording of a chorus singing it, and I actually do prefer it in a choir version as I feel it easily turns into a little too much of a tearjerker when sung by a solo soprano. I also noticed that Andrea Arnold had the traveling brass band in the childhood Christmas scene play the carol in her fetching Wuthering Heights, and this also worked nicely. Here it is, sung by the Collegium Vocale Gent:

La commedia è finita! – on the Cuckold as a Comical Figure

I recently saw my first Pagliacci ever, and I was blown away. What a powerful, tight, intense piece. Although I did not know the story in advance, I knew enough about operas to know where it was going, but I still got goosebumps at the ending with Canio’s rash act and his wonderfully meta declaration that “the comedy is over”.

And then I also really feel that Pagliacci marks a pivotal point in the history of male characters in theatre, namely the point of intersection between the cuckold as a comical and a tragic figure.

Certainly the comical cuckold is the more prominent one of the two. In the history of theatre, the figure can be traced back as far as to mimes and pantomimes in the 1st century B.C. The few surviving descriptions of the aliterary mime shows make it clear that infidelity was a recurring theme within the genre, and representations of the mime in various reliefs show tableaux of beautiful ladies, their charming lovers, and their stupid, cuckold husbands. As Marianne Grandjean notes in her article on the mime of late antiquity, the cuckold is often depicted as a bald man, perhaps to indicate that he is older than the woman and her lover, and it seems clear that these cuckolds are comical figures: The charming young lovers point at them with ridiculing attitudes, and the audience are supposed to laugh at these men. It is of course difficult to say exactly how these men became the butt of the joke, but as oscenity and sex jokes played an important part in the mime shows, it seems pretty safe to me to say that it was the cuckold’s unsatisfied sexual appetite that made him as a character: He wanted some, and he wasn’t gettin’ any.

No link has ever been identified between late-antiquity mime and the commedia dell’arte tradition of the 16th century, but the cuckold of the commedia dell’arte, Pantalone, has a lot in common with the cuckold of late-antiquity mime shows. Often known as Pantalone il Bisognosi (Pantalone the Needy), his trademark was, to put it bluntly, that he wanted to have a lot of sex, especially with his beautiful young wife, the female lead, who didn’t care for his advances and who would cheat on him with a younger, more handsome lover, while the audience laughed at the silly, cockblocked old man.

Pantalone. Even in the 16th century, footsie pajamas apparently did not do it for the ladies.

The Pagliacci characters are a typical travelling commedia dell’arte troupe. There’s no Pantalone in Pagliacci, but the character of Pagliaccio seems to be based partially on Pantalone, partially on the more recent commedia dell’arte character of clownish Pierrot. However, Pagliacci came about in the time of the Italian verismo in the 19th century rather than in the heyday of Pantalone and his fellow commedia dell’arte characters, and I think this shows when it comes to the motif of the cuckold. As late as in the 18th century the ridiculous cuckold could still be found on stage in plays by the likes of Molière or Beaumarchais, but by the end of the 19th century, the tragic cuckolds started appearing: Most prominently, I suppose, in plays by Strindberg and Ibsen. In Ibsen’s The Wild Duck the revelation that Hedvig may not be Hjalmar Ekdal’s daughter marks the crux of the tragedy, and of course in Strindberg’s The Father the entire plot revolves around the notion that Laura has made a cuckold out of The Captain. And there is certainly no humour in the Swedish realist’s take on the theme. Not only does The Captain genuinely grieve for the loss of the love that once was between himself and his wife:

CAPTAIN. (…) I feel your shawl against my mouth; it is as warm and soft as your arm, and it smells of vanilla, like your hair when you were young! Laura, when you were young, and we walked in the birch woods, with the primroses and the thrushes–glorious, glorious! Think how beautiful life was, and what it is now. You didn’t want to have it like this, nor did I, and yet it happened. Who then rules over life?

The idea of his wife’s possible unfaithfulness (and, thus, the fact that Bertha may not actually be The Captain’s child) also disrupts his entire perception of his own existence:

CAPTAIN. (…) I do not believe in a hereafter; the child was my future life. That was my conception of immortality, and perhaps the only one that has any analogy in reality. If you take that away from me, you cut off my life.

I haven’t done enough research to determine whether or not it is plausible that Pagliacci composer and librettist Leoncavallo had read or attended the cuckold tragedies of Ibsen and Strindberg, but the verismo opera composer clearly shares their interest in exploring the psychology of the cuckold. What is so exceptionally fascinating in Pagliacci is, however, that Leoncavallo examines the tragic aspects of the cuckold man all the while acknowledging the comic potential of the motif. The central aria of the opera revolves around the idea of laughing at the cuckold buffoon (“Ridi, Pagliaccio!”), and in the frantic play-within-the-play ending the opera, the ambiguity of the cuckold as a comical/tragic figure is constantly at play. The audience-within-the-play wants nothing more than to laugh at the buffoon, but cuckold Canio’s very real despair is constantly creeping into the caricatured pantomime grief of the cuckold Pagliaccio.

Significantly, Canio’s unfaithful wife Nedda is not dealt the demonic tendencies of Strindberg’s Laura. Rather, she becomes a painful inbodiment of the conflict between the comical and the tragic cuckold: We can’t help rooting for the poor woman who loves her Silvio so dearly, and it’s for her sake that we want to regard Canio as the fool. As several researchers have noted, the theme of the cuckold in late-antiquity mime shows as well as in the commedia dell’arte did not come out of nowhere. The motif became popular in the male dominated patriarchies of late antiquity and 16th century Italy in which women would often be at the mercy of their controlling husbands and have very limited means of personal or sexual emancipation. Tellingly, both the mime shows and the commedia dell’arte marked themselves by allowing women to rise to fame and fortune on stage at a time when women were generally not allowed to star in theatre productions. In late anitquity there are even instances of women becoming managers of mime troupes and it is easy to imagine that these women would have been a driving force in the furthering of the ridiculous male authoritative figure in the mime shows. Pagliacci was written at a time when women’s liberation was slowly building and the need for ridicule of partriarchy was less acute, but the beauty of it, to me, is that the cuckold story of Pagliacci doesn’t claim to hold any simple solutions to the infidelity issue. Canio may declare that the comedy is over, but the tragedy that lingers instead pertains to both sexes. And the commedia dell’arte tradition with its clownish cuckold lives on within the verismo tragedy whenever Pagliacci is staged.

What then of the cuckold character today? More than a decade has passed since Pagliacci, along with a sexual revolution, so surely we must have reached some new level of awareness when it comes to the issue of infidelity?

Well, I guess maybe we haven’t. When it comes to the tragic cuckold at least, many of the perceptions of biological paternity found in Strindberg are very much alive today. I have noticed it, for example, in Per Olov Enquist’s excellent novel The Visit of the Royal Physician (2000) about King Christian VII of Denmark and Doctor Johann Friedrich Struensee. In Enquist’s take on the highly dramatic story of the German royal physician’s rise to power as de facto king of Denmark, enlightenment-inspired Struensee is portrayed as the hero in a horribly backwards, medieval Denmark, and his wrongful execution is depicted as a terrible loss. However, Enquist allows Struensee some vindication in the epilogue in which he notes that the child that Struensee fathered during his affair with Christian VII’s queen, Caroline Mathilde, lived on and granted him a kind of immortality. “The little daughter Louise Augusta grew up in Denmark (…)” writes Enquist, and goes on to describe the beauty and fertility of the princess:

“She is described as very beautiful, with a ‘disturbing’ vitality. (…) She married the Duke Frederik Christian of Augustenborg who was hardly her equal in any way. She did, however, have three children with him (…) today there is not one European monarchy that cannot trace its heritage back to Johann Friedriech Struensse, his English princess, and their little girl.”

The juxtaposition of sexual potency and immortality is striking to me in this paragraph in which the Danish monarchy seems to play the part of the cuckold husband whose DNA is not carried on or at least only carried on to a limited degree, opposite Struensee as the handsome lover who fathered a beautiful, vivacious daughter.

"I'm bringin' sexy back/Them Danish boys don't know how to act/I think it's special what's behind thy back/So turn around and I'll pick up the slack."

I also find it telling that the theme of the cuckold as a figure is still something that is predominantly associated with a male character. The betrayed woman has always been, and continues to be, a tragic figure, doesn’t she? Even today we love to revel in the not-at-all-funny pain of historical betrayed woman characters struggling to make it in a partriarchal society, such as Betty Draper or Saul Dibb’s Duchess of Devonshire. It’s still hard to imagine a hilarious comedy about a younger, handsome man cheating on an older woman who is laughed at for her inability to maintain her young husband’s sexual interest. I can’t even imagine a movie like Forgetting Sarah Marshall with the tables turned so that it’s the betrayed woman we’re laughing at, rather than Jason Segel’s naked, unattractive, blue-balled, cuckold boyfriend character. The idea that a woman might be a ridiculous sex-crazed authority rather than a vulnerable victim with hurt feelings still seems alien in our contemporary narratives. The only character vaguely of this sort that I am able to think would be Jennifer Aniston’s sexually harassing boss in Horrible Bosses.

I guess you could say that the development of the cuckold motif in the history of drama and comedy is a good indicator that we still have a long way to go towards equality. Still, I think I prefer to see it as a testiment to the genius of Leoncavallo, rather than to the backwards nature of today’s cultural perception of gender, that his tragic comedy Pagliacci still feels so intensely relevant today.

The Daughters of Copenhagen

I’m terrible at keeping up with the contemporary music scene, but I came across this song yesterday and really liked it:

The song is “København” (which is the Danish name for Copenhagen) by rock band Ulige numre (“Uneven Numbers”), and it’s basically an ode to Copenhagen. The song and video go perfectly together, I think. The video shows historic and recent footage from Copenhagen, and the song has a certain nostalgic sound to it, especially in the guitar riff, that makes it reminiscent of old protest songs from the 1960s and 1970s, like Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock”  or this 1971 Danish protest song. Thus “København”  becomes a sort of hymn not just to Copenhagen, but to the side of Copenhagen that I’ve always loved the best about the city: The open-minded, progressive side that blossomed in the time of the hippie movement, but which has its root back in the labour movements in the city about a decade earlier, and which still flourished in my childhood years in the 1980s, when my parents took me to the city, and I would be gaping at the punks with their brightly coloured hair, hanging around outside the old buildings of the city, and somehow fitting in perfect with the once-progressive Jugendstil architecture. And which is still there today, I suppose, although it’s always so difficult to detect the shock of the new when you’re in the middle of it.

The song lyrics of “København” go:

You have danced with me
for twenty years
And you have taught me the steps that I know
but don’t understand
Copenhagen, you are nothing but all I have
When your thousand eyes close
And darkness colours you infinite
And your daughters
they have no good intentions with me
And your eyes
light the way home for me when I’ve had enough

I have a minor problem
that I can’t find
Before you’ve shown me where
you’ve hidden her
Copenhagen, I am your last son
When your thousand eyes close
And darkness colours you infinite
And your daughters
they have no good intentions
And your eyes
light the way home for me when I’ve had enough

The darkness wants more
the days grow shorter
And I’ve spent my last kroner
painting mine black
And your eyes, there are more and more of them
And your daughters
Tell them that I won’t be waiting any longer.

The song reached me about the same time as the much less flattering description of Copenhagen and its daughters by Roosh: Danish Women Are the Most Masculine in the World. The article is hardly accurate (as everyone knows I myself am a perfect example of absolutely charming femininity), and in some parts it’s vulgar and downright offensive, but then again I’m sure it’s meant to be vulgar and offensive, and I have to admit that this:

A big problem is that just about everything offends a Danish girl, especially if you make casual observations about her culture, whether positive or negative. She doesn’t believe in stereotypes or generalizations at all. She has the belief that everyone is a completely unique snowflake and any attempt to generalize is wrong and offensive. The irony of this is that Danish people are so incredibly homogenous and alike due to Denmark being a strong conformist culture that they’re the easiest people to generalize about.
(…) or example, it was common for a Danish girl to joke that Americans like cheeseburgers and French fries. She’s indirectly saying that Americans are fat. I get it, and I don’t care, because Americans are fat and I personally love cheeseburgers and French fries. I would counter her observation with one of my own by saying, “We love hamburgers, but you guys like the kebabs. Those places are everywhere.” Pretty innocuous comment, right? Wrong. The Danish girl gets offended and counters with, “No, Danish food culture is quite varied. You’re not looking hard enough to find other places.” Really, bitch? There would be no less than four kebab shacks within a stone’s throw.

This hit a nerve. Oh, yes. I do see myself in this. And several of my girl friends, though I love them dearly.  We do this, with the adamant, sometimes hypocritical non-generalisation, and I can see how we might be obnoxious about it at times.

So there you are, Roosh, you are right about us in some aspects, and I’m owning up to it. I’m taking it like a man, you might say. You may shake my big, man-like hand. I’m not going to sleep with you, though.


Thursday night, September 15, I was glued to the tv screen well past my bed time. I was following the Danish elections, and it was quite the thriller. Every opinion poll had been pointing towards a new government, but when the counting of the votes started, it was a closer call than I would have preferred. Yet it ended well: After ten years with a right wing government, the left is taking over. I can hardly express how relieved this makes me feel.

As Annina Teatime noted in her latest entry, this also means that we have elected a woman Prime Minister for the first time ever, 96 years after Danish women gained the right to vote: Helle Thorning-Schmidt, leader of the Social Democrats.

She didn’t bring up the gender issue in her victory speech Thursday night. I guess she felt that the fact that she was standing there – clearly a woman, in her discreetly fuchsia jacket, accepted by cheering crowds as the future leader of the country – spoke volumes. It did.
The next day, there was a series of interviews in Danish national newspaper Information with several high-profile Danes about what they thought this new situation, us having a woman leader. One of them was influential businessman Asger Aamund who stated:

“The fact that she is a woman will have no significance at all. Women are just as good as men, and the fact that women have taken over the political leadership in Denmark is old news. (…) Out there [internationally] people won’t care about the sex either. They will look to see if she creates results.”

I’m sorry, but I have to say that this belittling of the gender issue is a luxury that only a man can afford. We’ve come a long way, to be sure, but I find it dangerous to even entertain the notion that we’ve reached equality yet. Only last week, one of the Danish tabloids ran a story on the front page titled “READ ALL ABOUT HELLE [THORNING-SCHMIDT]’S BODY” with the subtitle of “OBSESSED WITH YOUTH”. In the article, interviewed “experts” gave their opinion as to how much work Thorning-Schmidt puts into her looks. The tackiness of the subject matter aside, I was struck by how gendered that whole angle was. Nobody would ever write a story about a male politician titled “READ ALL ABOUT [name]’S BODY”. Even in cases when the body of the male politician actually had some relevance – Bill Clinton or Dominique Strauss-Kahn comes to mind – nobody would have thought to write a feature on the politican’s body, singling out his physical form from the rest of him. It would read “Read all about Dominique Strauss-Kahn”, if anything.

If you’re a woman, even if you’re a competent woman candidate to the prime ministerial post, there’s always that mistrust that you don’t possess your body completely. Our woman bodies may betray us at any time, and despite all your achievements they remain mysterious things, worhty of, or even demanding, scrutiny or deciphering.  I don’t think we can ever hope to gain equality, until we have stopped looking at women with this nonsensical duality. But I think we’re on step closer to equality after  Helle Thorning-Schmidt stood competently on that podium, unhesitatingly hailed by the publich as a new leader.

And she will not stand alone either: With her is, among other prominent women politicians, Johanne Schmidt-Nielsen, member of the Red-Green Alliance (Enhedslisten), the left-most of the Danish political parties.

Foto: Mark Knudsen

She got my vote during this election and her victory speech was the highlight of the election night to me. An excerpt from her speech:

“This election is about people, it’s about the lives of real human beings. The elections are about fugitives who have been kept in asylum centres for years (…) paying the price of what the non-socialist have had the nerve to call “a fair immigration policy”. The new majority in government has promised that in the future, fugitives will stay in asylum centres for a maximum of six months, and we [the Red-Green Alliance] intend to hold them to this! (…) Today is also a wonderful day for the thousands who have unfortunately lost their jobs. The vast majority of these people have slaved away all their lives, and paid their taxes. Yet on the day when they needed the community, on the day when they were holding their dismissal notice in their hands, they were met with suspicion by the non-socialst government. The new majority in government has promised to replace the ridiculous activation courses with [supplementary training courses] that are actually useful. […] The new majority in Goverment has promised to create new jobs. And we’re talking about wellfare jobs here – we need more nursery teachers, we need fewer children per teacher in the class rooms, and the home help needs to be able to visit [the elderly and the handicapped] more often!”

In all its rhetorical artlessness, this speech articulated so many of my dreams of a new start now that the non-socialist government has run its course.

I am hopeful.

Copenhagen 1937 and the Bicycle Parade

This 1937 Metro Goldwyn Mayer special about Copenhagen really tugged at my nostalgic heart strings:

But of course the beauty of it is that it’s not all nostalgia. As I’ve mentioned before, the Bicycle Parade is still very much of A Thing in Copenhagen (personally, I’d never dream of using any other means of transportation around the city), as this gorgeous video from 2010 will show:

“Più forte! Più forte!” – Reviewing Paola Capriolo’s Floria Tosca

I happened upon Paola Capriolo’s Floria Tosca at the library the other day. I’d read the novel once before, when I was about 20, but I decided to give it a re-read, so that I could review it here on the blog.

The genre of the novel is “opera fanfiction”, I would say – a genre very scarcely represented in literature. In fact, I’m pretty sure that this is the only piece of opera fanfiction I’ve ever encountered, which is a darned shame. Here’s a list of opera fanfiction novels that I would totally write if I had the time as well as any notion that there is an actual market for the genre:

Born to Weep? – the story of Cornelia’s tentative steps into a lasting love affair with Curio, proving that it is possible to be whole and find love again the second time around, even when your first love had his head cut off. Set after the events of Händel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto.

Musings of Musetta: the story of Puccini’s La Bohème – from Musetta’s perspective! The incorrectable flirt reveals her sensitive nature in the re-telling of this epic love story set in 18th century Paris. (I will admit to having attempted to write this very story when I was a teenager.)

Boris Begins: Boris Godunov’s sinister personality and child-slaying ways are explained in this prequel.

Sorrow Floats: In this sequel to Madama Butterfly, Cio-Cio San’s son grows up in the U.S., haunted by the vague memories of his Nagasaki past that his father and new mother are desperately trying to make him forget.

But back to Paola Capriolo. As the title reveals, the subject of Capriolo’s novel is Puccini’s opera Tosca about the diva Tosca, her artist lover Mario Cavaradossi, and the brutal chief of police Scarpia who claims Mario’s life and Tosca’s body. The story is written as Scarpia’s secret diary and depicts Capriolo’s idea of the events leading up to the story of the opera. Mario is only referred to secondarily, while Scarpia and Tosca take center stage in the novel.

A phenomological S/M story
The resulting novel is not bad. Capriolo manages to give us an entirely new take on the story of Tosca and Scarpia and gives us a rounded portrait of her brutal narrator. In Capriolo’s interpretation, Scarpia is – when we first meet him – a man who feels at peace with his own brutality, and who even sees in his brutality an absurd kind of display of mercy and tenderness. As the chief of police in Rome, he is in charge of the torturing and execution of prisoners at the Sant’ Angelo, and he firmly believes that he is acting as a merciful God’s powertool when handling his gruesome tasks. When receiving letters from desperate mothers, pleading for the lives of their death-sentenced sons, he writes:

(NOTE: as I do not have access to the English translation of the novel, the quoted paragraphs from the novel are all my own translations)

First premise: by having your son executed, I obey the will of God

Second premise: God is Mercy (in this, at least, you will agre with me. If this be not the case, I strongly recommend that you talk to your confessor).

Conclusion: by taking your son’s life, I act in accordance with the divine mercifulness, and my act is thus in and of itself merciful. If I were to spare him, I would be disobedient to the Lord and, thus, as can be inferred by the second premise, violate the laws of mercifulness. God keep me from comitting such a sin, and God keep you from wishing me to do so! Fight your human weakness, dear madam, and turn your gaze towards the eternal reward that will surely be granted if you manage to bear your trials with humility.

In other words, Scarpia has created a theorem for himself, according to which he can take pleasure in the chastising of his fellow men without any feelings of remorse or any sense of sin. The only drawback to this theorem is that it naturally leaves him quite lonely. He is commonly viewed as a vile henchman by his surroundings, whom he in turn scorns because they are unable to partake in his glorification of stern violence, and he is disgusted with the seeking of pleasure that he finds in his surroundings:

These days even Poverty does not understand the beauty of simplicity, but manifests itself in twisted arabesques, excessive flower decorations, and from the hovels in the narrow streets – old patrician homes now invaded by the mob – the decor, which I had attempted to escape, soon began to weigh me down again in a deformed, depraved version. Inside the courtyards a chaotic wildernes of palm trees and climbers to find a morbid form of nutrition in the heavy summer air. Everything was growing inhibitedly everywhere, suffocating in its own luxuriance, and not only the plants, but also the ramshackle walls, the staircases on the cracked marble steps of which ragged children sat playing, and the mottled laundry hung out to dry in the archways, its spots and rags on display without shame, reflected a longing for decay, a vitality that tasted of death.”

As you can see, Capriolo chooses a very phenomenological angle on the story, which is one of the things I like about the novel – it makes sense, considering how sensual most of Scarpia’s music is, and her language is beautifully crafted and has an appropriate textural effect.

Capriolo’s Scarpia finally finds a companion in his lonely love of pain and suffering when he gets to know Tosca. At first disgusted by the almost vulgar disharmony in her beauty – lily-white skin and raven hair – he gradually falls under her spell as he realizes that Tosca has a certain talent for the union of two other contrasts – pleasure and pain. This proces begins as Tosca, whiel bargaining with Scarpia for the life and freedom of her rebel boyfriend Mario, is given by Scarpia a golden bracelet that happens to look like one of the torture devices he uses in his job . A bracelet that’s tight to the point where it digs into Tosca’s skin and that he nevertheless catches her wearing willingly. His relationship to Tosca climaxes when Scarpia, during another one of their negotiations, takes Tosca to see the official torture chamber at the Palazzo Farnese, and Tosca wordlessly agrees to participate in a bizarre tableau of domination and submission:

He who had, before crossing that threshold, been baron Scarpia, took her, who had been Floria Tosca, by the hand and walked her to a wall, from which two iron rings stood out. He lifted her arms, making sure that he had tightened them sufficiently and then walked over to a wall cabinet and produced a thin chain. Returned to her and got down on his knees before her. Unstrapped one sandal, pulled it off of her, unstrapped the other, which she herself nudged off of her foot and pushed across the floor with her naked foot. He put the chain around her one ankle. Their gazes were then turned towards the large painting (by Cavaradossi, of Tosca as the Victorious Madonna) in the alcove, tore themselves from it again and met each other. He bent once more. She lifted her vacant foot, placed it on top of his head and pressed down. Eventually the pressure was released, but before  he stood up, he remianed lying on his knees on the floor, engulfed by the sensations. And it was at this point in the ritual that the significanse of the word “fulfillment” was unveiled to him.

KINKY. And interestingly so – especially since we only get Scarpia’s point of view on the situation. After this S/M tableau Tosca recoils from the advances of the baron, much to his dismay, and thus it is never clear what Tosca’s motives were. Does she truly share Scarpia’s perverted tendencies? Or was she simply executing her part as the talented stage performer, skilfully adapting her performance to the wants of her spectator, for the purpose of making him more prone towards saving her lover, Mario?

Floria Tosca as fanfiction
In the end, however, I don’t really I buy this interpretation of Tosca. I find it hard to view it as anything other than an interpretation of the opera – or indeed as a fanfiction based on it – since I can’t imagine that anyone would even come across this novel if they weren’t already fans of Tosca. The problem I have with the story is that it fleshes out the characters of the opera too much. The phenomenology and the emphasis of the S/M aspects of the story take away from what I’ve always enjoyed most about the opera – the political and historical context of it. I’m not saying that Puccini’s Tosca doesn’t have any kink in it – it does. But to me, Scarpia, Tosca, and Mario Cavaradossi represent movements within a social struggle rather than actual human beings (I’ve discussed this briefly in a previous blog post). Mario represents the rebellious movement that is slowly gaining footing in society. Thus he is also starting to overtake the sympathies and the interests of the population – represented by Tosca who is essentially apolitical, but who strives to be happy and fulfil herself (living for “art and love”) and will support whichever party gives her the opportunity to do so. This has hitherto been the established power, represented by Scarpia, and Tosca still belongs to this party in as much as she performs at their official celebrations etc., but as this party begins to feel her slip away, he resorts to the use of violence. I realize that such an analysis of Tosca conflicts with the fact that Puccini, unlike Verdi, was mostly an a-political composer who was probably more interested in the sentiments of his characters than the political situation of central Europe in June 1800. But I do think there’s enough in his music to support my political analysis of the opera: In each of the three acts Puccini has made sure to compose music that points towards a situation much grander and graver than the love triangle between three characters: In the first act we have the choir of the devout congregation of the Sant’ Andrea, in the second act we get the cantata of the victory celebration, and in the third act there’s the song of the young Roman shepherd outside Sant’Angelo.

I need this in order to really enjoy the story of Tosca – I need the music coming in from outside, the music of history and society, if I’m not to disregard the story as a piquant, but ultimately un-interesting and slightly trashy love story. Capriolo’s story is very wellwritten and an interesting take on a canonized opera story, but its story of a random man’s sadist tendencies in 19th century Rome doesn’t provide me with this extra, essential layer.

Calendary Literature – February – Street of Your Childhood by Tove Ditlevsen Part II

I apologise for this post being so late. Part of the reason has actually been that I’ve been wanting to post something else – something to show my sympathy for what has been happening in Japan lately. But I could come up with absolutely nothing. So let me just say this: I am so unbelievably sorry for all the victims of this catastrophe. There is little we can do to prevent disasters like these and all I can say is that I hope that we, the human race, will continue to get better to at least be there for each other and help each other when tragedy strikes. And to promise that I will do whatever I can in this respect.

About part II of my post, well, better late than never, I hope: Here’s part II of my Calendary Literature/Women’s Day entry on Tove Ditlevsen’s Street of Your Childhood (“Barndommens gade”). Part I is here.

In this post I’d like to quote a paragraph from the childhood chapters (translated by yours truly). Ester and her beloved, shrewd friend Lisa have gone out doing a version of “trick-or-treating” that Danish children do for Shrove-tide.

Still from the movie adaptation of the novel. A young Sofie "The Killing" Gråbøl and Louise Fribo as Ester and Lisa.


“The baker woman laughs and throws buns to the festive kids who barge into the store. It doesn’t matter that some of them have already been there once, it’s only when they go to collect treat there for the fifth og sixth time that they are told off. Now, you, the little one with the nose, I think you’ve had enough now!

The little one with the nose, that’s Lisa of course. She is wearing her father’s overcoat, put up with safety pins and a huge cardboard nose with a moustache under it, bopping up and down when she talks. Hot on her heals follows Ester, wearing one of mother’s old carnival outfits, a kind of crinoline sewn out of checkered crêpe paper. Over her face she is wearing a grinning clown mask, the top of which is stuffed up under her red beret. It is nice to be hidden underneath the warm cardboard mask. It helps to guard her against the sharp february wind and it leaves her fo once shielded against the kind of looks that seem to undress her and force their way into her innermost secrets. No one can tell if she is blushing behind her mask and nobody looks at Ester more than they look at the other kids. The poor face cannot insult anyone today. What is the matter with that face anyway? The street disapproves of it, its features are too vulnerable and yet there is something in its look that make people want to hit it. And then even the vaguest shadow of an evil thought instantly puts its startled, guilty mark on it, like a quiet lake quivering every time the smallest of bugs stirs in its depths. How good it feels to be hiding behind a grinning cardboard mask. Laugh a little, cry a little, get hurt, feel a little bad – no one knows, no one can tell. The mash grins its stiff grin perpetually, as it has been made to do. And quickly and dizzyingly, as if drunk, the inhibitions disappear. The usual, unblissful tendency towards acquiescence vanishes…


Ester drags Lisa with her down Istedgade, up Saxogade, and suddeny wildly towards Vesterbrogade. Aww, whaddarewe going here for, says Lisa sullenly, you’re a crank, they ain’t gonna give us nothing here anyway. She shrinks a little and seems insignificantly small here in the wide, bright street. The magnificient, perky Lisa vanishes, she who is always running through the narrow streets, smart, quick and always capable of taking care of herself – a little poor kid is left in her place, dressed up like poor people’s children usually do for shrovetide, with a collecting box squeezed into one of her dirty fists. (…)

But hidden behind her mask, Ester enjoys everything as if she were a spectator at the movie theatre. She doesn’t care whether people are staring at them and laughing. Behold, here are the rich people, she thinks and opens up all her senses. Here they are, those who smell nice and wear nice fur coats so that their faces are always warm, no red noses and cold-ridden open polypus mouths. An unspeakable longing captures her, gentle and full of hope. It must be possible to become rich one day, to be pretty and to smell nice and be good. For Ester really does want to be good. But first a great, loving hand must stroke her over the strained features and take away their coldness and their shame. And it would be best if it could enter even further into her and brush away the mean words and the sorrows from the mind like the good teacher erasing the incorrect arithmetical problem from the blackboard. A sudden, intense euphoria fills her. Now she has the courage to do anything, now the impossible must be able to happen. She will lift herself out of the framework of her being and apprach new suns. -“

Driven by this sudden prowess, Ester takes a reluctant Lisa into a posh flat complex, excited at the prospect of actually getting to meet some of the rich people among whom she wants so desperately to belong. Things look up as a lady greets them heartily at one of the doors. She is amused by their appearance and decides that the two girls should come in and sing to her husband, who is asleep in their bedroom. (It is a custom that Danish children sing songs in order to receive their shrovetide treats).

“What the – uh – phew – the sleeping man wakes up startled and sits up in his bed. He stares as if he were seeing ghosts. What on earth kind of a pair are you two? he says with a comical desperation, are you out of your minds, barging in to wake up an honest citizen at this time of the morning? Helga, he yells, who are these creatures? Can you please come in here and release me from this little morning prank of yours?

The little lady pokes her head into the room, laughingly. Oh, they woke you up, she says, what a pity. Then she sits on the edge of the beds and looks merrily at Ester and Lisa who are staring back thunderstruck from behind their masks. Lisa sniffles because she is getting warm and she pulls up her cardboard nose while she wipes the real one underneath it with the back of her hand. The man laughs: Why, what a pair, he says, do you know any other songs? Sure , Lisa is almost herself again now that she no longer suspects the man to be a police officer. Police officers are her eternal and only fear, she is certain that they have supernatural powers that allow them to see straight through people. We know lots of songs. They whisper to each other to decide which one to sing, and then they start, fast and completely out of tune.


The song has six long stanzas and they lady and the gentleman are almost suffocating from surpressed laughter at hearing the ballad of the poor Inger who is abandoned and later dies, all in the slowest fashion possible.

When they are finally through, the lady says: That was certainly a nice song, now come with me and I will give you a little something for your collecting boxes. But Ester, who has been brought into just the right mood by the song, does not want to leave, not at all. We know even more songs, she shouts and puts forth one foot and starts by herself [on another ballad].

Yes, yes, that’s very nice, says the man and now he has suddenly stopped laughing, but get out of here now. The little lady touches Esters arm with a soft little hand with red polished nails. Ester blushes, because the lady touches her reluctantly, as if touching a rat. And now it is completely impossible for her to leave because she wants to shake off the emerging stunned feeling. It was all so nice for a moment there, wasn’t it? She is wrapped in the warm coat of welfare and outside the February cold and the fear of darkness awaits her. Now Lisa is pulling at her checkered crêpe sleeve, saying: Come on, Ester, we have to get home. Ester pushes her away. I know more songs, she repeats stubbornly, with a scared, beating heart and unable to understand why she can’t leave. But she needs to know a little about these people, she wants to explain something to them, bare her little soul to them. To know how it is possible to be like them. With their eyes full of ease and laughter. She wants to tell them: But I am not a rat – behind my socks full of holes and my miserable mask, behind my terribly guilty conscience and behind this frayed crêpe paper that was once my mother’s carnival costume, there has to be something, a material that might be shaped, that might make it possible – but instead she repeats, very quietly and startledly: I know lots of other songs. But the man’s gaze turns hard and the little lady looks perplexed. I have to leave now, says everything within her that is still connected to reason. But she doesn’t leave. Instead she assumes once again a pose, one foot in front of the other and sings with a shrill, trembling voice [another ballad] – Get out of here now, shouts the man and retrieves one striped leg from the bed. Lisa runs off quickly, but Ester stands still, pale as death. And then the mask falls off of her and she looks straight into the man’s face with confused, glassy eyes. He takes her roughly by the arm and leads her through the long hall. Out you go, you, he says and brings her up short outside the door, alone in front of the closed door. Before she has come to her senses, the door is opened again and the little lady puts a quarter of a krone into her collecting box. You should have just left when we told you to, she whispers, now my husband is angry.

Lisa is long gone. Ester descends the stairs slowly, and she is mortified and devastated, lonely and bitter in her dawning realisation of the world’s utter indifference with her destiny.”

It is a central chapter in the novel, in that the conflict of it reverberates in the critical situations that Ester finds herself in throughout the book: The longing to be rid of everything that defines her and to escape into a world of beauty, the arbitrary guilty conscience, the masculine figure who is angry or amused with Ester rather than truly loving and accepting, and the heartbreaking awkwardness of Ester. There is much of the unreasonable poverty of the working class in this chapter, and I’m sure Tove Ditlevsen, having endured a working class childhood of her own, wanted it that way.

But I’m always left wondering whether she knew how universal the conflict is at the same time: The highly sensitive individual that strives to find itself deserving of something great and beautiful that will make everything cruel and harsh in its past seem like a reasonable backstory rather than meaningless humiliation or suffering. Certainly that’s what I keep returning to the novel for, as much as for the description of an early 20th-century Denmark that I thankfully never experienced first-hand. I highly recommend the book.