Category Archives: Literature

“Autobiographical in feeling”. Alice Munro Wins the Nobel Prize for Literature

So happy to hear the news today that Alice Munro is awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature.

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Alice Munro. Photo: Kristin Ross/PR

I fell in love with her writing three years ago when I read Runaway, and every one of her books have been a great reading experience for me. Her brilliant short stories really sum up the human condition – without ever becoming pompous and without any sense of entitlement to them, without any self-conscious air of speaking on behalf of anyone else but the persona at hand. Munro has never been shy or coy about her drawing on autobiographical material (Lives of Girls and Women, for instance, was called “autobiographical in form but not in fact”, and in Dear Life the last four pieces were referred to by Munro as “autobiographical in feeling”), but she has that wondrous and rare ability to make her experiences into something personal rather than something private. The world is richer for the experiences she has had and for her gift for transforming these experiences into language and narratives.

I was certain that I must have mentioned Munro several times here on this blog in the past, but I just did a search and found that I have actually only mentioned her once, in my blog post about apostrophic props in operas. This is something that I will have to correct in the future, but for now I will just tip my hat to Munro and congratulate her on this well deserved award.

Patricia Lockwood: Rape Joke

I’m usually more than a little mortified if a Danish newspaper manages to write about an internet phenomenon before I’ve had the chance to find it myself. I pride myself on my internet phenomenon discovery abilities.

I’m glad it happened in the case of this phenomenon, on which I just read a great piece about in today’s paper, lest I never would have discovered it myself. The phenomenon in question is Patricia Lockwood’s brilliant poem Rape Joke, published at The Awl on July 25 this year, which I highly recommend.

A few excerpts:

The rape joke is he once almost murdered a dude by throwing him through a plate-glass window. The next day he told you and he was trembling, which you took as evidence of his sensitivity.

(…)

The rape joke is that he kept a diary. I wonder if he wrote about the rape in it.

The rape joke is that you read it once, and he talked about another girl. He called her Miss Geography, and said “he didn’t have those urges when he looked at her anymore,” not since he met you. Close call, Miss Geography!

(…)

The rape joke is that you were facedown. The rape joke is you were wearing a pretty green necklace that your sister had made for you. Later you cut that necklace up. The mattress felt a specific way, and your mouth felt a specific way open against it, as if you were speaking, but you know you were not. As if your mouth were open ten years into the future, reciting a poem called Rape Joke.

The rape joke is that time is different, becomes more horrible and more habitable, and accommodates your need to go deeper into it.

Just like the body, which more than a concrete form is a capacity.

You know the body of time is elastic, can take almost anything you give it, and heals quickly.

(…)

It was a year before you told your parents, because he was like a son to them. The rape joke is that when you told your father, he made the sign of the cross over you and said, “I absolve you of your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” which even in its total wrongheadedness, was so completely sweet.

My 16-year-old self: Here to tell you all about the gender roles in Rosemary’s Baby

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I was going through some stuff in my flat the other day, and I found a folder of assignments from my high school English class. One of them was an essay that we had been assigned to do on the novel Rosemary’s Baby which we had read in class. We were free to pick our own angle on the novel, and I had decided to go with the subject of the gender roles displayed in the novel. 

Pop culture, gender roles and all, it reads sort of like a blog entry from a time when I had no idea what a blog was and had only just discovered the internet (which I mainly used to surf fan sites about David Duchovny. They were almost exclusively set in Times New Roman or Comic Sans and they had lots of clip art and pixelled animation and glitter. Oh, the nineties!).  So I thought it would be fun to publish it here on the blog for you guys to see.

I should warn you, however, that it is in no way a groundbreaking, let alone good, piece of writing. It’s a perfectly average high school essay. English is not my first language and was even less so at the time, and I use the word “very” about 1.003 times, being the eloquent, versatile, sexy 16-year-old that I was.

 I actually got an A, though, if anyone’s interested. I also remember that my teacher also told me to read it aloud to the rest of the class, which I willingly, proudly did. Unrelated: I had very few dates in high school. This was a cause of much distress to me at the time, although it did leave me with much more time to go through David Duchovny fan sites online.

My English teacher was really awesome though, and in addition to my essay I will include a note she wrote in comment to some very naïve statements I made in the essay about the equalization of the sexes, setting me straight.

Here we go:

Rosemary’s Baby

by Marie [Mylastname], grade 2.c

As I read Rosemary’s Baby, I found that apart from being a horror story about Satanism and witchcraft, Rosemary’s Baby deals with gender roles and the liberation of women. This aspect of the story is very important, I think. It creates an image of the time in which it was written and takes place. It is of course up to the individual reader how much he [or she, gender-aware Marie of 1999! OR SHE!] wants to focuse [SIC] on this, but I do think that the gender roles play a crucial part in the story.

The gender roles in Rosemary’s Baby are terribly traditional. Rosemary is the sweet and sensitive hausfrau while Guy is the strong, rational man who goes to work in order to provide for his wife and family. Rosemary is also a very emotional person in comparison to the more cynical Guy. This is made clear by the fact that Rosemary – in her heart – is a Catholic and that Guy is an agnostic. But the traditional gender roles also have their effect on Guy and Rosemary’s every-day life. An example of this is the scene in which Rosemary and Guy are introduced to the Bramford:

‘It’s a marvelous apartment!’ Rosemary said back in the living-room. She spun about with opened arms as if to embrace it. ‘I love it!’
‘What’s she’s trying to do,’ Guy said ‘is to get you to lower the rent’.

Apart from acting in this little girl like manner, Rosemary also lives up to the old-fashioned ideal of a woman by being remarkably dependent on Guy, both financially, because she needs Guy’s income,  and emotionally. She does get angry with Guy, but she never really stands up to him and tells him what she wants. During Guy’s preoccupied phases, Rosemary has to wait for Guy to apologize. Even when Guy claims to have taken advantage of Rosemary’s unconscious body, she does not manage to tell him how she feels about it.

Rosemary tends to use her vulnerability and femininity when wanting to get her way. This is very obvious as Guy declines the Castevets’ dinner invitation:

‘You don’t have to sulk about it, he said.
‘I’m not sulking’, Rosemary said. ‘I see exactly what you mean. (…).’
‘Oh hell.’ Guy said. ‘We’ll go.’
‘No, no, what for? We don’t have to. I shopped for dinner before she came so *that*’s no problem.’
‘We’ll go.’ Guy said.

If these traditional gender roles had continued all through the story, I would have been on the verge of stating that Levin was simply an old-fashioned sexist, but when reading the last chapters of the book I found that the roles changed. Rosemary appears to be strong and independent while Guy is weak and insecure. Actuallay the last chapters make you understand that Guy was never the strong one in the relationship. Guy is willing to sell his own wife for a good acting career, and after having done this, he is not even able to stand up for himself. This is particularly clear as Rosemary enters the Castevets’ apartment in search of her baby:

He stood looking down at her, his hands rubbing his sides. ‘They promised me you wouldn’t be hurt’, he said. ‘And you haven’t been, really. I mean, suppose you’d had a baby and lost it, wouldn’t it be the same? And we’re getting so much in return, Ro.’
She put her handkerchief on the table and looked at him. As hard as she could she spat at him. He flushed and turned away, wiping at the front of his jacket.”

I think that it is very important for us to consider this apparent change, because I believe that this indicates that Levin has an idea with letting the gender roles of his character appear to be as traditional as they do.

The fact that Rosemary develops during the story supports this theory  Rosemary seems from the beginning and right up to the point where she figures out that Guy is somehow involved with the Satantists’ cult to be very much in love with Guy. It is actually her love for an loyalty to her husband which leads to the disaster – the fact that she is impregnated with Satan’s child. The one time we sense that Rosemary actually wants to be come an individual person is when she is by herself in Hutch’s cabin. Here she seems to allow herself to get a little angry with Guy:

On the third day she thought about him. He was vain, self-centered, shallow, and deceitful. He had married her to have an audience, not a mate. (Little Miss Just-out-of-Omaha, what a *goop* she had been!)

Shortly after, however, she gives up all thoughts of rebellion and elides to go home to Guy. By going home to go on as if nothing has happened, she accepts Guy’s alleged abuse of her body and by this, one might argue, she resigns to Guy and gives up her independence. As a result of such a resignation something awful is bound to happen.

The fact that something awful does happen, and how awful it actually is, is another side of the story, which I will not try to define nor explain here. However, it is remarkable that Rosemary, as soon as she learns that Guy is involved in the conspiracy, leaves him. At this point in the story, one experiences for the first time, that Rosemary is a strong person. She realizes that she needs to take care of herself in order to save herself and her baby. Eventually, however, Rosemary is forced to acknowledge the fact that she is too late – she is trapped, because she cannot leave her own son in the lurch.

I think that the liberation of women is one of Levin’s points with Rosemary’s Baby. That it is a main point is arguable, but I do believe that Levin has meant to discuss the old-fashioned woman’s situation with this story. How dependent should she allow herself to become in her marriage? What might the consequences be? These questions were indeed relevant in the sixties when this story was written and takes place, because the liberation of women was just about to begin at the time (1). Is it still relevant, one might ask, today, when the equalization of the sexes is almost total (2). I think it is. The gender roles in Rosemary’s Baby are probably a little too antiquated for us to identity with, but I do think that we an still learn from this  thriller story. I think that as long as we live in a society with even the slightest possibility of discrimination, we need to be reminded of the consequences of resignation, however bizarre they may be.”

TEACHER’S NOTE:
(1) The struggle of the sexes and the process had been going on for a hundred years then – but the sixties saw the birth of the feminist movement.

(2) I wish you were right [about the equalization of the sexes being almost total] – but I’m afraid there is still a long way to go – I remember a heated discussion in a Scottish youth hostel with my best friend in 1962: She said that men and women were equal now, I said they were not. She learned her lesson later!

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.

Christmas Descriptions in the Works of Astrid Lindgren

Merry Christmas, dear readers.

I think Astrid Lindgren must have loved Christmas. There are Christmas descriptions in almost all of her book series; Pippi Longstocking, Emil of Maple Hills, Madicken of June Hill, the Six Bullerby Children, and Lotta on Troublemaker Street all celebrate the holiday in her books and their Christmas preparations and celebrations are always carefully described. In this December 24th post I will discuss the Christmas descriptions found in Madicken of June Hill and Emil of Maple Hills, two Christmas descriptions that I’ve always loved dearly.

From the book “Look, Madicken, it’s snowing!”

(NOTE: as I do not have access to English translations of Astrid Lindgren’s books, the English translations of the Swedish books below are all my own)

Portrait of the Writer as a Little Girl – Christmas in June Hill
Madicken of June Hill books have always been my favourites among Astrid Lingren’s works. Lindgren confirmed to be inspired for the character of Madicken by a childhood friend, but I also think that an authobiographical trait is very much visible in the series: I think that it’s possible to read the Madicken books as the story of the cultivation of a young writer’s voice.

Madicken is an upper-middle-class girl, living in Småland in a house called June Hill during the time of World War I with her father, editor-in-chief at a local newspaper, her mother, her younger sister Elisabeth, and their maid Alva. And Madicken definitely has the makings of a writer: She’s emotional, she has a vivid imagination, she’s passionate about books and stories, and one of the first things we learn about her is that she “gets her ideas quicker than a pig can blink”. The main conflict of the Madicken books is, however, that Madicken has not yet learned how to manage her creative abilities and her flair for storytelling, and Madicken often gets herself into trouble. A recurring theme in Madicken is the fact that things rarely turn out in reality the way one imagines them, or the way they play out in fiction. One famous example is her jumping from a wood shed with an umbrella, inspired by stories she has read about WWI soldiers jumping with parachutes – with the result of her getting rather a concussion.

Madicken is somewhat like Ian McEwan’s Briony Tallis in this way; she sees possibilities of fiction everywhere in her surroundings. This is what gets her into trouble – and sometimes into real danger – but it’s also what makes her an intriguing and amusing heroine.

This is apparent in the Christmas descriptions in the Madicken books. In December, Madicken is characteristically enthusiastic about having everything play out the way she’s imagined, and it’s important to her that the aesthetics of Christmas permeate her entire world. Accordingly, Madicken inspects the Christmas preparations in her home carefully:

“Yes, now Christmas may come to June Hill, everything is ready to receive it. Every nook is clean, there are white, newly starched curtains at every window, there are candles in every candlestick, in the kitchen the new patchwork quilts are brightening up everything, on the walls the copper pots and pans are shining with all their might, and the iron rod under the cooker hood has been decorated with curly crêpe paper of red and green, festive like Christmas itself.”

Another illustration from “Look, Madicken, It’s Snowing!”

Madicken is satisfied with all this, and on the day of Christmas Eve she savours every little sensory impression of it, like the smell of the lacquer used to seal the wrapped Christmas gifts:

“She explains Elisabeth how nice it would be, if one could put a little bit of the lacquer scent into a tin along with all the other lovely Christmas scents. Then you would have a can to sniff all year, until it would finally be Christmas again.”

A can containing all the scents of Christmas is of course an impossible notion, but this is typical of Madicken and her lyrical disposition: She wants so much to capture the moment that it almost becomes too much for her. It’s the same urge that gave her her near-fatal concussion in an earlier chapter, and while she doesn’t bring herself into danger in the Christmas chapter, her pursuit of the true Christmas spirit does leave her very upset towards the end of Christmas Eve:

The day of Christmas Eve is long, but it ends after all. The candles burn out, everyone has had their presents, everyone has cracked nuts, everyone has eaten apples and Christmas sweets, and everyeone is too tired to dance around the Christmas tree again. Then Madicken suddenly hides her face in her hands and bursts into to tears: ‘Oh, now it’s over! To think that it’s over so soon!'”

Significantly, Madicken is also dismayed as she visits her neighbours, the teenage boy Anders and his poor parents the Nilssons, the day before Christmas:

“…[she finds] Anders lying on his knees, scrubbing the floor! He stops abruptly as Madicken enters. ‘I was just mopping up something’, he explains. But he has already scrubbed half of the floor. (…) Madicken takes a look around. Apart from that there isn’t much Christmas preparation visible. The curtains and the chrocheted shelf trimmings haven’t been cleaned, everything looks as it always does, and it shouldn’t on the night before Christmas Eve, Madicken thinks.
‘Haven’t you tidied up yet?’ she asks.
Anders looks confused.
‘Tidied up? How do you mean?’
Madicken doesn’t really know what to say.
‘Well, it’s… it’s Christmas tomorrow.’
‘Ah, yes, well, that’s all taken care of!’ says Anders, ‘Come and see!’
He leads the way into the small room next to the kitchen. Here is a paper cloth hung up on the wall, full of bearded Christmas gnomes.
‘How do you like that?’ he asks triumphantly. ‘Father and mother haven’t seen it yet, but they’ll be gaping when they see it – you can bet on that!’
(…)
Madicken thinks that the paper cloth with the bearded gnomes is nice, but it only spreads Christmas cheer in one little spot. Madicken wants for the Christmas cheer to spread everywhere.

As emphatic a character as she is, there is something let-them-eat-cake-ishly spoiled about upper-middle-class Madicken’s scrutiny of poor Anders’ home. Astrid Lindgren seems aware of this, and while she definitely celebrates Madicken’s artistic streak, she doesn’t let her protagonist get away with this privileged purely aesthetic approach to her surroundings. Madicken’s father is the editor of the local newspaper and is depicted as a highly socially conscious person who makes sure that Madicken understands that there is a big, harsh world outside her cherished June Hill – a world with which she needs to deal. “I think the children ought to know that there are many different kinds of people in this world,” he says at one time, as Madicken’s mother voices her concern that Madicken is spending so much time with Anders and his alcoholic father, “Then maybe they will learn that they’ll learn that they shouldn’t be to quick to bring out the heavy armour”. In another Christmas-related chapter we learn that Madicken’s father always takes Madicken for a walk around the poorer parts of the town on Christmas Eve:

“The church bells are chiming so that they can be heard all over the town as Daddy and Madicken walk out. They take the same route as always on Christmas Eve. Down crooked, narrow alleys past houses that are (…) so low that Madicken can scrape the snow off of the roof if she wants to make a snowball. The streets are dark, but almost all the houses are lit. The people who live there probably don’t have blinds, or maybe they don’t care that you can look right through their windows into their rooms.
‘And we are impertinent enough to be peeking through their windows,’ says daddy. ‘I’m sure you can tell that they don’t really have what we have at June Hill in there?’
No, they certainly do not! But it still looks kind of cosy, Madicken thinks. In some places anyway. Even if it is a bit cramped and poor and even though there isn’t much furniture and not much room for all the children, playing and romping about in there. They do seem to have tried to decorate the house for Christmas, you can tell. But in some places it looks too miserable.
‘I wouldn’t want to live in there.’ says Madicken.
‘I’m sure you would’t.’ says daddy.”

But it is possible to make a difference, so Madicken’s father’s message seems to be, by relating to the poverty around you and recognising it, and, possibly, bearing witness to it. And Madicken’s father’s dry response notwithstanding there’s no sense of reproof from Lindgren. Madicken may not master her own narrative voice quite yet, but her sense of lyrical beauty and her childish sensitivity to her surroundings makes her capable of recognising things that the adult world would overlook or dismiss as irrational. In a later chapter in the book revolving around Mrs Nilsson’s selling her body to science, Madicken is the only person to see how gravely Mrs Nilsson is troubled by this action. And in the Christmas chapters, too, Madicken manages to spread some joy – like when she gives Anders a Christmas present and is able to respect and delight in the modest Christmas celebrations of the Nilsson family:

The Nilssons are in the kitchen as usual, and Mr Nilsson is on the kitchen bench as usual. But the kitchen is unusually birghtly lit. The new lamp, but Anders’ eyes almost shine more brightly every time he looks at it. He ill not take his eyes off the lamp. He hardly even notices Madicken and Elisabeth. But Mr Nilsson nods at htem from the bench.
‘Here’s the little Madicken and the little Elisabeth of June Hill, and they have arrived at exactly the right moment!’
He points to the lamp.
‘How do you like that? How do you like this glorious item that my son has purchased? What light! What pleasance!’
‘Yes, it’s pretty.’ says Madicken.
‘Look into the little room! How do you like the funny littile Christmas gnomes with which my son has decorated the wall? And the Christmas tree that he has got just to make his old father happy, how do you like that? Anders, Anders, you are a good son!’
Mrs Nilsson is sitting as close to the lamp as she can, drinking coffee. Now she puts down the cop and pats Anders on his head.
‘As if he didn’t do it for his mother as well! Yes, you are surely a good boy, little Anders.’
Anders is embarrassed by all this praise and turns towards Madicken and Elisabeth.
‘What did you want by the way?’
Madicken produces the present that she has kept hidden behind her back.
‘I just wanted to give you a Christmas present, Anders.’
‘Me?’ says Anders. ‘A Christmas present? How come?’
Mrs Nilsson clasps her hands in horror. ‘A Christmas present for Anders! Oh, but we forgot about that!’
She looks reproachfully at Mr Nilsson on the bench. ‘Did you by any chance remember to buy a Christmas present for Anders?’
Mr Nilsson is silent and glares grumpily at Mrs Nilsson. Finally he says, with some annoyance:
‘I may have both a house and a farm, but I’m still a little short on cash at the moment. So I couldn’t get Anders a Christmas present this year. Are you sad about that, Anders?’
Anders doesn’t look sad in the least.
‘Never mind about that, we have the lamp!’
‘And Madicken’s Christmas present.’ Elisabeth reminds him.
‘Gee, yes, that’s right, I got a Christmas present from Madicken.’ says Anders.
He opens the present and finds the harmonica. Mr Nilsson is jubilant.
‘A harmonica, I must say! Now you can play something pretty for your old man, can’t you, Anders?’
It isn’t a fine or expensive harmonica, but Anders can still make it play a few melodies.
(…)
And Madicken and Elisabeth walk away happy and relieved.
“It was nice in there.” says Elisabeth.
‘Yes, it was.’ says Madikcen. ‘And what a nice lamp, I wish we had a lamp like that.’

The progress of a country boy
Moving on to another Lindgren character, Emil of Lönneberga, we find a very different description of Christmas. Emil is not the child of a newspaper editor, he’s the young son of a farmer, living with his parents, his little sister Ida, a maid and a farm hand on his father’s farm Katholt. Emil is infamous in the parson for his mischief which time and again enrages his father and sends him to the farm woodshed where he is to atone for his misdeeds. The thing is however, that Emil never means to misbehave. He always means well, but like Madicken he has a knack for getting into trouble.

Emil – one of Björn Berg’s illustrations for the Emil books

The similarities between Madicken and Emil don’t go much further than this, though. Being a handy, practical farmer boy Emil is much more in tune with the elements and the conditions of nature than Madicken the editor’s daughter, and the imagery and plots of the Emil books tend to have a baser, more textural sense to them than the ones in the Madicken novels. In one book, Emil accidentally swallows a coin of his father’s and it is described that Emil dutifully paid back his debt after nature had taken its course with the coin in question. Another plot is kickstarted as Emil “has a stomach ache and had to go to the outhouse” one night. And the plot of one of the most dramatic stories focuses on the aggressive blood poisoning of the farmhand, Alfred. That’s the way it goes in the Emil stories. Bacteria invade people’s bloodstreams, and people have bowel movements. The third-person narrator of the Emil books is also notably unceremonious, recounting the stories in a language that is closer to that of an oral than of a written narrative tradition.

Emil as portrayed by young Jan Olsson in the Swedish series based on the books

Thus it is not surprising to find that the Emil Christmas chapter is devoid of Madicken’s preoccupation with a certain Christmas atmosphere. Emil isn’t overly excited as the holidays approach, and when Christmas Eve finally comes along, it is described in two simple sentences, without any superlatives:

“Emil and [his little sister] Ida went home, and then it was Christmas Eve. It was very nice at Katholt that evening as well as on Christmas Day.”

Similarly, as Emil rides a sleigh to church on Christmas morning, Emil is not lost in thoughts about the beauty of the snowy landscape the way Madicken probably would have:  He is merely satisfied that the Katholt horses prove to be faster than than the horses dragging the neighbouring sleighs. At a farm in Småland, Sweden, Christmas is mostly a time for taking stock. Through the year, the farms have strived to accumulate enough for the winter and now the result is contemplated with satisfaction. Not an aesthetic satisfaction with fancy garnish like white newly starched tablecloths and fragrant hyacinths, but of solid things, like heavy, filling traditional fare in the pantry:

“Now everyone at Katholt was busy, because at Katholt Christmas was celebrated with a vengeance. First there was the big clean-up. Lina and Lingon-berry Maja knelt on the icy bridge by the Katholt brook and did the laundry until Lina was crying and breathing on her freezing fingers. Then the Christmas hog was slaughtered, and once that was done there was almost no room left in the kitchen, said Lina, because of all those black puddings and Cumberland sausages and oatmeal sausages and minced sausage, and potato sausage and salamis taking up space along iwth hams and headcheeses, and pork roastes and I don’t know what all. Juniper ale was also a must for Christmas. Emil’s mother brewed it in the big wooden vessel in the scullery. And pastry and breads needed to be bake, enough to make a person’s head swim, rye bread and treacle bread and fine black bread and saffron bread and ordinary white bread and gingerbread and a special kind of small, delicious cakes in the shapes of pretzels and puff pastry cakes, yes, it is impossible to mention all of it. Candles were also required. Emil’s mother and Lina spent an entire night making candles, big candles and small candles and Thee Kings Candles, for now Christmas was almost there. Alfred and Emil harnessed Lukas [the horse] and drove into the woods to get a Christmas tree, and Emil’s father went to the barn to get two sheafs of oat that he had saved for the sparrows.
‘It’s sheer madness,’ he said, ‘but the sparrows should know that it’s Christmas, too.'”

Indeed they should. Emil and his family certainly aren’t materialists after all. If Christmas is the time of year to showcase what goods one has produced out of the earth’s soil, it is also the time of year to give thanks to remember the ones that nature has been less kind to in the year that has passed. The birds – but also the old, poor, and lonely paupers of the village who reside in a measly, crowded little workhouse run as a charitable institution by the parish counsil. Emil’s mother prepares a special basket full of food for these poor people.

Unfortunately, the paupers’ strict matron, a mean old woman called the Commander, sees fit to eat all the food by herself, and when Emil finds out about this, he decides to take matters into his own hands. While his parents are out away at a Christmas party in the village, Emil prepares and hosts an extravagant Christmas feast for the paupers all by himself. Significantly, the feast takes place on December the 26th, boxing day. Emil’s wellmannered little sister anxiously asks Emil if giving away their parents’ food won’t count as mischief, but Emil assures her that the feast is something “that God’s angels will clap their hands at, as much as they must have been crying at the wretched Christmas that the paupers had to endure.”

This is probably as poetic as it gets, and there seems to be a recognition that the paupers will have less use for this kind of pretty imagery than for good old fashioned, solid food. Emil certainly understands that getting some food into the paupers is more important than any idea of heavenly reward, as the loquacious narrator informally lets us know:

“…when [the paupers] entered the kitchen at Katholt, prepared for the holidays as it was, and lit by five big Three Kings Candles that Emil had lit, the shimmer of which were mirrored in the newly polished copper saucepans hanging on the walls, so that everything was bright and shiny, they were at first completely silent, and old Nitwit Jokum thought that he had gone to heaven. (…) But then Emil said: ‘Now we will have a Christmas feast!’ And a Christmas feast it was. Emil and Alfred and little Ida helped each other carrying in all they could manage from the pantry. And I feel you should know what was on the table in the Katholt kitchen on Boxing Day when everything had been brought in.
There was:
A dish of black pudding
A dish of Cumberland sausage
A dish of headcheese
A dish of paté
A dish of smoked sausage
A dish of meatballs
A dish of veal cutlets
A dish of pork roast
A dish of oatmeal sausage
A dish of potato sausage
A dish of salted meat
A dish of slightly salted ox tongue
A dish with the big Christmas ham
A dish with the big Christmas cheese
A bowl with herring salad
A tray with rye bread
A tray with treacle bread
A tray with fine black bread
A pitcher of juniper beer
A pitcher of milk
A roaster of rice pudding
A kind of cheese pudding
A bowl of prunes
A  bowl of whipped cream
A bowl of strawberry jam
A bowl of ginger pears and
A roasted whole hog, decorated with sugar icing.

That was all, I think. I can’t have forgotten more than three things, four at the most, oh, well, let’s say five just in case, but to be on the safe side, but then I’m sure I must have remembered everything.”

If the Madicken books are about an aspiring writer learning how to use her artistic streak constructively, the Emil books are about learning how to be a good person. But Astrid Lindgren never assumes a moralistic adult voice in her children’s books. She celebrates Madicken’s artistic streak, and I find it significant that in the Emil books it seems to be Emil’s surroundings who need to learn to understand Emil’s good deeds – and not Emil who needs to learn how to please his surroundings. As the Emil narrator discloses, Emil later grew up to be elected head of the parish counsil, so we know the rest of the world eventually caught on. Lindrgen had that rare talent for speaking on behalf of child protagonists in a manner that has nothing overbearing or patronising in it, and her Christmas descriptions are no exceptions. Christmas is often described as a the children’s holiday, and Lindgren takes the consequence of this in her children’s books and depicts Christmas as a time when children have a chance of showing adults the way.

The Apostrophic Prop – My five favourite inanimate objects in operas

Opera props. They don’t get the grand arias, and yet they often manage to steal the show. Below are five examples.

5. “Vecchia zimarra” – Colline’s coat in La Bohème
I’m including this one because it’s probably one of the most famous instances of an inanimate object taking center stage in an opera, and it illustrates quite well how an object can be useful in the story of an opera.

The element of surprise is an important factor here. Opera makes much use of the apostrophe – the idea of addressing someone who is absent or dead (or dying). We’re used to opera characters expressing their yearning for their lover (like Rodolfo in “Ah, Mimì, tu più non torni”) or their native country (like Aida with “O patria mia”) or praying to an – absent – god, like Norma’s “Casta Diva”. But when a character is suddenly addressing an inanimate object which, thus, becomes the apostrophe, it’s hard not to be taken by surprise and struck by the gesture. It seems unreasonable to be wasting that much attention on a stupid old coat when a woman is dying on stage at the same time.

But of course that’s exactly the effect that the composer and librettist are going with Colline. We’re thrown at first by the amount of attention Colline’s squandering on his measly piece of clothing, but once we recover we understand all the more fully the miserable poverty which is at the core of the La Bohème story. No one should have to be that attached to a coat, and certainly no one should have to make the choice between a warm coat in the winter and medicine for a dying friend.

4. “La tua fanciulla io sono” – The handkerchief in Otello
If there is something silly about the attention paid to the coat in La Bohème, the attention paid to the handkerchief in Otello is downright grotesque. Otello and Desdemona share such a great, solid love, and yet something as thin and flimsy as a handkerchief is able to come between them, and this point adds considerably to the feeling of tragedy in the story. Shakespeare always had a great eye for little details like these, but I think Verdi added a lot to this particular opera MacGuffin in his opera. The handkerchief appears in several scenes throughout the opera, the Emilia/Iago/Desdemona/Otello quartet with the handkerchief in its center being the most interesting of these, I think. Like in Verdi’s much more famous quartetBella figlia dell’amore” from Rigoletto, we get to hear the confusing, conflicting thoughts of four different individuals all at once, as the wretched, fatal little handkerchief changes hands for the first time in the opera:

(from circa 06:29)

The handkerchief-MacGuffin impressed Puccini sufficiently that he included a reference to it in his Tosca. “Iago had a handkerchief, I have a fan” says Scarpia, as he schemes to make a fan come between Tosca and her lover Mario.

3. “Ich habe deinen Mund geküsst” – The Severed head of John the Baptist in Salome
Sometimes the fascination of the apostrophic inanimate object in an opera stems from the fact that the object is in fact inanimate, that is, not living. This is the case in Richard Strauss gruelling opera Salome in which Salome addresses the severed head of John the Baptist:

The scene is horrifying because we, the audience, are all too aware that the bloody, lifeless, severed head that Salome is clutching can serve as nothing more than an apostrophe. Yet Salome insists that it is not an apostrophe, that Jochanan is there, sensitive to her touch, and her lips pressed against his.

Ah! Du wolltest mich nicht deinen Mund küssen lassen, Jochanaan! Wohl, ich werde ihn jetzt küssen! Ich will mit meinen Zähnen hineinbeißen, wie man in eine reife Frucht beißen mag. Ja, ich will ihn jetzt küssen, deinen Mund, Jochanaan. Ich hab’ es gesagt. Hab’ ich’s nicht gesagt? Ja, ich hab’ es gesagt. Ah! Ah! Ich will ihn jetzt küssen … Aber warum siehst du mich nicht an, Jochanaan? Deine Augen, die so schrecklich waren, so voller Wut und Verachtung, sind jetzt geschlossen. Warum sind sie geschlossen? Öffne doch die Augen, erhebe deine Lider, Jochanaan! Warum siehst du mich nicht an? Hast du Angst vor mir, Jochanaan, daß du mich nicht ansehen willst? (….) Ah! Ich habe deinen Mund geküßt, Jochanaan. Ah! Ich habe ihn geküßt deinen Mund, es war ein bitterer Geschmack auf deinen Lippen. Hat es nach Blut geschmeckt? Nein! Doch es schmeckte vielleicht nach Liebe … Sie sagen, daß die Liebe bitter schmecke … Allein, was tut’s? Was tut’s? Ich habe deinen Mund geküßt, Jochanaan. Ich habe ihn geküßt, deinen Mund.

2. “L’ho perduta! Me meschina!” The pin in Le Nozze di Figaro
Brrrrr! Ok, on to something a bit lighter: Le Nozze di Figaro. This opera buffa is basically one big scheme, and a pin plays a quite important part in it. Susanna, while trying to trick the lustful Count into thinking she’ll meet him in the garden for a tête-a-tête later that night, hands the Count a letter sealed with a pin that he must give back to her as a confirmation of their date. Barbarina is charged with the responsibility of bringing the pin back to Susanna, but she loses it. Despite not quite grasping the significance of the pin, she is devastated and naively tells Figaro of her blunder. Figaro doesn’t realise that Susanna is merely playing an elaborate prank on the Count and gets jealous out of his mind.

There’s a bit of the Otello handkerchief atmosphere going on here, what with all the marital problems and jealousy, but it’s quite obviously played for laughs by Mozart and librettist da Ponte. “L’ho perduta, me meschina” is a much too beautiful and solemn aria to be sung about a silly little pin, and the use of a pin as a prop on stage has great comedic potential: It’s way to small to ever actually be seen from the audience seats. There is also something ridiculously phallic about the image of a pin (consider Burt Bacarach’s song lyrics: “What do you get when you fall in love?/A guy with a pin to burst your bubble”), and indeed Danish director Kasper Holten once staged a version of Figaro in which it was obvious that Barbarina was singing about the loss of, well, her bubble to the Count’s, ahem, pin. Finally, there is the possible slap-stick gag of a character accidentally pricking his finger on the pin, which does in fact happen to the Count as he is first handed Susanna’s note. This causes him to deliver my all-time favourite random throw-away line in an opera:

“Ugh, women are always putting pins everywhere!”

1. The embroidered jersey – Peter Grimes
The one opera prop that truly gets to me, however, is the knitted jersey from Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes. Ellen Orford and Grimes’ friend Balstrode find a small jersey that has washed up on shore, and by its special ornamental embroidery Ellen recognises it as a jersey she knitted for Grimes’ young boy apprentice. Grimes’ previous apprentice died in accidental circumstances, and Balstrode and Ellen Orford have tried hard to defend Grimes against the claims that Grimes was responsible, but the washed up jersey forces them to face the fact that Grimes has, whether wittingly or not, brought death upon yet another child.

Embroidery in childhood was
A luxury of idleness.
A coil of silken thread giving
Dreams of a silk and satin life.
Now my broidery affords
The clue whose meaning we avoid.
My hand remembered its old skill –
These stitches tell a curious tale.
I remember I was brooding
On the fantasies of children
And dreamt that only by wishing I
Could bring some silk into their lives.
Now my broidery affords
The clue whose meaning we avoid.

A silk and satin life – the ornamental anchor that Ellen stitched on the jersey holds such a heartbreaking significance. The purpose of the jersey was to keep the apprentice warm enough for him to perform his duties at sea. But the purpose of the stitched anchor was to show the boy that he was cared for, that he was human. The aria reminds me of a passage from Alice Munro’s short story “Privilege” about the significance of a series of bird illustrations amid the ruthless, merciless conditions at the early-20th-century provinsial school of Rose, the young protagonist:

“One thing in the school was captivating, lovely. Pictures of birds. Rose didn’t know if the teacher had climbed up and nailed them above the blackboard, too high for easy desecration, if they were her first and last hopeful effort, or if they dated from some earlier, easier time in the school’s history. Where had they come from, how had they arrived there, when nothing else did, in the way of decoration, illustration?
A red-headed woodpecker; an oriole; a blue jay; a Canada goose. The colors clear and long-lasting. Backgrounds of pure snow, of blossming braches, of heady summer sky. In an ordinary classroom they would not have seemed so extraordinary. Here they were bright and eloquent, so much at variance with everything else that what they seemed to represent was not the birds themselvess, not those skies and snows, but some other world of hardy innocence, bounteous information, privileged lightheartedness. No stealing form lunchpails there; no slashing coats; no pulling down pants and probing with painful sticks,; no fucking…”

If the surroundings are reducing indivduals to dispensable things to be used and discarded, if accusations and verbal abuse has taken the place of dialogue, then the communication through the inanimate object becomes the only means of expressing love, and hope, and recognition.  And there’s so much of that in Ellen’s aria here: Her love for Peter, her hopes for a happy life with him, and her recognition of John, the apprentice, as a fellow human being who might want something pretty to look at.

“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.