In the early hours

Issue 1/1976 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

An extract from Dyre Prins (‘Sweet Prince’, 1975). Introduction by Ingmar Svedberg

Donald Blaadh, a retired businessman, has been called to visit an influential acquaintance in the middle of the night.

He was sitting in the library, listening to Shostakovich, the Leningrad Symphony. The slow crescendo. The insistent march rhythm. Dogged endurance. Indomitability. He switched it off when I came in.

“I can’t sleep,” he said.

“Neither can I.”

He ignored the ironic undertone. “Shostakovich sharpens the decision­making faculties, the way chess sharpens the wits,” he said. “A sort of exercise routine … but I forgot, you don’t play chess.”

“No, but I do play the gramophone.”

“To-day I’m going to start you off with a quiz: whose immortal words were these, ‘Minerva’s owl never takes to the air till twilight is falling’?”

“I don’t know.”

“I’m not surprised, the representatives of private enterprise in this country aren’t noted for their high level of education, but never mind, I’ll help you out a little, ‘when philosophy paints grey on grey a way of life has grown old, and grey on grey will not restore it to youth’, that comes in the same sentence. Well? I’ve made it easy for you now, who said that?”

“No idea.”

“Hegel of course. That’s nil to you and three to me. Now I’ll give you an easy one. One of the greatest experts on human nature the world has ever known said this: ‘They who wish to describe a country stand in the plain to look at the mountains and climb the mountains to look at the plain: even so one must be a prince to look at the people and an ordinary man to understand princes’. Whose wise words were those? – I’ve practically given you the answer.”

“God, I don’t know, I’m no good at quotations. Mao, perhaps?”

“Wrong again. Prince, Prince, don’t you get it, there’s only one person it could be, it’s Machiavelli, that makes six points to me and still none to you. Machiavelli has meant more to me, in some ways, than any other writer, he’s so completely free from prejudice and illusion. Of all the thinkers in the world’s history he’s the one – until Marx and Lenin – who knew most about the human condition, some aspects of it at least. ‘In the world, the rabble plays the principal role: the intelligent, and they are few, come into their own only when the rabble is at a loss’ – that’s not badly said, you know, if you take the rabble to mean, quite simply, the people … or what about this, ‘a victory won with outside help is never a lasting one’, that was said in the sixteenth century and it could have been said by Lenin, in fact it was. Now I’ll give you one more chance. We’ll move over to music; do you recall the introductory bars of the Jaegers’ March by Sibelius, taadaadaadaa taadaadaadaa…?”

“What of it?”

“Which of the great classical composers is Sibby plagiarizing at that point? Plagiarizing, I said.”

“Well, I ought to know that, at least. Liszt? – no, Tchaikovsky?”

“Miles out. It’s Bach, in the Matthew Passion, the first tenor aria in Part Two, the one that begins ‘Geduld, Geduld, wenn mich falsche Zungen Stechen ‘, the accompaniment at the beginning, you really are most frightfully ignorant, now I’ve beaten you nine-nil, it’s disgraceful, disgraceful, one may well wonder what would happen to this country if you were running it instead of me… do you know when I was younger I could sit up all night listening to the Matthew Passion. I did it when I was hesitating about some vital political decision, and by the time the echo of the last note of the final chorus had died away, the decision was made and the next morning I went into action, in fact Bach was acting as a catalyst for the whole political life of the country, you didn’t know that did you, I tell you I know my Bach, you can’t catch me out on Bach, do I strike you as a little euphoric?”

“A trifle, perhaps.”

“Now you’re being impertinent as well, you always have been, if you listen carefully to the Matthew Passion there’s something you’ll notice, I’ve been thinking about it all evening, something your charming current­ partner-for-life said to me one day, to the effect that the Matthew Passion contains everything, says everything there is to be said about humanity and the human condition. Now I’m a well-bred sort of old man and I didn’t want to start an argument with her then and there, but honestly … what an extraordinary idea, I wonder where she got it from.”

”From Jacob, I expect. Yes, it must have been from Jacob.”

”Jacob, Jacob? What Jacob? Oh, the chap who circulated that complaint about you – my word that was a marvellous character sketch he drew of you. Do you know I’ve had it duplicated and I’m going to send it to eight ministers, fourteen state counsellors and twenty-three Under­secretaries, oh, there’s a bad time coming for some of these big speculators in a certain field, some people think they can get away with anything without the authorities raising a finger to stop them … where was I?”

“Vanessa. Something about Vanessa.”

“Oh yes. Did you know I was still a convinced anti-Marxist when I reached my sixtieth birthday, did you know that?”

“I imagine … well, yes, I imagine I did.”

“You imagine … oh, but that’s splendid … even you have to do some imagining sometimes, when you’re not busy profiteering … you know it’s only now, in my old age, that … yes, when I think of the state the world is in, I mean this whole colossal market-governed orgy of overproduction, the flood of goods that are really nothing but rubbish from start to finish, waste in every sense of the word … that Marxism … Marx had it all down in black and white, are you still with me?”

“Not altogether.”

“No, no, it was music we were talking about actually, what I mean is that sometimes music can actually describe a stage in the history of society, the spirit of an age, human life in fact, more vividly than words can, I’m talking about bad words and good music of course, obviously good words are better than anything when it’s a question of making a concrete event comprehensible, as you’ll find with Marx … or Machiavelli … or Manzoni, ha, ha! Clever of me to bring in Manzoni, I’m completely gone on the great symphonists of the nineteenth century, the golden age of romanticism, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, César Franck, Sibelius and Mahler, Mahler, you can say what you like about my musical taste, say it’s superficial and vulgar and inarticulate and cheap, but there’s something there that … you seem a bit sleepy, do you want me to go on?”

“Indeed yes, it’s all incredibly interesting.”

“Now you’re being insincere, like the bloody scrap-merchant you are, what I can’t get over is the way she came out with it in that stark uncompromising way, your charming current-partner-for-life, brilliant pianist she may be, but to maintain that the Matthew Passion contains everything, says everything, when in point of fact it … you know, I don’t think any author, of any period, has ever made me feel as optimistic about evolution as Marx does. Cervantes the consoler. Dostoyevsky the purifier … that’s banal … Lenin the liberator, no, the renovator of rust-encrusted thought patterns. But Marx the gleam of gaslight in the bourgeois smog of London, the clear flame of faith in the future, shining right down through the century … and then she … your charming current-partner-for-life … comes along and says that Bach … in the eighteenth century, the Christian message … ”                                 .

“Perhaps Vanessa didn’t mean it quite so literally.”

“Why not? But nothing can contain everything. It’s a question of how you listen to it. Or experience it. One must always be able to distinguish, differentiate’s the stylish word, separate the one thing from the other, see what’s what and what isn’t … the Matthew Passion as a complete statement of life, how can anyone conceive a notion so … bizarre, when just the opposite is true, the Matthew Passion contains precisely one half of life … but so much the more completely for that, I willingly grant you, the defeat of man as a species is what it’s all about, the qualitative inadequacy, the limitations, of the human race, the passion and death of Jesus is a prophecy, mythologized and personalized and at some time prolonged into infinity, of the doom of man as a race, as a species, and that is what Bach with his tremendous clarity of vision, his unique religious intuition, makes clear through his music, the other half isn’t there at all, the struggle, the struggle, the will to survive, survival itself, the conflict of opposites, synthesis through thesis and antithesis, in other words the continual and uninterrupted renewal of creation as a willed event and a historic necessity. The Matthew Passion consists of seventy-eight perfect variations on the theme of sorrow – sorrow distilled and refined to its purest essence – and resignation, submission, submission as Man’s inescapable destiny, but what drama, what sublime drama, taken just as drama it’s absolutely unsurpassed, it puts even King Lear in the shade … as drama … do you understand what I mean? Do you understand any of this at all?”

“I’m beginning to have an inkling of what you’re driving at.”

“You’re beginning to have an inkling, that’s fine, an inkling’s better than nothing at all, the drama of human life, King Lear is a great drama and so is Faust, but no one can deny that Bach is the greatest dramatist of all time if drama means making something clear, and it is precisely so in the Matthew Passion, compare it with the B minor Mass and the B minor Mass for all its piety and solemnity will sound worldly, almost frivolous, but mark you … in actual fact it isn’t until the Matthew Passion ends that the history of mankind begins …”

He sat in silence for a few moments with his eyes closed; then, musingly:

“It’s an odd thing, very odd … but I feel like playing you some Stravinsky.”


Translated by David Barrett

No comments for this entry yet

Leave a comment