Wednesday 29 April 2020

Raising a mug to Prokofiev on his birthday

Serendipity has been at work. Last Wednesday I had the loveliest email imaginable from a lady I'd never met or corresponded with before, Jennifer B Lee, Curator of the Performing Arts Collections in the Rare Book and Manuscripts Library of Columbia University. She'd got my email from a mutual friend, the pianist Barbara Nissman (pictured in the top right hand corner above). Trying to avoid humblebrag, in short Jenny wrote so many kind and positive things about my Prokofiev biog Vol. 1 that it was enough to fire me up to get on with the many-years-delayed Vol. 2 (really, I am). The point, though, is the connection with the Prokofiev Archive, and her delight that I had worked my way through the 40 boxes of papers in the Archive when it was based at Goldsmiths College in London.

The tale of how the Archive went to New York is, in my opinion, a sorry one, and I wanted nothing to do with it for years. That, it seems, is all in the past now, and now the Project Archivist for the Prokofiev Archive, Natalia Ermolaev(a), seems like a splendid person. Jenny told me that Natasha was co-ordinating a Zoom birthday greeting to Prokofiev to make up for the cancellation of a conference at which many of the participants would have been speaking.

They included members of the Prokofiev family - Frances, widow of the composer's much-missed younger son Oleg, now living in Norfolk with her partner Graham (that's them in the lead pic, top left), and three of the grandchildren - Beatrice, Cordelia and Gabriel, who of course has forged a big reputation as composer himself; he was sitting in a garden with wisteria behind and birdsong adding to the soundscape. Assorted babies and small children enhanced the picture. Serge Jr., son of Oleg's brother Sviatoslav (also much missed), sent apologies that he couldn't attend, and I had been so hoping to see one of my favourite Prokofiev people, Natasha Savkina, from Moscow, but she couldn't 'come' either. I won't list the scholars from all over the world - you can see them on the screen - and would just add that I asked a New Best Friend,  pianist Yulia Chaplina, to join from London. Natasha E invited us all to speak in turn, and at the end we raised whatever we had to hand (in my case an empty coffee mug) and I attempted to sing 'mnogaya lyeta' as we always used to intone it in the Kalina Choir (see below), but it needs harmonies underneath... That, as it happens, is Bortnyansky's version

But Prokofiev also provided another one for Eisenstein in the film music for Ivan the Terrible.

The most serendipitous aspect of this all - and here, though rationally I don't believe in such things, there's a small part of me willing to leave the door open to the unexplained - is that without the prompting I would have probably forgotten Prokofiev's official birthday (27 April is the other candidate, owing to clash of statement with birth certificate). And when I remember it, I call to mind more vividly that my beloved Noëlle Mann, the driving force behind the Prokofiev Archive, with whom I collaborated over quite a few precious years, died on the same day. So I was able to go back to my blog posts marking the sad time - which turned into an unexpected kind of visitors' book for tributes to her in the messages - and the wonderful memorial concert, and honour her by talking about her with the group (many of whom never met her). It turns out to have been exactly ten years since she died.

Above is the photo I used at the head of one of those pieces, of Noëlle and her splendid husband Chris (whom I was in touch with briefly last week) at the time of my last visit to her a few weeks before she died, when she was tired but full of plans for the larger future of SSP and encouragement as usual. I think I probably remark on the post about how I admired an old oak at the top of Greenwich Park on my way back, and how I saw another in leaf on the other side at the time of her funeral: not only did the connection with Prince Andrei and the oak in War and Peace seem curious, but Chris told me that the former tree was her favourite, and I couldn't have known that. Here she is celebrating a happier anniversary, 25 years of the Prokofiev Foundation, with Serge Jr. at the Barbican premiere of Prokofiev's original Romeo and Juliet score from the Mark Morris Dance Company.

So many friends and great names have been lost since it all began - as well as Noëlle, Sviatoslav and Oleg, also Christopher Palmer, Alexander Ivashkin (who was heartbroken over the removal of the Archive), Viktor Varunts, Ted and Joan Downes, Rupert Prokofiev and my Russian teacher Joan Pemberton Smith (best known as a translator of Russian opera librettos and songs. She also sang, as I did, in the Kalina Choir conducted by Noëlle, and left an amount to help me get on with Volume Two - I need above all to honour my pledge to her and Noëlle). I'm sure I've omitted a significant name or two, so forgive or prompt me if you're reading this. I also hadn't heard until Frances told me about the death from C-19 of Dmitri Smirnov, married to fellow composer Elena Firsova and father of a wonderful person who's since become a friend, Elena Firsova, another composer and a spellbinding pianist.

This is all three of them at a stupendous Festival Hall concert in which Michail Jurowski, father of Vladimir and another great Prokofiev champion, conducted Schnittke's vast First Symphony. It was my first experience of it live, and predictably it blew me away as Vladimir's performance of the Third had some years earlier; but Dmitri and Elena had been present at the 1974 premiere in Gorky (now Nizhni Novgorod), which caused such a scandal that it was banned in the Soviet Union. Not only were these two fascinating in their insights, but I warmed to them immediately and wish I could have spent more time in Dmitri's company. Hoping to see Alissa and catch her in action when all this is over. 

Saturday 18 April 2020

To those who still buy CDs... could support our stalled, languishing and penniless (though still ever creative) musicians at this time. Remember that all the from-home concerts they do are for the love of it, to feel that they're still performing and reaching out even if that 'magic triangle' of live music as defined by Britten - composer, performer(s), audience - has temporarily vanished.

This ties in well enough with some of the discs I've been listening to over the past weeks. Perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise that Bach, being both of the essence and worth hearing over long sequences, has been top of the list, and the absolute highlight I wrote about yesterday on The Arts Desk - 90 glorious minutes of Jeremy Denk taking us through the workings of five Preludes and Fugures from The Well-Tempered Clavier. I didn't know about it when I worked my way through the five CDs of the two books just released on the Orchid label by a pianist I hadn't heard of before, George Lepauw.

These are very personal readings, full of rubato and the kind of tense-and-release which won't please those who like their Bach crisp and even. But somehow with this composer you always know when his interpreters are in a deeper zone. I've said it before, but much as I like Vikingur Ólafsson's intelligent programming on his Bach disc, I wouldn't have given it the kind of awards it garnered. At the time I went straight across to hear young Martin James Bartlett and grand maître (no need to call her maitresse) Idil Biret, and there was the thing-in-itself, the very essence, reached as in the best of transcendental meditations. Denk is there, too; I've written more than I should about his inspiring masterclass, so just go over to The Arts Desk, read if you like and if you don't, just click on the link. As I also wrote there, I suspect that were Denk to record all 48, that would probably push aside all the other Well-Tempered Claviers I have, just as his Goldberg Variations did - until Beatrice Rana came along. There are, in any case, infinite varieties of interpretation in this endlessly re-discoverable music; it just depends on which appeals most to your temperament. And Lepauw was also filmed in Weimar's Jakobskirche; I've yet to see the online documentary/performances.

Orchid, the CD label which took on this project, seems to hit the nail on the head every time. I have friendly email exchanges with its main man, the excellent violinist Matthew Trusler, and so I'm maybe partisan; but every CD that comes along strikes a chord, makes me sit up and listen even if I'm dipping in casually. When Matthew told me that fellow violinist Jack Liebeck's Brahms was exceptional, I listened - and I agree (I haven't plucked up the courage to listen to the companion Schoenberg Concerto yet; I need time and a score). Such perfect intonation, just the right degree of fantasy. And the oboe playing of Alison Teale in the slow movement - the players of the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Andrew Gourlay are all credited in the booklet - is superlative, and it all sounds so good (no surprise when it turns out the producer was Andrew Keener). The cover photo, by the way, and the ones of JL in the booklet, are by my good friend Kaupo Kikkas, inspired as usual, in this case to include Jack's adorable dog.

It was a coup for Orchid to 'get' Gabriela Montero, possibly because it agreed to her own Piano Concerto No. 1, 'Latin', appearing on the disc alongside Ravel's G major - and whilst the latter is impeccably detailed and alive, rich and full, the Montero work is also beguiling, immediately communicative. I like the programming of Yu Kosuge, too; she's halfway through her 'Four Elements' series with 'Fire', taking us from hearthside meditations by Tchaikovsky and Reger to the more dangerous flames of Liszt, Scriabin, Falla and Stravinsky; there were some real rarities on the 'Water' disc too.

Trusler buys into the quirky: Kottos is a quartet of accordion (Bjarke Mogensen, whose duet arrangement with Rasmus Schjærff Kjølle of Stravinsky's Petrushka on the same label is a firm favourite), recorder (Pernille Petersen), cello (Josefine Opsahl) and bouzouki (Christos Farmakis), in beguiling arrangements of Skalkottas, Lyadov (quirky choice, the Eight Russian Folksongs), Grieg, Bartók and Vaughan Williams, inter alia. It works!

But enough spotlight on Orchid. Another CD of a transcription that works superbly was given to me at the end of Quatuor Zaïde's wonderful concert with Fiachra Garvey in the small but perfectly-formed first Vauxhall Festival. They featured a 1792 quartet arrangement of the Queen of the Night's second aria in their Mozart first half, and it turns out it's one of 19 movements selected from The Magic Flute, featured on a disc which also has the nuance-perfect interpretation of the bold G major Quartet, K387 I heard in the concert. If this clip doesn't sell the Flute idea to you, nothing will.

The Zaïdes make the G major masterpiece sound incredibly modern, but what they do is nearly all in the score. I look forward to their next CD, which will follow a similar format with a Beethoven quartet (one of the first, Op. 18 set, I think) followed by the stunningly effective string quintet arrangement of the 'Kreutzer' Sonata I heard played by Sheku Kanneh-Mason and friends at the Highgate Festival. Sheku, by the way, is still staying loyal to the groups he played with before he became really famous: he'll be trying out the Dvořák Cello Concerto for the first time in October with the Fantasia Orchestra conducted by Tom Fetherstonhaugh, with whom I heard him play the Haydn C major.

Sticking with quartets - of which I've played a lot in lockdown, trying to stick to quieter music out of consideration for my neighbours (though there's no placating the passive-aggressive lady downstairs, who goes to the council and the estate office before she speaks to me) - there's a mellow beauty from the Stamic Quartet, showing what a superb craftsman and original melodist was Karel Kovařovic in his three works for that format (he's usually only known as the conductor who initially failed to recognise Janáček's genius). Easy listening, in a sense, but none the worse for that. My thanks to an incredibly generous Czech friend, who deserves a medal for his services to Czech music as he sends me and The Arts Desk's Saturday classical CDs columnist all the latest (I've also been spellbound by a disc of Janáček piano works from Jan Bartoš, and Martinů's "Incantation" Concerto from Ivo Kahánek with the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra under peerless Jakub Hrůša ).

Symphonic music has been in abeyance, for neighbourly reasons given above, other than the discs I've been reviewing for the BBC Music Magazine and a chance to correct the unpleasant flavour left by Maxim Emelyanychev's over-speedy-to-breathlessness performances of Beethoven Five and Seven with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (my last excursion, to Edinburgh in early March). The players clearly love ME, and their recording together of Schubert's Great C major Symphony helped me to understand why.

It's full of personality, but (unlike the Beethovens) never too wayward. So I'd better give the team another chance. Ticciati he is not, but he's clearly a force to be reckoned with - though in the hit-and-miss Currentzis league. To watch both in action is almost unbearable. Meanwhile, I hope the rather better all-rounders among young conductors I know will be able to pick up where they left off, along with all other musicians and performers in general. This is a very hard time for them and I suggest you donate if you can to a relevant set-up of your choice; my favoured targets so far have been the City Music Foundation and the National Youth Orchestra. Meanwhile I leave you with an earworm from a disc I've played two and a half times in recent weeks: from Shai Wosner's marvellously programmed 'Impromptu' CD, Gershwin's Impromptu in Two Keys. It's accompanied here by a neat little film which has a special poignancy now that stricken New York is in lockdown. Those streets were made for walking...

Tuesday 14 April 2020

Virtual timetravel: the glory of Palma

It was just before the last big religious/seasonal festival that I first encountered one of the wonders of the architectural world, and at a time when one could still go inside one (remember?) This is Palma Cathedral, according to legend-gilded history the offering of Jaume I, caught with his fleet in a gale off Mallorca in 1229 before victory over the Moors. Salvation resulted in a very grand project, known by its Catalan name of La Seu. Built on the site of the citadel's Great Mosque - little remains of the Moorish years in Palma's Old Town apart from two sets of Arab baths - it took 500 years to complete. Yet the Gothic essence of what we see, begun in 1300 by Jaume II seems very much of a piece, thanks also to an early 20th century restoration overseen between 1904 and 1914 by the great Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí, and its buttressed sandstone walls glow at sunset.

The above wasn't how I saw it until near the end of our 10-day idyll, returning from Deià in time to catch the honey-coloured vision. We approached it on our first early evening excursion into Palma's old town via the west-end Portal Major (Great Door), described in my Rough Guide as 'a neo-Gothic disaster', but its rose window (one of seven) and the bits of old statuary applied to it don't seem that bad to me. The necessary effect of grandeur is certainly still achieved.

Later in the week, on one of the few days when the weather threatened to be less than clement (and turned out to be nothing of the sort), we dedicated a full morning to the interior, essential even if you begrudge paying 8 euros (I certainly didn't). You enter via the Vermells Sacristy, one of the 21 side chapels, and that's a grand enough first impression of the nave with this Renaissance arch (detail online has not been of much help here).

The slender beauty of the 14 pillars, rising to 21 metres, came as a surprise.

The palm-like effect at the top is trumped by the perfection of the 15th century former exchange, the Sa Llotja, which I must attempt to do some justice in a future post, but there's no harm in putting in a photo for comparison now.

To take it all, you must do the usual thing in cathedrals and stand at the west end looking towards the high altar.

Before the steps into the chancel a fine pavement prepares the way (I also lack more detail here).

The baldachin is quite a pretty thing with its twinkling lights, a sparkly crown of thorns begun by Gaudí but not quite executed as he would have wished.

Gaudí also moved the stone pulpit of 1531, 'supported' by telamons (male caryatids) to the left of the entrance to the sanctuary.

Maybe it was a Christmastime seduction by all things gaudy, but the blend of new(ish) with old seemed succesful, a lightening of potential Gothic gloom. Oddest is the plasterand ceramic decoration by Miquel Barceló (b. 1957) of the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament to the right of the high altar. The fishes go with the loaves as signs of Christ and of multiplying abundance.

The 16th century Chapel of Corpus Christi on the other side is more what you might expect from a grand east end, with a three-layered altarpiece.

The Last Supper at the bottom is remarkable, while above it are the Presentation in the Temple and the Temptation of St Anthony.

My inadequate guide is sniffy about the other chapels - 'dull affairs for the most part' - but most had something of interest. The Chapel of St Jerome has another fine altarpiece

with an especially fine statue of the saint and his lion at the centre

and I love these life-sized angels in the Chapel of Our Lady of the Crown.

The route out takes you into the Gothic chapter house, a gallery-room with works by the Mallorcan primitives, including here on the left the life of Catalan St Eulalia by the Master of the Privileges

and another fine doorway

leads into the Baroque chapter house, with more treasures; but the eye is drawn upwards.

The surroundings of the cathedral are especially attractive given the amount of money spent on the city in recent years. The park around the water basin is airy and spacious - this from a day when a storm was bowling in -

and of course the best views are from the other side, taking in the Almudaina Palace.

In the next post on this wonderful city, I need to do justice to the rest of the old town within the walls. There was infinitely more to see and explore than I could ever have imagined, and this is a lived-in place, full of character - though I guess we were lucky to see it with a dearth of tourists around.

Thursday 9 April 2020

Siegfried reaches Brünnhilde in the nick of time

Or rather, did so on 9 March, shortly before lockdown, in the last of my Spring term Opera in Depth classes at Pushkin House. Siegfried may well be the opera I've learnt most about, loving it so much the more as a result, in all my years teaching the course. Die Walküre I already adored; there have been shorter courses on works I came to adore, but as a result not quite so much to wonder about, and certainly not over 10 Mondays.

I wrote previously here on how the sheer buoyancy of the first act and the nature-magic as well as weird humour of the second got us through difficult times (little did we realise that the gloom of 31 January would be overshadowed by something much bigger). With the final Siegfried-Brünnhilde duet we returned to the darker world and lurking violence beyond the fairy-tale, conspicuously so in Harry Kupfer's disturbing Bayreuth production with Anne Evans and Siegfried Jerusalem (pictured above). I did begin to wonder if we'd get there, given two more visits too welcome to turn down, and a third (from Vladimir Jurowski) which might have happened on the last Monday, but didn't (hopefully we'll get to see him some time during the Götterdämmerung term).

No matter; our visiting Siegfried and Mime could not have been more revelatory. First came Richard Berkeley-Steele, such a convincing stroppy teenager in Phyllida Lloyd's Ring for English National Opera (pictured above right with John Graham-Hall as Mime; Lloyd's was the best Twilight of the Gods I've seen as a staging - sorry indeed that, after the individual instalments, no complete cycle ever followed). Civilized, eloquent, witty, Richard warmed to the students as quickly as they warmed to him.

When I spoke to Richard's  wife, Susan Bullock, and Catherine Foster in a Birmingham 'Brunch with Brünnhildes', the nitty-gritty of how to survive was paramount. Another Wagner tenor I've interviewed in London, Stuart Skelton, said that while he could manage Tristan, he'd never sing Siegfried. Tristan, Richard says, is more emotionally demanding - that third act! - but Siegfried has killer traps. Consulting his well-thumbed score, he pointed out how high it sits. Siegmund in Die Walküre has a high A at the end of Act One, which is tough because he's been singing heroically in a lower register. In the first scene of Siegfried Act One, the hero has 42 high notes, all Gs, G sharps and As - and that's not even the big stuff of the forging scene (picturd below, Richard with a photo of him in that scene at ENO and his precious vocal score of Siegfried). The end of Act Two is endless top notes, ending with a top  B flat, and Act Three is tough, ending with 'that horrific final duet, 40 minutes of late Verdi. If you're doing it well, you're surfing and could go on longer, but it's a huge undertaking.'

Fundamentally, though, you could sing it as 'rough-edged Tamino', so long as the conductor is sympathetic and looks after you (he cites the late, much-missed Jeffrey Tate, Vladimir Jurowski and Mark Wigglesworth as the greatest); and parts of Act Two are Schubertian. We'd been talking about Alberto Remedios, the Siegfried we'd come to admire the most for the sheer beauty and youthfulness of the sound in snippeted passages from the ENO recording, and Richard told me how he'd met him when he was a student at the Royal Northern College of Music in the 1970s. ENO was visiting Manchester with its Ring, the first time Richard had ever seen it - another box ticked here when he said he thought Norman Bailey was 'the greatest bass-baritone probably ever, and also the loveliest man' (agreed on both counts). Years later Richard was asked to audition to cover Lohengrin at ENO  - he actually sang three performances, which started him off on the Wagner path - and Alberto, by then half-retired, came in to work with singers, said 'what're you doing, kid?' (Liverpudlian accent). 'I said, "oh, I'm doing Lohengrin, I don't know about this Heldentenor stuff". And he picked me up by my coat and said, "we're not Heldentenors, we're lyric Heldentenors, and don't you forget it! Then you'll be alright'" '. That was good advice - just do it, don't try and pretend to be something you're not.

I'd love to delve into more, but for the time being let's move on to our third special guest of the term, Graham Clark, with whom Richard and Sue put me in touch. It was such a thrill to have a visit from the great man in between watching scenes of him and Jerusalem in Kupfer's Bayreuth Ring - incontestably the best duo on any film of the tetralogy I've seen (not to mention the live performance, which was one of the greatest experiences of my life). I hadn't seen him face to face for probably about 20 years, and he looked exactly the same - all the more extraordinary since he has been through two bouts of cancer, and is now - he assured us - right as rain.

What I didn't know is that shortly before he went to sing in Kupfer's peerless Ring (picturd below), he had a heart attack during an Italian performance. Given his basic fitness and stamina as a major sports coach, he recovered - and even now, at the age of 78, he'd been preparing for two cameo roles which probably won't happen owing to the coronavirus. At least the ENO Marriage of Figaro, on which he'd been working with the mostly youngish cast, got one airing before the shutdown.

So full is Graham of an almost terrifying elan vital that I can't just sum up all the stories and insights he took us through. But I think for all of us there was a special fascination in the detail with which he discussed the different ways a Mime might enunciate the two words with which he tells Siegfried what happened to his mother Sieglinde, 'Sie - starb'. It also seems that he was possibly the only member of the cast who dared to try and change Kupfer's mind about some of the ideas concerning the role. Certainly there's not been a better characterisation, though Heinz Zednik and Gerhard Siegel are equally amazing in different ways.

So - now Pushkin House is closed for the foreseeable future, and I have to master the art of Zoom to hold online classes for next term - ten Mondays, 2.30-4.30pm, starting on 20 April - which we divide 50-50 between Strauss's Elektra and Puccini's Madama Butterfly. I'm hoping we will still be linked up that way with Sue Bullock, who has had the singular advantage of singing not only those title roles but also Clytemnestra, as she was due to do with Kirill Karabits in Bournemouth and Birmingham before the plugs were pulled. The temporary format does at least mean folk can join in from all over the world. If you're interested, just leave me a message with your email; I won't publish it but I'll be sure to contact you. And if you'd like to learn about Siegfried in similar depth to the classes past, do join me in September - hopefully by then things will be back to something like normal - for the third year of my lecture series for the Wagner Society of Scotland in lovely Gartmore House near Stirling in the Trossachs. Full details on the Society's website here.

Meanwhile (Good Friday) I've just put up a piece about online staged Parsifals for The Arts Desk.  You'll also find Bruno Walter's incandescent Columbia Symphony Act 1 Prelude there, and here's his Karfreitagszauber excerpt sans voices. Everything is indeed in bloom right now and it's another blue-sky day.

Sunday 5 April 2020

Ferrante's Frantumaglia and the act of writing

If there's a wiser book on the art of the novel, I've not read it. Here the woman who calls herself 'Elena Ferrante' tells us everything we need to know, much of it more self-revealing than one would expect. The title is explained in the 70-page essay of the same name, absolutely central to the collection spanning 25 years of creativity, and in itself containing a slice of discarded writing which will satisfy those with hunger for more of the fiction, alongside fragments of autobiography. The Neapolitan dialect word was her mother's, 'for a disquiet not otherwise definable; it referred to a miscellaneous crowd of things in her head, debris in a muddy water of the brain'. Ferrante further qualifies that as 'an unstable landscape, an infinite aerial or acquatic mass of debris that appears to the I, brutally, as its true and unique inner self'.

This debris spreads and coalesces in various ways. Ferrante describes her act of writing as made up of contrasts:

clarity of facts and low emotional reaction alterating with a sort of storm of blood, of frenzied writing. However, I try to avoid dividing lines betwen the two moments. I tend to make them slide into one another without a break.

Years later, Ferrante added that 'the act of writing is the continuous conveyance of that frantumaglia of sounds, emotions and things to the word and the sentence. Later still, she adds that she finds in her most famous creations to date, Lila and Lenù, the best capturing of herself, 'in the self-discipline of the one that continuously and brusquely shatters when it runs up against the unruly imagination of the other'. Pictured below: Gaia Girace as Lila and Margherita Mazzucco as Lenù in the TV series of My Brilliant Friend.

She also says of a special favourite, The Lost Daughter (which I wrote about in December), that she 'pushed the protagonist much farther than I thought I myself, writing, could bear'.

Why the privacy of the person? 'In art, the life that counts is the life that remains miraculously alive in the words...the biographical only a mico-story on the side...The true reader, I think, searches...for the naked physiognomy that remains in every effective word'. Even so, it will come as no surprise to readers of her work in the round that 'Naples is my city, the city where I learned quickly, before I was 20, the best and worst of Italy and the world. I advise everyone to come and live here even just for a few weeks. It's an apprenticeship, in all the most stupefying ways'.

What's especially impressive is that many of the chapters here are e-mail interviews in which many of the same questions are asked; and yet somehow Ferrante always manages to keep her responses fresh, and she clearly responds to the other writer - she does so especially vividly to Deborah Orr.

I hope we can look forward to a second volume, perhaps of correspondence with Saverio Constanzo, the director of the latest, so-far magnificent and painstakingly detailed TV adaptation; My Brilliant Friend is out (since I don't subscribe to Sky, I bought a cheap DVD set) and The Story of a New Name is imminent. For the early stages of Frantumaglia, which might perhaps only be of interest to those who have already read the novels in question, deal with adaptation to screen. Two separate passages which I've conjoined just about nail the nature of the beast (and apply very well to opera directors too):

The real problem for a director is to find solutions, the language with which to get the truth of the film from that of the book, to put them together without one ruining the other and dissipating its force...I don't care for directors and screenwriters who approach the book with arrogance, as if it were a mere catalyst for their own work. I prefer those who dive into the literary work, taking inspiration from it for new ways of telling a story with images.

The other to-be-continued aspect is taking up Ferrante's lists of literary loves and exemplars. I've bought copies of three so far: Nancy Mitford's translation of Madame de Lafayette's La Princesse de Clèves, a lethally elegant tale of a moral woman in a gossipy court; the hitherto-unknown-to-me name of Ukrainian born, Brazilian based Clarice Lispector, whose experimental style in Near to the Wild Heart, a study in existential introspection, I found hard work; and, last but for me first, Elsa Morante's Arturo's Island.

Arturo is a boy left to grow up more or less alone on the island of Procida; his mother died giving birth to him and his fatuous father comes and goes at random. We see everything through the protagonist's eyes, with an air of mythology brought about partly by Arturo's reading: the handsome parent he hero-worships, the girl only two years older than himself given up to an uncaring husband. A woman's perspective on woman as chattel is a fascinating one, and her understanding of the confusions brought on by puberty seems masterly. The translator is Ann Goldstein, Ferrante's own choice. Like her own novels, it's a bewitching, disconcerting read. I made a start on The Conformist by Morante's husband, Alberto Moravia (also next to her on the bookshelves), which is bound to be extraordinary, but interrupted it for Mantel's The Mirror & the Light, no comedown. All the same, it's demanding careful attention over time; I expected nothing less. Never was an all-absorbing slow read more needed than right now.