Love and Hate
Of the many objections that could be raised to my article about the history and institutions of piano-playing (LRB, 26 March), the least substantive, I should have thought, was that I treated Brendel and Gould unequally. This imbalance could only have deformed my article if, as Imogen Cooper believes (Letters, 23 April), I had set out to ‘compare and contrast’ Alfred Brendel and Glenn Gould. But my purpose was quite other than this: namely, to write a polemical panegyric on Glenn Gould, in which Alfred Brendel had only a subsidiary part to play. Had Brendel’s recent book not seemed to me to epitomise in certain respects an attitude to the institutions and practices of piano-playing that Glenn Gould’s life and work stood over and against, I wouldn’t have mentioned it or him.
Imogen Cooper says I was ‘cutting’ about Brendel the performer, but I cannot find the reference. Indeed, I was scrupulous to avoid expressing my views on Alfred Brendel’s piano-playing as opposed to his writing, because his playing doesn’t seem to me to be opposed to his writing. I certainly do not hate Brendel’s playing (as Imogen Cooper imputes), but neither do I think it contradicts the impression his writing gives that he is a pianist who conforms broadly to establishment practices. This judgment (of his playing) is, naturally, subjective, but then so are all judgments about musical performance, and if Imogen Cooper thinks they can be otherwise, I believe she is mistaken.
It’s possible, though, to be objective about Brendel’s attitudes to music and about his public position. In my article I was careful to let Brendel speak for himself on these matters. But if anyone needs further evidence of Brendel’s entrenchment within the musical establishment, they should turn to a profile of him published in the Sunday Times on the weekend following the publication of my own article.
There, Brendel is hailed as the ‘star of the piano’s Responsible Tendency’, and in at least one of his remarks he appears himself to endorse this title. On the subject, again, of Bach and the piano, he is reported as saying: ‘Bach has come back to the piano and not just through Glenn Gould, whom I do not consider a mainstream performer, but through people like Andras Schiff.’ This is not the first time that Brendel has tried to promote Schiff above Gould (in his essay ‘Bach and the Piano’ he does it by mentioning Schiff as though Gould had never existed). But what is really revealing about Brendel’s remark is his use of the word ‘mainstream’ as a term of approval. To me that says it all. Was Thelonious Monk valued because he was mainstream, or Bill Evans, or Billy Holliday? Was Fred Astaire loved for being mainstream? Is Gielgud mainstream? Picasso? Mahler? What is this word ‘mainstream’ doing in Alfred Brendel’s vocabulary?
While musicians of Brendel’s standing continue to speak and act in favour of the mainstream, the chances will be slight of a change in the way classical music is performed of the kind Imogen Cooper appears to agree is necessary.
In the fall of 1981 Alfred Brendel gave a concert in Copenhagen. November is a damp month in Denmark, and there was a lot of coughing and sneezing in the audience. Suddenly, in the middle of a movement, Alfred Brendel stopped his performance, pierced the audience with a cold stare through his thick-lensed glasses and said with great composure: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I can hear you, but I doubt if you can hear me.’
A month later, Isaac Stern was performing in the same concert hall. The cold season was still raging, and the audience may have been even less attentive than at the Brendel concert because it was election night and everybody was anxious to know the results. However, instead of reacting like his colleague to us cold-infested Danes, Isaac Stern goodhumouredly announced the election results after the intermission. Now that the audience knew who was winning, he said, they could go back to sneezing and snoring again. Laughter rippled through the hall, and a tangible calm settled in. Ever since that evening I have been captivated by the warmth that Isaac Stern radiates when he plays the violin, and to this day I have carefully avoided colliding with Alfred Brendel. By my books he blew it.
John Ellis (LRB, 14 May) seems addicted to the notion of literary criticism as inter-generational struggle. Frank Kermode’s tolerance and responsiveness to the variety of literary texts thus becomes an attribute of ‘criticism as Kermode’s generation understood it’. (This is the generation of Harold Bloom, Northrop Frye, Paul de Man and other critics famous for not having an agenda of their own or a ‘set of concerns determined in advance’.) My own theoretical critique of Kermode comes to stand for ‘Parrinder’s kind of socio-political criticism’, which typifies the worst excesses of ‘many in the present generation’. It certainly makes a change from being accused, by one’s more socio-political contemporaries, of unashamed empiricism.
Reading Ellis’s remarks, I have come to the empirical conclusion that the more you pontificate about the diversity of life and the need to respond to the ‘particular agenda and emphasis of each and every text’, the less likely you are to extend this particular courtesy to the text with which you are arguing. Your reviewer suggests, among other things, that I suffer from a paranoid fear that people from beyond the literary world are seeking to get control of the canon. The paper in question was delivered to a conference held a few weeks after Salman Rushdie was forced into hiding. To this day (and probably for a long time to come), Rushdie’s works are inadmissible to the ‘canon’ of English literature as taught in many countries of the world. There are postgraduates at British universities who would not feel free to study and interpret these texts if they wished to. At a more mundane and certainly not a sinister level, most literary academics have been conspicuously apathetic (by comparison, say, with historians) about the redefinitions of English literature and the English language currently being enshrined in the National Curriculum. Government ministers and the popular press – not to mention the Prince of Wales – have all had their say about these things. My belief is that the reduction of criticism to interpretation solely, rather than to interpretation plus evaluation, disables academics in these arguments by robbing them of a language adequate to describe and defend their discipline. They are reduced, some of them, to platitudinous talk about life’s diversity.
University of Reading
I’m surprised that Doris Lessing should feel drawn to defend Sir Richard Burton so hotly against remarks in my review of Frank McLynn’s careful biography (Letters, 9 April). I did not ‘find it remarkable that he continues to attract biographers.’ I wrote, on the contrary, that the complexity of his personality ‘will always draw biographers towards him’.
There are other signs in her letter that Doris Lessing wrote in haste. I agree with her entirely that it is trahison des clercs for liberals to make excuses for cruel African despotisms. But some of Burton’s vilest anti-African remarks were inspired by Sierra Leone, where black men sat on juries and worked British-style institutions. Doris Lessing says that Burton was not a ‘bigoted racist’, as if his liking for Arabs excused him. Isn’t she guilty of some clerical confusion, if not treason, herself? Can Hitler be exonerated from ‘bigotry’ because he allied himself with the Japanese?
Burton attracts intellectuals because he was one. When I first read about him years ago I was strongly drawn to him, as a much subtler person than Speke and a much less murderous one than Stanley. But the cumulative weight of evidence, not just from McLynn’s biography, should convince anyone that he was able to do a lot of harm precisely because he was a very clever man. I quote Christopher Fyfe’s History of Sierra Leone: to a Select Committee on the West African colonies in 1865 Burton ‘gave evidence that the Sierra Leone people were dishonest trouble-makers. Forced by [Sir Francis] Baring to admit some were respectable shopkeepers, he declared their respectability only a veneer over persisting barbarism … The Committee gave more weight to these opinions than to those of officials and missionaries who testified’ to the Sierra Leone people’s ‘attainments’. Fyfe’s further point that many of Burton’s statements about the colony were ‘plainly exaggerated to amuse or annoy’ makes them, I think, seem even more inexcusable. He wantonly used against black people the authority which his wide travels seemed to give him.
Professor Boris Ford (LRB, 23 April) thinks there is a Regius Chair of English at Cambridge. There is indeed a King Edward VII Chair of English Literature, founded, surprisingly enough, as a memorial to that monarch. But a Regius Chair is a chair founded by a king, and Edward VII did not found the chair. When its second holder, Q, was asked whether he did, he replied by quoting the one line of Wordsworth’s Ecclesiastical Sonnets that we can all remember: ‘Tax not that Royal Saint with vain expense.’
Continuing the Leavis and alcohol saga: John Sparrow once told me that Leavis was offered a sherry after giving a lecture in Oxford and he replied: ‘No thank you, I had a drink of water during the lecture.’
Brasenose College, Oxford
It is not, as Mr Kinch surmises (Letters, 14 May), my imagination that runs away with me but, quite possibly, my memory. I had it from Dr Leavis himself that he often sat with Q in his study drinking his most excellent – whisky, I’m sure he said. But if Queenie Leavis says that her husband never would touch whisky, then what touched their lips was brandy. And I believe Leavis occasionally sipped sherry while reading Tripos papers. All of this hardly matters greatly, except to help dispel the myth that Leavis was austere, unsmiling, and of course a teetotaller. I am sure these matters will become much clearer in Ian McKillop’s forthcoming biography of Leavis. In the meantime I would not dream of disputing matters with Mr Kinch, whose large and meticulous contribution to the bibliography of the Leavises deserves a great deal more recognition than it has received.
Like any rational person depressed by the slow pace of progress in opening higher education to black students, I cheer every blow struck by the forces of enlightenment. Ann Geneva describes just the sort of programme we need more of (Letters, 23 April), and I couldn’t agree more about the problems such programmes must address. I am sorry she should think me dismissive of her efforts: I’m anything but.
Dr H. Ushewokunze
In an article by Dr R.W. Johnson entitle ‘Aids in South Africa’, published in the London Review of Books of 12 September 1991, reference was made to the Ministry of Health in Zimbabwe issuing instructions to suppress publication of information about Aids victims in that country. The article implied that the policy had the blessing of the Minister of Health, who is named as Dr H. Ushewokunze. We now accept that Dr Ushewokunze was not Minister of Health in Zimbabwe in 1987, nor did he issue the instructions referred to in the article. We apologise to Dr Ushewokunze for any embarrassment caused to him by the article.
Editor, ‘London Review’