Conflict is a sine non qua of fiction and war has been a central concern of story tellers for millennia. From Gilgamesh to “Nefarious War” by Li Po to Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, we humans are fascinated by tales of struggle, trauma, death and survival.It is no surprise, therefore, that the Northern Irish conflict known as The Troubles should yield its share of stories.
This is experimental novel set in Belfast in the 1970s won the Man-Booker Prize in 2018. The narrator is an unnamed 18-year-old girl who is stalked by an older paramilitary figure, ‘Milkman’. Anna Burns was born in Belfast. Her first novel No Bones (2001) is an account of a girl’s life growing up in a dysfunctional family during The Troubles in the 1980s.
This novel tells the story of a reunion of three Northern Irish sisters shortly before the ceasefire of 1994. It explores their shared memories of childhood and growing up during the Troubles, providing a compelling picture of Northern Irish history in the latter part of the twentieth century.
Deirdre Madden was born in County Antrim and many of her novels focus on the turmoil of the north. Her 1996 novel One by One in the Darkness (1996).
Former paramilitary killer Gerry Fegan is haunted by his victims and vows to assuage his guilt by targeting those he ultimately blames for their deaths: politicians, security forces, street thugs and bystanders. His vendetta threatens to derail the peace process and everyone wants him gone. David Campbell, a double agent, accepts the hitman job, for his own reasons. The Twelve (published in the USA as The Ghosts of Belfast) was Neville’s debut novel. He has since published six more critically acclaimed books, mostly set in Belfast.
Adrian McKinty is probably best known for The Chain, a kidnapping thriller set in Masachusetts. But he also has a famous series of crime novels set in Belfast during the Troubles, starring Royal Ulster Constabulary Sergeant Sean Duffy. The first of these books was The Cold, Cold Ground (2012). He said of the novel, “It didn’t sell very well, but it ended up getting the best reviews of my career. I got shortlisted for an Edgar, won a couple of awards, and so then that set me on that path for the next six years of reluctantly, kind of being dragged into writing about Northern Ireland in the 1980s.”
Miles Flint is a surveillance officer for MI5. He is sent to Belfast to witness what he believes is going to be the arrest of some PIRA members. However, he discovers that he is really going to participate in the assassination of the Irishmen and that his own life is at risk.
Scotsman Ian Rankin is one of the big names of crime fiction, of course, but he is better known for his Detective Inspector Rebus novels, which are set in and around Edinburgh.
Alex Connolly is either schizophrenic or really does have a 9,000-year-old demon for a best friend. It’s up to child psychiatrist Anya to find out. The novel touches on the legacy of trauma in terms of mental health. Author CJ Cooke grew up on a council estate in Belfast and published her first novel, the best-selling The Guardian Angel’s Journey in 2009.
In 1969, as Northern Ireland moves to the brink of civil war, a man and his wife struggle to keep their romantic secrets buried in the past. Michèle Forbes was born in Belfast but has been based in Dublin since her university days. Apart from being a writer, she has a distinguished acting career. Ghost Moth was her debut novel and she has also published some award-winning short stories and another novel, Edith & Oliver (2017).
A retired couple originally from Northern Ireland but now living in Scotland decide to go for a little holiday. In Amsterdam, between sight-seeing, they take stock of their lives, with the result that fissures form, frustrations bubble up and memories and scars from the Troubles start to ache again. Bernard MacLaverty was born in Belfast but has lived in Scotland since the seventies. He has published five novels and five collections of short stories.
Saoirse is the daughter of a member of the RUC and her mother is a Catholic from Donegal who struggles to cope with the sectarian pressures of life in Belfast in the 1980s and turns to drink. It is only when she is a teenager that she discovers what tore her family apart. Lucy Caldwell grew up in Belfast and has written three novels and several plays.
Young British Army Officer Charles Thoroughgood is deployed on his first tour of duty in Armagh and Belfast at the height of The Troubles. The experience leaves him disenchanted with army life, to say the least.
Alan Judd is the pseudonym of Alan Edwin Petty, a former diplomat and soldier who now works as a security analyst and writer. A Breed of Heroes was made into a BBC television film in 1996 and a sequel, Legacy, was published in 2001.
We weren’t looking for trouble, honestly. We arrived in Belfast in early July, after months of hunkering down in Portland. Apart from the fact that covid-19 was getting its teeny little hooks into an ever widening portion of the locals, cops had been using up tear gas and pepper spray like it was going out of fashion. All we wanted now was a little bit of peace. What better place to find it, I thought, than in a tiny little suburb on the outskirts of boring old Belfast?
When I looked out of the window on that first morning, I noticed that the street was positively festooned with Union Jacks and pennants of red, white and blue. There were flags in the windows and all in all the sense of a holiday mood. I realized, with some embarrassment and not a little dread, that we’d landed in East Belfast on the eve of marching season. Not just East Belfast, either, but a Loyalist holdout.
The row house we were staying in looked out on a pretty green area called Marsh-Wiggle Park, a reference to a character invented by C.S. Lewis, native son of Belfast. From our vantage point on the upper storey, starting from about July 9, we saw men and boys lugging pallets into a clearing and stacking them up as high as they could. The pallets were supplemented with whatever scrap wood they’d been saving up over the year–chairs, doors, desks, even a bicycle. The pile grew and grew and when it was perfected, on the 11th, someone put a couple of Irish Republican flags on top.
I won’t lie, the sight of this spiteful little stack of sticks gave me an unpleasant feeling. The fact that my husband and I are both descendants of Irish Catholic families made it feel a little too close to home. Even if we were in no immediate danger, it was scary. Maybe it was my imagination, but the air in general was a little electric. In fact I don’t think it was my imagination though because there were violent clasheson the nights of July 10 and 11. Even if they were small compared to those of previous years, it was a nail-biting novelty for me. Late on the eleventh, we saw a glow in the sky and heard boisterous singing.
Then, the next day, the morning of the twelfth, we heard the boom of drums and shrill whistle of fifes. This surprised me, as I’d read that the orange people intended to celebrate safely at home, whatever that would entail. Listening to Ian Paisley’s greatest rants? But lo, ten minutes later we saw a motley collection of portly musicians marching down the street followed by families cheering and waving Union Jacks. I rushed outside to get footage, nervously wondering if I would be recognized as the Enemy. No one seemed to notice me though.
A couple of days later, we’d ‘done our time’ in quarantine and I ventured out in my mask to see something of the city. Aside from all the Union Jacks hanging from streetlights, my first impression was that of a shuttered city. Lockdown restrictions had not yet been lifted and there were very few people out and about. The rows of shuttered shops had a melancholy, forlorn feeling. Bus stop ads offered public health advice. In many windows were children’s drawings of rainbows–a symbol of the National Health Service, a ‘rainbow in the rain’.
One place where there was a big crowd was on a little street near Ballymacarett Orange Hall. Quite a large crowd was drinking and mingling. I decided not to take a picture of the people because I didn’t want to provoke anyone. Several months of isolation combined with nervousness about unfamiliar sectarian triggers led me to bustle on as innocuously as possible. Unfortunately this was not very innocuously at all as I was the only person in the city wearing a mask.
In this part of town there were several murals and flags sporting the logo of the Ulster Volunteer Force, a loyalist paramilitary group that is officially listed as a terrorist organization by the United Kingdom and Ireland. While most people think of the Troubles in terms of I.R.A. bombings, the U.V.F. was responsible for the deadliest attack of the conflict, the 1974Dublin and Monaghan bombings, which killed 33 civilians (and 1 full-term unborn child) and wounded 300.
Like I say, we weren’t looking for trouble but it was hard for me not to notice all this. So I decided to go on the ‘Belfast Troubles Walking Tour’ with local man Arthur McGee. I don’t want to say too much about that because if you come here you should take it. Just one of the many, many interesting things we learned on the tour was the story of theNorthern Bank robbery on December 2004, the biggest heist in British history. The thieves got away with £26.5 million in pounds sterling, cash, and the case has never been solved.
In my next post, I plan to write about fiction set in Belfast during the Troubles. Stay tuned!
Andrew Lloyd Webber has a lot to answer for: cashing in on the Bible (Jesus Christ, Superstar), writing an entire musical about Thomas the Tank Engine (Starlight Express), forcing us all to think about T.S. Eliot’s senescent ditties (Cats)…the list goes on. But possibly the worst thing he has done is to superimpose a bunch of pop tunes over Le Fantôme de l’Opera. The novel was already a musical, a much better one.
Le Fantôme de l’Opera (first published as a serial 1909-1910) is not only a gothic horror story but also a paean to and a parody of grand opéra, the spectacle that was an important part of Parisian society for much of the nineteenth century. Before Gaston Leroux turned to writing fiction full time, he was a lawyer, an international correspondent and…a theater critic. He loved music and his brother Joseph (to whom Le Fantôme de l’Opera is dedicated), who was a singer. Leroux’s novel is full of references to the operas, singers, rumors, lore, technical details and customs associated with the Paris Opera of the nineteenth century. The novel is crammed with allusions to particular dances, operas and arias that echo or foreshadow the novel’s own events, and the melodramatic plot is itself worthy of Eugène Scribe, the librettist behind some of the best known operas of the age. Jann Matlock, in (2011) introduction to the Penguin Classics English translation by Mireille Ribière, observes his recreation of the grand opera scene:
“Leroux’s novel reproduces in astonishing ways exactly that ‘heure historique’ of the opera house of the Third Republic (1870-1940)…It is an extraordinary evocation of the fantasies that surrounded that space and that population of thousands of spectators, performers and workers who came together every day in central Paris to fabricate jointly a dream world of spectacle.”
Grand Opera was extremely popular in Europe and America in the Victorian era. It was an extravagant experience, each production divided into four or five acts and requiring huge casts, elaborate stage sets, beautiful costumes and at least one ballet interlude and a vast supporting staff. Many of the most famous works of grand opera are no longer staged today because of their staggering scale, length and expense. By the 1880s, when Le Fantôme de l’Opera is set, the form was yielding to verismo, a genre whose plots deal with ordinary people rather than gods and kings. Even so, a new generation of French composers continued to produce works on the old grand scale: works like Jules Massenet’s Le roi de Lahore (1877) and Gounod’s Polyeucte (1878) and Ernest Reyer’s Sigurd (1884), all of which are mentioned in Le Fantôme.
The novel’s primary setting is the fabulously ornate Palais Garnier—seat of the Paris Opera from 1875. As in a cut-away drawing, the book provides a glimpse of the theater at every level, particularly the people and machinery working behind the scenes: the directors, the men who carried props, the female concierges, the little dancers, costumiers, rat-catchers, even the man who kept horses reserved for tricks on stage. Although Gaston Leroux invented some sections of the building, most of the descriptions are recognizable today. In the novel, for example, there is a lake under the opera house, in reality this is an enormous concrete cistern. When the Phantom drops a chandelier on the crowd during a performance, it would have reminded the novel’s original readers of the time in 1896 when a heavy counterweight fell during a performance of the opera Hellé, killing a concierge. When the heroine Christine and her lover Raoul have a rooftop assignation, the scene would be recognizable to every Parisian:
“The shadow that had followed them still clung to their heels, lying low on the roof, reaching with its black wings over the metal crossroads, stealing by the tanks, skirting silently round the domes; but the trusting young lovers suspected nothing when at last they sat down under the mighty protection of Apollo thrusting his monumental lyre against the crimson sky with bronze grandeur.”
A big part of grand opera was ballet. The very first chapter “The Ghost!” begins with a scene that could be a Degas painting:
Suddenly, the dressing-room of Sorelli, one of the ballerinas, was invaded by half-a-dozen young ladies of the corps de ballet, just back from dancing Polyeucte. They burst into the room in a state of great agitation, some of them laughing excessively and unnaturally, others uttering cries of terror.”
Leroux gives a description of the lavish and erotic paintings on the wall of the Foyer de la Dance, the hall where wealthy subscribers gathered to meet the young dancers and arrange sexual favors in return for money and protection. The dancers, nicknamed in the novel and in life ‘les petits rats’, were generally girls from impoverished backgrounds who danced as a way to earn a small living and to attract the attention of rich patrons, probably with an eye to rising in the social scale either through marriage or as courtesans. Degas, another artist obsessed with capturing all aspects of the opera, captured les petits rats and their predators in hundreds of paintings—you can watch an introduction to the exhibition Degas at the Opera here.
…the Count was, as usual, in the Ballet Room with Sorelli. She often asked him to stay with her until she went on stage, sometimes even handing him the little gaiters that she wore while descending the stairs to protect her shiny satin dancing shoes and her immaculate flesh-colored tights. We must indulge Sorelli for she had lost her mother.
Likewise, Leroux mentions several singers of the day. One of these was the popular soprano Madame Marie Miolan-Carvalho (1827-1895), whom Phil Riley, in his book about the 1929 silent film adaptation, , suggests Miolan-Carvalho was probably the model for La Carlotta—Christine Daaé’s arch-rival. Our heroine Christine Daaé actually shares the stage with beloved baritone Jean-Baptiste Faure (1830-1914), the great singer-actor Marie-Gabrielle Krauss (1842-1906) and Denise Bloch, probably referring to Rosine Bloch (1844-1891) who was a beautiful woman with a warm contralto but without much stage presence. Leroux’s own heroine Christine Daaé is modelled on one of the most famous sopranos of the era, Christine Nilsson (1843-1921). Like Nilsson, his heroine is Swedish and comes from a humble background, getting her musical start by playing the fiddle and singing at country fairs. Nilsson was especially famous for playing Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust.
Faust is a thematically significant reference throughout the novel. The premise of Gounod’s opera (based on Michel Carré’s dramatization of Goethe’s poem) is that Mephistopheles grants old Dr. Faustus a second youth on the condition that Faust will later join him in Hell. The rejuvenated Faust then falls in love with a girl named Marguerite who is already being courted by young Siébel. Marguerite is seduced by Faust but his love brings her nothing but pain, leading her to kill their illegitimate child and so to be condemned to death for infanticide. Faust then tries to rescue her from prison but she rejects his tainted help, preferring to be ‘saved’ in the larger sense by dying and going to Heaven. In Le Fantôme de L’Opera, Christine longs to play the star role of Marguerite but the lead soprano Carlotta is too jealous to let her try. It is only when the Phantom arranges for the lead soprano to suffer a spooky mishap that Christine is able to perform—to great acclaim: Christine’s audience is particularly impressed by her rendition of the dramatic finale , when Marguerite refuses to be rescued by Faust and Mephistopheles. Christine’s own life seems to mirror Marguerite’s: she has become the love object of a deathly, magical figure and his obsessive love threatens to doom her. And she has the equivalent of Siébel in Raoul, a sincere young lover in whose efforts to extricate are ineffectual against his rival’s diabolical power.
The Phantom Playlist
Given that so many pieces are referred to in Le Fantôme de l’Opera, I thought I would put together a list of some of them and why they are relevant to the plot. Happy listening!
Danse macabre(‘Dance of Death’) by Camille Saint-Saëns This is a tone poem that began as setting for a poem by Henri Cazalis that alluded to the artistic allegory of the Late Middle Ages in which the figure of Death summons people from all walks of life to the ‘dance’ of death. Death is central to Leroux’s Gothic plot. The Phantom himself, though living, has a deformity that makes him seem dead. Christine and Raoul meet in a graveyard and seem to hear Christine’s dead father pay the fiddle there.
“The air of this wintry corner of Brittany was filled with the fragrance of the flowers, glorious red roses that seemed to have blossomed that very morning in the snow, bringing a breath of life to the dead. For death was all around and had even spilled out above ground. Skeletons and skulls by the hundred were piled up against the wall of the church and held there by flimsy wire netting, which left the macabre edifice entirely exposed.”
2) “Rien! En vain j’interroge” In the opening lines of Faust by Charles Gounod, Dr. Faust laments that he has spent his life uselessly. Faust is an analogue to Erik the Phantom.
3) The final trio from Faust by Charles Gounod. Marguerite, condemned to death for the murder of her illegitimate child, ignores Faust’s entreaties and rejects Mephistopheles offers of escape from prison and execution.
Yet nothing compared to the unearthly power of her singing in the prison scene and final trio of Faust that she performed in place of Carlotta, who was indisposed that night. Nothing quite like this had ever been heard or seen before! Daaé revealed a new Marguerite, a Marguerite of a splendour and radiance hitherto unimagined. Moved beyond words, the whole house cheered and clapped ecstatically, while Christine sobbed, fainting in the arms of her fellow performers.
4) Carnavalfrom the Suite for Orchestra No. 1 by Ernest Guiraud [The Carnaval is at 23.32 in the video below] prefigures the masked ball where the Phantom appears as Christine and Raoul meet. Carnival or Shrovetide is often celebrated by masked balls and a period of dancing and feasting. Giraud himself was a native of New Orleans, where Carnival is still celebrated in style.
5) Valse lente: L’Escarpolette (Slow Waltz: The Swing) from Sylvia by Léo Delibes. In this ballet that was first performed at the Palais Garnier in 1876, the chaste huntress nymph Sylvia falls in love with a shepherd boy named Aminta but is abducted by the evil Orion who carries her off to his cave (she’s eventually saved and reunited with her lover). Notice Orion lurking in the forest at 3:57 in the video below. In Le Fantôme de L’opéra the chaste Christine is abducted by the Phantom and eventually saved by and reunited with her young lover Raoul.
6) Coppéliaby Léo Delibes. In this ballet, Franz casts aside his love for Swanhilde for a beautiful doll until Swanhilde shows him his mistake. As Ribière says in her notes to the translation, “Erik’s feats as a maker of automata in Istanbul and the whole make-believe world of opera are evoked by Delibes’s Coppélia .”
7) “Je vieux vivre” from Romeo et Juliette (1867) by Charles Gounod is an aria in which Juliette glories in her first love. This reflects Christine’s happiness in the pure love she feels for Raoul, as opposed to the dread she feels at the Phantom.
8) “Amour, ranime mon courage” from Act IV of Romeo et Juliette, in which Juliette decides, to avoid marrying Paris, to drink the potion that will make her seem dead. Like Juliette, Christine must choose between rival lovers with potentially fatal consequences; just as Juliette is must steel herself to take the potion, Christine determines to marry the Phantom in order to prevent mass murder.
“Ah! How we must pity those who did not have the good fortune to hear Christine Daaé as Juliette, admire her graceful candour, be touched to the quick by her seraphic voice and feel their spirits soar with her own above the tombs of the Verona lovers in the final ‘O Lord! Lord! Lord! Forgive us!’
8)Scene de la Craufrom Mireille by Gounod — Mireille wanders through the desert determined to reach Saintes-Marie where her lover Vincent has been wounded. In the last part of the novel, Raoul must wander through an artificial desert to get to Christine, who is in danger.
9) “De moi je veux bannir” from La Roi de Lahore. In Act IV., Sîta Princess of Indra mourns the death of her husband Alim, King of Lahore. This opera premiered at the Palais Garnier in 1877. It features in the novel when the chief machinist is found hanging “between a flat and scene from Le Roi de Lahore”–in a storeroom where old scenery is kept.
10) Lazarus, oder Die Feier der Auferstehung(Lazarus, or The Feast of the Resurrection) by Franz Schubert (1797-1828), an incomplete piece (lacking the third act) published posthumously 1865. In Leroux’s novel it is a piece associated with Christine’s dead father, who was a fiddler. In the quote below they are in a graveyard and seem to hear him playing it once more.
“I scarcely knew what to think of the unforgettable sound we heard and which—were it not coming down from the heavens—revealed nothing of its earthly origins. No instrument nor hand holding the bow was anywhere to be seen. Oh! I will never forget that sublime melody. It was Lazarus, which the old fiddler used to play for us at times of sadness and pious contemplation. Had Christine’s Angel existed, he could not have played better on her father’s fiddle, that night. We were so entranced by Jesus’ Invocation that I almost expected to see his grave open. The idea also came to me that the old man had been buried with his violin and, in all truth, I cannot say how far, during those doleful, yet glorious moments in this small, remote provincial graveyard, standing beside those skulls grinning with their motionless jaws…no, I cannot say how far my imagination wandered and where it stopped.”
11) “Tamino mein, o welch ein Glück” from The Magic Flute by Mozart. In this scene, a magic flute helps Tamino and Pamina pass unscathed through chambers of fire and water. Leroux’s chapter “The Magic Fiddle” is a reference to this, though in this case the magic is rather black.
12) ‘Ballade d’Adamastor’ is from L’Africaine by Giacomo Meyerbeer, first performed by the Paris Opera company on 28 April 1865. Adamastor was a mythical giant in the Portuguese epic The Lusiads representing the dangers that Vasco da Gama had to overcome when he rounded the Cape of Good Hope (1497). In the novel the two opera directors Moncharmin and Richard find themselves harassed by the Phantom’s monstrous machinations.
“The dust-covers thrown over the surrounding seats suggested an angry sea whose dull, grey-green waves had been suddenly stilled by secret order of the Phantom of the Sea—or Adamastor, as we all know. Moncharmin and Richard were as if shipwrecked amid the motionless turbulence of a cloth sea. Like sailors who have abandoned ship desperately trying to swim ashore, they made for the boxes on the left.”
13) “Il Reverie du soir, a Blidah” from Suite algérienne by Camille Saint-Saëns. This piece foreshadows the exotic oriental backstory in which Erik gets up to no good in Persia.
14) The overture to Sigurd by Ernest Reyer. At the gala performance where Christine makes her debut, the audience hears “the beautiful overture to Sigurd”. This popular French opera, like Wagner’s Ring Trilogy, is based on the Nibelungenlied and Eddas. It also reflects the novel’s Scandinavian influence. Christine Daaé, for example, is Swedish and Erik is a name derived from Old Norse meaning ‘Eternal Ruler of All’.
15) Marche funèbre d’une marionetteby Charles Gounod. The cute storyline behind the music is that a marionette dies in a duel, a funeral march commences, mourners get refreshments and then everyone goes home. It was used as the theme music for Alfred Hitchcock Presents and also for a horror radio program called The Witch’s Tale. Here it possibly indicates the whole artifice of opera and the Phantom’s formidable abilities as puppet master.
16) “Selva opaca” from William Tell (1829) by Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868). In Act II scene II Matilda sings, “Dark forest, sad and wild wilderness,/ I prefer you to the splendours of the palace” as she hangs around waiting for her lover Arnold, who is Swiss and therefore should hate her as she is of the occupying Austrian race. This aria reflects the secret, dangerous love of Christine and Raoul, as their relationship rouse the Phantom’s envious fury.
In short, the said instrument was wide-ranging, powerful and perfectly tuned. But no one could have said to Carlotta what Rossini told Krauss after she had sung ‘Selva opaca’ in German for him: ‘You sing with your soul, my child, and your soul is beautiful!’”
17) “Il va venir!” from La Juive by Jacques Halévy. The Jewess was one of the most popular grand operas of all and tells the story of forbidden love between a Jewish woman and a Christian man. In this aria, from the beginning of Act II, Rachel is at a Passover celebration awaiting the arrival of ‘Samuel’, with whom she is in love, little knowing his real name is Léopold and that he is a Christian.
Daaé was invited to temporarily fill the vacancy and she sang La Juive to rapturous applause.”
18) The bolero from Les Vêpres siciliennes (1855) by Giuseppi Verdi (1813-1901) a bolero sung by a soon-to-be-married heroine, unconscious that her wedding bells will signal the bloody massacre of French occupiers and her own father-in-law. Gabrielle Krauss sings this on gala night, foreshadowing the end of Le Fantôme, where Christine’s decision to marry could potentially end in murder and mayhem.
19) “Il segreto per essere felici” (a brindisi or drinking song) from Lucrezia Borgia by Gaetano Donizetti. This aria, sung by a woman playing a ‘breeches role’ (man’s part), ironically ends with the whole party being poisoned by Lucrezia. In the novel, Denise Bloch sings this ‘seize the day’ aria at the gala where Christine shines, thus foreshadowing tragedy at Christine’s own wedding.
20) “Don Giovanni, a cenar teco m’invitasti, e son venuto” from Don Giovanni by Mozart. This aria is the thrilling finale of one of the greatest operas ever, ending as the conscienceless rake Don Giovanni cries out in pain and terror as he is dragged down to Hell. The Phantom of Leroux’s novel is clearly associated with this hero/villain. He is composing a masterpiece called Don Juan triumphant. But when Christine disobeys the Phantom’s injunction never to look at his disfigured face, his identification becomes much more explicit. He reacts with fury:
Well, are you satisfied? Quite a handsome fellow, eh? When a woman has seen me, as you have, she is mine. She loves me forever. Rather like Don Juan, you see!” He drew himself up to his full height with his hand on his hip, shaking the hideous thing that was his head, and roared, ‘Look at me! I am Don Juan triumphant!'”
Last week, our friend Felipe Guttierez died. Ever since, I have been thinking about his life and what he meant to me. And I realized that, even though I only met him in person twice, he meant an awful lot. There are a few human beings who I look up to as heroes, and he was one of them.
It is not hard to recognize a beautiful soul, even if you rarely meet them. The composer Arvo Pärt knew Benjamin Britten by his music, which was marked by a distinctive purity, something Pärt himself strove to achieve. When Britten died, Pärt was moved to dedicate an elegiac piece to the only composer of that age with whom he felt affinity. “Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten” conveys the sense of a massive bereavement, as if Earth herself were mourning the loss of some rare and necessary soul. When Felipe Gutteriez died last week, I thought of this piece because Felipe had exactly that kind of soul.
These days, the word ‘virtue’ is a slight, but it didn’t used to be that way. Ancient Roman ‘virtus’ literally means ‘manliness’ but it referred specifically to how a perfect man behaved in the public sphere. To possess virtus, a soldier had to demonstrate military prowess, prudence, justice, self-control and courage, all for the public good rather than personal glory. Charlemagne’s Code of Chivalry listed the sort of things a virtuous knight should be: humble, kind, loyal, honest, self-controlled and a defender of the weak. Similarly, the Bushidō code enjoined Samurai to demonstrate seven great virtues: integrity, courage, benevolence, respect, honesty, honor and loyalty.
According to these ancient codes, Felipe was a virtuous man. And when you consider that he existed in a culture that rewards self-serving bluster, that fetishizes violence and that puts private profit before public good, you begin to understand how rare that is. He led a virtuous life, not so that people would praise him but because he considered it right.
Felipe had the fortitude of a general and the tenderness of a mother. He worked hard but made it look easy. He suffered but never complained; even when he was in terrible pain, he wouldn’t mention it to friends because he abhorred pity. His discipline was unearthly. He rarely swore or raised his voice or said any insensitive thing (though anyone who made him angry would not soon forget it). He praised others generously but assiduously avoided attracting attention to his own achievements. He loved his wife and dogs with a whole-hearted, protective devotion. As a professor he considered his professional duties a sacred trust: students and colleagues had a willing ear, an erudite resource, and a sympathetic guide. And he was a perfect friend.
This all sounds like an exaggeration because this kind of virtue is difficult to maintain day after day. But it’s not an exaggeration, it’s the truth. Felipe’s sense of duty was such a defining feature that it’s hard to imagine him without it.
In person, he was graceful and dignified. Even in casual conversations, he listened carefully, as if he were a composer listening to music attentive to all the elements of a complex score. He considered what you were saying carefully and gave a response that was infused with empathy, humor and insight. And he was invariably smiling, either with real enjoyment or rueful wonder or regret.
One lovable thing about Felipe was his enjoyment of simple things. He was a professor at one of America’s most prestigious universities and so widely read so that he could speak knowledgably about law, philosophy, rhetorical theory and Science Fiction. He was fascinated by ideas involving possibility and hope—scientific developments with far-reaching implications for the future of humankind. And even though he could talk about all that, what he really liked were capybaras.
Native to South America, capybaras are the world’s large living rodents. They are very sociable and tend to live in large family groups in forested areas near large bodies of water. They have barrel-shaped bodies and webbed feet and intelligent eyes. They’re excellent swimmers and wallowers and sleepers. They are also mysteriously attractive to other species, including us. We are all– cattle tyrant, crocodile, butterfly, monkey—drawn to the serenity that radiates from the capybara core. The main attraction at Izu Shaboten Zoo in Japan, for example, is a large group of capybaras, who occasionally enjoy hotsprings infused with citrus or petals.
In the words of the jurist and sage Rumi, “Everything that is made beautiful and fair and lovely is made for the eye of one who sees.” In his appreciation of capybaras, of verbal gracenotes and of kindness, Felipe was one who saw. He insisted on the value of caring and kindness and he wordlessly insisted, gently and firmly, with his whole being, on the possibility of a higher life.
What is even more remarkable than the fact he existed is that he should have met a soul of equal breadth and beauty in Eileen Jones. And as distressing as Felipe’s loss is, I only have to imagine a universe where he did not find Eileen to feel wonder and gratitude for this universe, where miracles sometimes do happen.
How do you distract yourself from the appalling vistas of Life as we know it right now? One way is to ameliorate reality with large doses of art. One of the pleasures of the last few months’ sequestering is getting around to reading the poetry of Federíco García Lorca, one of the giants of Twentieth-century Spanish literature. Just this week a new biography has been released titled Deep Song: The Life and Work of Federíco García Lorca by Stephen Roberts. Although I haven’t read the biography yet, it’s a good occasion to share a pequeña mordida of this amazing poet and playwright.
Between 1921 and 1927 Lorca wrote a series of 18 poems that he described as a “tragic poem of Andalusia”. Publishing them in 1928 as Romancero Gitano (Gypsy Ballads), he shot to fame. Only eight years later he would be assassinated in murky circumstances, but his body of plays and poetry live on and have influenced generations of writers, artists and musicians, including Leonard Cohen.
Here is the first poem of Romancero Gitano, dedicated to his sister Conchita.
Ballad of the Moon, Moon
For Conchita García Lorca
The moon came to the forge in her spikenard bustle. The boy gazes at her, gazes. The boy is gazing.
In the agitated air the moon sways her arms, showing, sensual and pure, her hard tin breasts.
“Run away, moon, moon, moon. If the gypsies came, they would turn your heart into necklaces and silver rings.”
“Child, let me dance. When the gypsies come, they will find you on the anvil with your little eyes shut tight.”
“Run away, moon, moon, moon. I can hear their horses.” “Child, let me be, don’t trample my starched whiteness.”
The rider was galloping closer beating upon the drum of the plain. Inside the forge the boy had his eyes shut tight.
Across the olive grove,
Bronze and dream, the gypsies came. Their heads held high, their eyes half shut.
How the nightjar sings! Ay, how she sings in the tree! The moon goes through the sky leading a boy by the hand.
In the forge they weep,
wailing, the gypsies. The air set sail, set sail. The air is setting sail.