Modernism and Dance

Susan Jones: Literature, Modernism and Dance (360pp. Oxford University Press. £55)

In 1930s literary London, ballet was everywhere. Virginia Woolf, several Stracheys, the Bells, E. M. Forster, H. G. Wells, John Middleton Murry and Katherine Mansfield, Aldous Huxley, the Sitwells and T. S. Eliot all attended the Ballets Russes. Louis MacNeice’s Les Sylphides appeared in 1939, and in the same year Henry Green’s Party Going used the same ballet as a structural underpinning. It wasn’t just the intelligentsia, either. Compton Mackenzie wrote two novels with a dance protagonist, and even Eric Ambler’s Cause for Alarm (1938) contained a reference to Diaghilev.

All the more peculiar, then, that those who have since studied modernism, both in the visual arts and in literature, have barely acknowledged the movement’s links to dance. Where is the equivalent to Adorno on Stravinsky and Schoenberg? Where the monographs to match those on Cubism, or the modern novel? If the link between the “Demoiselles d’Avignon” and temporality in fiction is worth examining, why not between that same painting and Nijinsky’s Sacre du Printemps?

A few dance writers have attempted to bridge the gap, but almost no literary specialists. Now Susan Jones, a Conrad scholar as well as, before that, a dancer, is ideally placed to take the subject forward, as one who can see how, “At the still point of the turning world . . . there the dance is”. For the relationship between dance and literature is not merely “one of the most striking but understudied features of modernism”, but one of reciprocity: dance drew on modern literature as much as modern literature was shaped by dance.

Until now, literary theorists seem almost deliberately to have turned away from movement and its presence in their subject. In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, there is a famous scene generally referred to by scholars as “the image of the African woman”, even though Marlow is plainly describing movement, not a static “image”, a woman “treading the earth proudly” until “she stopped . . . . Suddenly she opened her bared arms and threw them up rigid above her head, as though in an uncontrollable desire to touch the sky . . . . She turned away slowly, walked on, following the bank, and passed into the bushes to the left”. Everything in that moment is about movement, even as its acquired tag reduces it to a tableau.

Similarly, Gilles Deleuze wrote absorbingly on Samuel Beckett’s three languages, languages of names, voices and images, but despite Beckett’s fanatical care for stage directions, Deleuze never appears to have contemplated the author’s language of movement. Yet Beckett’s knowledge of dance was formidable, and formidably integrated in his work, which drew on Eurhythmics, music hall, ballet and commedia dell’arte. In a more populist vein, Sjeng Scheijen’s acclaimed biography of Diaghilev (2010) referred to the designer, librettist and composer of Parade as its “three creators” with, apparently an afterthought, “Massine as choreographer”. It is not Scheijen’s blind spot that so intrigues: it is that so few – or no? – reviewers even noticed the blind spot. Oversight is the norm for dance.

Jones locates the origins of the modernist nexus of dance and literature in the nineteenth century, with the performances of the only now critically reassessed Loïe Fuller, and with Stéphane Mallarmé and Nietzsche’s writings. Fuller was an innovator, creating mesmeric effects through swirling steps and long silks which were manipulated with her body and with hidden sticks, highlighted by new techniques of lighting. Only a year after her first dance performance in 1892, Mallarmé was already describing her art as a model for literature, both dance and symbolist poetry using compressed forms of expression, with Fuller’s “écriture corporelle” permitting a “poetics of potentiality . . . a signifying practice that in its most abstract and ideal form dispenses with the generation of verbal meaning”, the dancer’s gestures creating an indeterminacy that allowed each viewer to create their own meaning. Three decades earlier, Mallarmé’s “new poetics” had concentrated on “not the thing itself, but the effect it produced”; now Fuller’s “bodily writing” gave the poet a way to become the poem.

Fuller had no formal training. Classical dance was Apollonian, an art of courtly symmetry, restraint, gravity and balance, while the new dance forms that were emerging embraced the dissonance and conflict of the Dionysian, and, possibly most importantly, rhythm over melody. “Now the world of nature is to be expressed in symbols”, Nietzsche wrote; “a new world of symbols is necessary, a symbolism of the body for once, not just the symbolism of the mouth, but the full gestures of dance . . . . Then the other symbolic forces will develop, particularly those of music, suddenly impetuous in rhythm, dynamism, and harmony.”

The struggle between the Apollonian and Dionysian might be said to have created twentieth-century dance, and literature. Modernism turned to the ancient, to ritual, to express itself, with its dichotomies of attraction and repulsion, of the individual and the community. One of the most compelling sections in Jones’s book is her analysis of Bronislava Nijinska’s Les Noces, recognized by the dance world as a masterpiece on a par with the “Demoiselles d’Avignon”, or Mrs Dalloway. It was, she demonstrates, a complement and response to Nijinska’s brother’s more famous (in reputation, although in reality lost) Sacre du Printemps. In both, a female is sacrificed to the greater community through ritual, and rhythm takes precedence over melody, dissonance over assonance. Both concentrate on symbolic forms, flattened, two-dimensional shapes, scenes rather than narrative, and primitive designs – in Nijinska’s case, constructivist art, in Nijinsky’s, Roerich’s quasi-pastoral primitivism. Both incorporate Mallarmé’s “poetic impersonality”: movement was “pure, self-contained”, not a conduit for dancers to express themselves. And in both the stylized choreography required the “active engagement on the part of the viewer to complete its meaning”. When movement stops, Nijinska wrote, “an illicit ‘intermission’ begins”, not a pause, “for a pause is also movement – a breath, as it were” – that is, Woolf’s “still space that lies about the heart of things”.

This is only one small example of the many cross-fertilizations that Jones so ably explores. Her chapter on Eliot breaks new ground, whether it is the discussion of Petrushka and “The Hollow Men”, or Murder in the Cathedral and Antony Tudor’s Jardin aux lilas, the two pieces staged at the Mercury Theatre in tandem. Tudor’s poetic evocation by elision of “what might have been” displayed in moments of frozen gesture may well have influenced Eliot’s still points. Both men similarly returned to the past – Eliot to the Elizabethans, Tudor to the Edwardians – to create a new present. Her chapter on Beckett is equally enlightening.

But it is these chapters that make other sections of the book so frustrating. Jones has chosen to structure her book chronologically around the development of modernist aesthetics as writing, and thus privileges literature over movement. Given that most of her readers will have a better grasp of the history of literature than of dance, this is unfortunate, as the book dashes ahistorically through the dance world wherever a literary strand takes her. It also forces her into many repetitions, some even word for word.

Another, more uncomfortable reality is the ephemeral nature of dance. Jones devotes a long section to Andrée Howard’s The Sailor’s Return, another vanished work. A few of its scenes were filmed, and there is a programme synopsis. But that is all, and yet Jones discusses the piece as though it can be intimately studied: “Howard’s use of textual detail helped her express in dance the fine gradations of tone and register in the novel”. This may be so, but I would like to know how Jones knows.

What modernism means, for dance, too, is a vexed question, and one that needs to be confronted directly. One of Jones’s definitions is that, as with modernist literature, narrative and character are treated in a non-linear, non-realist fashion. But as early as 1841, Act Two of Giselle was already reaching for the abstract, as was Act Three of La Bayadère in 1877, and Ivanov’s white act for Swan Lake in 1894. Jones discusses the changes to Balanchine’s Apollo from its inception in 1928, when it had a prologue narrating the birth pangs of Leto, and a set with a tumulus up which Apollo climbed to reach his apotheosis as “Musagète”, to the 1979 version which omitted both birth and tumulus. But to describe the loss of the climb, as she does, as a shift from the Dionysian (as demonstrated in the physical manifestation of the upward struggle) to the Apollonian (achieved) is to ignore a number of productions which to this day contain a set of stairs, up which Apollo and the muses continue to progress.

That ultimately encapsulates the difficulty of dance scholarship. There is no one, definitive, Apollo, and thus its meaning, or even its style, is elusive. And this example can be multiplied endlessly. Jones sees the choreographer Léonide Massine as a stark modernist, which in his choice of collaborators he certainly was, working with assorted Cubists, Fauves, even Dalí, and among the first to use symphonic music for dance, “and yet”, she laments, “his impact on modernism in a wider field has been overlooked”. This might be, I would suggest, because his choreography was not modernist at all: working with modernists does not make you yourself modern. As Eliot harked back to the Elizabethans, so choreographers of real modernism – Fokine, Balanchine – frequently invoked the past, while old-fashioned choreographers like Massine, who resisted a deeper modernism, superficially embraced all the current tropes.

As the historian Jennifer Homans has reminded us, dance, with its ephemerality of performance, is an art of memory, not history. Most of dance has vanished into the great unremembered. Where work has survived, and can be analysed – Les Noces, for example – Jones is a peerless guide, moving us back and forth between art forms with a dizzying virtuosity of her own. More generally, the great strength of Literature, Modernism, and Dance lies not in (the impossible) re-creation of the invisible, but in Jones’s exemplary account of how performances and performers endowed artists in other genres with ways to think about their process.

First published in the TLS

Isabel Allende: Ripper, review

Isabel Allende, Ripper (Fourth Estate, £12.99, 478 pp.)

Some literary writers have patronizing attitudes to genre. John Banville, who writes crime-fiction as Benjamin Black, has said he produces just 100 words a day as a literary novelist, but a couple of thousand as Black. Crime-writing is easy was his subtext. Isabel Allende’s 1982 debut, The House of the Spirits, introduced millions to magic-realism. Her subsequent sprawling tales of love in historical settings have a devoted readership. But on the basis of Ripper, it appears Allende too thinks crime-fiction is a lesser occupation, as the essentials of the genre – narrative drive, plot development, structure, even suspense – all elude her.

Indiana is a reiki healer, whose annoying tics – ‘she visualized a stream of sidereal dust falling from some distant point in the cosmos’ – the author seems to find charming. She also looks, we are several times told admiringly, like a blow-up sex-doll, and she has a part-time rich lover, Keller, as well as the devotion of Ryan, a war-traumatized Navy SEAL. Her daughter is game-master for an online role-playing investigation into a series of murders, together with her grandfather, and aided by her father, a police chief.

A murder and disappearance in this group has possibilities, but Allende ignores the very basics. The murder occurs only three-quarters of the way through the book, until when her characters pass the time by telling each other things they already know, leaving narrative suspense to portentous voice-overs: ‘It was then she saw the article that would turn her life upside down’.

With the action finally underway, ten pages from the end in a race-to-the-death scenario, she is still moseying along, stopping for a chat about the effects of Prohibition on California wineries. Meanwhile she has drawn situations of astonishing implausibility: a crime expert who hasn’t heard of tasers, police who, after a body is found, contact the victim’s secret girlfriend instead of his family. And no one, apparently, has noticed that mobile phones have caller-ID.

One wonders if Allende was concentrating. ‘He had to persuade Bob, who couldn’t say no to him’: if he couldn’t say no, was persuasion necessary? ‘From a distance – and indeed from up close’: how about ‘from everywhere’? Scenes are repeatedly set up, then broken into by a back-story before returning, often in identical words, to the set-up. It’s like reading in a cave with an echo.

If the characters were interesting, all this might be forgivable. But the clichés come, as Allende would no doubt write, thick and fast: Indiana is ‘the only woman ever to captivate’ Keller, Ryan is a ‘fish out of water’, the police chief has a ‘trusty assistant’ (later someone wears ‘trusty jeans’, too, which makes you wonder). Every page is spattered with vagueness masquerading as description: ‘delicious’ smells, ‘a typical day’, a character’s ‘perfect’ features.

All that’s left is inadvertent comedy. Whenever the Navy SEAL appears, the book practically sits up and salutes. Ryan might be a murderer, but only an honourable one: he ‘would have confronted his rival, given him the opportunity to defend himself.’ The publisher has missed a trick here, because this is the perfect place to embed a microchip that plays ‘God Bless America’ as the page is turned.

First published in The Times

Ian Rankin: Saints of the Shadow Bible

Ian Rankin, Saints of the Shadow Bible (Orion, 428 pp.)

The wait for Rebus’ return was not as long as Holmes’ from the Reichenbach Falls. Only a year after the Edinburgh detective ‘retired’, readers were reassured he would return, and he did, working cold cases. Now he’s back on the front-line, in a neat role reversal detective-sergeant to former protégée Siobhan Clarke’s detective-inspector.

Malcolm Fox is back too, on his last case with ‘The Complaints’ – the police’s internal investigation department – before he moves back to CID, working with those he’d investigated for corruption, not a happy thought. He gets a taste of what this will be like as he attempts to co-opt Rebus to turn over his old colleagues.

When Rebus began his career, Summerhall nick was dirty from top to bottom: witnesses suborned, blind eyes turned, violence and intimidation working-tools in keeping the streets clean, or so the self-named Saints of the Shadow Bible – Summerhall’s detectives – told themselves. A 30-year-old murder case is now reopened: did it and the murderer walk with police complicity?

Meanwhile DI Clarke is dealing with a road accident. University student Jessica Traynor drives off the road one night and crashes. But she’s a careful driver, there’s no visible reason for the smash. Why make it complicated, urge not only her wide-boy financier father, and her boyfriend, the son of the Justice Minister, but also Clarke’s superiors, too.

That is, until the minister himself is assaulted.

Where does loyalty lie, is the question that permeates the book. So many loyalties owed by and to so many. How do they get balanced, who is owed what, past or present? This is what Rankin does best, complex multi-strand plots that interweave to elaborate a theme.

In their earlier outing, Fox and Rebus had a fascinating Jekyll and Hyde interaction, Fox, a teetotal pencil-pusher, is a flipped photograph of Rebus: what he might have become, if he’d taken another road. Here, however, they draw closer as they work together, and the nuances flatten.

In fact, Saints sometimes feels more like a sketch than a finished novel, despite its length, the author relying on our knowledge of the previous books to gesture at, rather than depict, characters.

Rankin’s technical mastery is renowned, and rightly, but here he allows Clarke and Rebus to spend two pages bringing the reader up to speed by telling each other the backstory of the Summerhall murder. At another point, a character is told, ‘If you worked there as a detective at that period, you were a Saint of the Shadow Bible’. An on-his-game Rankin would never have let that stilted ‘of that period’ stand.

There is, altogether, a sense that the author just wasn’t paying attention. One plot element is explained twice, another character is introduced with a cursory ‘I looked him up on Google – SNP stalwart…face of the ‘Yes’ campaign…married to a lawyer called Bethany.’ Rankin has always been good at not over-explaining, letting the reader fill in the blanks, but it’s a fine balance, and a Google search and a scattering of ellipses falls thumpingly down on the wrong side.

And then, just as you think you’ll give up, along come reminders of why Rankin, and Rebus, take their place at the head of the pack. A brief phone conversation between Rebus and a colleague is so tight, so efficiently written – and so funny – that you fall in love with the series all over again. It ends with a text from a desk-sergeant: ‘Blow me,’ it says, in its entirety, and then the masterstroke: ‘followed by three kisses’.

On balance, then, xxx, and add the novel to your Christmas list.

First published in an edited form in The Times

Wilkie Collins: A Life of Sensation, by Andrew Lycett

Andrew Lycett: Wilkie Collins, A Life of Sensation (Hutchinson, 544 pp.)

A nondescript street near Regent’s Park in London bears a blue plaque. It uses the old, postwar style, with a minimum of information: ‘Wilkie Collins (1824-1889), novelist, lived here’. Whenever I pass it, I always wonder, if I only knew which corner to turn, would there be another sign that says ‘…and here’? For Collins was not merely peripatetic (Lycett lists 19 addresses in London alone), but for much of his adult life, he also maintained two families, in two houses.

Collins is less famous today than his slightly older contemporaries – Dickens, George Eliot, Thackeray and the Brontës Major and Minor. And, despite his thirty-some novels, he is really only remembered for two – The Woman in White, a terrific potboiler of a novel, and The Moonstone, which T.S. Eliot called ‘the first and the best’ detective-novel.

‘First’ and ‘best’ can both be argued, but Collins was certainly a pioneer in the new genre that was only just appearing: crime-fiction. He was also a pioneer in the depiction of women detectives – amateurs, to be sure, but independent women who do things. The Woman in White’s Marion Halcombe crawls out on a roof in the dark to obtain proof of a crime; David Copperfield’s Dora finds a cookbook too difficult for her poor little brain.

As Lycett shows in this comprehensive new biography, women were Collins’, shall we say, forte. He claimed to have lost his virginity in Italy at the age of thirteen. The death of his rigidly religious father, a society painter of some fame, who had destined his son for a career as a tea-importer, left the still-adolescent Collins with an inheritance that enabled him to choose his own path, of fiction. He also chose his own life. Outwardly he was a conventional bachelor man-about-town, the man to know when it came to exploring the dives of Paris, or finding a doctor to treat the unfortunate side-effects of those explorations.

He was even less conventional at home. Caroline Graves was a lower-middle-class widow struggling to survive when Collins first met her; Martha Rudd a barmaid at a seaside resort. Although Collins married neither, Caroline lived as the first wife in the zenana, entertaining Dickens (who disliked her) and Collins’ other literary friends; Martha lived in more obscurity, but she and Collins produced three children.

All this despite the ill-health that dogged Collins’ life, and made him an opium addict of heroic proportions. He carried a hipflask of laudanum, and when in pain drank off an entire glassful – six to eight drops in water being the usual dosage.

With a private life as complicated as this, there are many gaps in the record. Some episodes remain cloudy. Collins had an apparently facetious correspondence with an eleven-year-old, but that he addressed her as ‘Mrs Collins’ does give the modern reader pause. His own letters presented this as a joke; if there was more, it remains unknown. But, short of a major discovery of papers, Lycett knows as much as anyone. He is also excellent on Collins’ friendship with Dickens, which he presents, convincingly, as much more of a relationship of equals than Dickens biographers allow.

And he answers the main question of any literary biography: why do we continue to read the novels. Neatly avoiding endless plot summaries, Lycett instead explores the themes that dominate Collins’ work: the duality of appearance and reality, the position of women, legal and medical advances.

And, finally, there is Collins’ sheer readability, his ability to make the reader turn the page, and then turn again, to long to know what it going to happen. Often derided as mere populism, story-telling and suspense are rare and precious gifts. Collins had them in spades.

Review first appeared in The Times

The Colourist of the Future: The van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Van Gogh at Work: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam Marije Vellekoop, with Nienke Bakker; translated by Ted Alkins, Michael Hoyle and Beverley Jackson (304pp. Brussels: Mercatorfonds. £40)

On May Day, thousands of Amsterdammers queued in the spring sunshine as the Van Gogh Museum formally reopened its doors after a seven-month refit, for the kind of invisible but essential works art requires: lighting, humidity-control and so on. What the museum made triumphantly visible, however, was the public face of their eight-year research project into Vincent Van Gogh’s studio practice, both on the walls and in an excellent catalogue. To stress how research, exhibition and publication are a continuous process, the exhibition and publication were all designed, impeccably, by Pièce Montée.

The museum’s first room, and the first pages of the catalogue, set out their stall. The catalogue shows a series of sensually close-up images of nineteenth-century artists’ materials – paints, charcoal, pencils – as well as some of Van Gogh’s surviving sketchbooks, and his palette, loaded with paints and seemingly ready and waiting. The exhibition begins with two self-portraits only a couple of years apart. But while the one from 1886 is a traditionally hued conventional image, the one dated 1888 is in the vivid, slashing palette we know so well.

And that is, in miniature, what the exhibition so ably explores. Van Gogh decided to become an artist aged twenty-seven, after eleven years working for an art dealer and as a teacher/missionary. He painted for a mere ten years, less than half his working life, and his start was unpromising, as the early apprentice copying from “how-to” manuals shows. Watching Van Gogh develop into “Van Gogh” is like one of those speeded-up films of a flower unfolding. In his early years, he studied books, and for a few weeks at a time, here and there, with various teachers – possibly for eight months altogether. His application of what he read and learned, therefore, was idiosyncratic. He read about colour theory, or examined the techniques of painters of the past, but in his early years had to find ways to apply them himself. For example, while many artists used perspective frames, Van Gogh was the only one we know of who physically drew the frame and the threads onto his canvases – there was no one to tell him differently.

Once in Paris, in 1886, he found friendship and shared working practices with other artists, including Toulouse-Lautrec and Émile Bernard. Here too he tried out different techniques, keeping the elements that worked for him, and discarding the rest. Toulouse-Lautrec was a proponent of peinture à l’essence, using a very thinned paint on unprimed canvas; Signac was at the height of his pointilliste style; Adolphe Monticelli was painting still lives in a heavy, dark impasto. From one Van Gogh took the heightened colours; from the next the staccato, discrete brushstrokes; from the third, the heavy applications of paint and worked surface. From Japanese prints he assimilated cropped compositions, slashing diagonals and broad, flat areas of colour. Later, the simplifications and flat patterns of Paul Gauguin were developed into the stylized, rolling lines and rhythmic patterns that could never be anything but the distinct handwriting of Van Gogh.

And this is the key to the exhibition. This Van Gogh is not the solitary genius, appearing out of nowhere, flourishing in isolation and producing an art that was born fully formed. Instead, through Van Gogh at Work we discover how he studied, and with whom, what his influences were, who were his friends, and how his art developed, as all art does, in conjunction with, as well as in opposition to, ideas of the day. This is backed up not merely by words, but in images: around a quarter of the paintings on display are by Van Gogh’s friends and colleagues, permitting us to see at first hand this artistic give-and-take.

There are also loans from other institutions, chosen and hung to display Van Gogh’s integration into the art world of his day. London’s National Gallery has lent its “Sunflowers”, which now hangs together with the Van Gogh Museum’s own “Sunflowers”, both flanking the Stedelijk Museum’s “La Berceuse (Portrait of Mme Roulin)”, a triptych – the “Sunflowers” “like candles” lighting the centrepiece, the artist wrote – planned as a gift to Gauguin.

The catalogue and the exhibition both stress, too, how the extraordinary nature of many of Van Gogh’s works would have been less extraordinary at the time. Van Gogh was using new synthetic colours, which had been developed only in the previous few decades. Because of his colour choices, many of his works have altered in ways we are no longer aware of. “Gauguin’s Chair” now has a blue background; when it was painted, it was purple.

A self-portrait of 1887 was photographed in 1903. Even in the black-and-white photograph, it is clear how the cochineal then linked colours and brushstrokes that, as the colour has faded to merely pink, now stand starkly separate.

For colour is, of course, at the core of Van Gogh’s work. He began to read about complementary colours in 1884, only four years into his studies. Being able to use a dark colour for something light, as long as the colours around it were darker still, he realized, gave the artist true freedom, leaving “the painter free to seek colours that form a whole. . . COLOUR EXPRESSES SOMETHING IN ITSELF”, he wrote with wonder. And at the end of his life, in 1890 in Auvers, in “Wheatfield with Crows” he made the contrasts of blue sky, with its pure and broken hues, the yellow-orange of wheat surrounding a red path lined with green (today the red has turned brown), into an expression of reality, not a replication of reality. In 1888, he wrote, “the painter of the future [will be] a colourist such as there hasn’t been before”. What he didn’t realize then, in fact never knew, was that he was that colourist.

The Van Gogh Museum, however, knows it, and allows us to relearn it too, in a hang that is triumphant, not merely for allowing a popular artist to shine out once more, but for reminding us, in a measured, thoughtful and intelligent manner, what museums, and what scholarship, are for.

For those who cannot get to Amsterdam, and for whom the catalogue is out of reach, the museum plans to produce apps, the first of which, covering some of the letters, is already available for download. A second, which allows viewers to leaf through the sketchbooks page by page, will follow shortly. For those who can’t wait, the Folio Society has produced a facsimile of the four surviving sketchbooks in the Van Gogh Museum, for a mere £445.

—TLS, 7 June 2013

Lucy Moore: Nijinsky

Poor Nijinsky. Poor sad, mad, vanished Nijinsky. His career was astonishingly brief, the trail that was left in his meteoric wake so persistent it is hard to believe he danced for little more than seven years.

He was born in 1889 or 1890, to Polish dancers working in Russia (Nijinsky thought of himself as Polish, but he spoke the language poorly, and spent his life in Russia before moving to France).

His astonishing talent was noted early in his student days at the Imperial Ballet School in St Petersburg, and on graduation he was chosen to partner Mathilde Kschessinskaya, not merely the company’s prima ballerina assoluta, but the tsar’s mistress as well. The newly promoted dancer was also chosen, off-stage, by Prince Lvov, a lover of ballet, and of ballet dancers.

Sergei Diaghilev soon replaced Lvov both in Nijinsky’s bed and by featuring the dancer as his male star in the first season of his Ballets Russes in Paris, in 1909.

In theory the Ballets Russes only borrowed dancers from the Imperial Theatre in their summer holidays. But in 1910, Nijinsky was sacked – perhaps because he was obdurate about an “indecent” costume (it didn’t have shorts over his tights), perhaps because of political manoeuvrings against Diaghilev, perhaps because his partners were not thrilled at the ovations he was getting.

In any case, Diaghilev and Nijinsky embraced the opportunity to create a permanent company in France, away from Imperial oversight. Joined by the talents of Fokine, Benois, Bakst and Stravinsky, the great ballets poured out: The Firebird, Petroushka, Carnaval, Scheherazade.

Nijinsky, however, wanted to create a new way of moving, of understanding music, a modernist style for which few were ready. L’après-midi d’un faune scandalised as the faune – Nijinsky himself – mimed masturbation as the curtain fell. Le sacre du printemps, with its insistence on a brutal primitivism, was somehow even more shocking.

What would have happened to Nijinsky’s future work, we have no way of knowing. Nijinsky, at best a social naïf, was “captured” on tour by Romola de Pulszky, a Hungarian groupie. They married, and Diaghilev responded by immediately sacking his greatest dancer.

The First World War found the star interned as an enemy alien, causing untold damage to his always fragile mental state. He was diagnosed as schizophrenic, although precisely what that meant has been debated ever since. Certainly he was institutionalised, off and on, until his death in 1950.

The rise and fall has been picked over ever since. We know so much about this most famous dancer, and we know almost nothing. Was Nijinsky by preference homosexual, or heterosexual? (Romola, it has been noted, formed relationships exclusively with women otherwise.) Was Nijinsky a careerist, selecting Lvov and Diaghilev to progress his career, or were they predatory older men who gave an innocent young boy no choice? Was the startlingly modern choreography he produced his own, or did Diaghilev and others, as they later claimed, contribute the bulk?

These questions will never be finally resolved, but that doesn’t stop people asking. There have been a dozen biographies since Richard Buckle’s ground-breaking 1971 book, and while new information has from time to time emerged, by now the well has really run dry, and Lucy Moore merely goes over the well-worn ground.

Nijinsky also shows signs of having been produced in haste (presumably to coincide with the centenary of the famous 1913 performance of Sacre), with repetitions abounding, despite the book’s brevity. More troublingly, to produce a narrative flow, Moore has quarantined many of the controversies in the notes. What she calls “the reality” appears in the main text, only to be contradicted in the notes, which most people, of course, will not read.

Centenary aside, why another book? Seven years of dancing, a quarter-century of madness, a further 75 years of squabbles, legends, mythmaking and unmaking. Surely it is past time to let the poor sad man rest quietly in his grave?

Benjamin Black: Vengeance

‘A man is not much if he can’t depend on himself, and nothing if others can’t depend on him.” So says business tycoon Victor Delahaye at the start of Vengeance (Henry Holt, 304 pages, $26), the fifth of Benjamin Black’s mysteries set in 1950s Dublin. After embellishing this bit of life guidance with a story about his father taking him for ice cream and then abandoning him—”Self-reliance, you see”—Delahaye pulls out a gun and messily commits suicide.

This tartly playful opening is a tour de force, and one typical of Mr. Black, who enjoys confounding readers’ expectations. Mr. Black himself is the alter ego of the Booker-Prize-winning Irish novelist John Banville, whose novels under his own name are filled with cerebral teasers, such as quoting Nietzsche without attribution in The Book of Evidence (1989) or, in The Newton Letter (1982), naming a character Prunty (the Brontës’ original, Irish, name), leaving readers to scramble along in his wake.

As Benjamin Black he plays with us too, but more inclusively—more generously, perhaps. In these novels, references to detective fiction abound, from Sherlock Holmes, through the canon of the 20th-century Golden Age (John Dickson Carr, Ngaio Marsh, Josephine Tey, Agatha Christie), to American assembly-line Nancy Drew. “Benjamin Black” itself is almost a crossword-puzzle clue—Benjamin, meaning “offspring of the right hand” in Hebrew, plus Black, a broad allusion to the noir genre he pastiches so elegantly.

Mr. Black’s protagonist is a pathologist with a penchant for detection named Quirke, whose unknown first name brackets him with Robert B. Parker’s Spenser and Colin Dexter’s Morse. (In a hat-tip to the hero of the now obscure novels of R. Austin Freeman, another pathologist who briefly appears in Quirke’s first outing, Christine Falls (2006), is named Thorndyke.) Morse’s first name was eventually revealed to be Endeavour; Quirke’s surname is no less suggestive, while the common Irish name of his adopted brother—Malachy—is ominously abbreviated to Mal.

In Vengeance, Quirke and his partner, Inspector Hackett, nose around the case of Delahaye’s suicide. The only witness is Davy Clancy, the son of Delahaye’s aggrieved business partner. The police accept Davy’s account of the incident, but Quirke and Hackett are less persuaded, even before a second unexplained death makes the crosscurrents between the Protestant Delahayes and the Catholic Clancys worth examining.

Meanwhile, Mona, Delahaye’s sulky and substantially younger wife, treads a series of shifting alliances between her stroke-crippled father-in-law and her amoral twin stepsons. Jack Clancy, Davy’s father, is always finessing, and not merely in the beds of several complaisant women. His wife, Sylvia, has lived in Ireland for decades but continues to think of the Irish as “they”: “They perceived in a dim way the inner life she continued to live, which was mild, reasonable, tolerant, and self-mocking—which was, in a word, English.”

Vengeance is filled with such enticing sentences, sentences that quietly beckon, promising one thing before flirtatiously turning back and ending unexpectedly. Indeed, language is at the heart of the entire series. Mal in middle-age “still had that smooth seal’s head of oiled black hair”; an elderly man inhabits a “cisternlike space with the indolent furtiveness of an elongated, big-eyed, emaciated carp”; Quirke’s apartment holds an “atmosphere of tight-lipped stealth, as if something vaguely nefarious had been going on that had ceased instantly at the sound of his key in the door.”

The danger with such memorable sentences is that they are memorable. Mr. Banville once tellingly commented that on a good day he writes 400 words, while his shadow, Mr. Black, writes 4,000. The substantial repetitions that appear across the series may owe much to Mr. Black’s speed of composition. In Christine Falls, Mal’s head may be seal-like, but so is another character’s, some 200 pages later. In Vengeance, Inspector Hackett sucks at his cigarette “as if he were performing an unpleasant task that had been imposed on him and that he was condemned to keep carrying out, over and over.” Unfortunately, so did a character in A Death in Summer (2011), smoking “with grim distaste, as if it were a task he had been unfairly assigned but which he must not shirk.” Several more characters have the unusual habit of shaping their cigarette ash into sharpened points, while Quirke’s cigarettes are regularly offered “arrayed like the pipes of an organ.” (The series should perhaps come with an advisory label: “If you dislike accounts of smoking and drinking, look away now.”)

More troubling than this is the recycled plot elements. Incest features repeatedly; Vengeance and A Death in Summer both open with the suicide of a rich businessman; after the first few novels, readers will know that if a character walks down a dark street at night, a trip to the hospital is the least they can expect; and grieving widows should be warned that a detective will shortly be along to bed them.

Ultimately, plot seems to be something that Mr. Black feels is necessary but not interesting, and there is little in the way of traditional crime-plus-detection. Even so, the books manage to be powerful in their evocation of a living, breathing, palpable Ireland of the 1950s. Its inhabitants are given almost music-hall, knock-about dialogue in some scenes—”Will we go for a pint?” “For God’s sake, Barney, it’s eleven o’clock in the morning.” “Is it? Jesus, we better hurry up, then”—which shifts, in an eye-blink, to a drier, more cerebral humor: “He had never had anything against the English, himself, though the Black and Tans had murdered an uncle of his—he was only an uncle by marriage.” Meanwhile, pubs on a summer evening fill with “the sound of slow talk and the rich reek of whiskey,” of “sunshine the color of brass” and “lazy swirls of cigarette smoke in the dusky air.” Elsewhere, a light filtering through windows gives “a muted radiance Quirke always found mysteriously dispiriting.”

It would be wrong if Quirke didn’t find a radiance dispiriting, because he too is a familiar model: the Chandler-esque self-destructive loner episodically drinking himself to death, a void on which each reader’s imagination can inscribe its own outline. “I have no origins,” he says in A Death in Summer. “I have a suspicion of what they were, but if what I suspect is the case, I don’t want it confirmed.” And so, apart from his working relationship with Inspector Hackett, he has no friends. “Aren’t you lonely?” he is asked in Elegy for April (2010), and his reply is that of Romantic heroes from Goethe onward: “Yes, of course. Isn’t everyone?”

He views himself bleakly, far more bleakly than those around him, who seem to find him worth persisting with. After he returns to his girlfriend, whom he had abandoned for another woman, his gambit is a feeble, “I should have telephoned. I should have kept in contact. That was unforgivable.” She retorts, “But of course you’re asking to be forgiven, aren’t you.” (He is. She does.)

The amount of sex that appears to have been readily available in the oppressively church-dominated atmosphere of 1950s Dublin is astonishing, as is Quirke’s apparently magnetic attraction for a vast range of women. This shambling bear of a man with tiny hands and feet—a charmingly Black-ian touch—sleeps, by my count, with eight different women over five novels, from those grieving widows to friends of his daughter, all presumably between the moments when he considers himself to be “at an age . . . when female beauty provoked admiration in him more often than desire.”

But of course genre fiction has only intermittent connection to the mundane details of reality. Instead, what the best noir—and Benjamin Black—does so well is to show how life falls between the cracks, how there are no tidy resolutions. The classic detective story, one character in “Vengeance” reflects, makes “everything so squared off and neat. . . . There was a body, there were clues, there were suspects, then the detective came along and put it all together into a story, a true story, the story of the truth.”

Instead, Quirke lives in a world of nuance, of half-spoken evasions and untruths. In that world—our world—Mr. Black forces his readers to make the same leaps that his characters must make, to build their own conclusions rather than having them delivered ready-made by the all-knowing detective. When Quirke works out the solution in the first novel, all we see is: “Mal had turned his head and was watching him again, and when Quirke met his eye he saw what Quirke had suddenly seen, and he nodded once, faintly.”

In The Silver Swan (2008), Quirke is told by his sister-in-law Sarah that Phoebe, who he had thought was his niece, is in reality his daughter. “And now Phoebe knew, and Sarah was gone, and Mal was alone, and Quirke was as Quirke had always been.” For Quirke, as for his fellow-countryman Beckett, language is all we have, finally, in a desolate world where “we give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.”

Wall Street Journal, 11 August 2012

Peter Pagnamenta: Prairie Fever: British Artistocrats in the American West, 1820-1890

The British upper classes have long had a problem with their younger sons. The eldest son inherits, the daughters are married off, but what to do with the other boys? One answer was, ship ’em out. It was one of P.G. Wodehouse’s most joyous diversions to have feckless younger sons supplied with money from home on the condition that they go forth “to some blighted locality of the name of Colorado” to “pursue cows, and so forth.” One Wodehouse hero concludes plaintively that he is nothing but “a sort of valet to Uncle Frederick’s beastly sheep.”

Peter Pagnamenta’s vivid retelling of the British gentry’s 19th-century dabblings in the American West shows that this New World destiny was not merely comedy. Unlike Wodehouse’s characters, most of Mr. Pagnamenta’s young men actively desired their “wilderness” years, which combined favored outdoor pastimes from home with new diversions like hunting bison. He tells us that Englishmen in Harper County, Kansas, put on the traditional “pink” hunting clothes and chased coyotes across the prairie.

The British had been devouring tales of the American wilderness since the 1820s appearance of James Fenimore Cooper’s “Leatherstocking Tales” of Indian warfare in the backwoods of New York. With “The Prairie” (1832), Cooper took his characters west, beyond the Mississippi, and introduced his English readers to the Great Plains (though he himself had never traveled west of Niagara Falls). In the 1840s, the painter and showman George Catlin toured Britain with a collection of Native American weapons, clothing and wigwams. From 1843, he was accompanied by nine Ojibwe who drew large crowds.

By this time a few venturesome Brits had begun to travel to the American West themselves: by steamboat to St Louis, then on by pack-train to the prairie expanses. William Drummon Stewart, a retired British army captain, arrived in 1832 and spent six years journeying through the west. He headed first to what is now Wyoming, where fur trappers and Native Americans traveled great distances for an annual summer rendezvous, a combination of fair, trading post and drinking bout.

On this trip, Stewart lived like a trapper, happily roughing it with minimal supplies. In his later journeys west, comfort and status ruled, and he took with him three servants and a range of wines and spirits. Charles Murray, son of the Earl of Dunmore, traveled through the plains in the 1830s with his valet and his dog, Peevish. (Mr. Pagnamenta excels in finding these telling details.) Sir St. George Gore went one better, making his tour complete with a brass bed, a bath and three cows to provide milk for his tea.

These early visitors were both aristocratic and wealthy, but as the pioneers’ wagons wore a route across the plains in the 1840s, it became less expensive to make shorter jaunts out to the prairies. British newspapers and sporting journals began to feature articles on what had become an “extensive hunting frolic,” where the hunters, according to one scandalized observer, shot for sport, not for meat. And the spread of the railways made such journeys even simpler. Now men could travel a few hundred miles out onto the prairies and be home in time for Christmas, with a good story to tell in their clubs.

Soon, however, the reasons for travel changed. Britain experienced a drastic agricultural slump, lowering the income of landowners. Dilettante aristocrats were soon replaced by men more intent on making a life, or at least a living, in the American West.

Most of the new arrivals were naïve to the point of foolishness. Some still spent wildly, bringing out British architects to design their houses or, in the case of the silk merchant George Grant, to plan an entire town in order to entice gentleman-farmers to buy property. Thomas Hughes, the author of “Tom Brown’s Schooldays,” founded a town, Rugby, in Tennessee (it survives), where immigrants, when not farming, played cricket and rugby and ran an amateur-dramatic society and a monthly magazine.

Some hopefuls put their money in beef. Federal law gave homesteaders with 160 acres grazing rights, and as long as cattle obtained high prices in the Midwest, they did well. In the 1880s, Lord Tweedmouth bought a ranch in the Texas panhandle for his younger son; Lord Airlie did the same in Colorado. But by 1884 prices for cattle were falling, the land had been over-grazed, and a summer of drought followed a ferocious winter just as farmers were enclosing what had previously been pasturage.

Many ranchers, both British and native-born, had used the same underhand methods to acquire land, but the idea of British aristocrats grinding the faces of valiant American homesteaders made a much better story. The Alien Land Bill passed in 1887, banning any foreigner not undergoing naturalization from buying land in the territories. The cattle boom was over. English lords began to look to places like Kenya and Australia for their younger sons.

In “Prairie Fever,” Mr. Pagnamenta tells this story with verve and style. His love of tales of derring-do on the prairie matches his subjects’, even as his exploration of the travelers’ successes and failures (mostly the latter) are models of sympathetic objectivity. His grip on British history and culture is less sure-footed: London’s “new” underground was in 1887 nearly a half-century old; Lord Althorp spells his name without an “e”; European notions of the Noble Savage derive not only from James Fenimore Cooper but also, and primarily, from Rousseau, whom Mr. Pagnamenta fails to mention.

But these niggles cause no harm in a book that is a constant delight. One British aristocrat had her expectations of the Wild West dashed when she arrived in Indian Territory to find four Native Americans taking part in a brisk game of croquet on the railway platform. A sight, surely, worth being a valet to your uncle’s sheep to see.