Things Happen

The Family, 1988 by Paula Rego

This weekend, finally, Paula Rego’s retrospective at the Tate Britain, the first time I’ve seen most of these extraordinary paintings outside of books. Spanning seven decades from the surreal to the austere, the experience was as powerful as seeing Goya’s black paintings in Madrid for the first time, the same feverish intensity. The same day, the first visit in almost two years to the Royal Opera House for Leos Janácek’s Jenůfa, also the first time I’ve seen and heard a live performance of the first opera I bought on CD when still a teenager (for reasons I no longer recall).

Asmik Grigorian as Jenůfa and Karita Mattila as Kostelnička in Claus Guth’s staging of Janáček’s opera at the Royal Opera House

Reading this weekend took the form of drifting between Virginia Woolf’s essays, Geoffrey Hill’s Now and Collected Poems, 1952-1992, Jacques Roubaud’s essays on poetry, and slowly rereading Charlotte Brontë’s Villette. I’m also continuing to languidly thin my library, aiming for a collection that is both smaller and more concentrated.

Ovid in the Third Reich

By Geoffrey Hill

non peccat, quaecumque potest peccasse negare,
solaque famosam culpa professa facit.

Amores, III, xiv

I love my work and my children. God
Is distant, difficult. Things happen.
Too near the ancient troughs of blood
Innocence is no earthly weapon.

I have learned one thing: not to look down
So much upon the damned. They, in their sphere,
Harmonize strangely with the divine
Love. I, in mine, celebrate the love-choir.

Reading Charlotte Brontë’s Villette

Lately it came to mind, on several occasions, that I should read Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, one of the key intertexts of Dorothy Richardson’s Pointed Roofs, volume one of Richardson’s Pilgrimage series. It has a style that carries one along and against my intention I found that I had burned through it in five days.

I started with the best intentions, to keep some distance, and chew slowly on sentences like: “The charm of variety there was not, nor the excitement of incident; but I liked peace so well, and sought stimulus so little, that when the latter came I almost felt it a disturbance, and wished rather it had still held aloof.” What I discovered in Villette was a powerfully intimate voice of obdurate experience that plays against the narrator’s voice. Intention aside, caring little for the paraphernalia of plot, that voice kept me reading late over a few nights, never once finding it tedious or pompous or patronising or superior.

Having reached the end, I admit to feeling it unfortunate that I galloped through the whole thing, but having got the hang of it as a whole, will now turn back to page one, with pencil in hand and read with greater restraint.