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Gascoyne : Le Clezio et la musique

30 septembre 2009

par David Gascoyne

From Adam International Review, No. 337-339, ed. Miron Grindea (1970).
David Gascoyne : How I came to music
My dear Miron,
I was quite delighted to be asked by you to write something about music for your Adam, as this is the first time such a thing has ever happened to me : this, in spite of the fact that I am a not unknown writer, with an unusually excellent musical upbringing and artistic education under the great organist Sir Walter Alcock, as a chorister at Salisbury Cathedral, at that time as now a shrine of the purest English religious musical tradition. I sang there for six years until my voice broke at the age of fourteen. After that I have never sung again, except perhaps occasionally in my bath.

My taste in music is extremely catholic and eclectic ranging from Palestrina to Fats Waller. I remember once annoying Andrew Porter, by trying to make him listen to Decca’s pioneer recording of Webern’s String Trio, which was done by players including the marvellous and insufficiently recognized Winifred Copperwheat (beautiful name !). I also had the honour to translate and introduce into England, in a number of Peter Watson’s and Cyril Connolly’s Horizon, Pierre Jean Jouve’s extraordinary exegesis of Mozart’s Don Juan - this was during the first year of the last war.

My first piano lessons I had at the age of six, from a Miss Pitt, the Fordingbridge milk-man’s daughter, who rapped me over the knuckles with a ruler, and threw the music-sheets about the room, when my ineptitude exasperated her too much. Before this, at the age of four, I had experienced listening to the playing of a now well-known pianist, Ernest Lush, of B.B.C. fame, whom I heard under the auspices of a certain Mrs Farnell-Watson, of Bournemouth, for whom my mother, an early broadcaster, gave elocution lessons.

My favourite piano-music now I would list, I think, as that of Scarlatti, Haydn, Satie, Busoni and Bartok ; and I should like to explore the pieces of Mompou.

To revert to my time at Salisbury, the most powerful emotional experience I had while there was participating in what I am sure must have been an exceptionally fine performance of The Dream of Gerontius, under W. G. Alcock’s direction, with the Salisbury Choral Society, the London Symphony Orchestra, and Margaret Price singing the part of the Angel. I also remember singing in the Messiah , when Elsie Suddaby was the soprano soloist.

After leaving Salisbury, I went for a couple of years to the Regent Street Polytechnic Secondary School, travelling every day from East Twickenham, where my parents and twin brothers were at that time living. It was then that I began to make the thrilling discovery of the whole of secular music, except for Schumann’s Piano Concerto, which a Salisbury master, Mr Griffiths, used to play for me on records in his private room (the soloist, I remember, was Cortot). This period of exploration, particularly of the most advanced 20th century masters, I cannot go into detail in here as it would occupy far too much space for a letter like this. I will only say that I was a regular visitor to the Old Queen’s Hall, particularly for Sir Henry Wood’s Proms and the B.B.C.’s Wednesday Concerts, for which a kind man hitherto unknown to me, Mr Bosanquet, gave me a season ticket. (He did the same to the poet Leonard Clark, who was thus one of the first poets I ever met, with the exception of Harold Monro of the Bloomsbury Poetry Bookshop, in whose wife’s house an old friend of my mother’s used to live. But that is another story.) At the Queen’s Hall I particularly remember hearing the first London performance of Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast, the ladies of the chorus all arrayed in rainbow-coloured frocks ; and the marvellous appearances, always in appropriate cos-tume, of Harriet Cohen, particularly in de Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain.

While I was at the Polytechnic, on one occasion during a lunch-hour music-appreciation class, I gave what I suppose must have been if not the first, at least quite an early ’public’ English performance of Schönberg’s Six Little Piano Pieces, op. I9. By this time I was able to amuse myself on other people’s pianos quite a lot with a variety of mostly modern pieces, from Schott’s and Universal Edition’s admirable collections in particular. Also, l’Album des Six ; and of course dear wonderful old Erik Satie, most of whose scores I have owned at one time or another, and my collection of whose piano music I gave away, perhaps too hastily, to Katherine Wolpe (whose composer father I once met at Yaddo, in the U.S.A., in 19p).

At the age of sixteen, after I had Left the Polytechnic, I published a first and only novel, a stream-of-consciousness experiment called Opening Day (published by Cobden Sanderson) ; and at this time, partly on the advance royalties of this book, I made the first of many, some prolonged, visits to Paris.

During one of these stays in Paris I was able to start a great friendship with Priaulx Rainier, the South African composer then studying under Nadia Boulanger. Later I wrote the text for her beautiful unaccompanied Requiem for solo voice and chorus, which received its first performance at one of the Victoria and Albert Museum Sunday evening concern, with Peter Pears as soloist and the choir under the direction of Imogen Holst. This work has consequently been broadcast more than once on the Third. I had a special relationship with this Programme through the producer Douglas Cleverdon, who was responsible for my Night Thoughts , a radiophonic poem with music specially composed by Humphrey Searle. (He also wrote some short pieces to accompany my broadcast reading of Wallace Stevens’ The Man with a Blue Guitar, which will, I hope, be revived some time ; incidentally, I am at present under commission to write a new programme about Stevens, that impeccable artist of the highest American civilization, to be called The Stoical Dandy.) I should like by the way to recommend to your readers the collected letters of this still greatly underestimated figure, which in my opinion are almost worthy to be considered as being in the same class as the letters of Keats.

I will end this brief and incomplete recital of my musical activities by mentioning a great ambition of mine, which is to persuade Humphrey Searle that an extraordinary Sprechstimme opera could be written with a libretto based on Beddoes’ Death’s Jest Book  ; an ambition which is a continuation of that of two dear dead friends, Norman Cameron and Dylan Thomas, who also conceived the idea of reducing this terrific drama to stageable proportions.

I am grateful as I said before to be able to tell your readers something about my musical life.
Ever yours, David


Taken from the TLS of October 4, 1985
David Gascoyne :
J. M. G. Le Clézio : Le Chercheur d’or

When J. M. G. Le Clezio’s Le Proces-Verbal appeared in 1963, it was at once acclaimed as the first work of an unusually gifted writer and awarded that year’s Prix Renaudot. The originality of its form might well have suggested the possibility of annexing Le Clezio as a recruit to the by then established tradition of the nouveau roman, conventional character and plot structure being evidently of negligible concern to him. Within the next few years, however, after the appearance of L’Extase materielle and Terra amata, it became apparent that this writer’s preoccupations had little or nothing to do with those of his immediate predecessors, and that such affinities as he had were more likely to link him with, for instance, Saint-Exupery or Giono. His narratives usually feature the plight of the dispossessed or exploited, and often of current equivalents of the "noble savage", set against foregrounds suffused with a sense of elemental vastness and the contrasting opulence and austerity of nature.
The present tense seems to be more frequently employed by modern French novelists than by their British or American counterparts ; but few contemporary writers can have resorted to it so consistently as Le Clezio. Concomitant with his absorption in a continuous present is an impulse to unrestrained extension. "Comme it est long, le temps de la mer !" exclaims the narrator of his latest novel, the Mauritian Alexis L’Estang, resuming his obsessive search for pirate gold in the Indian Ocean on returning from service in the trenches of the First World War. His story begins in 1892, when he is eight, and spans thirty years ; yet despite the dates, the novel is in no sense a historical one, but could be most fittingly described as a fable. Its characters are of quasi-archetypal simplicity, and they communicate in dialogue of taciturn breviloquence. Apart from the narrator’s abiding but tenuous relationship with his sister Laure, the novel’s principal human interest centres on his chastely erotic idyll with Ouma, the young native girl or "manaf’ he finds on the island of Rodrigues, to which plans left him by his father have led him in search of a hoard of plundered gold concealed there by a legendary corsair. Ouma is an archetype of the order of W. H. Hudson’s Rima, or Rider Haggard’s "Nada the
Lily" (referred to early in the book as the heroine of the favourite reading-matter of Alexis and his sister).
Le Chercheur d’or has much in common with Le Clezio’s previous novel, Desert, which had a tribal child of nature as heroine, and contrasted the sandy wastes of North Africa with corrupt Marseilles in the same way as the Indian Ocean here counterbalances the killing fields of Flanders. In both books the distinction between the historical time gauged by civilization and the primordial time of legend and myth is implicitly drawn. Le Chercheur d’or incorporates a number of elements of cosmic symbolism, such as the chalta in the garden of the protagonist’s family, which he and his sister designate "the tree of good and evil", and the cyclone which represents the deluge bringing the paradisiac period of their childhood to a close. Alexis is almost as obsessed with the constellations of Sirius and the Southern Cross as he is with chimerical hidden gold. He thinks of the ship that eventually takes him to the supposed treasure island of Rodrigues as the Argo, while the caverns he devotes himself to locating belong to the traditional pattern of initiation ; a pattern which provides the primary motivation of the whole tale.
Le Clezio’s aloofness from Paris and consistent indifference to its literary modes and manoeuvres prompt speculation regarding the nature of his readership. Ten years ago, in an enquiry into the poor health of contemporary literature, Julien Gracq expressed his aversion to stifling novels crammed with sour and exasperated specimens of humanity, "into which one enters as into a metro carriage at six in the evening", and deplored the tendency of writers to compound the exclusion of what he defined as "the human plant". It may well be supposed that Le Clezio’s readers find his work attractive because, while scarcely distinguished by concern with the invention of individual "characters" in the conventional sense, it expresses an unusual sensibility towards a dimension wherein human beings can breathe naturally in response to the seasonal rhythms of the planet, and thereby recover some hope of achieving ultimate wholeness and serenity.

T he Literary Review No. 32, 1st-14th January, 1981, pp. 6-7

David Gascoyne : Poetic Fiction

J. M. G. Le Clézio, Trois villes saintes, Gallimard/NRF 82pp.
J. M. G. Le Clézio, Désert, Gallimard/NRF 411 pp.
J M. G. LE CLEZIO’S first novel, • Le Procès-verbal, published by Gallimard, was awarded the Renaudot prize for 1963, when the author was 23. The majority of reputable French critics were enthusiastic in greeting the appearance of so young a writer of obviously exceptional talent. General opinion regarding the book’s essential, subject or intention was not so unanimous. Judging from France Sharratt’s description of last year’s Renaudot-winner (in an article on ’The Glittering Prizes’, LR no. 20), the Renaudot panel continues to favour young and slightly mystifying authors. I formed my own opinion of this first novel from reading it immediately after its publication, and at the time it struck me as a work by a born writer distin-guished by a special feeling for nature, for desolation and extreme subjective states, combined with an implicit disgust with the present state of Western civilisation.
By the early sixties the nouvelle vague and the nouveau roman had already been established for some time ; but if I remember rightly, there was at first a tendency to attempt to squeeze Le Clézio into the latter category, although insofar as I am any-thing of a judge of fiction Le procès-verbal, if presented in a somewhat original form, expressive of the now all-too-familiar alienation-dislocation syndrome, was fundamentally the product of a poetic sensibility, displaying a poet’s care for and preoccupation with language, something most contemporary French prosateurs and poets of any distinction might be said to be far more concerned about than their average British counterparts, still traditionally inhibited by a fear of being thought over-earnest about anything.

Since 1963, Le Clézio has added about a dozen titles to his bibliography, almost all classifiable as fiction, and his now well-established reputation is that of a novelist. Anyone approaching his recent Trois villes saintes without any preconceived idea of his work might understandably fail to conclude from making acquaintance with it that its author was either a novelist or a travel-writer. Compared with Désert, the novel that Le Clézio has published this year, it is in terms of length a much slighter work, consisting of 73 narrow pages of text divided into three parts each bearing, as the title indicates, the name of a town, all of them apparently Mexican or Peruvian, certainly South American : Chancah, Tixcacal and Chun Porn.

What is immediately obvious from this treble ’méditation sur les civilisations d’Amérique disparues’ is that in addition to an intimate familiarity with the history and mythological traditions associated with the sites that inspired it, the author is possessed of a rare insight of an order it would be difficult to avoid describing as metaphysical. Despite its brevity, the book powerfully conveys a sense of immense space and of another order of time in simple, calmly cadenced but singularly evocative prose.

Désert, as much as (if in a slightly different way) Trois villes saintes, confirms my original conviction about Le Clézio, which is that at heart he is a poet, who happens also to have a gift for narrative and a now fully-developed novelist’s technical ability. At the same time, it does not strike me that psychological analysis of the typically French kind is something he has much equipment or inclination for. His novels have generally been of more than average length, not because he is self-indulgent or incapable of economy but because he needs spacious proportions to express his distinctive individuality which lies above all in the fact that in a special sense of the term he is an aristocrat, seemingly as aloof as his prose is cool, not on account of any disdain for ’ordinary people’, still less patronising pity for ’poor folk’, but on the contrary because not only has he an almost Wordsworthian love of solitude and a tendency to self-identification with simple and primitive natures, he possesses that least fashionable of attributes, a pure heart.

Désert is a novel that happens to lend itself unusually well to analysis of a hermeneutic or indeed symbiotic nature, so I must carefully restrict myself to a minimal outline. Its central character is a North African Arab girl, Lallah, partly related by blood to the legendary, now drastically decimated Moorish `Blue men’. There are two interwoven narratives, relating events belonging to two different times and employing two distinct tones and tenses, distinguished one from the other not only by dates, but typo-graphically : the passages relating to the pre-1910 Arab epic of tribal memories of colonial oppression are printed on pages which have margins twice as wide as those telling the story of the present-day Lallah.

This heroine could probably be described not only as a descendant of a prestigious ethnic minority but also as the female equivalent of the ’noble savage’ alluded to in the issue of LR referred to already (in an article by a near namesake of mine). At all events, this ’child of the desert’, with whom are associated a mysterious representative of the rare remaining `blue men’ and also a dumb goatherd as young as herself who brings .about her sexual initiation, leaves the squalid bidonville of her native North African coastal town for Marseilles, tales of which her childish imagination had once transformed into an ideal. Disillusionment inevitably follows ; the French port, where she has to work in a seamy hotel, proves to be even more squalid than the slum she thought she’d escaped from, and after her rare and noble beauty has been degraded by its exploitation by a magazine-photographer, she ends by fleeing from the enfer des hommes and returning to the purity of the empty and forever incorruptible desert.

This compressed scenario undeniably makes the plot sound corny,.and no doubt there will be many who will say that in fact it is so. I would only add that the plot satisfactorily worked-out as it may or may not be, is not what Le Clézio should be read for. My earlier mention of Wordsworth may have been slightly misleading, as the writer one thinks of most often when reading Désert is of course Camus, while Saint-Exupéry might also occur to one. For an English reader, the final section of Eliot’s The Waste Land is not entirely without relevance either.