The launch of the Kindle got me thinking about all the things an e-reader can never be. You can't inscribe it to a loved one or press flowers between it's pages. It can never be an object, loved and cherished and passed from person to person, with any history. Your children cannot draw upon the pages and fill it with precious memories. Illustrations look terrible on it, especially art, which needs a grand scale. For these reasons and many more, help me celebrate the real thing: dusty old books!

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

A book and singer

On Sunday night an epic journey got me to London's Southbank for an historic performance: The Chelsea Opera Group were presenting Nelly Miricioiu in La traviata, a role she has sung with fame and glory all over the world. Although she had not sung the role for 19 years, the Romanian born diva wanted to sing it once more, and especially in London where she now lives.

To celebrate the performance I took with me two gifts for the Prima donna: A camellia shrub, on the verge of flowering, and an antique and valuable copy of the book that inspired Verdi's immortal opera: La Dame aux Camellias, here translated as "The Lady with the Camellias". If you think you don't know the story, you'll be surprsied to realise you do really: If you've seen Garbo's Camille or Love Story or Moulan Rouge with Nicole Kidman, then you know the story.

The title "La traviata" means "The woman led astray" or, more succinctly, the "Fallen woman" or even "The Courtesan". And this early edition, with "a new foreward by Alexandre Dumas fils" is quite lovely. Illustrated with real engravings, bound into the book, by Albert Lynch and published in 1889, I suppose it's the celebrity publishing event of its day.

For La traviata is a true story. Alexandre Dumas fils (son of the author of The Three Musketeers etc.) had a short but passionate affair with Marie DuPlessis, a legendary Parisian courtesan, who died in 1847 aged just 21 years. She had, in her short life, a series of wealthy and well-to-do "protectors", including the fledgling writer Dumas fils. He was devastated to discover she had died (of consumption, that most romanticised 19th century disease) and wrote the novel in a white heat of grief and inspiration. Subsequently a play, the tale impressed Verdi who completed his opera in 1851, just 4 years after the real "Camille" had died. Thirty odd years later, this lavish edition of the novel proves how popular the story became. And that was, in part, because of the scandal: This was a largely true and contempory story, unheard of in the opera house especially. Indeed the premiere in Venice was a fiasco, according to Verdi, because of the immediacy of the story and it's exploration of morals.

Violetta/Camille/Marie is forced to abandon her one true love by his overbearing father, worried that her reputation will destroy his family (and his daughter's impending marriage). Noble and self-sacrificing, our "tart with a heart" discreetly leaves her lover (Dumas, but in the novel "Armand" and in the opera "Alfredo Germont"), only to be publicly denounced as a whore by him at a Parisian soiree. No amount of remorse or reconciliation can alter her fate: she dies in his arms in one of the most heartbreaking scenes in all opera.

I admire Nelly Miricioiu enormously. She suffered terrible things under the Communist regime in Romania. Despite a cold (maybe because of it) she delivered a dramatic and truly harrowing portrait of a dying woman, clinging on to every last shred of happiness, and was rewarded with a standing ovation.

Such was the crowd around her dressing room I was unable to deliver the book or the bush. The camellia is outside waiting for another opportunity. The book is posted and I hope it will still be a suitable gift even if it arrives after the event. Due to engineering works I had to dash home at the end.

It is a beautiful book and one that I have cherished for many years. But this was a special occasion and it seemed to me to be the perfect way to thank a singer who has given me so much joy with her performances. Brava Nelly!

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

More Minton

This beautiful book, published in 1949, is a wistful, melancholic yearning collection of thoughts on the country, by H.E. Bates no less, who was obviously strongly drawn to the rural life. One can see that in his novels of course, but here everything rings particularly true.

Inevitably with the war so recently ended there was a search for something real and familiar and unspoilt. One hears that in British music of the era: Elgar's 'Cello concerto is a perfect example (even if composed 20 years earlier as a response to the First World War). This book is perhaps a counterpart to those feelings of loss and change and sadness, but also a pantheistic sense of hope through nature.

With chapters ranging from "Clouded August thorn" and "Overture to summer" to "Wealden Beauty" and "The Garden on leave", you soon get the idea of the direction of the prose, although Bate's is careful to remind us, surveying a dereclic house he once longed to live in, of "the destructive element of our time."

These autobiographical ramblings take place largely in Kent and Sussex, and it was a perfect match to have John Minton - himself a pacifist of course - to illuminate the pages. Unusually, his line drawings are printed in what I will describe as "Yew Tree Green" and they are beautiful. The rhapsodic response to Bate's words and once again a little nod to Samuel Palmer, bring out the very best in Minton.

There are exquisite chapter headings, full page drawings and lovely title page decorations. The words and image are unusually well matched here and this is truly a cherished book, for I find myself so in tune with much of the book, and in complete admiration of the drawings, I couldn't be without it on my shelves.