On ‘Difficult’ Music
Is ‘difficult’ just another word for ‘bad’?
“Let’s move to a completely different world. Same period, but the Op.14 sonatas. They are considered, again, lighter sonatas; easier sonatas… And here I really have to disagree, because they are frightfully difficult to play. And to interpret.”
This is famed Hungarian pianist Andras Schiff, kicking off an informative lecture on Beethoven’s neglected Ninth Piano Sonata (E major, Op.14 No.1), part of a longer series in which he dissects all 32 of the sonatas in order of publication.
I wonder whether the (relative) neglect of this piece is not justified: is Beethoven’s E major Sonata a fine piece music that simply wants for persuasive advocacy, or is it just not very good? Schiff leaves no doubt that he is of the former view. Sadly, the examples he provides probably won’t alter the opinion of those who feel otherwise, further proving Arthur Schnabel’s maxim that Beethoven’s Sonatas really are better than they can be played.
When Schiff insists that this sonata is ‘difficult to play’, he isn’t referring to the basic task of playing the right notes in the right order. This piece does not tax the technique of any moderately skilled pianist. What he really means is that it is difficult to play well, such that those hearing it might one day consent to hearing it again. It is by no means a bad sonata — especially compared to the efforts of Beethoven’s contemporaries — but it is no small task to convince an audience that it is a good one.
For those who are unfamiliar with the sonata, there is little to be said that won’t be amply clear from listening to it, which won’t take very long. There are three movements, kicking off with a fairly unremarkable sonata-form opening, followed by a fine dance-like Allegretto in place of a slow movement. The concluding Rondo manages the rare trick of being both quirky and dull. This juxtaposition is established immediately by the main theme, a quasi-gavotte that quickly forsakes charm in favour of a sequences of hammered ‘A’ octaves, neither consonant enough to be satisfying nor dissonant enough to be interesting, over a crescendo ending in subito piano whose novelty quickly wears itself out, and is all but impossible to pull off in resonant acoustics.
There are several tricky bars of exposed semiquaver hand-crossing at the beginning of the exposition and recapitulation of the first moment — Schiff insists these should be expressive rather than metronomic, though there’s something to be said for a more rhythmic execution — but that’s about it, at least for the first two movements. The difficulty of the Rondo’s central triplet section depends on whether you pay more heed to the tempo marking (Allegro commodo) or the time signature (alla breve). Richter almost alone takes it at a two-in-a-bar vivace. Most pianists opt for commodo, probably correctly, though one wonders why Beethoven makes us choose at all. Schiff would no doubt point to this as another interpretative challenge, though it’s hard not to see it as mere inconsistency. The question is whether pianists should be made to work so hard for such a meagre pay-off.
Beethoven’s gifts were incomparable, but even fervent admirers must admit that as a melodist he was no more than middling, and hardly in the league of Schubert, Rachmaninov, Dvorak, Chopin, or a host of others. I won’t imply that he couldn’t write a nice tune (and without thinking very hard we can think of plenty). However, for the most part his melodies are interesting for their motivic components, which he would isolate and develop with unsurpassed skill. The Eroica theme is typical.
Schiff reminds us in his lecture that this Sonata also exists as a string quartet (transposed up a semitone), and most of the thematic material in the first movement sounds as though it was conceived that way. The second subject barely qualifies as piano music at all. Exceptional in every sense is the long sinuous melody that takes over the development section, which comes from nowhere and is never heard again. It’s nice while it lasts. Whatever lyrical energy Beethoven unleashes here and in the elegant second movement — easily the best thing in both Op.14 Sonatas — is exhausted by the Rondo. I’ve covered the main theme, but the second subject deserves a mention, too: it is the kind of comically simple tune whose hidden profundities Beethoven made a career out of exploring, but here he shows no inclination to spelunk.
I wonder how often this sonata would be played or heard had it chosen its composer less carefully. Schiff raises a laugh when he suggests its unpopularity owes to it having no nickname. There’s something to this, though it’s an argument more applicable to, say, Op.7 or Op.109. Frankly, the Op.14 No.1 sonata could be called the Awesome Sonata and feature in the latest Bond film, and I still cannot imagine it being programmed alongside the Tempest or the Moonlight. Plentiful recordings of it exist, but only because so many pianists are determined to record the complete sonatas.
That being said, the Awesome Sonata is occasionally programmed on its own merits, and at least one of these performances leaves me questioning whether I might not have been wrong about it all along. In this case the performance is a live concert by Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov. (There’s a separate article to be written on Sokolov, a cult-figure in pianistic circles.) It is mesmerisingly good, and goes some way towards proving Schiff’s point, in a way that Schiff’s own performance does not. Is it the case that there is no bad music, only bad musicians?
Immediately I was put in mind of Sviatoslav Richter’s great recording of Tchaikovsky’s G major Sonata. Ominously titled ‘Grand Sonata’, it is long, harrowing, was famous in its day and is now almost entirely forgotten, rather like the Thirty Years’ War. The first movement is mind-laceratingly upbeat — it sounds like Shostakovich parodying the mandated jollity of the Soviet era, proving that satire sometimes cannot go far enough — without any trace of irony. How can anyone take such music seriously? Richter demonstrates how, and invites us to, as well.
There is a tendency these days to regard no music as truly bad, and from an academic standpoint it’s true that good and bad are not useful categories to apply. All music boasts at least some value. (In the case of the Tchaikovsky Sonata that value is largely historical; it is for scholars to debate why, or even how it was once so beloved.) We live in an era in which all assumptions are deconstructed and duly revised, especially the negative ones. It was once standard practice to write Schubert off for his weak grasp of structure. A more revisionist view, however, is that he is no ‘worse’ than say, Beethoven, but merely ‘different’. He had no knack for compression, it’s true, and concision was usually achieved at the expense of development, but there are plenty of long passages in the later works that no one would wish to be shorter. Thus it is that there is no bad music, merely difficult music.
Schiff no doubt felt that by declaring Beethoven’s Op.14 Sonatas to be ‘frightfully difficult’ he was subverting a popular misconception, but such protestations are far from exceptional. Classical musicians love the idea of ‘difficult’ music, in the same way they love the idea of the unfairly neglected masterpiece crying out for a timely champion. Pablo Casals’ rediscovery of J.S. Bach’s Cello Suites laid down a path that lesser artists were eager to pursue. This is especially the case at conservatoriums, where there are always precocious and earnest students keen to revive the lost splendours of Smetana’s back catalogue. I myself had a Dussek phase.
There is a strong incentive to believe that neglected repertoire is ‘difficult’. It is only a small step from there to believing that interpretative difficulty has a value of its own. That is, a work whose subtle charms only Sokolov or Richter can realise has inherent qualities lacking in a work that all but sells itself, like the Pathetique. It is perfidious reasoning, depressingly protestant in origin, and it is everywhere. It was certainly the type of thinking that led me seriously to consider learning Dvorak’s Piano Concerto at my final year at the conservatorium.
In all, Dvorak wrote three concerti, for piano, violin and cello in that order. The latter two are well known, deservedly: they show a great composer in mature command of his melodic genius. The Cello Concerto is arguably the finest ever written for that instrument. The Piano Concerto (in G minor, Op.33) is an earlier work, and hardly ever played, certainly compared to the great Romantic concerti by Grieg, Schumann, Chopin, Mendelssohn and Liszt.
Over the years the Dvorak Concerto has had its occasional champions, most ardently Rudolf Firkušný. There is a notorious recording by Sviatoslav Richter and a rather svelte one by Andras Schiff. The latest high profile pianist to give it an airing is Stephen Hough, who for the last few seasons has unleashed it regularly on audiences from Sydney to Birmingham. (It was in Birmingham with the CBSO that the performance was captured by the Hyperion microphones, though the results are yet to be released.) Hough’s performances generated the usual rapturous response, and left everyone wondering why this concerto wasn’t heard more often. Why, indeed?
Hough himself has written with typical clarity, honesty and insight about the problematic nature of the Dvorak Piano Concerto. Dvorak himself was no pianist, unusually among great composers, and this lack of intimacy with the instrument is very apparent. It is devilishly hard to learn, such that mastering it detained even the mighty Richter for two years. Once learned, however, it remains terrifically awkward to play, yet in a way that is not apparent even to musically literate audiences. There are no overt displays of virtuosity, and the underwhelming pianistic treatment of the material leaves one regretting that Rachmaninov didn’t take a stab at revising it.
I don’t agree that it lacks good tunes; this is Dvorak, after all, so there’s bound to be a few. The main theme itself is a darkly suave little number, fated to provide motivic impetus to the movement, while the memorably bucolic second subject is worthy of early Disney. There are plenty of arresting moments, beginning with the piano’s first full statement of the theme (which comes in the major after an initial entry indebted to Beethoven’s Fourth), and throughout we experience that restless shading between minor and major that Dvorak did better than anyone besides Schubert.
If it doesn’t quite stand comparison with his two string concertos, that’s not really the comparison that matters. Its problem, I suspect, is one of scale, and for context we should look to other piano concertos of similar ambition. The first movement comes in at close to twenty minutes, which is up there with, say, Beethoven’s Emperor, or Tchaikovsky’s First. However, it lacks anything like the grandeur of those works and cries out for that really big unifying idea.
With all of that being said, I’ve listened once more to Richter’s apparently troubled recording with Carlos Kleiber, and, to be honest, I’m not sure why this concerto is not more popular. Offhand I’d say it’s considerably better than several better-known works in this category, such as the Grieg Concerto and Saint-Saens’ Fifth. Of course, the issue isn’t that Richter or Hough cannot play it well. Pianists of this calibre can sell just about anything. This is especially apparent in the opening of the finale, which can easily sound pedestrian given the Allegro con fuoco direction, yet can hardly be played faster given its technical requirements and the material to follow. It takes mastery to resolve this dilemma, such that it doesn’t sound like a student learning the finale to Rach Two.
Beneath the hands of a lesser pianist — the term is purely relative — the Dvorak Concerto’s shortcomings become more apparent. The first movement goes on and on, while the finale hardly gets going at all. But are these shortcomings, or merely challenges? Is the piece problematic, or does it actually have problems? Does the existence of even a single persuasive performance prove that the fault lies not with the piece, but with its interpreters? Lots of questions, and I confess I’m no longer sure of the answer.
More certain is my relief that I never actually attempted to play it. Just as Hough’s performances convinced audiences that this piece should be heard more often, so his account of actually learning it convinced me that I dodged a bullet by never attempting it. As it happened I learned Rachmaninov’s Fourth Concerto instead, meaning that I dodged the bullet by hurling myself in front of a train.
Rach Four ticked all the same boxes as the Dvorak Concerto, but more so. It is an obscure work by a great composer (‘He wrote four?’ was the most common response), yet is in its own way notorious. Rachmaninov himself was never satisfied with it, and subjected it to innumerable revisions (time that would have been better spent reworking the Dvorak Concerto). The first movement has exactly one big tune, which it isn’t the main one, but occurs later on without much preamble (unlike the exquisite preparation for the march that kicks off the recapitulation in the Second Concerto). It reappears near the end of the finale, a weak stab at long-range structural cohesion. The slow movement is based around Three Blind Mice but fails to add much to it, while the last movement is tricky and lacks sweep, though it does feature the sole heart-rendingly Rachmaninovian passage in the entire piece.
Taken as a whole, it was perfectly suited to my warped requirements, and turned out to be a perfect pain in the arse. It proved to be, as Schiff would say, ‘frightfully difficult to play, and to interpret’. I played it as well as I could, obtained a middling grade, and have regretted it ever since. What was I thinking, wasting my time on such rubbish?
Yesterday I heard Hough’s award-winning recording with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. What an amazing piece.
Review of The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan
I began Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time novels as an introverted adolescent, and I’m willing to bet I wasn’t the only one. Fantasy literature would hardly be a sustainable genre were it not for the hordes of vaguely disenfranchised middle-class teenagers lurking in their rooms yearning for adventure, or at least wishing they owned a sword.
In recent years I had allayed my nascent wanderlust on most of Tolkien’s published output, in addition to sprawling sagas by Raymond Feist, Stephen Donaldson, Terry Brooks and others. My guiltiest pleasure, however, were Conan stories, whether Robert E. Howard’s robust originals, or the less vigorous efforts of later writers. Prominent among this bunch was Robert Jordan, who in total wrote six Conan novels. Even then I could see that his Conan the Victorious was a rare peak in a range of very low hills.
The Wheel of Time first penetrated the clouds of my teenage solipsism in 1992, while Jordan was in Australia doing press for The Shadow Rising. I can’t remember anything he said, though something must have piqued my interest. Perhaps it was the length. Quantity, Stalin reminded us, has a quality of its own, and a sequence of flabby epics had conditioned me to dismiss any novel shorter than a hundred thousand words as barely worthy of the name. The Shadow Rising was over a thousand pages and had the heft of a car battery. I began the series soon after and continued reading it intermittently for years, until it lost its way, and I found mine.
Rereading The Eye of the World now, it’s easy to see why I was so entranced by it then. Though highly derivative and not without its flaws, it is also an excellently paced, nicely varied and satisfyingly shaped adventure. There’s sufficient ancillary detail to absorb the kind of kid who could list all the world’s capital cities and the batting averages of the Australia’s 1982 Ashes squad, yet not so much that the story buckles under the strain (later it collapses entirely).
Before we come to that, however, it’s worth explaining what the Wheel of Time is. The wheel, or Wheel, in question is a seven-spoked spinning wheel. Whether it is real, like the turtles supporting Discworld, or metaphorical, like God, is never clear. Each person’s life is represented by a thread, and the wheel continually weaves the threads into a vast pattern, which is called the Pattern. This contraption was originally put together by the god-like creator, called the Creator. (Jordan is fond of the naming convention whereby major figures or events are simply capitalised versions of what they are, rather like the buildings and ceremonies at an English public school.) The most obvious problem with this conception, or contraption, is that spinning wheels aren’t used to weave. The function of a spinning wheel is to spin thread or yarn. Weaving is typically done on a loom. The Loom of Time is a less resonant title, admittedly, and Jordan can be forgiven in the interests of sonority. Perhaps he should have gone with turtles. Turtles of Time has a certain ring to it, though given the narrative pace in later volumes he was doubtless reluctant to invite the comparison.
What Jordan loses in metaphorical coherence, however, he gains in metaphysical richness, since a wheel (unlike a loom or even a turtle) handily connotes the cyclical nature of reality. Each of the Wheel’s seven spokes represents an Age of the world. The story itself takes place in the Third Age, which, according to the recurrent declamatory paragraph that kicks off each of the novels, is ‘an Age yet to come, an Age long past.’ There’s also rather a lot of reincarnation. You get the idea: what goes around comes around. Neither looms nor turtles can give you that.
The Wheel is powered by the One Power, a primordial life-force that is not only ubiquitous but gendered: it is divided into female saidar and male saidin. Gifted individuals can tap into this power at will, thus providing the mechanism whereby this particular fantasy setting explains its magic. Harnessing and directing this power is called channeling – a rare example of Jordan retaining the lower case – and those who do this are channelers. Some fantasy settings take the presence of magic as a given. Tolkien has geriatrics lob fireballs about simply because they’re wizards. Other writers, such as Jordan, are more determined to lay out the nuts and bolts of it, though this tendency is mercifully curbed in this first volume.
Existing beyond the Pattern, yet able to manipulate it, is the Dark One, the big bad guy of the series. This isn’t his real name, but like Voldemort he maintains a kind of ‘He Who Must Not Be Named’ chic. Imprisoned by the Creator at the dawn of Creation, the Dark One was inadvertently freed some three thousand years before the current story via a standard bit of ‘they-delved-too-deep-and-freed-the-ancient-evil’ hubris. Bad times ensued: there was war, wickedness multiplied and public broadcasting saw its funding cut. In an act of desperation a group of male channelers re-sealed the Dark One’s prison. The moment he was sealed, the Dark One tainted saidin, driving every male channeler insane. Thus afflicted, they began breaking the world, an act Jordan calls the Breaking of the World. The Eye of the World’s prologue, dense with portent and florid dialogue, takes place at this time. Anguished at what he has wrought, the leader of the male channelers – the Dragon – destroys himself with the Power. His legacy is a broken world, a large mountain, and a lingering sense that he’ll be back. Numerous prophecies later affirm this.
Three thousand years on, empires have risen and fallen, neatly-delineated cultures have surged and receded, and the world has settled into a collection of improbably stable feudal nations. Males who can touch tainted saidin are now hunted down and cut off from the Power, causing them to wither and die. Female channelers (known as Aes Sedai) rule the known world from their city of Tar Valon. Nonetheless, a long peace is coming to an end. Unrest is spreading, and in recent years a rush of men claiming to be the reincarnated Dragon has everyone on edge. All have so far been captured and proven false, but there’s a sense that the Age is drawing to its close.
We open in familiar fantasy territory: A bucolic village worthy of The Sorrows of Young Werther, protagonists plucked from rustic obscurity, a guide with magical powers, and a master warrior with a royal secret: we’re barely one Wookie removed from Star Wars, and no farther from Middle-Earth. Indeed, The Lord of the Rings is worth remembering, or would be if the author didn’t work so diligently to ensure you couldn’t forget it. Jordan originally conceived the tale differently, with an older hero, but revised his early draft to model it more closely on The Fellowship of the Ring, successfully as it turned out.
The action opens near Emond’s Field, a cosy hamlet in a far-flung province of the impossibly vast realm of Andor. Our protagonists are steadily paraded: Rand al’Thor, a young shepherd; Perrin Aybara, a young blacksmith; and Mat Cauthon, equally young but less clearly branded. Also noteworthy are Egwene al’Vere, the daughter of the local inn-keeper, and Nynaeve al’Maera, the eternally dyspeptic village wise woman who through fourteen books is fated to drag down every scene she appears in. It is the day before Bel Tine – an annual festival not radically unlike the traditional English celebration of Bel Tane – and the village is abuzz with wholesome excitement. ‘Outsiders’ have appeared: the beautiful and mysterious Lady Moiraine, with her dangerous and mysterious companion Lan; Thom Merrilin, an elderly minstrel with a mysterious past; Padan Fain, a travelling merchant peddling tidings of far-off events and a comprehensive range of small-goods.
The idyll is shattered when the village is attacked by Trollocs, which are bestial cannon-fodder precisely equivalent to Tolkien’s orcs. No one dies, though Rand’s father is wounded. Fevered, he reveals that Rand might not actually be his son, thus shortening the list of main characters without a mysterious past by one. Padan Fain disappears, although it later transpires that he’s a baddie, and functionally identical to Gollum. Moiraine turns out to be an Aes Sedai. She convinces the three boys that the Trollocs were really after them, and that they’ll come with her if they know what’s best. Egwene tags along for no good reason, as does Thom Merrilin, mysterious past and all.
There’s a flight by night closely modelled on the hobbits’ departure from The Shire, including a desperate ferry crossing. Moiraine informs Egwene she has the ability to learn to channel, to the younger woman’s delight. This necessitates a brief description of how the One Power works, with ‘brief’ being both the operative and the surprising word. I was struck by – and grateful for – how little mechanical explanation Jordan provides in this first book, especially given the passion for encyclopaedic exploration he displays from the second book onwards. Firstly, it is truer to how a group of young, naïve (though strangely well-educated) medieval villagers might see the world. Secondly, and more importantly, it means that even during periods of inactivity the story doesn’t founder.
After a week of inactivity, they reach Baerlon, which sounds like the product of a random fantasy name generator. Rand meets Min, a mysterious young woman whose exoticism is manifested by short hair and a preference for trousers. She can see people’s future, but only in cryptic hints that are of no use to the characters, but allow Jordan to indulge in a bit of foreshadowing. We will see a lot more of Min, but not in this book. Circumstances oblige the fellowship to take refuge in the cursed city of Shadar Logoth, recalling past detours through Moria. Like Moria, the city is home to an unspeakable evil best left undisturbed. The ancient evil is predictably disturbed, and the fellowship scatters. Mat, fool-of-a-Took that he is, pockets a cursed dagger, thus allowing the evil to escape the city. Bummer.
Perrin and Egwene light out cross country, with Moiraine, Lan and Nynaeve in leisurely pursuit. Nynaeve discovers that she too has the ability to channel, giving her something else to complain about. Perrin and Egwene meet Elyas, yet another mysterious figure with a mysterious past who has a mysterious knack for talking to wolves. By an exceptional coincidence, Perrin learns that he has the same knack. He and Egwene are captured by a company of Whitecloaks, an order of religious nuts notable for their zeal and fierce commitment to laundry. Perrin kills two of them, kicking off a plot line that only fizzles out eleven thousand pages later.
It’s a quirk of this setting that while it features its share of homicidal zealots and satanists – here called Darkfriends – through fourteen books we never encounter an unbeliever. Quizzed on the lack of atheists, Jordan blithely replied that in this world the existence of the Creator was simply a given, despite the fact that he or she is no more manifest in Rand’s world than any gods are in ours. We could dismiss this as a singular lack of insight into human psychology – in the real world people were already denying that the Holocaust had happened by 1960, so it defies belief that no one would question the existence of a deity that hadn’t been sighted in thousands of years – if one didn’t strongly suspect it was something else. Jordan was a devout and avowedly reactionary Episcopalian; creating a laity that boasted unshaken faith smacks of wish-fulfilment.
The development of atheism is probably an inevitable consequence of scientific progress, since science will eventually clarify many of the erstwhile mysteries that religion was created to explain, thus obliging religion to retreat from practical matters to spiritual ones. Any system of reason will eventually come up with something like Occam’s Razor, from which point God is on borrowed time. How, we might ask, did Jordan envisage a society that has spent three thousand years hauling itself out of a technological abyss – the Breaking – yet at no point does anyone ask whether a concept like the Creator might be extraneous. The sad answer is that this is a society in which progress, for no well-defined reason, barely exists at all. The Breaking reduced humanity, which had possessed undreamed-of wonders during the Age of Legends, to a basic subsistence level where the horse and cart is the primary means of conveyance. Knowledge is concentrated in very few places – such as the White Tower or the Stone of Tear – and education is a luxury reserved for few. It is thus analogous to, and clearly modelled upon, Western Europe about a thousand years ago. Three thousand years after The Breaking, however, and very little has changed. The horse and cart remains the primary means of conveyance.
The idea, clearly, was to leave sufficient time for enough history to have occurred between the Breaking and the present day, yet also to conform to the bog-standard Classicism that that was already a thread-bare narrative trope when Tolkien made it a staple of the high fantasy genre. This creates a tension that isn’t easily reconcilable, and Jordan never manages it. World-building is not among his gifts. How is it, for example, that the names of the thirteen Forsaken are known perfectly throughout an entire world whose peoples have barely any education, in which few venture more than a day’s ride from their birthplace? Wouldn’t the names have mutated at least a little over the intervening millennia? Indeed, how is it that everyone (aside from the remote Sharans, but including the Aiel) speaks the same Common Tongue, without even regional dialects? Why does the Common Tongue bear no relationship to the Old Tongue? When did the Common Tongue supplant the Old? The Old Tongue was apparently the standard language during the Trolloc Wars (two thousand years earlier), yet had been replaced by the Common Tongue during the Hawkwing’s Empire a thousand years ago (which we know because the Seanchan speak it with no variation beyond an accent). Not only is there no technological development, there’s no cultural development either.
Meanwhile Rand, Mat and Thom have taken off down the river aboard a trading vessel captained by Bayle Domon, from Illian. (We know he’s from Illian because he speaks the same language as everyone else, but sounds like a cartoon pirate.) They disembark in Whitebridge and are immediately attacked by a fearsomely unpronounceable Myddraal. Thom sacrifices himself – ‘Fly, you fools!’ – and the boys fly east. They scamper from town to town, each of which seems to have a resident Darkfriend, like the village rapist in Borat: ‘Naughty, naughty!’ The cursed dagger is manifesting an influence on Mat commensurate to the effect of the One Ring on Frodo. He grows morose, suspicious and one-dimensional. Rand shows signs of being able to use the One Power, which could be a problem. Both lads are troubled by dreams of a mysterious figure named Ba’alzamon (eyes and mouth made of fire, strong line in cryptic musing). It is strongly implied that Ba’alzamon is the Dark One, or at any rate knows him personally. He mentions something called the Eye of the World, which seems familiar.
After several weeks of close shaves, near-starvation and constant walking, Rand and Mat reach the Andoran capital Caemlyn. The city is filled with thousands flocking to see the captured False Dragon Logain, and thrumming with anti-royalist factionalism, which Jordan establishes and handles very well. Rand befriends an Ogier named Loial, which according to the glossary is pronounced ‘loyal’, and is thus the most transparent name since Neal Stephenson called a main character Hiro Protagonist. The Ogier are a superfluous race of oversized humanoids with an affinity for nature and a predilection for detailed backstory. Loial explains that Rand is ta’veren. Ta’veren are people around whom the Wheel Weaves the Pattern, thus causing Unlikely Stuff to Happen. Fantasy authors cherish devices like this, since it absolves them of the need to justify outrageous coincidence. This is amply illustrated when Rand, trying to get a glimpse of the False Dragon being paraded through the streets, accidentally falls into the gardens of the royal palace. There he meets the princess Elayne and her brothers Gawyn and Galad, and earns an audience with Queen Morgase, the traditional reward for peasants found roaming the palace grounds. The queen’s Aes Sedai advisor tells Rand he is the most dangerous man in the world, which is deemed insufficient grounds for detaining him. Rand returns to his inn to find the rest of his friends have shown up. The joyousness of the reunion is diminished somewhat when Mat tries to kill Moiraine. The Aes Sedai rather charitably concedes that the cursed dagger is to blame. She heals (Heals) Mat, temporarily.
Its biomass heftily augmented by Loial, the fellowship takes to the Ways, a network of magical tunnels that enables one to cover huge distances with great haste and (inevitably) life-threatening peril. As with so much else, the making of the Ways is an art long forgotten, once more demonstrating Jordan’s classicist credentials. Time and again the past is used to illustrate just how far the present age has fallen, a scrolling catalogue of mighty ruins, abandoned cities and lost kingdoms. One is reminded, and not accidentally, of the Teutonic barbarians who would assemble in the shadow of an old Roman aqueduct, and wonder what race of giants could have built such a thing. At one point on their river journey Rand, Matt and Thom pass huge statues that sound suspiciously like the Argonath. There are eldritch materials that can no longer be made, and arcane tools that can no longer be fashioned even by the Aes Sedai, who are themselves barely a shade of what they once were. This is a conceit common to high fantasy, even to all Western literature since the Fall: an automatic assumption that any culture’s high-water marks lie in the distant past.
They emerge from the Ways far to the north, on the edge of the Blight, a patch of very bad real estate surrounding the fiery mountain in which the One Ring was not forged. Seeking the fabled Eye of the World, they cross through the lost kingdom of Malkier. It so happens that Lan is Malkier’s uncrowned king. Gosh. It also happens that there’s growing affection between him and Nynaeve, a development so inexplicable that it has thus far occurred mostly off the page. Lan tells Nynaeve that their love can never be, echoing the hopes of readers. Enraged at this development, the Blight attacks, a putatively dire situation that leaves no one injured. Any journey of more than about fifty feet is laced with danger in this series, though fantasy fans used to George R. R. Martin will find the body count remains disappointingly low. (Big ticket fatalities are rare, and it’s no surprise when Moiraine announces that Thom is still alive.) They soon locate the Eye, a small oasis of hale shrubbery tended by an Ent named the Green Man. He is guarding a pool of uncorrupted saidin, along with a cache of swag, including the Dragon’s banner, two of the seven seals on the Dark One’s prison, and the Horn of Valere, which will feature heavily in the next volume. Hopes of a simple resolution are dashed when a pair of the Forsaken show up.
Chief servants of the Dark One, the Forsaken were thirteen of the most gifted yet naughtiest Aes Sedai from the last Age – they’re thus far more fearsome than anyone around now – who were trapped when the Dark One’s prison was resealed. They are now free, and after three thousand years their nefariousness appears undimmed, supporting arguments that prison merely breeds repeat offenders. These particular two are Aginor and Balthamel, and millennia of incarceration has proved ruinous to their complexions. Balthamel and the Green Man account for each other, while Rand and Aginor battle for control of the uncut saidin. The Forsaken, who really should know better, draws too much, and is immolated. Rand, overwhelmed by the Power, teleports somehow and busts up an army of Trollocs, before teleporting somewhere else to confront Ba’alzamon. Rand’s dead mother is there, and there’s a sword made of light, and fire, and eventually Ba’alzamon goes down. To be honest, it’s all pretty confusing. Rand believes he has killed the Dark One, thus capping a productive afternoon. By now it’s pretty obvious that he is the Dragon reborn, or Reborn.
Perhaps the worthiest compliment I can pay to The Eye of the World is to say that it is never dull, which seems backhanded until we recall the ennui that blankets later volumes. By the seventh book you begin to understand how sailors becalmed at sea grow unhinged. Entire chapters are devoted to nothing but explorations of Andor’s noble family trees. Nynaeve and Elayne spend an eternity embedded in a travelling circus as it makes slow progress through featureless countryside. By the ninth book you’re willing to shoot an albatross, just for something to do.
It’s hard to avoid the uncharitable assumption that the runaway success of the first few books led to a freer editorial rein. Proven authors often earn greater leeway, even if their initial success owed something to the curbing of a tendency towards excess. This is especially the case in so-called genre fiction, in which readers who’ve invested sufficiently in a given author will often continue purchasing subsequent volumes, even when these are of rapidly diminishing quality and reading them feels like penance. How much pulp has Raymond Feist sold based on Magician? How many humourless adventures in marital miscommunication did Terry Goodkind shift because Wizard’s First Rule felt original? It’s a phenomenon not confined to books. The Phantom Menace was notable for the way it proved that George Lucas’ enduring achievement with Star Wars relied upon the twin constraints of limited resources and the restraining guidance of colleagues who weren’t fervid yes-men. Look what happened when he was able to make exactly the film he wanted.
Attack of the Clones was if anything even worse, but it still made a half-billion dollar profit. Quantity, remember, has a quality all its own, and never more than when it’s a large quantity of cash. Jordan was operating on a scale several orders of magnitude below Lucas, though with forty-four million books sold he was no lightweight. Of course The Wheel of Time contains nothing as horrible as the Star Wars prequels – The Crossroads of Twilight is closer to Solaris, though less frenetically paced – but it too betrays the unfelt hand of a too-permissive editor. In this case the editor was Jordan’s wife. Such problems, however, lay in the future. The Eye of the World can be held up as an example of the uncertainty of a book’s reception mitigating what it could have been were its reception assured. After all, look what happened when he was able to write the books he wanted.
All the discipline in the world couldn’t turn Jordan into a literary stylist. At one point he plays around with non-linear narrative – it happens while Rand and Mat trudge along the road to Caemlyn – but the blocks of story he switches around are nearly indistinguishable, and it mostly ends up being confusing. I can’t recall that he tries anything similar in the rest of the series. At the more granular level of prose, Jordan is even less adventurous. In conformity with standard fantasy practice, his writing rarely exceeds an amble, and even when it does surge it achieves neither poetry nor humour. One hardly expects Nabokov, yet largely in vain does one await even a modest awareness of what the English language can do. What irony one encounters is at once so obvious that it must be deliberate – “The Spray made haste slowly down the Arinelle…” – yet so rare that you’re forced to wonder. Nonetheless, truly poor writing is rare, though not absent: “Slowly his breathing slowed.” When Jordan errs, it is mostly through longwindedness.
The wordiness that later caused him to pen superfluous chapters – and in one case a mostly superfluous book – is mostly controlled in the early volumes, although occasionally it bursts forth in a dull flood: “Inside, the inn was every bit as busy as the sounds coming from it had indicated and more.” It’s never unreadable, though the cumulative effect can grow wearying, or worse, sedative. Slowly your breathing slows. Thus lulled, it’s tempting to skim through the long paragraphs of descriptive prose that betray no hint of a pictorial gift. Do so, however, and you’d miss the moments when verbiage gives way to nonsense. Here is our first sighting of Ba’alzamon: “Just for an instant, his mouth and eyes became openings into endless caverns of flame.” It sounds impressive, until you try to picture it for moment, and realise that Jordan probably didn’t spend even that long. Can a mouth-sized orifice adequately display an endless cavern in an instant? Are they filled with flame, or made of flame? Are they really separate caverns, or do the holes in his face open into a single endless flaming cavern, meaning his head was a kind of Tardis-like Mount Doom? Is each cavern endless in every direction, and if so how is it even a cavern? I took to Google images, certain that fans with a gift for illustration would have taken up the challenge. Alas, while there were many fiery face-holes, none conveyed cavernous infinity. We can only guess what image Jordan had in mind. I suspect he didn’t have any image, but was driven by an understandable urge to make the bad guy sound scary. What’s more impressive than fiery eyes? Caverns of fire. What’s better than a cavern? An endless cavern! Thankfully he stopped there, before the villain’s head became an expanding universe of supernovas. At a less galactic scale, take Baerlon’s Stag and Lion inn, the common room of which boasts “scores of tables”. A score, lest you’ve forgotten your archaic units of measurement, is twenty. So there must be at least forty tables in this common room, each with a few seats. Try to imagine, as Jordan clearly didn’t, just how big a room that would require.
The Eye of the World, then, is not without its flaws, but to a surprising extent these aren’t the problems that afflict the later books, or if they are, they are in a form so embryonic as to barely register. Jordan’s descriptions of cloths remain mostly functional, barely hinting at the strange faith in the symbolic value of embroidery that will steadily devolve into mania. The setting is presented in sufficient detail – the hand-drawn maps that periodically appear help with this – that a broader world is implied without having its verisimilitude dismantled though being exhaustively catalogued. The mechanics of channelling and the One Power are left vague, deferring encyclopaedic definitions until later volumes. Given the excesses to come – these start to metastasise even in the second volume, which as written concurrently with the first – this restraint reflects a level of discipline that one must regard as exceptional for Jordan, given it is elsewhere so little in evidence. Again, it’s hard not to argue that this is anything but the overindulgence born of success.
It was with some trepidation that I’d commenced rereading The Eye of the World, having worried that a series whose momentum dwindles to a crawl – the pace thankfully picks up in the last three books, which were only partially written by Jordan – probably hadn’t started at a gallop. It’s still upwards of seven hundred pages and takes a while to get going, but once the adventure proper kicks off, things crack along very nicely. At one point five of the main characters travel several hundred miles without Jordan detailing a single step of their journey. Perhaps only those who’ve endured the rest of the series will understand what a miracle of circumspection this is.
This effect is largely undone by the ending. In the last hundred pages we learn the dreary and entirely unsurprising truth that these simple farm folk are in fact the most important people in the whole world, and that their battle at the Eye of the World is of fundamental cosmic significance. Ho-hum. The final battle is frankly a shambles. I can only guess how many rewrites were required to achieve even this level of coherence. Arguably this is true to how the young heroes would feel: like us, Rand doesn’t necessarily understand how he bests Aginor or Ba’alzamon. Nonetheless, you’d imagine a more skillful writer could have maintained confusion on the part of the protagonists whilst still permitting readers a more coherent overview.
With a more satisfying ending, I could recommend The Eye of the World on its own. As it stands, it was clearly written with one eye on the books to come, which were taking form even as the first neared completion. You’re thus compelled to continue. Will Mat, repeatedly billed as the funny one, ever actually say anything remotely amusing? Will Nynaeve ever be less than annoying? Will the Forsaken ever kill anyone who matters? Will the narrative rely on the inability of three lifelong friends to communicate vital information to each other? As Moiraine reminds us again and again, the Wheel Weaves as the Wheel wills. Except it doesn’t. Wheels don’t do that.
Review of So, Anyway… by John Cleese.
In the field of comedy, few figures are more revered than John Cleese. Monty Python alone would be sufficient to see him canonised, and last year’s triumphant Python reunion was indeed something of a religious experience for countless fans. Unlike his five colleagues – to many the names of the six Pythons leap more readily to mind than those of The Beatles – Cleese went on to achieve immortality first with Fawlty Towers, which brought the sitcom to a new pitch of perfection, and then A Fish Called Wanda, among the finest comedies ever filmed.
Famed for his gangling physicality and the furious yet impotent precision of his delivery, his real genius lies in an unsurpassed and seemingly innate ability to structure farce, and the immaculate timing with which he delivers invariably perfect dialogue, testament to a passion for rehearsal. It is therefore disappointing that his memoir So, Anyway … succeeds mostly in demonstrating the principle that to be a great comedic talent, and even a great comedy writer, is not the same as being a great comic writer.
It’s a subtle distinction worth defining, especially for those who assume comedy writing and comic writing are necessarily the same thing. Of course they’re related, but they certainly aren’t the same, and it is often in autobiography that the difference is manifested. Readers understand when, say, sports stars produce semi-literate autobiographies, despite the best efforts of their ghost writers. Few truly imagine that athletic prowess will translate into literary excellence, and I doubt whether the target readership for such books would much care if it did. More understandable, however, is the assumption that those with a proven ability to write a first rate script will therefore produce first-rate prose. After all, it’s all just words.
It would be disingenuous to pretend that So, Anyway… isn’t better written than, say, Rod Laver’s autobiography, though it’s a nice question whether that necessarily makes it a better book. We come to the two books with different expectations, and Laver arguably satisfies its modest premise more completely. The real question is whether the greater expectations for Cleese’s memoir were really justified. For all that the inflated expectations generated by success on his scale are unavoidable, was there any chance his book would measure up to the work for which he is most celebrated? Elsewhere he has conceded that if he had his time over he wouldn’t have made Fierce Creatures, not because it wasn’t successful, but because there was no way it could be. Critical expectation following A Fish Called Wanda was stratospheric. Fifteen years earlier, the second series of Fawlty Towers encountered, and solved, a similar problem. That being said, we can concede that there was little chance that So, Anyway… could meet our unreasonable expectations, yet still be disappointed that it falls short of the reasonable ones, as well. Not least among these was the expectation that the book wouldn’t be dull. Sadly it is, contradicting the promotional blurb on the back cover, which declares it to be ‘brilliantly funny’.
My irritation began even before the first page. I half-suspect Cleese’s title, with that intrusive ellipsis, was chosen deliberately to aggravate anyone trying to review it, or even discuss it. (If so it’s about the only suggestion of impishness to be found.) It’s fairly common practice to title your memoir with a bog-standard phrase, the idea being that by adorning the front of the book the bog can be polished into a pun. (It’s even more common to derive the pun from your field of expertise. Sportspeople especially love this: cricketers using Time to Declare etc. Let’s at least give thanks that Cleese didn’t go for something like Fawlty Memories.)
Aside from irritating reviewers and establishing a gather-ye-round cosiness, the title serves a putatively structural purpose insofar as the phrase echoes through the text itself. It doesn’t so much divert Cleese from the straight path of strict chronology, which he seems determined to avoid if he can, as provide a way of returning to the path from whatever remote thicket he has digressed into. It’s a device that would probably work well in a spoken monologue, where the speaker can make a feature of its regular recurrence. On the page it feels overly precious, another reminder that Cleese’s special gift as a writer is for dialogue.
Nevertheless, his taste for digression is not unwelcome, since he lacks the skill to transmute his unremarkable youth into literary gold (compare Clive James’ Unreliable Memoirs). What treasure there is will be unearthed in the book’s second half, when the famous names start to pop up. For the first 150 pages, readers are only intermittently reminded that these are the formative years of one of the greatest comedic minds of the century. Mercifully, there is little of the usual autobiographical foreshadowing whereby a proclivity for classroom pranks provides early evidence of a comic gift. Very occasionally an episode from Cleese’s school days forms the raw material for a later sketch. The first part of the sex education episode in The Meaning of Life – the teacher’s baffling instructions, so perfectly evocative of English public schooling with its thick sediment of arcane custom and terms forever on the edge of making sense – was based closely on an actual speech Cleese heard from a headmaster.
It is only these sporadic allusions to Cleese’s later work that remind the reader these aren’t in fact the recollections of some minor regional school master from the post-war era. Such moments are jarring: oh right, this is John Cleese. Given his lifelong advocacy of psychotherapy, there is surprisingly little depth in the recounting of his formative years. Often we’re left to guess which experiences were actually formative. Episodes that are presumably intended to illuminate leave us in the dark. A vague memory of witnessing his mother hitting his father is left hanging (in general his mother comes off badly). The family moved around a lot, and the general (but not very convincing) principle is forwarded that constant relocation nurtures creativity. We are left with the impression, surely inaccurate, that the young Cleese wasn’t especially funny at all. It’s an effect the book recreates faithfully, since through the early going it isn’t especially funny, either.
Having escaped the comforting womb of Weston-Super-Mare and Clifton College, first as a child then as a teacher, Cleese finally makes his way to Cambridge, and there inevitably discovers Footlights. Any show-biz oriented Cambridge alumnus who pens a memoir is contractually obligated to include at least a chapter on Footlights, though it’s useful to be reminded that the club’s now-accepted function as a finishing school for the BBC was only then just beginning. Cleese sadly evokes little of what must have been a giddying time: modern British comedy in its full early flower was discovering itself by the week, and Footlights was right there amongst it. Cleese was right there amongst it, but you’d hardly know that, thanks to his unyielding diffidence (again, Clive James is more poignant, funny and informative, this time in May Week Was In June.) A successful run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival led eventually to a tour of New Zealand and then to Broadway. Can you imagine how exciting such globe-trotting must have been for a group of student performers, especially in the pre-globalised 1960s? Hopefully you can, because you’ll have little assistance from Cleese, who fails to convey how it all felt even as he grows lavish with irrelevant detail. He loses his virginity in New Zealand. It’s hard not to be funny about one’s first time – fumbling incompetence invariably plays well – but Cleese finds a way.
Having ended up in New York, he devotes at least thirty pages recounting his time in the cast of the now-forgotten Broadway musical Half a Sixpence. Defying the autobiographical tradition whereby even the most boring episodes prove integral to the author’s progress, Cleese concludes this long portion of the book by declaring: “Although Half a Sixpence was a wonderful experience personally, it was a surprisingly useless one professionally. I don’t think I learned a single thing that was subsequently helpful to me.” Again we’re left to puzzle out which parts were helpful.
In New York he meets both Connie Booth – future wife and co-writer of Fawlty Towers – and Terry Gilliam. Cleese is particularly good on his initial encounters with the future Pythons, most of whom are mentioned off-handedly. Michael Palin and Terry Jones first appear as Terry Palin and Michael Jones, a couple of obscure chaps from Oxford. Eric Idle is just one among a number of younger Footlights members. Of course, Cleese can afford this calculated casualness – assuming it was calculated – since for most of his readers the significance of each name is unlikely to be missed. From some fans these glancing mentions no doubt elicit squeals of delight.
Long-time writing partner Graham Chapman is the exception. There’s plenty on him, including some valuable detail about the early days of their long writing collaboration – for example, when they weren’t working they rarely socialised – although here the punches are clearly pulled. Perhaps his disapproval of Chapman has softened over the years, especially in light of the recent Monty Python reunion, but it is well known that their hugely successful partnership was also a source of infinite frustration for Cleese, who felt that Chapman was bone-lazy and too ready to claim an equal share of the credit. The current volume ends before Chapman’s alcoholism compelled Cleese to quit The Flying Circus. It’ll be fascinating to see how candid he will be about this matter, assuming there’s another volume.
Having momentarily exhausted New York, Cleese returns to London, and the book picks inexorably up, at least to the extent that you’re more likely to remember whose autobiography it actually is. Given the era in question, and the range of legitimately notable people Cleese worked with on his way up – this was a time when celebrity still strongly correlated to ability – there’s no way he could elude interest entirely. Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers, Ronnie Corbett and David Frost were all in the early flush of their fame and influence, and Cleese knew them all. Tim Brooke-Taylor, Bill Oddie and Marty Feldman were close friends. Frost was particularly instrumental. Cleese began supplying material for him whilst still at Cambridge, and before long found himself attached to Frost’s various shows as a performer and a writer (the passive voice is in keeping with the near-total lack of agency Cleese claims for his success). There’s some revealing material on how Frost, tagged as a light entertainer, initially struggled to be taken seriously. For the most part, however, readers are obliged to puzzle out the significance of each episode or association for themselves. Cleese concedes some debt to Ronnie Corbett, but none for Ronnie Barker, although he is as ever torrential in praise of both. It’s the pattern throughout the book: quick to admire, but slow to acknowledge influence.
Of course, at some level all experiences are influential, and in the final analysis it’s a mystery why anyone turns out quite like they do, let alone a great comic like Cleese. Even so, there’s a nagging feeling all the material from which this book is composed adds up to something less than a full person. I doubt whether it is a case of deliberate omission, but rather of Cleese’s limitations as a writer, burdened by a very British desire not to big-note oneself. Or ‘big-note’ oneself, as he would say.
Early on Cleese extols the virtues of a gentlemanly disposition – reserve, circumspection, kindness, starched upper lip – a view he inherited from his father, who was no gentleman, but admired those who were. Presumably it is from him that Cleese acquired the slightly twee argot of the English gentry, with its overwrought adjectives and incapacity to render praise less than glowing and disapproval less than damning. Just about everyone he meets is ‘hugely’ likeable, or ‘immensely’ talented. (Those who’ve earned his enmity, however, will discover that he can bear a grudge forever.)
A related habit, and less forgiveable, is his constant recourse to hackneyed descriptors such as ‘insanely’, ‘absurdly’ or ‘ridiculously’, which he further devalues by applying them to things that demonstrably aren’t insane, absurd or ridiculous. Such clichés are stock-in-trade for the kind of internet writer who believes the listicle represents literary progress, but from Cleese it sounds like he’s parodying a toff, until you realise he isn’t.
Paradoxically, elsewhere he takes great pains either to avoid cliché, or else to embroider them, subscribing to the fatal belief that to tart up banality somehow blunts its deadening power. Here he is discussing movie scripts: “But a feature of a hundred minutes is a different kettle of fish, a bird of another feather, a different ball game and a horse of dissimilar hue.” Or in lieu of the phrase ‘over the moon’: “We were over several astronomical entities, some of them very distant.” All we glean from these overly cute passages, and the many others like them, is that Cleese is hyper-aware of cliché and wants us to know it. But to what end?
Whatever its providence or intention, adjectival exuberance and a determination to sidestep ambiguity guarantees longwindedness:
“Gra [Graham Chapman] now behaved with impeccable politeness, explaining to the poor cowering man why he had sprinted at him, and pointing outside at a man who was laughing so much that passers-by had stopped to watch and figure out what that individual was laughing at.”
This is the clinching sentence of a nicely-building anecdote and is thus one of myriad examples whereby Cleese’s legendary instinct for comedic structure is undone by the limitations of his prose. It says a lot that most of the anecdotes in the book are more enjoyable in summary than in execution.
Mostly they err through over-explanation. Cleese wastes no resource in ensuring his readers get the intended message, up to and including italics and upper case. Anything short of wingdings is fair game. Dramatic pauses are signalled with an ellipsis, aiming for an effect that would conceivably work in a sketch but for readers is anything but dramatic, since the human eyes scans right far too quickly to register the pause: “It was a riot at the read-through. Everybody loved it. All I had to do was . . . remember it.”
Sometimes, for enhanced fustiness, he places terms in inverted commas that have been in common parlance for decades: “No, Mr Bartlett was appalled by much subtler stuff: for example, by the slightest hint of ‘showing off’…” At such moments the book felt less like an account of life in regional England in the 1950s than an account of life written in regional England in the 1950s. Sometimes these assorted tricks pile up to impart a dreadful earnestness:
“And I vowed to myself that I would never, NEVER be so ‘nice’ and agreeable and co-operative that bullies and slackers could walk all over me and force me to do things that I might be ashamed of. And I think that I can claim that I’ve usually managed to curb my placatory tendencies, and go toe-to-toe when necessary.”
I hardly need add that the italics, in all cases, aren’t mine. Literary richness relies upon ambiguity, and so to an extent does humour. The obsessive lengths to which Cleese goes for the sake of limpidity leave even simple points limp, and weigh down every attempt at levity. Or, as he might put it, they soar like balloons freighted down by a metal known for its plumbiferous qualities.
Such passages compare unfavourably with his sketch writing, a comparison that can be readily made since many of his sketches are reprised verbatim in the body of the text. Anticipating flak for this Cleese delivers some justification: “The sketches are really funny (in my opinion and it’s my fucking book).” Strenuous pre-emptive defence risks making subsequent criticism seem warranted.
Mostly his inclusion of old sketches looks like a pre-digital attempt to embed video clips into written text. It’s an effect that would have seemed prophetic had it appeared fifty years ago, much as certain passages in Flaubert or Hardy anticipate cinematic montage. Unfortunately for Cleese, this is not a pre-digital age. Subjecting readers to page upon page of transcribed dialogue only makes the most technologically recalcitrant yearn for a multimedia utopia. I confess that wherever I could find a YouTube clip of a particular sketch I watched it instead. This material was written to be performed – usually it was written for specific performers – and in all cases the performance comprises a large part of the effect, which was as funny as Cleese insists. The only way to get anything out of actually reading, say, the train carriage sketch featuring Cleese and Marty Feldman is by working very hard to imagine those two men performing it, a draining task even for those who can recapture the tone and metre of both men, and difficult even for those who’ve watched it. Or you could just watch it, and realise that Feldman’s gormless cheer doesn’t survive transcription, and that Cleese’s mounting discomfort, with that barked ‘Shut up!’ acting as a safety valve, is the result of meticulous rehearsal and a genius for timing, not a talent for putting words on a page:
Indeed, Cleese insists that timing is his only inborn gift as a performer (whilst admitting that this is not an inconsiderable gift to have). For all that he is often regarded as a physical comedian, he insists he is naturally uncoordinated. This only makes, say, the ‘Ministry of Silly Walks’ sketch more impressive: those heron-thin legs had first to be controlled before they were launched into lunatic ballet. That signature darting run – at its funniest when desperately trying for stealth – was consciously worked up. It surely wasn’t the natural lope of a man who’d been a fast bowler in the first XI. Can you imagine? Perhaps you can, and that’s where his genius lies, in the uncanny grounding of the perfectly absurd.
So, Anyway… concludes in 1969, just as Monty Python has finally solidified, following half a decade of gradual coalescence via university and various BBC television projects. Despite this long courtship, however, Cleese’s account of the Python’s actual formation feels rushed, if not to say glossed. Other accounts reveal that the process wasn’t as seamless as the one presented here, including other accounts by Cleese himself. In The Pythons By The Pythons he suggests that Palin, Jones and Idle had to be wooed: “we [he and Chapman] talked to them direct, and they weren’t very keen because they’d just had an offer from Philip Jones at Thames Television.” There are several other obvious lacunae. For example, there is no mention of David Frost, who to that point had been a driving force in Cleese’s career, and to whose production company he was at that time contracted. Several of the other Pythons aver that Frost was initially outraged at Cleese’s sudden departure, and all over again when told that The Flying Circus wouldn’t be produced by his company. As Palin has it in his diaries:
“John tried to distance himself from David in some way and this was confirmed in a later call I got from David Frost in which he was quite upset, the first time I’d really heard David upset … It was slightly embarrassing, for the first time David seemed really out of control.”
The perfunctory brevity of the Python material leads one to think that Cleese ran out of steam by this point. It’s conceivable that after three decades he has simply grown weary of discussing it; understandable, but arguably not the ideal attitude to bring to one’s autobiography. It also suggests there’s another volume on the way. After all, why write a memoir that stops just as you’re getting to the most important work of your life? The following decade was to produce The Flying Circus, the Python stage shows, The Holy Grail, Fawlty Towers, Life of Brian and his divorce from Connie Booth. Cleese has elsewhere said that there would eventually be three volumes.
Undermining this supposition is the fact that this first volume doesn’t actually end with the formation of Python (although Cleese admits it was originally supposed to). A sixteenth chapter was appended, thus forming a largely unnecessary, not to say ill-advised, epilogue. Ostensibly it concerns the 2014 Python reunion concerts, though it characteristically digresses into a fairly detailed discussion of the original working practices of the Pythons – not new info, but welcome all the same – and a kind of memorial for Chapman. This is exactly the material that would enliven later volumes, so why include it here? Perhaps he hoped to capitalise on the success of the reunion, even as he confesses that these hadn’t excited him much even as they happened. Just as likely, it could be that he discovered a few more axes in his tool-shed, and decided that grinding them simply couldn’t wait:
[…] the Daily Mail, who panned the show, claiming we have ‘mixed reviews’ – they were about as mixed as Hitler’s reviews at Nuremberg, a reference which the Mail, as a formerly pro-Nazi paper, should easily get.
While I hardly disagree with Cleese’s low opinion of the Daily Mail, it’s debatable whether slinging mud at a pile of ordure gains much beyond momentary catharsis, which comes at the cost of dignity. What isn’t debatable is that your autobiography is not the place to make the transaction. A memoir is a kind of monument to your life, which is only eroded when you waste time, space and energy railing against the specific slights of a specific tabloid newspaper. By reproducing the review specifically Cleese gives the impression that he diligently maintains a file of all his bad reviews, lest any are forgotten and thus implicitly forgiven. It is a tonal miscalculation, one of several in the book that the editors should have picked up. It can be argued that autobiography works best when it scales greatness down to a more approachably human scale, but the petty settling of scores risks making Cleese seem smaller still. There are better ways for a legend to be made flesh than by cladding him in very thin skin.
It is for this reason, among others, that reviewers have cavilled at the pervasive low-key peevishness of the book. While not entirely unwarranted, this is probably a little unfair. There are indeed many passages in which Cleese inveighs against celebrity culture, or the media, or Terry Jones. Yet, based on innumerable interviews in which Cleese comes across as informative, wry and level-headed, I suspect most of these passages are essentially performative, and are thus no more indicative of the real man than is Basil Fawlty. (It is an endless source of horrified amusement to Cleese that he is conflated with Fawlty; the weirdly enjoyable BBC biopic Holy Flying Circus basically plays him that way.) Call me generous, but I think many of these tirades are intended to be funny. Indeed, if they were to be delivered by Cleese himself in his inimitable tone of barely restrained yet wholly impotent fury, they might actually be funny.
Sadly, they aren’t delivered by Cleese, and thus fail to amuse. Take, for example, the long paragraph in which he sets the record straight on the name ‘Basil Fawlty’ (pp.346-7): a standard Cleese slow-burner, it builds inexorably, before concluding “Now will you please stop interrupting me and let me get on with writing the fucking thing?” The overall shape will be familiar to any reader who has endured this far into the book without skipping the long sequences of sketches. Inert on the page, it works no better than the sketches, each a masterpiece of hilarious precision in performance, but worse than dull as prose. Maybe So, Anyway… works better as a spoken book, since it is read by the author.
Glancing over my shelves, I note several other autobiographies that would similarly benefit, including those of fellow Footlights alumni Stephen Fry (The Fry Chronicles) and David Mitchell (Back Story). Both these men are as funny and engaging as anyone on television; I must have seen every episode of QI at least twice, and I’ll watch Mitchell in anything, including YouTube compilations of his greatest rants. Yet both produced autobiographies that are at best worthy, and only sporadically funny. Fry, in particular, lapses into a droning verbosity that mires even his best stories. Of course I don’t mean to suggest that funny people cannot write funny prose, let alone a poignant, gripping memoir. Numerous counter-examples demonstrate that they can. But it is far from a given, and Cleese’s memoir is there to prove that even the funniest people can’t do it all.