Four Quartets

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A Year in Reading: Julia Alvarez

My friend Jay Parini once observed that when his reading isn’t going well, his writing isn’t going well. Not only did I find myself in total agreement, but I would go even further: when my reading isn’t going well, it’s as if I’m missing some essential nourishment in my life.

Jay’s comment set me thinking on an added benefit to finding and reading great books: it helps my own writing to hang around good company whose fine qualities might rub off on my own work.

So here are the books that were my best reading company in 2015.

It was a big reading year for me as I’m at a crossroads in my own writing. I can viscerally, sensuously, intuitively taste and touch and hear the novel I want to write, but I don’t yet know how to do it. So as I read, I am “taking notes” with that part of my brain that learns by a kind of osmosis, immersing myself in the element I want to learn to navigate. And if all that comes of this voracious and exploratory reading is a year of being nurtured by wonderful books, so be it.

First, before all else, how I’ve started my reading year for the last decade: every January, I reread T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. The poem is as close to liturgy as poetry can get, and each time I read it, it surprises me: I’m taken once again on many journeys, through mythic landscapes, phrases open up, passages stir the mystery in me again. In the midst of celebrating the beginning of a new chapter of chronological time, I’m reminded of the timeless. I can hear myself struggling to describe why I feel compelled to reread this poem at the start of every year. Let’s just say that rereading Four Quartets is how I ritually kick off my reading year.

While we are in the realm of reading that opens up space for the spirit, I’ve been reading a lot of spiritual guides and memoirs in the last few years. (Favorite writers include John Main, Laurence Freeman, Thomas Merton, Martin Laird, Jacob Needleman.) My great find this year is a little book by David Whyte, Consolations, meditations on certain words which Whyte peels open, layer after layer, in search of core truths to be found there. For someone who has spent her life using writing as her “string through the labyrinth,” looking to words to light my way is nothing new, and Whyte’s book lit up touchstone words in surprising ways. Among my favorite entries are “Ambition” (“…left to itself always becomes tedious, its only object the creation of larger and larger empires of control; but a true vocation calls us beyond ourselves; breaks our heart in the process and then humbles, simplifies, and enlightens us about the hidden, core nature of the work that enticed us in the first place”); “Longing” (“…beckons us exactly because of the human need to invite the right kind of peril”); “Maturity” — which, at 65, I hope to reach soon (“is the ability to live fully and equally in multiple contexts, most especially, the ability, despite our grief and losses, to courageously inhabit the past, the present, the future, all at once”); “Solace” (“How will you shape a life equal to and as beautiful and as astonishing as a world that can birth you, bring you into the light and then, just as you are beginning to understand it, take you away?”).

My favorite nonfiction book of 2015 was Philip Roth’s memoir, Patrimony, about the his father’s final illness and death. I’ll admit that I know Roth’s work mostly through film adaptations of his novels. From those films, many of which I liked, I got the impression that Philip Roth was a master of the great American Male Novel. I’m not all that excited about spending reading time following the exploits of some guy who is looking to get screwed, make money, gain power, etc. An unfair bias, it turned out to be, in this instance. I loved this lucid and accurate look at the complex feelings and quandaries that arise from helping our parents at the end of their lives. Now I want to go back and give those Roth novels I know only through their movie versions a chance. I’d hate to miss the company of a fine writer out of a knee-jerk bias that might need to be revised, or at least ascertained, first hand.

Poetry is my first love, and I always start the day by reading a few poems. (I guess I do create ceremonies with reading time.) My favorite poetry books this year were Map: Collected and Last Poems by Wisława Szymborska, the Polish 1996 Nobel Prize winner in literature, a sly and clever poet with a vivid, incisive moral imagination. I also am a huge fan of Kate Daniels, a contemporary Southern poet who combines both lyricism and a talent for narrative. This year, I reread my favorite of her books, A Walk in Victoria’s Secret, poems that gorgeously document a variety of experiences of being inside a woman’s body. One more poetry book that you will have to wait until 2016 is Jay Parini’s New and Collected Poems, due out next March. Jay asked me to blurb the book, something I do not like to do: blurb books by friends. (Forgive me, readers, if I inject this additional commentary: but blurbing is a practice I think you should all rise up and beg to be discontinued as the blurber is more often than not reading in a compromised way, at least I’ve found it to be so, usually out of loyalty to a writer friend, or a colleague who is up for tenure, or a respected editor who needs to round up a chorus, or a friend of a friend who asks for the favor, or a relative who will be sitting across from you at the family Thanksgiving table.) But I said yes to Jay because I’ve always loved his poetry above all else he has written — and he has written a lot. And I swear that the poems in this collection are as good as I proclaim them to be in my blurb, particularly the newest poems, which have a depth and earned wisdom and simplicity and lyricism that confirm my estimation that Jay is first and foremost a remarkable poet.

Okay, let’s get to the favorite novels of 2015. This is where my reading was most demanding, because I was in search of books that accomplished what I wanted to be doing with my writing, not necessarily the same kind of writing, but writing that surprises me, novels that take me places I haven’t gone before in a novel, novels that are infused with the same charged language and incantatory rhythms of the best poetry. I’m especially enamored of short poetical novels, maybe because of the same reason I find Kate Daniels’s poetry so intriguing: I like those hybrids that combine two genres I’ve been immersed in most of my writing life: fiction and poetry.

Three favorite novels: Teju Cole’s Open City, narrated by a Nigerian immigrant and graduate student studying in New York City, a lyrical ramble through his thoughts, impressions, memories as he wanders through the city, encounters friends, muses on strangers, situations. While reading it, I was caught in the currents of his language and rhythms and perceptions, which all affected the way I moved through my own world. Not a traditional novel, for sure, but absorbing and so intelligent and seamless in the way it moves. Another favorite this year was Jenny Offill’s Department of Speculation, another short, unusual novel, very different, more staccato in its rhythms but as original in its perception. Written in journal form as posts from the embattled frontiers of a relationship by a very smart, funny, slightly spacey lover/wife/betrayed wife/new mother. The writing is spare — not an extra ounce here! Offill packs so much in these short entries. A whole relationship deconstructed and reconstructed in less than 200 pages. How did she do it? I’m still “taking notes.”

But my favorite of the three has to be Ransom by David Malouf, an Australian novelist whose work I had never read before. It was recommended to me by my aunt who described it as a novel about The Iliad characters, Achilles and Priam. I thought, oh no, been there, read that (college courses, undergraduate courses; later, courses I taught where the curriculum was mandated by the old guard). But as with Philip Roth’s Patrimony, was I ever wrong about this novel, which does spring from an incident in The Iliad, but unpacks it and creates a space of grace and transcendence in all that blood and gore, which is what I mostly recall about reading and teaching the classic epic. The novel is a short, lyrical evocation of an encounter between two grieving heroes. (Achilles has lost his friend Patroclus to the Trojan war, and Priam his son, Hector.) A convincing breakthrough happens in the midst of violence, elucidating a moment in The Iliad that I hadn’t ever thought about much and probably missed by blinking when it was passing. (Or more likely, by covering my eyes, metaphorically, fed up with all the killing and violence.) When I closed Malouf’s novel, I did what I find myself doing when I am deeply moved and transformed by a book, I opened it again, and immediately began rereading it.

Would that we could do in the world what a book like this does in the imagination: create such baffling complex beauty that we are believers again in our power to infuse the world with more sweetness, more light.

In keeping with my opening ritual, I’ll close the reading year by saying, Amen to that.

More from A Year in Reading 2015

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Beethoven Got There First

Pity the novel.  Once upon a time it was a big, baggy story told in chronological order by an omniscient narrator.  Over time, it’s been marginalized, shunned, belittled, banned, and more recently, broken into pieces that vie with each other to make a cohesive whole.  You could blame dwindling attention spans, pared down by digital toys.  It’s ancient history that any TV viewer can either reorder or skip scenes at home.  Now we spend a day streaming series that took years to air, let alone produce.  The consequences of contemporary viewing preferences are the random jumbling of storyline, as well as time’s transposition and compression.  Why wouldn’t novels follow suit?

When I first started thinking about this, I looked for parallels with how we share personal stories in our increasingly scarce private lives.  Individual narratives are never linear, nor do we recount them to each another in a linear fashion.  Small wonder that contemporary novels unfold out of order.

And yet, I’m sure there’s more.  Michael David Lukas, reaching into the musical lexicon to examine novel developments, used the term “polyphonic” (referring to a chorus or multiplicity of voices) to make an intriguing argument:   “Polyphony widens the novel’s geographic, psychological, chronological, and stylistic range, while simultaneously focusing its gaze.”

Lukas cites Nicole Krauss’s Great House and Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists.  Categorized as “novels,” these books are linked short stories with a common item or thread running through the chapters.  In Great House, it’s a desk; in The Imperfectionists, it’s the characters’ association with an English language newspaper published in Rome.  More recently, Ayana Mathis’s The Twelve Tribes of Hattie has a character — Hattie — who serves as the common element.  Lukas uses  “polyphony” to describe novels that further increase structural complexity by inverting time and space.  For example, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is populated with seemingly unrelated characters, geography, and time periods.  Bob Shacochis’s The Woman Who Lost Her Soul shares similarities.  The action is set against historical events that are presented out of chronological order within diverse geographies and between seemingly unrelated protagonists.

Ted Gioia, a musician and writer, followed Lukas with an essay written in fragmented bits of text, probing why the novel is breaking up, accompanied by an ambitious 57-volume booklist.

Gioia places the fracturing novel in a broad cultural context that includes Thelonious Monk as the “jazzman of fragmentation” and Wittgenstein as its philosopher.  Applauding the current fragmenters for successfully navigating literary complexity and traditional storytelling (aka plot), Gioia affirms that despite fission, novel craft is improving.  Even if master short story writer Alice Munro were not the most recent Nobel laureate, every writer worth her salt knows that writing lean is far more difficult than producing the more leisurely, lazy, lengthy counterpart.

Except that novels are swelling again.  Not only did last year’s Booker Prize winner, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries clock in at 848 pages, but several equally celebrated books boast equivalent heft, including Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, and Shacochis’s The Woman Who Lost Her Soul.

Why?  Ted Gioia offers a theory.  “All experimental approaches in the arts can perhaps be divided into two categories — experiments of disjunction or experiments of compression.  Either things get pushed apart, or get squeezed together.  Either an aesthetic of disintegration, or an aesthetic of wave-like flow.”

The Grand Experimenter, it turns out, was Ludwig van Beethoven.  This musical colossus, completely deaf, his personal affairs in chaos, perennially behind in his finances, unwell and unloved, reworked the string quartet in ways that continue to bewilder and astonish.  The six late quartets, for two violins, viola, and cello, were composed within two years of Beethoven’s death in 1827.  They are called by their opus numbers: 127, 130, 131, 133, 132, 135 (don’t ask about numerical order).  These pieces span the experimental pendulum’s trajectory.  The composer not only fractured, he compressed and expanded as well.

Beethoven’s earlier quartets and those of his predecessors and successors as well, generally have four movements:  a lively opening, a slow second movement, a “minuet and trio” movement beat in three (the order of the second and third are often reversed), and an authoritative final movement.  Around structure, Beethoven went rogue with his late quartets.  He took the traditional four-movement quartet, split it up, and then both condensed and augmented it.  Opus 130 has six movements as opposed to the usual four; Opus 131 has seven that are played/performed without a break as one long movement; and Opus 132 has five.  Opus 133, the Grosse Fugue, is a one-movement leviathan.  It was meant to be the sixth and final movement to Opus 130, but was horrendously difficult and got an appalling reception.  “I think, with Voltaire, ‘that a few gnat-stings cannot arrest a spirited horse in his course,’” Beethoven said of critics.  However, he bowed to outside pressure and  lopped off the Grosse Fugue, publishing it as a stand-alone composition.  Then wrote a frothy new ending that was the last piece he completed.

Within these overarching structures, Beethoven took traditional form and forged new trails.  For example, he quarried the unconventional from the garden-variety “minuet and trio” movement.  All but two of the late quartets contain such a movement, beat in three according to the rules, and organized thematically just as Haydn or Mozart would have done.  In these movements, however, Beethoven plays with rhythm by blurring the lines between measures.  He foreshortens melodic line and accelerates tempo.  In other words, most of these movements go at breakneck speed and/or the tune is too fractured to sing along.

Beethoven took another well-known form, the theme and variations movement, and stretched and deepened it in new ways.  Opus 127’s second movement opens with an austere violin melody that sets the theme for the variations that follow.  The movement is immense, vastly longer than the slow movements of string quartets that preceded it, including previous slow movements that Beethoven had written.  Here the composer takes his time on a grand scale, luxuriating in the breadth and depth of his melodic creation.

The fugue, a melody introduced by one instrument that is subsequently taken up by another instrument, appears in many string quartet movements.  (Think of a round, where the melody travels through various voices and is inverted and lengthened throughout the course of the piece.)  Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue, however, is in a class by itself.  It is the longest of Beethoven’s late quartet movements.  Talk about dense.  With its abrupt, ruptured bursts of sound, the Grosse Fugue is virtually inaccessible on first hearing.  Like the 20th-century music that was to follow, the Grosse Fugue is dissonant.  There are long stretches where rhythm elbows out melody, relentless beats without much tune.

One hundred ninety years ago, Beethoven was covering the experimental spectrum, fragmenting and enlarging within the space of a few short years.  His late quartets fluctuate between slower, lyrical movements and faster movements with short, chopped up melody, compacted rhythms, interrupted tempos, and challenging key signatures.  He deployed the four instruments (voices) in novel ways, assembled new harmonies, smashed rhythmic convention, messed with dynamic (volume) markings, upended time signatures, and a whole lot else.  Including inspiring countless artists; for example, T.S. Eliot and the Four Quartets.

Beethoven may have turned out to be the Grand Experimenter, but did he actually set out to experiment?  Radical innovation may be the consequence, rather than the cause, of self-expression at this stratospheric level.  Some combination of genius and drive spurred Beethoven’s compositional feats.  To satisfy the demands of his genius, Beethoven tilled new musical ground.

His deafness must have played a central role.  Beethoven’s ability to compose through the deafness does not speak to his musicality per se.  Any well-trained composer can pick up a score and understand what’s on the page without playing it.  Beethoven’s deafness speaks instead to something deeper.  In his early 30s, 15 years before his death, Beethoven prepared a document for his brothers.  Named for the place it was written, Beethoven’s “Heiligenstadt Testament” bears witness to the despair and isolation caused by his deafness, as reprinted in Thayer’s Life of Beethoven:

Though born with a fiery, active temperament…I was soon compelled to withdraw myself, to live life alone.  If at times I tried to forget all this, oh how harshly was I flung back by the doubly sad experience of my bad hearing…How could I possibly admit an infirmity in the one sense which ought to be more perfect in me than in others, a sense which I once possessed in the highest perfection, a perfection such as few in my profession enjoy or ever have enjoyed…For me there can be no relaxation with my fellow-men, no refined conversations, no mutual exchange of ideas.  I must live almost alone like one who has been banished…

Despite being the most accomplished musician of his day, Beethoven became unable to perform his piano concertos because he could not hear the orchestra.  He was thwarted from conducting his symphonies and from playing his chamber music.  In short, at the apex of his musical powers, he was prevented from participating in the joy of his own creation, forced to plumb the music in silence.

Silence birthed late Beethoven — music of profound and unparalleled emotional range.  What did Beethoven discover within the silence?  Certainly he found the freedom to buck convention and strike out on his own.  But within the silence, he accessed something more: the arduous, agonizing road to his own mortality.  The late quartets contain movements of such introspection and depth that to partake in the composer’s grief becomes a sublime, transformative experience.  This musical giant is frustrated and raging, tormented by illness and loneliness, wrestling with the divine.  We hear him grappling to make his peace.

There isn’t a more majestic, reflective hymn than the fifth “Cavatina” movement to Opus 130.  Beethoven himself said that nothing he had written so moved him; in fact “merely to revive it afterwards in his thoughts and feelings brought forth renewed tributes of tears,” according to Thayer’s Life of Beethoven. Or the transcendent otherworldly opening of Opus 131.  And Beethoven’s rare commentary to Opus 132’s third movement summons the divine directly, “Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart” — “A Convalescent’s Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Divinity, in the Lydian mode.”  The spare, deliberate simplicity of this movement is music of the spheres.  The quartet’s final movement combines longing with agitated dissonance, delivering a sense of cosmic urgency.

In the last substantial work Beethoven finished — Opus 135 — the listener travels through sanctified territory, accompanying Beethoven to his death. Beethoven’s notes to Opus 135’s fourth movement, printed in the final manuscript above a nine-note tune, read: “’Der Schwer Gefasste Entschluss.’  Muss es sein?  Es muss sein!  Es muss sein!” — “‘The Difficult Decision.’  Must it be?  It must be!  It must be!”

Except that these words are not what they seem.  A story that circulated during Beethoven’s time was that the tune came from a canon Beethoven had penned to capture a patron’s reaction to unwelcome news; Herr Dembscher had been told that to obtain a quartet manuscript for a party he wanted to host, he would have to pay 50 florins.

Perhaps these imponderables are meant to remain so; for example why the novel is shrinking or fracturing or expanding or twisting itself into something else.  No matter.  Writers pursuing their creative ends are apt to reinvent the medium for a long time.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

Death in Venice? Don’t Look Now

It’s all about the water, isn’t it. You travel on it, you cross bridges over it, reflections in it confuse you, and when you’re lost (which most people in that labyrinthine city usually are), you end right up against another bloody canal when instead you should be strolling into your hotel lobby at two in the morning after one too many Bellinis at Harry’s Bar. It’s the prototype for Italo Calvino’s book Invisible Cities. At one point in it Marco Polo says, “Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice.” There’s no place on earth quite like it. And in Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 film Don’t Look Now, Venice deep in its winter is a sullen, mirthless place of steep shadows and greasy waterways where you go to die as though it were the very ends of the earth and you had run out of time.

The English have often been drawn to Venice for their literary settings, and apart from expatriate American Henry James, who chose the city as setting for The Wings of the Dove (another death, of course, in Venice), perhaps it’s thanks to film director Nicolas Roeg that Daphne du Maurier is also known for making use of the city. His adaptation of her short story “Don’t Look Now” was a critical and popular success when released in 1973, and was chosen by the British Film Institute as eighth in their top 100 British films. Both the source material (recently reissued in a collection of du Maurier’s stories by NYRB Books, selected and introduced by Patrick McGrath) and the film are superior entertainments that extend far beyond the expected frissons of genre.

The term “psychological thriller” is particularly apt in both cases. This is a tale about faith, doubt, and death. Not to mention what can only be called after-death, since we experience it twice in the course of the film. And though movie-making has generally become all about blowing things up, Don’t Look Now, almost forty years later, still retains its quiet ability to unnerve an audience, hauntingly and without ever completely giving up its secrets. What Roeg has added to the narrative, apart from a much fuller depiction of the main characters’ relationship, is a story about the thin membrane of reality. The capabilities of film draw us visually into this tale of a city, a murderer and the death of a child.

Daphne du Maurier was for many years considered a minor English novelist and short-story writer: a best-seller, certainly, but something of a “women’s writer.” Best remembered for her novels Rebecca and Jamaica Inn (both filmed by Alfred Hitchcock) she’s also known for writing the story Hitchcock’s The Birds was based upon (she hated the film as much as she loved Roeg’s version of “Don’t Look Now”). Both that story and “Don’t Look Now” reveal a subtle and psychologically astute mind at work. Where Roeg gives it to us in full, du Maurier merely suggests; she makes us do the work. In both cases, film and story, the reader is left with mysteries that are inescapably human and somehow always just out of reach. For me, as a sometime screenwriter, the finest movies are like the best works of fiction when they leave the reader to fill in the gaps. The audience should always take away something from the experience that remains unanswered. So that time and again we’re drawn back to think about it, or see it once again, and then see it in a whole new light. Antonioni’s films are like that, as are those of Krzystof Kieslowski. Art should always pose questions, not give us answers.

Like all the best cinematic adaptations (in this case, by Allan Scott and Chris Bryant), Don’t Look Now is exact not necessarily to the facts of the story but is completely faithful to the poetry of the piece, the intent of the original.

It begins with a death. It begins with water. It blossoms into grief that yearns for relief, and comes with a premonition that’s firmly planted in the viewer’s mind—in a film that works upon its audience like something read, lifted from the celluloid by the eyes and stashed in the memory, so full is it of significance, be it moments or glances—as though it were a key image in a poem that would return in a later stanza, twisted and cast in a different light but instantly recognized. At which point, as you rise from your seat and walk out into the night, you realize you have to see the film all over again to grasp its meaning. You sense that every line of dialogue, every shot that may seem throwaway or simply scenic, contributes to the growing sense of unease in this movie that, like illness setting in, comes over us as an undefined uncertain feeling before blossoming into a chill, then fever, then pain.

And then the release, which leaves one of the characters dead and the other somehow vindicated: this death had to happen, just as Venice had to happen. A death for a death; the stillness of a memory redeemed.

The film opens as John and Laura Baxter (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) sit by the fire on a chilly autumn day in a cottage in northeast England while their young son and daughter play outside in the brittle sunshine of a dying afternoon. John’s an architect, about to leave for Venice to oversee the restoration of the Church of St. Nicholas. As he examines photographic slides of the building, Laura asks a question their little girl had posed to her earlier: “If the world is round, why is a frozen pond flat?” The only answer he comes up with is key to our understanding of the film: “Nothing is as it seems.”

(Including, I might add, the infamous love scene that comes some thirty minutes into the movie. Censored in some countries, it earned the film an X rating when it opened in Britain and for years had been censored and re-edited on video releases in the US. What looks on the screen like the real thing was, according to Sutherland, all acting. Roeg would say put your hand here, turn your head, and so on. It looks like genuine passion, but of course nothing is as it seems.)

John is the rational man, the author of a book glimpsed early on, Beyond the Fragile Geometry of Space (Joseph Lanza’s long out-of-print book on Nicolas Roeg, entitled Fragile Geometry, is well worth reading; if you can find and afford a copy, that is) who clings to his need for hard reality, the patient precision of rebuilding a church. Laura is the emotional one who hasn’t been able to let go of her lost daughter who drowns while her parents mull over why a frozen pond is flat. Laura comes to Venice in a fragile state, hoping that she’ll be able to find her footing and discover clarity.

In this watery city reality is fluid, as if the minds of the characters had molded Venice to fit their anguish, confusion and inability to accept the truth of things. On top of all this there’s a serial killer loose in Venice. Two people have been found with their throats cut. There will be another before the credits run nearly two hours later.

Two sisters, twins from Scotland, stand at the center of this story. In du Maurier’s we meet them in the first sentence: “’Don’t look now,’ John said to his wife, ‘but there are a couple of old girls two tables away who are trying to hypnotise me.’” As du Maurier suggests, they may even be men in drag. One is blind; though sightless, she possesses vision. She has a connection with the spirit world, and when she reveals to Laura minutes later at the restaurant that she “saw” the dead child happily sitting with her parents, dressed just as Laura remembered her, Laura suddenly sheds her grief. Life can now start anew. But John thinks that his wife, aided and abetted by a phony medium, is losing it.

When Laura returns for a quick visit to their son, hurt in a sports accident (appendicitis in the du Maurier story) at his school in England, John is certain that he’s seen his wife in Venice with the twin sisters, on a vaporetto, chugging up the Grand Canal. What he’s seeing, we’ll learn, is some later moment when he’ll no longer be there. He’s looking into a future that lies beyond his time. In this world, past and future are contained in the present, as though it were a universe concocted by the grand magicians of matters temporal, Marcel Proust and, in his Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot.

Let’s go back to the beginning.

We’re in the opening minutes of the film, in that cottage in Suffolk on a cold Sunday afternoon. Just before their daughter in her red plastic raincoat drowns in the pond, John spills a glass of water over one of his slides, a shot of the interior of the church, where sitting in a pew appears to be a child in a red coat with a hood. The water distorts the celluloid, and the red of the coat blossoms over the transparency like blood spilling from a murdered man’s throat. As Mark Sanderson points out in his book-length study of the film, that scene—in fact the entire seven-minute opening sequence—tells us everything we are about to see in Don’t Look Now. Everything is figuratively or literally second-sight in this movie: both what the blind medium sees, and what we watch. We’ve seen it all before, right at the beginning, and now, because it needs to draw us deeper into the story, we get to see it again.

Of course in prose this wouldn’t work. We can parse too much at our leisure, examine the words, understand their meanings, see the subtleties. A movie possesses a literalness that a truly good piece of fiction doesn’t, or shouldn’t. Because we can’t, in the first instance, flip back to an earlier scene (though DVDs make this much simpler), and because it’s presumed (and hoped) that we’re seeing this movie for the first time at the cinema, we experience it as one continuous unspooling of narration. It’s on subsequent viewings that the rewards of Don’t Look Now truly emerge. We see how much we have to work to look at all the elements in a scene, how much Roeg is compelling us to linger over the objects in a hotel room, the expressions on Julie Christie’s face, the mosaic tiles in the Church of St. Nicholas. And yet it remains a mystery to us. It eludes us in the end. We feel we have witnessed a kind of ancient sacrificial rite playing itself out in an unreal city, and that something necessary has happened. We see it on Laura’s face as, the two sisters beside her, she stands on the vaporetto as it makes its way up the Grand Canal to a funeral. Winter’s about to break, and spring’s only weeks away. The gods have been served.

Like all the best works of fiction, Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now makes us want to experience it all over again. And still we won’t be able to find the words to say exactly what it all means.

Surprise Me!

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