Books: Brilliant Creatures — Notes |
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Brilliant Creatures: Notes

NOTES by Peter C. Bartelski

What he saw Feydeau doing on the stairhead landing

By naming the dogs Feydeau (Fido?), Scribe and Sardou, Lancelot-as-author makes a preliminary statement about the theatrical propensities of Lancelot-as-character. Taking precedence over the two melodramatists, Feydeau the farceur is invoked both at the beginning and at the end of the main action, thus to reassure Lancelot that the travesty in which he is caught up has at least the saving grace of aesthetic symmetry. A female dog could have been called Labiche: an opportunity missed.

Nor would it have done even to, say, Colette

As might be expected, Chéri’s ‘physiognomy’ is analysed in the eponymous novels Chéri and The Last of Chéri, but other, less obvious works by Colette are on Lancelot’s mind and thus operative in the text, most notably Julie de Carneilhan, whose introspective heroine is transparently one of the models for Elena Fiabesco. Lancelot’s frame of reference is so undeviatingly Frenchified that we must wonder how he contrived to read but one language at Oxford. As well as choosing Chéri for a personal prototype in this first encounter with one of the book’s many mirrors, Lancelot might also have thought of Maupassant’s Bel Ami, another quasi-literatus who married for advantage.

an Adrian Stokes archive

Until his late stiffening into Freudianism the most supple of all British aestheticians, Stokes was the more remarkable for arranging his acute perceptions on the apparently unyielding framework of binomial schemes, with such antinomies as smooth/rough and inside/out. The mention of his name at this early point is strategic, since a binomial sentence pattern of either/or is to be recurrent throughout the text, paralleled by a Kierkegaardian either/or at the metaphysical level. Sally Draycott’s black/white imagery, quintessentially Stokesian, might have been taken directly from his masterly book Venice, particularly when it is considered that Sally is a Coco Chanel figure to Elena’s Misia Sert, and that Chanel and Misia were together in Venice for Diaghilev’s funeral.

enamels and cameos

Obviously Théophile Gautier, author of Émaux et camées, is the poet principally meant, although the text otherwise suggests that Lancelot’s poetic sensibility is haunted by the more familiar tropes of Rimbaud and Baudelaire. But Gautier, even more than Baudelaire, was an art critic as much as a poet, or at any rate thought himself to be such; and Lancelot prides himself on the same combination of interests.

the masonry was showing some ominous cracks

Thereby heralding the collapse of the social fabric. Visually the image subsumes the ruins-in-a-landscape of the French pastoral tradition from Poussin and Claude down to Watteau and Fragonard. Verbally it conjures a seismic portent.

grisaille fans on which no Mallarmé would ever write a poem or Conder paint a pink Arcadia

Mallarmé regularly transcribed poems on fans for his admirer and patroness Misia Sert, who in turn is clearly one of the models for Elena, just as the artistic symbiosis of Misia and Diaghilev is paralleled in the relationship between Elena and Victor, and embryonically in the mutual attraction between Charlotte Windhover and David Bentley. Prominent among the many models for Elena’s opera ball is the ball that Misia and Diaghilev staged (the appropriate verb) in the Versailles Hall of Mirrors in 1923. Charles Conder blasted his gift with drink, to the regret of Beardsley, whose dislike of him was coupled with admiration. Lancelot’s troubled mind dwells often on artists of truncated promise. Beardsley illustrated Malory and thus ‘captured’ Lancelot’s image.


in Andrei Bely’s great novel ‘Petersburg’

Although the present critic’s propensity for finding significance in the geography of novels is made game of at one point in the text, it is nevertheless worth pointing out that this mention of Petersburg can scarcely be fortuitous. Bely combines pin-point specificity of topographical detail with deliberate vagueness concerning the whereabouts of the main centres of the action — the protagonist’s house, for example, seems to wander around the city like a raft. The present text has some of the same characteristics. Where does Lancelot live, or Elena? If Sally and Nicholas drive home to Knightsbridge through the Hyde Park underpass after dinner at Elena’s, then Elena can scarcely live anywhere west of Mayfair. But how could she have a house in Mayfair if she has no money? It is doubtful if such questions are meant to have answers. More profitable is to note that in Bely’s symbolist scheme the colour red recurs obsessively. Here the colour green does the same. Red and green constitute a disarmingly trite structuralist matrix.

what Gide had said to Roger Martin du Gard as if he had been there to overhear it

Ian Cuthbert might indeed have been there to overhear it, if as a precocious youth he had visited Paris in 1949, before Gide’s last illness. Gide reread Proust in his last year, as Tolstoy reread Dostoevsky. Considering Ian’s proclivities, it would be of particular interest to him that Gide’s and Martin du Gard’s is the only known case of a love affair between winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Balthus had given him a small drawing

Very unlikely, Balthus’s drawings being concentrated in the hands of so few owners. But Balthus prepared a set of illustrations for Wuthering Heights, and the Brontë sisters, most obviously in the presence of Charlotte Windhover, are incorporated in the text’s leitmotif of female threeness.

the most nearly successful attempt to revive the reputation of Denton Welch

Strangely missing from both Lancelot’s and Ian’s lists of writers who could draw, Denton Welch favoured Thackeray’s devotion to small beer, i.e. to the ‘tiny’ (his word) things of life, the minutiae of homes, meals and possessions. An uncomfortable name to be invoked, in a text so impressionistically cavalier as regards concrete detail.

stories about Cocteau and Radiguet

Cocteau’s play about Misia Sert and Coco Chanel, Les Monstres sacrés, will be recalled when Elena and Sally form their antagonistic friendship. Radiguet’s Le Bal du comte d’Orgel is one of the image-networks contributing to Elena’s country setting, while Radiguet himself, author of two masterpieces and dead six years younger even than Beardsley, understandably nags at the self-esteem of Lancelot-as-author.

framed wall paintings by Paolo Veronese

Another portent of collapse. The walls of Venice held too much water to allow use of the fresco technique, so most large Venetian paintings are done on canvas. We are reminded of the structural weakness of Lancelot’s portico and, by extension, of his life.


even if he had dressed ... like the Count Robert de Montesquiou

The reference might be pretentious but is not necessarily Proustian. The physical appearance of Proust’s Charlus was based not on Comte Robert de Montesquiou but on the obscure baron Doazan. Proust met de Montesquiou at the salon of Madeleine Lemaire (clearly one of the prototypes for both Elena and Charlotte in then educative roles), where he also met the Comtesse Greffuhle and Mme de Chevigné, part models for the Duchesse and the Princesse de Guermantes respectively — although, as Proust was always careful to point out, no character in the book has fewer than ten different real-life ‘inspirations’. Madeleine Lemaire, an amateur artist of professional attainments, illustrated Proust’s early and unsuccessful book Les Plaisirs et les jours, a publication which would be much on Lancelot’s mind, since it so exemplifies just how little early promise can mean without later achievement. The most famous portrait of de Montesquiou is by Boldini, with whom Lancelot shares an admiration for long-legged women.

the average domestic pot dating from the Sung dynasty

An imprecise image as to colour — which could be anything from ‘hare’s foot’ black to ch’ing-pai white — but clear enough as regards thickness, although probably Lancelot-as-author is referring less to the glaze itself than to the underlying body, which tended to a particular fineness during the Sung period, mainly owing to the widespread use of clays with a high felspar content.

the job of ritually eviscerating Schubert

A favourite offering of the Plaza Palm Court string quartet is ‘Death and the Maiden’, which has obvious relevance to Lancelot, who courts one through love of the other. Also Schubert died not only young but full of achievement, to the point that we might wonder not just what he would have done if he had lived as long as Beethoven, but what he would have done if he had lived as long as Mozart.


as in a Verdi aria, the same melodic figure

The preponderance which Verdi will later have in the text’s background music is often forecast in the early stages, thereby providing mimetic examples of the very principle here referred to. The operatic structure of the plot proceeds historically through arias, duets and pezzi chiusi to the through-composed extended ensembles of the opera ball, before fragmenting into a neo-classical, and finally atonal, aftermath.

‘Like Flaubert’

Sally’s kinship with the great novelist is not through Emma Bovary but through Salammbô, spiritual cousin of Salome. To Sally, the opera ball is like the celebration in Hamilcar’s garden, at which Salammbô seduces all men by knowing the language of each. (Sally’s Porsche, in its power of conquest, is a Hamil-car.) Nicholas is her Mâtho, to whom she offers the city (‘Carthage est a nous; jetons-nous-y!’) if he has the courage to take it. (Marina in Boris Godunov offers the same contract to the false Czarevitch.) Lancelot paid oblique tribute to Flaubert when he named one of his dogs Feydeau. Flaubert wrote to Feydeau’s father in July 1859, complaining about how people failed to understand that in order to bring Carthage back to life one had first to become sad. The success of the novel was reflected in the frequency with which the Court and the salons drew on it as second-hand inspiration for their costume balls. At the Court Ball for 9 February 1863, Mme Rimsky-Korsakov was Salammbô with a décolleté (sic) transparent et généreux. Flaubert, now a social lion, began attending the diners Magny and in the imperial salons conceived a passion, which some say she returned, for the fabulously beautiful Jeanne de Tourbey. So complete was Flaubert’s identification with Carthage in the public mind that Berlioz consulted him over details of the mise en scène for Les Troyens. The reference is thus, at a second level, operatic.


what Victor was fond of referring to as his Goering period

Victor has found a typically boastful way of being unfair to himself. In fact Goering’s eclecticism consisted mainly of greeting real and fake with the same enthusiasm: he was a particular sucker for van Meegeren’s dud Vermeers. But the deeper reference is to Klaus Mann’s Mephisto. Victor’s enervating appeal for Lancelot is an obvious echo of the Goering/Höfgen relationship, and his house has much in common with the art-palace Mann’s Komödiant (the ‘red’ Mann preceded Greene in his use of the term!) built for himself in the Tiergarten district of Berlin.

Portrait busts by Troubetzkoy and Golubkhina

Troubetzkoy spent most of his career outside the Soviet Union but his pieces are not easily purchased, while Golubkhina’s time abroad was mainly confined to periods of study in Paris. Victor most probably, or least improbably, inherited these works from his father, which raises the question of why he could not have inherited the Morandis too. There are many Fairweathers in English collections: a particularly fine one hangs in Somerville College, Oxford. If Victor received Nolans of the Ned Kelly period as gifts, it must have been a profound friendship — the artist’s prices were already high by then. The earlier, surrealist phase would have been more credible. But the émigré intellectuals and connoisseurs in Australia after World War II were characteristically given first choice of important works by rising young indigenous artists simply as a reward for having granted them the free run of personal libraries brought from Europe.

a huge yet weightless Delacroix watercolour study

Delacroix is Lancelot’s obsession rather than Victor’s, so Lancelot is the one whose mind is ravished. In ‘The Death of Sardanapalus’ the sultan watches his harem being slaughtered — a wish-fulfilment comparable to the Felliniesque seraglio dwelt upon later in the text. The Moroccan window is in the same range of eidetic inspiration as Salammbô. Delacroix, although he patronised him vis-à-vis Mozart, had a close spiritual kinship with Chopin, who in his turn is shortly to be invoked. There is almost no theme in Lancelot’s text which Delacroix did not treat, including the shipwreck of Don Juan and the raising of Lazarus. Delacroix, who detested Ingres’s ‘Raphaelism’, is at the colourist end of the range of Lancelot’s visual affections, with the linear Ingres at the other. In this regard, if nowhere else, Lancelot can pique himself on his completeness.

He had once called her Madame X dressed by Madame Gres

Lancelot means to evoke John Singer Sargent’s 1884 portrait of Mme Pierre Gautreau, née Virginie Avegno, the American-born Parisian grande dame famous for her chiselled profile, lavender-white complexion and plethora of influential lovers. Mainly because of Sargent’s keen emphasis on her alabaster poitrine, the portrait was a scandal even before it was hunt and was called Madame XXX in the catalogue in an unsuccessful attempt to veil the identity of the sitter — or, in this case, stander. Sargent kept the picture himself until 1916, regarding it, very plausibly, as the best thing he had ever painted. Although Madame X’s gown, in its sensually draped simplicity, was very advanced for the time, it could not, needless to say, have been designed by Madame Gres, who, under her early name of Alix, first came to prominence only in the 1930s. Madame Gres, like Balenciaga, was an intensely sculptural designer whose clothes looked best on tall women. Madame X was noticeably short in the leg, which Elena is not. So Lancelot’s witticism builds up an ideal portrait.

the most beautiful magazine ever published

Our author is being cagey about naming Mir Iskusstva (The World of Art), the magazine published by Diaghilev, whose name recurs throughout the text in connection with Victor Ludlow, but whose success in actually creating a world of art would grate on Lancelot sufficiently to make him want the phrase suppressed. The two Benois gouaches of the countess in the pool, both called ‘The Countess of the Cupola’, date from 1906 and can be seen, excellently reproduced, in N. Lapshina’s Mir Iskusstva (Moscow, 1977), as can most of the Somov portrait heads, which mainly date from 1907–1915. Somov’s ‘Love Letter’ of 1911–1912 is almost certainly one of the models for Elena at the ball. Somov left the Soviet Union in 1923 and lived in Paris from 1924. Soviet critics, typified by the relevant sections in such would-be encyclopedic works as Ruskaya Kudozhestvenaya Kultura (see particularly 1908–1917, vol. 4, Moscow, 1980), continue to allege that the Mir Iskusstva group — being primarily concerned with decadent bourgeois liberalism — was already a spent force when the proletarian Revolution overtook it. None of the specific plates mentioned could have appeared in the magazine itself, which ceased publication in 1904. Lancelot has conceived an ideal publishing enterprise.

Or did the cherub belong to Titian?

Yes, but not playing a lute. In the ‘Venus with Organist and Small Dog’, painted at Augsburg in 1548 for Charles V and now in the Prado, the cherub whispers warnings to Venus while the young man plays the organ. The rows of trees in the background remarkably hark forward to Benois’s garden exteriors in both versions of the ‘Countess of the Cupola’. In Fragonard’s ‘Les Hazards heureux de l’escarpolette’ (London, Wallace Collection), the onlooking cupid is made of stone, but seems animated. Lancelot is most likely to be thinking of the Ingres ‘Odalisque with a Slave’ (Fogg Art Museum, Harvard), in which the slave is female but holds a lute. Lady Hildegarde’s three daughters obviously constitute a preliminary appearance by the Three Graces, an impression reinforced by the fact that they are not individually named.

a Gontcharova ballet backdrop

Gontcharova designed the scenes and costumes for Coq d’or in Diaghilev’s 1913 Paris season. Fokine’s last ballet for Diaghilev, it starred Karsavina (clearly one of the models for Sally) in her favourite role as the Queen of Shemakhan. Benois sat with Misia Sert at the premiere. But Victor’s wall-covering most probably came from Diaghilev’s London season at the Lyceum in late 1926, in which Gontcharova’s decor for Firebird was a particular hit — a crowded panorama of pink, red and gold cupolas which would make Victor’s bedroom seem like a courtyard in the Kremlin.

three matched Boldinis of a fine lady getting out of her clothes

There is no such sequence of pictures by Boldini, although individual paintings on the theme are common enough among his works. His emphasis on the elongation of the neck, like Sargent’s on the elongation of the arm, is usually attributed to flattery, although it is a nice point whether the artists influenced the women or the women the artists — the original of Boldini’s magnificent ‘Consuelo, Duchess of Marlborough’ of 1906 was actually pretty much like that. Nor is it easy to see why what is acceptable in Parmigianino should be derided in Boldini, whose home town of Vicenza has sensibly given him his own museum. So aware of women’s clothes that it is possible to identify the dress designer in almost every picture, he is assured of survival on the documentary level at least. The reference to Boldini is plainly a contributory image to the iconography of Elena, who, even more than Sally, is continually represented in terms of unusual height.

One of the Medici had had three Uccello battle scenes in a similar position

Only one battle scene, divided into three panels; and more than one of the Medici. Cosimo probably commissioned Uccello to paint the ‘Rout of San Romano’ at some time in the middle 1450s, but the earliest documentation dates from 1492, when the three pictures are described as decorating Lorenzo’s bedroom. The pictures are now divided between the Uffizi, the Louvre and the National Gallery, London. The broken lances lying on the orthogonals of these bold exercises in perspective would be a signal to Lancelot of his impotence.

a Raphael pope’s cassock

Either Julius II or Leo X, the only two popes during Raphael’s short career, and both of whom, of course, he immortalised. Raphael is one of the master spirits at the root of the text’s iconography. The Rovere Pope Julius is an obvious armature for Victor’s self-conception: a rough man of action yet an inspired patron of Bramante, Raphael and Michelangelo. The Medici Pope Leo (son of Lorenzo the Magnificent) is a precursor of (and pre-curses) Lancelot: more cultivated than Julius, he yet was unable to retain the allegiance of any of the titanic artists except Raphael. Julius’s rooms in the Vatican, decorated largely by Raphael, suggest Victor’s house, while some of the specific frescoes adumbrate scenes within it. Sally holding the open volume of Diaghilev’s magazine, for example, is plainly a component of a modern ‘School of Athens’. Frescoed corridors, common in the Vatican, are echoed in the text’s system of decorated tunnels — the Underground that takes Lancelot down to his death. Raphael painted Bramante’s corridor which led to the Belvedere but collapsed during the reign of Clement VII. Near the end of his life, for his friend and protector Cardinal Bibbiena, he also painted the ‘Stufetta’, the Cardinal’s bathroom in the Vatican. The decor, not shown to ordinary visitors, consists mainly of a series of arousing Venuses: Venus Anadyomene, Venus on the Dolphin, Venus wounded by Amor, Venus and Adonis. This is without doubt the binding concept under the subsequent parade of Venuses — by Botticelli, Velázquez and Boucher—who appear during Lancelot’s vision of Samantha at the moment of his death. At the opposite extreme but within the same tonal spectrum, Raphael’s Madonnas, along with those of several Flemish masters, are to be recalled when Charlotte reads beneath the driftwood shelter.

‘You know Vladimir?’ asked Victor

But Victor himself would know many another Ashkenazy, or Ashkenazi — the generic name distinguishing all non-Mediterranean Jews from ‘Sephardi’. The Hebrew press established at Naples in 1486 by German Ashkenazis was destroyed by the French in 1492 and all the Jewish master printers were put either to the sword or to flight, a bleak datum for a book-collector like Victor, since among their number was probably Joshua Solomon Soncino, prime mover of the Soncino family, who gave the world the first complete printed edition of the Hebrew Bible. For the Jewish bibliophile there is little comfort in the history of his field. It is not just a case of manuscripts destroyed, but of whole printed editions wiped out. Of the 1487 Soncini Pentateuch but a single copy survives.

feminist epic called ‘The Woman Lieutenant’s Frenchman’

It is hard to know what film is being referred to here. Possible candidates are The Woman in White, Woman of the Year, The Lieutenant Wore Skirts and The French Connection.

a Troubetzkoy ‘grande dame’ about two feet high

The material sounds as if it might be plaster or terracotta, but the model is most probably the small seated bronze figure of Mrs Hoernheimer, marked Paolo Troubetzkoy, Milano 1897. There are three known copies (at Pallanza, Paris and Moscow) but Victor might possibly own a fourth. Her grande robe de soirée is as likely to be by Worth as by Doucet, a house which at the end of the nineteenth century was already dressing Duse and Réjane but whose international renown was still some years away.


Lancelot felt that it had been raining continuously since the fall of the Attlee government

The Conservatives were returned to power in 1951. Lancelot could not really feel that it had been raining uninterruptedly for thirty years, so this must be an authorial hyperbole.

Charlotte would be a good Virgil for him, if you can have a female Virgil

You can, in the sense that a virgilio is the generic name for a guide, and that Virgil’s job as Dante’s guide through the regions beyond the tomb is eventually taken over by Beatrice. Charlotte is not only Dante’s Beatrice Portinari but the beautiful and cultivated Beatrice d’Este, who had the misfortune to be married to Ludovico il Moro, duke of Milan. Leonardo watched Ludovico’s downfall and sketched the smoke that rose from the burning city. Allusions to The Divine Comedy are everywhere in Lancelot’s text, whose geography may be likened to a Dantesque spiral flattened into the form of a video disc, with consequent prismatic halation.


those very large establishments with names like Castle This, That or The Other

Here the obeisance is obvious towards the Firbank who created Her Gaudiness the Mistress of the Robes, Count Cabinet and Queen Thleenouhee of the Land of Dates. Firbank and Peacock are the presiding spirits of Elena’s and Charlotte’s jointly ruled region, which may be most briefly characterised as Headlong Hall en pantoufles, or a glass-domed excerpt from that strange country in The Flower Beneath the Foot, where Her Dreaminess the Queen’s handmaidens hum the melodies of Reynaldo Hahn. Elena and Charlotte, two different versions of Lady Parvula de Panzoust or Lady Georgia Blueharnis (‘the Isabella d’Este of her day’), extend their bounty to a various troupe of Peacockian zanies. Ian Cuthbert, for example, is a clear echo of Mr Panscope, the Coleridge figure from Headlong Hall — who also turns up as Mr Flosky in Nightmare Abbey and as Mr Skionar in Crotchet Castle. As is later revealed, Charlotte is a devout Peacockian and thus a fitting hostess for David, whose radical convictions ally him closely to Mr Scythrop, the Shelley figure in Nightmare Abbey. When Shelley fainted from vegetarian excesses, Peacock would revive him with a large steak. Peacock’s brilliant daughter Mary Ellen, an obvious precursor of Charlotte, married Meredith, who was several years younger than herself. Meredith made her the subject of his important poem-sequence Modern Love — the only good thing that came out of the marriage. Meredith presented a copy of his last book of poems to Lady Diana Manners, who as Lady Diana Cooper appears in propria persona at Elena’s opera ball.

every twenty minutes a Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker

Powered by four 13,750 lb thrust Pratt & Whitney J57-P-59W engines, it is a much noisier aircraft than the later turbo-fan variant, the C-135A Stratolifter. Each Stratotanker carries 31,200 US gallons of jet fuel. Doubtless we are meant to think, as the idyllic scene is painted, of its potential destruction by divine fire three times an hour.

Mrs Hermeneutics left him a piece of steak and kidney pie

That the constantly renamed Mrs Hermesetas should at this point be called Mrs Hermeneutics is no accident. Hermeneutics had, or have, to do with interpretation, from the Greek word hermeneutikos. All Mrs Hermesetas’s sobriquets derive from Greek roots (Hermes himself was a self-transforming messenger) and all interpret the action, even at this point, where the mention of the Iliad is scarcely fortuitous. One of Lancelot’s governing myth-patterns is the Odyssey but the Trojan war had to be fought first. Samantha is the Helen of Lancelot’s Iliad. He is Paris not just in the sense of having a memory peopled by that city’s literary heroes, but in his being the thief of Helen. (His involvement with the Three Graces, of course, is traceable to the Cypria rather than to the Odyssey, in which Paris makes no judgement and in which his death is not even mentioned, only implied.) Paris’s other name was Alexander. Later in the text Lancelot’s mind is compared to the burning library of Alexandria — i.e., to Paris, the hero having once again become the city. The burning books theme is stated in Lancelot’s accident with the pie, an evocation of King Alfred which reminds us how a preoccupation with book-learning can be intrinsically pyrophoric.

and the fate of Herculaneum

Not, it should be noted, of Pompeii. Herculaneum was the more elegant town. Both Victor’s house and Elena’s are in different proportions derived from Herculaneum’s Villa of the Papyri, with its inner court, Epicurean library and sculpture collection. The Stratotankers full of let fuel threaten Elena’s Arcadia with an air-burst version of Vesuvius’s behaviour in AD 79.


by George Hoyningen-Huene at his most fastidious

Baron George Hoyningen-Huene, whose name probably not even he could pronounce, built the first of his many reputations in Paris, but his background was Russian — here, as at many other points, Lancelot’s and Victor’s frames of reference overlap. Hoyningen-Huene’s unpublished memoirs of his experiences in south Russia in 1919–1920 forecast the Nazi era Holocaust at its most obscene. Like Victor he escaped from his memories into a dream of comfort, style and artistic achievement, but unlike Victor he was a direct creator in his own right. Although his portraits of fashionable women were as hieratic as those of any other great photographer of the period — long exposure times inhibited spontaneity — his thirst for real life led him to seek the moment of sensual relaxation within a given pose. His ‘Miss Agnela Fischer’ of 1931, recumbent like a reversed Rokeby Venus in a Schiaparelli one-piece swimsuit, could be a model for Samantha. The successor to de Mayer and Steichen at Vogue, Hoyningen-Huene was close friends with Gide, Cocteau, Mirò, Chanel, Visconti and Janet (Paris Was Yesterday) Flanner. Like Lancelot he set great store by personal elegance. The first and greatest of all Style Consultants, Hoyningen-Huene was colour coordinator on the best of Cukor’s colour films, culminating in the sumptuous Heller in Pink Tights, which is itself a festival of visual echoes and reflections, with compositions based on Corot, Velázquez and the photographs of Weegee. But he was at his most colourful in black and white, in which his technique was characterised by back and cross lighting that gave an intricate yet always cleanly articulated play of shadows — linear shadows on curved forms, curved shadows on rectangular forms. Sally is most often seen through Hoyningen-Huene’s camera.

still called Foscari’s

Yet another preliminary invocation of Verdi, who does not emerge as a presiding spirit until the opera ball, but whose benign influence casts itself forward. I due Foscari of 1844 was the immediate successor to Ernani. Byron wrote a play on the same subject — a relevant consideration, because Lancelot sees himself as a Byronic figure and can be thought of, after his disastrous squash game, as having transformed his whole body into a Byronic club foot. Indeed the squash game is played at a club.

between Benjamin Constant and Madame de Staël

Thus conjuring the relationship between David and Charlotte, which Lancelot-as-character must already be rationalising at a subconscious level, even before it happens. Constant himself, as is well known, sublimated his predicament by writing Adolphe. Lancelot-as-author, with himself and Victor in mind, knows that Constant called his heroine Ellénore and that when he finally broke free — or, rather, just before he broke free — of Madame de Staël he married Charlotte von Hardenberg.

The soul of this man is his clothes

Lafeu says it of Parolles in All’s Well That Ends Well, II, v. Nicholas is almost certainly planning a novel about Lancelot, on whom Lafeu’s speech (‘There can be no kernel in this light nut’) is a judgement — although we must remember that it is Lancelot who writes what we read. ‘Trust him not in a matter of heavy consequence,’ says Lafeu to Bertram. Lancelot’s nature, divided between the innocent Bertram and the sinister Parolles, is, of course, unified in his love for Helena, the stolen Helen of Paris — i.e., Samantha, whose original name has in turn been stolen by Lancelot and given to Elena.

the halls of Dis, the inane regions

From the Aeneid, VI: perque domos Ditis vacuas et inania regna. Virgil, already present in the text as a guide, is here invoked as a poet, the specific allusion being to that moment when Aeneas goes down into the underworld after having left the antrum of the Sibyl (Janice) whose answers rush as many voices through a hundred wide mouths. In the Land of Shadows, on the far bank of the Styx, he comes to the Broken-hearted Fields, where those consumed by Love are hidden in secret walks. Here Aeneas sees the forsaken Dido, as Lancelot sees Charlotte at the moment of his death. High among countless other relevant Virgilian instances must be reckoned Georgics IV, 467, in which Orpheus enters the lofty portals of Dis to go down into the underworld in search of Eurydice.

the Korean translation of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’

Mentions of Lancelot’s signature tune are not casual. No epic hero was ever unaccompanied in Hell.


The young in one another’s arms,’ said Victor

The Yeatsian adduction is not happenstance. ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ announced the theme for The Tower, Yeats’s most extended cry of pain against old age. As the title poem ‘The Tower’ goes on to reveal, the tragedy began with Helen. ‘Does the imagination dwell the most/Upon a woman won or woman lost?’ This is Victor’s dilemma more than it is Lancelot’s, whose obsession with his Helen/Samantha Homerically blinds him to Charlotte, whereas Victor’s commitment to his Helen/Elena can only increase. Victor’s treasure-filled house is a repository for what the narrator has lost in ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’: all the golden grasshoppers and bees. Sally, in her brief New York episode with Victor, becomes Leda, putting on his knowledge with his power. Elena’s opera ball is an All Souls’ Night, where the blessed dance.


the only one I could think of was Delacroix

It is hard to credit that Serena, if she could think of only one, should think of him. But Delacroix is a species of Nemesis for Lancelot, who is identified with Gautier as a poet attuned to the visual arts. Gautier’s capacities as an art critic were rated very low by Delacroix, as his Journal reveals.

those little drawings of Rimbaud that bring out the whole business of their relationship

Few drawings by Verlaine show him and Rimbaud together: certainly there are none comparable to Félix Regamey’s ‘Verlaine et Rimbaud à Londres’ of October 1872. But most of Verlaine’s drawings of Rimbaud by himself are, in their fond regard, revealing enough. The ‘Départ de Rimbaud pour Vienne’ of April 1876 is a good example. It can be seen in the Album Rimbaud, which Lancelot, undoubtedly a subscriber to the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, would have on his shelves. The Albums, supplied gratis to subscribers and not otherwise ordinarily available, have by now become collector’s items in their turn.

‘... Lermontov would be your most gifted case of the lot.’

He would, but Lancelot is wrong in calling him a Decembrist, although to the young men of Lermontov’s generation Decembrism was undoubtedly still a living force. As the relevant entry in the useful Lermontovskaya Entsiklopedia (Moscow, 1981) recounts, Lermontov made personal contact with some surviving Decembrists in the Caucasus from 1837 onwards and formed several close friendships among them in the few years remaining to him. Their influence on his writings was profound. A superb volume of Lermontov’s cartoons, watercolours and drawings (Lermontov: Kartuni, Akvareli, Risunki) was published in Moscow in 1980. Much as Lancelot would like to think of himself as the Hero of Our Time, the Pechorin figure in this text is unmistakably Brian Hutchings.

‘... Apollinaire’s “calligrammes” count as a kind of drawing ...’

Only if you stretch a point. And why do that, if you are leaving out Dürrenmatt, or Thomas Mann? But Lancelot is determined to count Apollinaire in, probably because of Apollinaire’s love for Madeleine (that name again) Page, to whom his letters became progressively more desperately erotic throughout the bitter trench warfare of 1915–1916. Some of them were considered too pornographic to be included in Tendre comme le souvenir, since they contained ‘secret poems’ in which he celebrated the various zones of her body. He also told her that he had named one of the trenches after her — a relevant fact, considering the zone of Samantha’s body which Lancelot celebrates in Los Angeles. Madeleine’s predecessor in Apollinaire’s affections, Annie Playden, emigrated to California after she left him, and there, perhaps fortunately, dropped out of literary history.


Elena was rather proud of Cleopatra’s Dinghy

And probably of Cleopatra’s nose. ‘Le nez de Cléopâtre,’ said Pascal: ‘s’il eût été plus court, toute la face de la terre aurait changé’. As we know from the reference to Madame X, Elena is blessed with a chiselled profile, but this and subsequent Cleopatra allusions are less oblique. Elena/Victor is an obvious Cleopatra/Antony pairing, with Victor’s Antony ‘marrying’ Sally’s Octavia, to the rage of the Serpent of Old Nile. In this brief but crowded sequence of rapidly transmogrifying imagery, Cleopatra’s Dinghy becomes the Venetian Bucintoro, the state barge which plays a key role at the regatta (made musical in Act One of La Gioconda) when the city marries the sea. Venice (Venus) is one of Elena’s name cities. The Ovidian metamorphosis by which the fleeing marble Daphne enters the laurel tree is there to remind us both of Bernini’s fructive Daphne and of Yeats’s custom and ceremony. At home in her Schifanoia of a country seat, Elena is Lady Gregory at Coole Park: hence the Ledean swan in the prow of her boat. She is also, as she counts the flowers, Dante’s Matilda and — supremely — the Flora (Florence is another of her name cities) in Botticelli’s ‘Primavera’, whose central figure is in her turn twin to his Venus. The two Botticellian masterpieces, both of them commissioned by the same Lorenzino de’ Medici who assigned Botticelli to the task of illustrating The Divine Comedy, are at the trunk of our text’s visual ramifications, as later becomes more apparent. Charlotte, too, is a green-fingered Matilda. Her book-lined mill house is the contemplative cell of the Arcadia over which she and Elena jointly preside. Mistress of the intellectual component of Arcadia, she is the Countess of Pembroke to David’s Sir Philip Sidney. But her most important twinning with Elena is Dantesque. They are both Beatrices. Elena has already shown her Dante into Paradise and now gives instruction to Charlotte, whose own Dante has only just begun his Journey.

recurred like the ‘petite phrase’ in Proust

But it doesn’t recur in Proust: only the evocation of it does. In the same way, Keats doesn’t say that beauty is truth and truth beauty, he only says that the Grecian urn says that. The very syntax of Lancelot’s literary memory has become a fluctuating plasma. As Painter demonstrates in the first volume of his magisterial Marcel Proust, Reynaldo Hahn did not originate the ‘little phrase’; but by focusing Proust’s unwilling attention on Saint-Saëns he helped ensure that Proust would be captivated by the chief theme of the first movement of the Sonata in D Minor for violin and piano. Proust first heard the work played, by Ysaye, at Madeleine Lemaire’s salon. Saint-Saëns’s ‘little phrase’ became the theme tune of his affair with Hahn and later, as Vinteuil’s, of Swann’s with Odette. At Madeleine Lemaire’s country house, Réveillon, Proust and Hahn walked together in the rose garden in a way of which Elena’s and Sally’s tournée at the opera ball is an obvious echo.


mirrors leading into other mirrors

The whole text, as we explicitly hear in the last paragraph, is a hall of mirrors. Here Elena’s drawing room, probably modelled on the Amalienburg in Nymphenburg, serves as a vitreous echo-chamber. But the text’s mirrors distort images as they transmit them. It is sounds that they reflect intact, in a kind of sonic Spiegelsaal: both Nicholas and Victor talk about Nicholas’s Christmases all coming at once, while both Elena and Charlotte talk about the beneficial effects of muesli and yoghurt on the younger generation. Each character’s language is replicated in his Doppelgänger, while the lovers catch phrases from each other as a mirrored dining room distributes candlelight.

from the 1978 Chloe ‘prêt-à-porter’ collection

Lancelot-as-author is being over-explanatory. For the house of Chloë, Karl Lagerfeld has never done a couture collection, so ‘prêt’ the suit must necessarily be. Saint-Laurent is the only major designer to do both prêt-à-porter and couture. Sally would spot Elena’s YSL couture original by the quality of the fabrics.

The poor man made it for me

Unlikely. The older generation of couturiers, typified by Balenciaga and Balmain, would occasionally lend clothes to women prominent in the fashionable world, but the house of Saint-Laurent, with a gigantic volume of prêt-à-porter business providing the solid base of its finances, has rarely felt obliged to give anything away.

her Brontë sisters look

Yet another triad of women is conjured, with Charlotte representing them not just through her look but through, of course, her name. Lancelot, needless to add, is exactly cast as Branwell Brontë. The three sisters and their brother when young devised a saga about a city of glass.

talking about Pfitzner or Kulenkampff

In the strict classicism of the music-teaching atmosphere of post-WWII Vienna, Hans Pfitzner’s pamphlet Futuristengefahr (The Futurist Danger) attacked Busoni, who wrote a reply which impressed, among others, the young Alfred Brendel (Musical Thoughts and After-Thoughts, London, 1976). Georg Kulenkampff was a founder member of the famous trio headed by Edwin Fischer.

hummed Siegfried’s Funeral March to appropriate effect

One of Lancelot’s many symbolic deaths is here underscored (or, the Verdian would probably suggest, overscored) by the music which accompanied Goebbels’s announcement of the fall of Stalingrad. In a text which itself aspires to operatic form, all other operas are atomised. The Wagnerian epics, in particular, are raided indiscriminately, with characters and properties detached from their original meanings and ruthlessly redistributed. Samantha is Kundry, just as Lancelot is Parsifal, but where is the Lohengrin for Elena’s swan-boat? It is important to remember that Siefgried’s funeral takes place, not in Siegfried, but in Götterdämmerung. The text is a Totentanz, a fact driven home by the centrally important invocation of Holbein at the moment when Victor and Sally begin their doomed affair in New York. The Dance of Death was one of Holbein’s great themes.


‘Windhover,’ said the immigration officer

It is no accident that Lancelot’s surname, the title of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s most famous single poem, becomes prominent at this point. Lancelot’s is an essentially Hopkinsian metaphysical agony, for what else is Samantha if not his Andromeda — an Andromeda who is her own dragon, rife in her wrongs, more lawless and more lewd? And so Lancelot/Perseus has come flying to redeem her. Pillowing air he treads a time, and hangs/His thoughts on her. The airborne associations of his name having been brought alive by flight, more than one of his name-poem’s phrases now beg to be attached to Samantha’s body: gash-gold vermilion, for example.


‘... It’s what Rimbaud called it ...’

The poem ‘Obscur et froncé’ is one of the erotic sonnets grouped together under the general title Les Stupra (Defilements). Lancelot is perhaps generous in attributing his own sacred wonder to Rimbaud, whose true tastes are probably conveyed in ‘Nos Fesses ne sont pas les leurs’ (‘Our Behinds are not Theirs’). Lancelot’s invocation of Rimbaud, whose creative life was over at nineteen, is a conscious justification of his own sterility. Unconsciously, Lancelot is Verlaine, and Samantha is Rimbaud, who threatened Verlaine’s marriage with Mathilde The final show-down between Lancelot and Samantha parallels the break-up of Verlaine and Rimbaud in Pans, after which Rimbaud went on to complete Une Saison en enfer — for which Lancelot dreams the equivalent in his hour of death.

‘Cost you a groaning to take off my edge.’

Samantha takes Hamlet’s role while Lancelot submits, as a potentially suicidal Ophelia. But it is the celebrated, never-named actor who floats until his clothes pull him under. Samantha has Hamlet’s Schadenfreude. In her basement flat she conceals Nicholas behind the arras so that Lancelot can run him through with a glance.

like a female mythological protagonist trying to shake off a shirt of intermittent fire

But Herakles, the afflicted wearer of the shirt of Nessus, was male. Once again Samantha has taken on the dominant role, this time incandescently. Gautier, prominent among Lancelot’s model poets, in Mademoiselle de Maupin wrote the textbook for the reasonable male enslaved by the role-playing female.

their hands were ever at their lips, bidding adieu

The allusion to Keats establishes Charlotte, in her own wishes, as David’s Fanny Brawne, or rather as the Fanny Brawne of Keats’s ideal imaginings. But of course Charlotte is also the Contessa Maffei to his Verdi, the Gräfin Trautmannsdorff to his Joseph Roth, and potentially — an outcome she fears, hence her choice of ode — Madame de Staël to his Benjamin Constant.

‘... Like the Cherenkov effect ...’

Most commonly seen in a nuclear reactor, when high-energy particles, exceeding the local, water-reduced, speed of light, throw back a wake of brilliance. Lancelot thinks of his injured posterior as a fuel rod being inserted into a reactor core. David’s appropriating of Lancelot’s imagery is a token of usurpation.

Normally she never lent books

But does now, as an earnest of having fallen in love through the mind. It is characteristic in such relationships for the woman to be the more experienced in the ways of the world, drawn to potential rather than fulfilment, and eager to influence that fulfilment by awakening the too narrowly focused prodigy to the finer considerations. Vittoria Colonna played the part for Michelangelo, Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis-Hohenlohe for Rilke, and the Queen of the Belgians for Einstein. The Contessa Clara Maffei was probably the single most decisive feminine influence on Verdi’s life, even if the friendship was Platonic, while Joseph Roth’s adoration of the Gräfin Trautmannsdorff was rehearsed at least once earlier, when as a student he was favoured with the impassioned affections of Helena von Szajnocha-Schenk, a bluestocking thirty years older than her protégé. (She told him that she was 300 years younger than Shakespeare.) Roth’s Radetzkymarsch, with its Last Post for a lost Elysium, is omnipresent in the background of our text. George Sand’s importance for Chopin is also relevant, since it left him open to the accusation that comfort had won him away from his political obligations as a Polish citizen, and thus forced him to redefine his commitment in terms of a higher reality — his music.

‘Chap called Kreisky.’

Thus Victor, by closeting himself with Franz-Josef’s modern equivalent, compensates for the Viennese past which for him never took place. He embraces the new Europe through the erstwhile capital city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which for its Jews, despite social discrimination, represented the concrete possibility of world citizenship. The textual evidence suggests that Victor’s father was a German Jew rather than an Austrian one, and indeed there is no Viennese component among the artworks he left his son, but on the imaginative level Vienna is Victor’s soul-city, an impression reinforced by his reference to Count Razumovsky and Beethoven. By eliding this reference from the televised conversation between Victor and Sally, Speed Blair symbolically reinforces Victor’s cultural isolation as a cosmopolitan.

and ‘Randall Hoyle’s Wallenstein’ from Schiller’s or Golo Mann’s

A carbuncle of relevant allusions. Wallenstein’s unaccountable transformation into what Machiavelli, referring to Cesare Borgia, called a profeta disarmata, is closely germane to Lancelot’s fate; Schiller’s distinction between the naïve and the sentimental is at issue throughout the text; and the Mann family are continually adduced. We have already seen how Victor is a counter-figure to Klaus Mann’s Mephisto. Thomas Mann will be called up when Lancelot becomes Aschenbach. His son Golo’s first book was a biography of Friedrich von Gentz, who, even more than Metternich, was the first fully European-minded diplomatic thinker of the type Victor so approves. Gentz spent much of his free time at the Berlin salon of Rahel Varnhagen, probably one of the models for both Elena and Charlotte, and herself the subject of a monograph by Hannah Arendt — certainly a model for Charlotte. The Jewish blood of Mann’s mother and his wife Katja would have been enough to doom the whole family if they had not escaped.


dogs barked far away

As they would at the gates of Hell. Lancelot is once again rehearsing his death voyage, by which the London tube system becomes the tunnel to the Underworld.

but that Mrs Hammerklavier would cook him something for his dinner

A prime instance of how Mrs Hermesetas’s variable name comments on the action. The Hammerklavier sonata, like the Ninth Symphony and the C Sharp Minor quartet, is a massive musical structure in which Beethoven’s death is implicit, no further development being conceivable.


‘... a paratrooper from the Mount Olympus Defence Regiment,’ said Victor.

Victor immediately states the theme in terms of affronting the court of Jupiter, among whose ranks he enrols Sally. On the peak of Olympus it was always Spring, the season which has now been reached in the time-frame of the text, and which indeed is already giving way to Summer — time to leave Olympus.

‘That’s what Karl Kraus thought about Schnitzler ...’

Kraus’s attacks were a disappointment not only for Schnitzler but for anyone who saw the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and later the Austrian nation-state, as the hope for Jewish dignity within a liberal European country. But Victor, who identifies heavily with Schnitzler, is also being defensive about Schnitzler’s personal position as a man who, advanced in years, fell in love with several young women, of whom the last and most notable was Vilma Lichtenstern. The theme of the proud man of the world who sacrifices his equilibrium for a young woman is common in his plays and forms the pivot of his masterpiece Das Weite Land. Schnitzler, like Victor, lost a beloved daughter and was ridden by guilt. Victor shares Schnitzler’s world view but his remorse along with it. Kraus, secure in his long friendship with the Baroness Sidonie Nádherny von Borutin, was able to view Schnitzler’s truth-telling themes as the merest bourgeois self-indulgence. His assaults on Schnitzler are hard to distinguish from anti-Semitic virulence, but it should be remembered that Kraus, like Schnitzler, believed in a Jew’s right to dislike Jews individually. Not even Kraus, prophetic in so many other ways, was quite able to imagine that a time would come when racial solidarity would be imposed by decree, with the specific aim of extermination. For Victor the quarrel between Kraus and Schnitzler, which lasted all their lives, is thus at the centre of the modern tragedy.

‘... Freud used to say ...’

He said it in his 1917 article Der Zukunft einer Illusion. I translate: ‘... but if all one can do is to reduce the anticultural majority to a minority, one has still done a lot, perhaps all that can be done.’ Freud thought that if cultural restrictions were bad the state of nature was even worse. He reserved judgement, at that time, about what might happen in the Soviet Union, but otherwise insisted that the transformation of a whole people was impossible. Obviously Victor shares that Jansenist view. ‘It is the highest task of culture, its characteristic reason for being,’ wrote Freud in the same essay, ‘to guard us against nature (uns gegen die Natur zu verteidigen).’ Anti-Rousseau and therefore anti-Marx, Victor’s social democracy goes back through Bernstein to Lassalle.

‘... There’s an excellent eighteenth-century translation ...’

Victor’s Thucydides must be the great 1760 rendition of Geschichte des Peloponnesischen Krieges by Johann David Hellmann, Professor of Theology at Göttingen. Composed in bitterly austere German, it is one of the best ways of reading The Peloponnesian War for those who would avoid the conversational amble of English prose, although Rex Warner’s Penguin translation is acerbic enough. Victor is probably drawing David’s attention to Thucydides’ account, in Book VII, of the first extermination camp recorded in literature. After the defeat of the Sicilian expedition the Syracusans put the Athenian and allied prisoners into stone quarries for eight months. Mauthausen, referred to by Elena, had a stone quarry.

with Modigliani in Paris

Victor is giving his blessing to David and Charlotte, whose friendship was presaged by the Parisian love affair of Modigliani and Akhmatova.

for being caught out about Picasso

Victor’s disapproval of the painter’s political hypocrisy masks a deeper aversion to the ruthless honesty with which he was successively monogamous.


Nicholas’s novels, argued Bartelski, were multicentred

The author’s touch falters when it comes to parodying modern critical techniques, with which he is clearly not familiar. It would be a smugly conventional critic who spent much time looking for even unconscious intentions, let alone conscious ones. The deconstructionist is after more elusive game than that! But since no novels by ‘Nicholas Crane’ exist, the discussion is — our author might say quintessentially so — academic.

Dinner that night was hilarious

With the Stratotankers threatening fire and brimstone outside the glass bubble of Elena’s pleasure-dome, the tale-telling by her guests recalls the Decameron. After each day and night, one of the men or women assembled in Boccaccio’s idyllic country retreat is appointed King or Queen and reigns over the conversation, in which the men habitually attempt, always unsuccessfully, to shock the women. Pampinea, the first Queen, who gives the example to all the others, is one of Elena’s more obvious models. ‘This fullness of physical and emotional life,’ comments the scholar Bosco, ‘confers on Pampinea the tranquil serenity, the peaceful wisdom, the love for everything noble and rich and intelligent — i.e., fully alive — which are her characteristics.’

a small book of Disraeli’s letters

Disraeli’s letters to his sister are full of the naïve delight he took in social climbing, so David’s reading of them is necessarily self-referential. If he is seeking justification for the course on which he is embarked, Disraeli makes a strange role-model. In the case of Victor it would be a different matter: he would find Disraeli’s untroubled enthusiasm very recognisable. As Joseph Roth said to his admired Gräfin Trautmannsdorff, assimilation is just another way to flee. But here it is Charlotte who represents the well-mannered world into which David is drawn against his convictions yet according to his tastes, and doubly troubled to find that the latter are more powerful than the former. Disraeli was especially partial to ‘the great fancy ball’, as witness his letter for 20 July 1835. ‘Lady Londonderry, as Cleopatra, was in a dress literally embroidered with emeralds and diamonds from top to toe. Castlereagh introduced me to her by her desire, and I was with her a great deal.’

by knowing as much as he did about Büchner

Sally might have impressed the ambassador, but not as much as she would have impressed Victor, who would be well aware that Büchner’s Danton was robbed of his sense of reality by physical passion. But passion was the higher reality and Danton was right, Büchner suggests, to embrace it. The women of Danton and Camille Desmoulins are true to the end: Julia takes poison and Lucile, in a great last dramatic moment, cries ‘Es lebe der König!’ (‘Long live the King!’) as the night watch passes. Büchner, like Beardsley, Radiguet and Schubert, is for Lancelot yet another galling example of an artist cut down young yet full of lasting achievement.


‘Sadat Sadat, Sadat,’ said the wheels of the ‘Shinkansen’

Victor’s position on the Middle East must have been severely shaken by the assassination of the Egyptian leader, whose name haunts him. He is sad at it.

the moss was at its best in the temple

The Zen temple Ryuan-ji is probably meant, since it is the sole Kyoto temple to feature gardens both of moss and of raked sand. The temple was founded by one of the Bumei Shogun Yoshimasa’s generals, Hosokawa Katsumoto, who might be described as the Victor Ludlow of the Japanese fifteenth century.

had once done Kipling the same favour

A not entirely fanciful suggestion. Kipling was in Kyoto during his Far Eastern trip c. 1888, as is recorded in From Sea to Sea, vol. one. The temple he visited, however, was not the Ryuan-ji but the Chion-in, where he saw the Cherry Blossom procession. His description of the priests’ brocade robes can be particularly recommended to students of ‘jewelled’ travel writing.


‘... And they sent one man on to carry two ...’

But Lancelot has failed to notice how accurately his own position is exemplified by the helpless supernumerary crucified while attempting to carry two spears.


Elena knew that there was no point fixing on any well-known character for herself

Or rather, the author knew. Elena is not one of the 23 Feldmarschallins because the danger she faces, and overcomes, is radically different: Victor, far from being the young Octavian, would be Baron Ochs if he were more boorish. Nor is she the Queen of the Night in any other sense beyond that of her permanent role as Boccaccio’s Reina, queen of both night and day. She is Magda de Cuivry from La Rondine (The Swallow) because, although it was Magda and not her protector Rambaldo Fernandez who strayed, nevertheless her alliance with Rambaldo is similar to Elena’s with Victor. Puccini regularly fell in love with his sopranos, to the chagrin of his wife Elvira, who, after the initial dust-up about the too-beautiful housemaid Doria Manfredi, became as patient as Mrs Yeats. She was rightly concerned about Corinna ‘the Piemontese’ but showed no hostility at all towards Puccini’s young soul companion, the banker’s wife Sybil Seligman — probably because of Sybil’s diplomatic gifts, which enabled her to befriend the family even while playing the same role in Puccini’s life as Vilma Lichtenstern played in Schnitzler’s. The First World War broke out while Puccini was working on La Rondine, which makes that small opera a symbol of unity in a distintegrating world picture. Puccini, in his letters to Sybil, pronounced the libretto trivial, but Victor would be able to see the significance of a pseudo-Viennese masterpiece being composed by a genius at the moment of suicide for the old order. Elvira was griefstricken when Toscanini brought her the news of Puccini’s death.

They went as Aubrey Beardsley and Salome

When Sally dances with Victor, Salome dances before Herod. Wilde was appalled when the publisher, John Lane, put the book out in a fancy binding (coarse blue canvas for the ordinary edition, green silk for the édition de luxe) instead of giving it the plain treatment appropriate to Beardsley’s simplifying, space-massing gift. Nicholas would like to emulate Beardsley’s feat of remaining forever twenty-six years old. Beardsley’s sister was the subject of Yeats’s poem-sequence ‘Upon a Dying Lady’ in The Wild Swans at Coole.

finally settled for being Jimmy Mahoney from ‘Mahagonny’

More correctly, Jim Mahoney from the Brecht/Weill Aufstieg and Fall der Stadt Mahagonny. Jim Mahoney shares with the soprano (inevitably called Jenny) one of Kurt Weill’s most effective duets, the Crane Song, a number which in itself would be enough to put Brecht’s theories about opera under strain, and whose invocation at this point sets the seal on the alliance between David and Charlotte. A friend of Mahoney’s dies in the boxing ring, just as David’s fellow musician dies on the wet stage, before David, unlike Mahoney, escapes the City of Nets. Or does he? Perhaps Charlotte is his Lulu, as Brecht becomes Berg — a Zauberberg, if Lancelot will forgive the pun! Brecht, troubled by the attractiveness of Weill’s music, said that if society found Mahagonny appetising, it would only serve to sharpen discussion about the kind of society which found such works necessary.

she did not feel particularly faithful to her Florestan

Although Charlotte/Fidelio has not yet been unfaithful to Lancelot/Florestan, she has already abandoned hope of rescuing him from his prison, which is of the mind. She puts on his cavalry twills as a token of wishing to wear the trousers in the family, but quickly takes them off again, rejecting the idea of role-reversal. So she becomes Donizetti’s Lucia, with David her Edgar of Ravenwood. The sextet from Lucia di Lammermoor should remind us, incidentally, that the six main characters of our story combine and recombine during the opera ball, with the other revellers providing the chorus.

He had decided to be André Chénier

The crucial words being ‘he had decided’: a death-wish. As with Danton at the opposite social extreme, there was something self-willed about Chénier’s destruction. He could have escaped arrest with ease. Also Lancelot is attempting, by association, to spiritualise his passion for Samantha. Chénier’s love for Françoise Le Coulteux was on a high plane of devotion, and not only because her husband himself faced death. The poems Chénier dedicated to her are the most delicate in his oeuvre. He called her ‘Fanny’ — an interesting parallel with Keats, and a connection which would intrigue Lancelot, since Chénier’s apostrophising of ‘Fanny’ uncannily forecasts, as a classical signal of the forthcoming modernity, Rimbaud’s hymn to female anatomy, (‘Viens, Fanny ...’) Chénier sailed to Byzantium before Yeats. (‘Liberty which flees from us, you do not flee from Byzantium/You fly above its minarets.’) Above all, Chénier resembles Lancelot in having, a fortiori, written all his poems young. Yet what binds Lancelot closest to the author of the opera Andrea Chenier is that Giordano never repeated his early success. In the opera, Chénier’s great love is called Madeleine, which would remind Lancelot of Proust, his bête noire because Proust in later life was more creative instead of less.

persuaded her to go as Manon

Samantha and Delilah between them offer two possible variations of Manon, reflecting the fact that there are two main Manons in the operatic repertory — Puccini’s and Massenet’s. Subconsciously Lancelot would approve of Puccini’s later but more powerful interpretation, by which Manon is given the emotional resources to love two men. Consciously he must know himself to be Des Grieux, drawn forward to destruction, but with the hope of an aesthetically satisfying apotheosis in a last duet. No such supreme considerations govern the Massenet version, to which Puccini gave credit for its ‘powder and minuets’, but whose Manon hardly promises divinity. The first night of Manon Lescaut in Turin was the only unmixed triumph of Puccini’s career, just as Massenet’s Manon had been that composer’s greatest success. Massenet’s Manon, of course, dies at Le Havre before being deported, but Delilah would not want to miss out on the mortification of the flesh which Puccini arranged for his version. That Delilah is also the Delilah of Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila should go without saying, although it is Lancelot whose strength she steals, not Dick Toole’s. Saint-Saëns’s librettist, Ferdinand Lemaire, was a Creole from Martinique — one of the several indirect invocations which the text affords of the ball in Saint-Pierre on the eve of Mont Pelée’s eruption in 1902.

There is not a woman in the world, Proust had said

Proust said it, but it might equally have been Pascal, La Rochefoucauld, La Bruyère or Vauvenargues. Lancelot’s head full of aphorisms necessarily depends on an authorial capacity to remember everything except precisely who said what. This particular aperçu, however, may be found in vol. 3, p. 496, of the Pléiade A la recherche ...

the scarlet velvet choker which Samantha had rather wittily given him

It was a standard dressing-up joke among demi-mondaines during the Terror. At a ball in The Red and the Black, the sadistic Mathilde de la Mole — with whom Samantha has obvious affinities — is interested only in a picturesque Spanish conspirator who is under sentence of death. ‘I can see nothing but a sentence of death that distinguishes a man,’ she remarks. ‘It is the only thing that cannot be bought.’

the air was shattered by the sound of a jet aircraft

Thus the Arcadian scene is threatened, in its finest hour, with destruction by fire from the air. In this respect, Elena’s opera ball has clear affinities with the grand occasion in The Violins of St Jacques and the dinner dance by candlelight at the end of Joseph Roth’s Radetzkymarsch, which is interrupted by the news from Sarajevo.

They all had little jokes and clever quotations ready

The quotations are, respectively, from Le Nozze di Figaro, Tosca, Der Rosenkavalier, Parsifal, Pelléas et Mélisande, Boris Godunov and Otello. Each has a role for Lancelot, but it is no accident that the suicidally jealous Othello is placed last, and that the words are from his dying aria.

obviously meant to be Helen of Troy

From Offenbach’s a Belle Hélène. David, confronted like Lancelot with the opportunity of stealing Helen, does not do so. For him, the Trojan war does not take place.

Gramsci’s idea of culturally defined objectivity

A stumbling block for Gramsci’s admirers, who are forced to wonder how Gramsci himself could have arrived at a valid view of events if the truth of his view was culturally determined. The matter is discussed by Leszek Kolakowski in vol. 3 of his monumental Main Currents of Marxism.

‘... in the vicinity of Carinthia’

Holy ground for Sally. The first Porsche sports cars were built there, at Gmünd, before the firm moved to Stuttgart.


Lancelot could not think of any operas about Aztecs

Nor can I, but the man, instead of being a well-dressed Aztec, might have been a badly dressed high priest from Aida or Die Zauberflöte.

like stars being born in Orion’s sword

The source of new stars in our galaxy lies in the direction of that constellation but is obscured by dust clouds from observation in the range of visible light.

while improbably impersonating Adriana Lecouvreur

The improbability probably resides in the exquisite economy with which Adriana deploys fragments of her only but enchanting melody. Cilea, who had a solitary success and then languished, would be another name congenial to Lancelot.

So of all the Cherubinos

Farfalla is Figaro’s Cherubino, rather than Rosenkavalier’s Octavian, because Octavian married a bourgeois girl. No Cherubino could or should be dressed so richly, but as a page to the Countess Almaviva Cherubino would certainly not be dressed poorly. With the name ‘Almaviva’ da Ponte would have flattered Mozart’s bump for word games — The garden geography of the last act of Figaro is incorporated into the opera ball as a whole, with discoveries, alarums, flights and denunciations.

It isn’t the what, it’s the how

By quoting the Feldmarschallin in Der Rosenkavalier, Elena shows that the character’s situation is relevant to her even if she has rejected the persona. As if to confirm this, Farfalla’s grandfather also quotes from the same opera, but we should remember that although the Feldmarschallin constantly laments the onset of old age she is in fact thought of by both Strauss and Hofmannsthal as being in her middle thirties at the very most. A possible element of self-dramatisation in the Feldmarschallin’s character is often ignored by the singer, who by the time she is ready for the role is unlikely to belittle it.


It had been dawn now for some time

The Felliniesque morning-after prepares us, as in La Dolce Vita, for an eventual symbolic death. But Renoir’s La Règle du jeu is equally being drawn upon, except that here nobody except Lancelot has been mortally wounded. Renoir’s film is never more lyrical than in the tragic morning.

‘The Millers couldn’t make it!’

The Miller who would be most relevant to Lancelot is named first. Glenn Miller disappeared without trace.

‘The Berlins couldn’t make it!’

Isaiah Berlin, in his essay on Verdi, refers to Schiller’s distinction between the naïve and the sentimental. (Tietze, in his book on Tintoretto, avails himself of the same distinction.) The naïve Verdi triumphs over the sentimental Wagner at numerous points during the opera ball chapters. Lancelot, wholly sentimental in the Schillerian sense that he must always think about the purpose of his art, has for lack of naïvety ceased to be fruitful.

‘... The Russells couldn’t make it ...’

Bertrand Russell’s name is yet another reproach to Lancelot. When Russell realised that he no longer loved his wife Alyce** he cycled home and told her. Later on, Lancelot adopts Russell’s means of locomotion, but not his honesty.

[ ** Russell’s first wife was Alys Pearsall Smith. In the first edition of Brilliant Creatures ‘Ottoline Morrell’ was named here. In fact the cycling episode occurred in 1901, and it was a later (1911) affair with Lady Ottoline which finally resulted in Russell’s divorce from Alys in 1921, after a long separation. The error was corrected in later impressions of the book, but the mis-spelling was introduced — SJB ]

‘The Lawrences couldn’t make it’

D. H. Lawrence, a connoisseur of death dances, called Baden-Baden ‘a Totentanz out of Holbein’. T. E. Lawrence is present at the ball in the person of ‘Zoom’ Beispiel, who thought it was an OPEC ball and came as a sheik. Gertrude Lawrence was a prototype Sally Draycott.

One of the Farinata degli Uberti Montefeltro Cavalcanti boys

All the components of this polygenetic surname are taken from Dante. Lancelot’s journey beyond the tomb is already being prepared.

such titles as ‘Yeats and Embezzlement’

A mocking reference, I fear, to my own small monograph Keynes and Embellishment, in which I discuss the economist’s marginal doodlings. (Cambridge and Yale, 1977.) But Charlotte is also casting aspersions on Yeats’s marital behaviour. Yeats expected his wife George to be thankful for the privilege of managing his life while he idealised other women. Maud and Iseult Gonne are the women celebrated in most of the poems he wrote in the tower, but the tower Itself, his solid base, he dedicated to her.


Holbein’s drawing of Thomas More’s family

The 1527 group drawing would appeal to Victor not just because of the connection with Erasmus but because Holbein himself was a cosmopolitan with a knack for making himself at home, especially with the More family. The finished painting long ago vanished and the copies are too weak to convey the full outpouring of creative energy which Holbein experienced in the More household, but the Basle museum possesses the preparatory sketch, which Holbein brought back with him and gave to Erasmus, who was delighted. Margaret Roper sits on the floor with More looking down at her — the same disposition of figures as occurs when Sally and Victor meet. The father/daughter relationship is thus underlined, to the point of hinting at an Electra complex, since Sally has a missing father to match Victor’s missing daughter. Margaret’s fluent Latin astonished Erasmus, who gladly exchanged letters with her. The preparatory drawings for the individual heads are in Windsor Castle and would by themselves be enough to show how Holbein’s spirit, like Victor’s, fulfilled itself in England.

strong toils of grace

A nervous acknowledgement by Victor/Antony of the power wielded by Sally/Cleopatra.

She had seen ‘Otto e mezzo’ only once

Victor has seen it eight and a half times because to a large extent it is his story, with Anouk Aimée as the Elena figure, Luisa. (Only in Giulietta degli spiriti does Fellini’s real-life wife, Giulietta Masina, actually play the distaff role.) The Sally Draycott figure is represented directly by Claudia Cardinale and indirectly by all the other inhabitants of the dream seraglio, an extended wish-fulfilment for which Fellini, while attempting to condemn himself, courts forgiveness by making Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) such an artist. When Mastroianni returns to confront a similar phantasmagoria in Città di donne, he has no excuses and the harem is a horror story from which he can take away nothing, not even a wry smile: there is no Entführung from the Serail. Fellini’s Casanova must die in harness. But Victor will have taken some consolation from the fact that Fellini, by submitting himself to the full despair of his recurring theme, produced steadily more intense works of art.

if you play the ASA NISI MASA game

A version of pig Latin, used by the children and the idealised, Vermeeresque nurses in the barn sequence of Otto e mezzo. Each vowel of what you want to say is followed by ‘s’ and the same vowel again, asand soso oson. Mozart and his gifted sister Maria Anna habitually employed codes. Mozart was a copybook example of how the musical and ciphering mentalities go together — he filled endless pages with rows of numbers.

Did you know that Casanova in his old age fell in love with a ... mathematician?

Only in Schnitzler’s novella Casanovas Heimfahrt. By the time of his death in exile at Dux, Casanova had brought his History of My Life only as far as the summer of 1774, the very time when he was pardoned by the Inquisition and allowed to return home, as a paid spy, to Venice, the spy Elena’s city of mirrors. (The glass mirror was invented and first used extensively in Venice.) Schnitzler took the opportunity of conjecturing what the homeward journey might have been like. Marcolina, the young mathematician/mistress he provided for Casanova, is a composite homage to Schnitzler’s two great young soul mates, encountered thirty years apart during his life, Olga Waissnix and Vilma Lichtenstern. But Schnitzler worked out his guilt by making Casanova possess Marcolina through a trick and murder her young lover while escaping. In alluding to the story, Victor is thus acknowledging his own culpability.


digging her hard bare breasts into that man

As the wind goddess does to the wind god in the left-hand grouping of Botticelli’s ‘Birth of Venus’. The two of them are locked together as they skim the small-waved water towards Venus in her shell. All the visual resonances set up by Samantha in this passage are ironically heroic.

the rippling shallow water

As it is in the ‘Birth of Venus’, so it is in Death in Venice, both in the novella and in the Visconti film. Visconti pervades the text almost as thoroughly as Fellini: the dancing at the opera ball could be from his film The Leopard, the opera ball’s processional groupings from his stage production of Don Carlo, and Randall Hoyle’s costume from The Damned.

to keep the young girl — his picture of innocence — in focus

In La Dolce Vita, Mastroianni, playing the authorial Fellini-figure for the first time, encounters desolation in the eye of the dead sun-fish on the beach at dawn, but regains the possibility of life by contemplating the untainted visage of the girl Paola. Lancelot, unable to believe in Samantha’s Innocence, loses his chance for redemption.

as once Nausikaa must have walked towards Odysseus

She does it in the Odyssey, VI, although Odysseus is not lying down and does more walking towards her than she towards him. The scholar Bentley, Mario Praz tells us, said that the Iliad was written for men and the Odyssey for women. Shelley said that the Iliad was strong and the Odyssey sweet. Samuel Butler suggested that the Odyssey had actually been written by a woman. Most informatively, Gladstone maintained that the poem of Ulysses is the story of family life. Matisse’s Illustration for the 1935 edition of Joyce’s Ulysses has Nausikaa’s handmaidens arranged as Three Graces. It is clear throughout the text that Lancelot, in choosing Samantha, has made the judgement of Paris. Samantha, Serena and Sally form a triad whose connection is indicated by the initial letter as surely as Botticelli’s three maidens join hands in the Primavera. Nor should the fact be neglected that the demon Mara sent his three lovely daughters to dance seductively before Buddha as he sat under the pippala tree. Lancelot’s Parisian apple, of course, appears in the box-file at the beginning of the text — already eaten because his choice is already made, and a withered core because he has made it wrongly.

for the first night of ’La Clemenza di Tito’

Since Mozart’s opera seria is mainly concerned with a man being generously forgiving to a woman rather than vice versa, Elena would scarcely be pleased to see it: hence her flight. It is notable that the operas mentioned — La Clemenza, Die Zauberflöte and Arabella — are twilight works, faintly echoing the vigorous upheaval of the opera ball. No Salzburg season has ever featured these operas all at once. Lancelot-as-author plays fast and loose with time.

But when they were alone together she fell silent

Despite Elena’s belief that Les Liaisons dangereuses is the governing book of her life, a more plausible candidate is La Princesse de Clèves. She and Victor are less inclined to speak frankly than to fall silent. Madame de La Fayette, rather than Laclos, sets the tone. Madame de Sévigné is another stylistic ancestor, believing that Castiglione’s unperturbed and courtly images must be preserved whatever the provocation. Elena and Victor would exchange regular letters if there were no telephone. As it is, Briefkultur is replaced by Telefonkultur. The telephone is the instrument of Elena’s rule. Ortega y Gasset told the Argentine Dante scholar Victoria Ocampo that history was to a large extent the story of women realising male ideals.

The villas in that area are set within stuccoed walls

At Poggio a Caiano still stands one of the chief villas of the Medici, the family which commissioned most of the Uccello, Botticelli and Raphael paintings used in the text. The bronze fountain-piece in Elena’s garden which ’might or might not be by Giambologna’ is probably a small copy from the large Giambologna Triton standing shivering in one of the garden pools at the Poggio Villa Medici.


David was sitting up in bed reading ‘The English Comic Writers’

Yet another reference to Hazlitt, whose bad judgement in love Lancelot would have been painfully aware of. Liber Amoris would have rubbed in the same point.

‘These lovers fled away into the storm,’ said Victor

Madeline (that name again) and Porphyro do so in the last stanza of ‘The Eve of St Agnes’. Victor’s punning references to the Proustian madeleine are more benign than Lancelot’s. Victor will be content with his memory.

It took an age to get the dogs out into the garden

The guardian (garden) dogs must be placated before Odysseus/Aeneas enters the Underworld. In this, the second epicentre of the text, Lancelot achieves brain-death by emptying his mind of imagery.

He had always admired Chénier’s bravery

Chénier’s bravery probably sealed his fate, as Camille Desmoulins’s fate was sealed by his joke about Saint-Just. Sainte-Beuve later published the procès-verbal of Chénier’s interrogation, which showed him to be justifiably but unwisely contemptuous of the proceedings. He called the Revolutionary Tribunal miserable assassins, whereupon Jean-Antoine Rouche, condemned on the same day, and who had spent his time in prison translating Virgil, reminded him that there were others who might complain as well. (Allons, mon ami, du calme. Ils sont plus à plaindre que nous.) They died together on 25 July 1794, three days before the fall of Robespierre brought the Terror to an end.

‘Déjà ce corps pesant se détache de moi’

The line is from ‘Enthousiasme, enfant de la nuit’, a fragment of Chénier’s projected L’Amérique. Almost any line from the Iambes, written while he was imprisoned in St Lazare, would have been more appropriate, but Lancelot is avoiding, even here, the sense of blasted hopes. ‘Suddenly on my lips the rhyme is stopped,’ wrote Chénier bitterly. But on Lancelot’s lips the rhyme stopped by itself.

a dead spot in the centre of each eye, like Degas

In later life Degas was forced by damaged retinas to look askance at the object of his vision. Degas worshipped Ingres and used his example as a stick with which to beat Renoir, who, convinced of his own inadequacies as a draughtsman, was misled into developing his manière aigre. Degas was not just an anti-Dreyfusard but anti-Semitic in general, Renoir was the epitome of tolerant sanity; the two are reconciled in the all-encompassing spirit of Jean Renoir’s book about his father. ‘Look back in, Ingres,’ is a very relevant pun for Lancelot, since Ingres struggled all his life to spiritualise his natural concupiscence. In even his most serene paintings it is always there, and towards the end of his life, as at the start, it overwhelmed him.

Which was full of people, like a circle in Hell

The ninth circle of Dante’s Inferno, Cantos XXXIII–IV, where the treacherous are buried in the ice. ‘Why dost thou mirror thyself in us so long?’ one of them asks Dante, who can see himself reflected. All the frozen faces are mirrors. Those damned who lie face up have their eyes shut fast by the crystal visors of their frozen tears.

Imagine the sweetness of going down there to live together

From ‘Invitation au voyage’ by Baudelaire. ‘Mon enfant, ma soeur,/Songe à la douceur/D’aller là-bas vivre ensemble!’ The two five-syllable lines plus the seven-syllable-line must be read as a single, swaying, curved unit, like Samantha’s figure — a not fanciful comparison, since the invocation of Baudelaire’s name at this key point prepares us for the onset of synaesthesia. Lancelot, like Baudelaire in the sonnet ‘Correspondances’, is now subject to the longs échos by which odours, sounds and colours change places to construct a deep unity. Les parfums, les couleurs et les sons se répondent.

You need a drunken boat

Rimbaud’s ‘Bateau ivre’. Once again Rimbaud is invoked as a saving grace, so that Lancelot, even at the eleventh hour, may persuade himself he gave up writing voluntarily. When inventing Farfalla’s name, Lancelot-as-author drew on this poem’s dream of the essential eau d’Europe, the pond on which the sad child sails a boat as frail as a butterfly in May.

Malraux told his wife that

But only a small proportion of Malraux’s lies became truths later. A mythomaniac on the grand scale, Malraux, like T. E. Lawrence and Hemingway, was never able to include this propensity among his themes. Faulkner, invoked early in the text, allowed people to believe that he had flown in combat, but never made the mistake of actually claiming that he had, so that when the time came to back down he was able to do so with reasonable grace. Yet he was not able to examine, in fiction, his gift for embellishing truth. Joseph Roth encouraged the twin false notions that he had been both an officer and a prisoner of war in Russia. He gave both these attributes to the hero of his short novel Die Flucht ohne Ende (The Flight Without End) but afterwards, apparently unpurged, went on retaining them for himself until his death. It was said that Roth gave a different account of his life story to every woman he ever loved. Fellini was the only man honest enough to study his own dishonesty — one of the main reasons why Lancelot, both as author and character, is fascinated with him. Guido Anselmi in Otto e mezzo wears a false nose to confess his kinship with Pinocchio. Lancelot would like to share Fellini’s capacity to make material out of the worst in his own psyche, but even in death can only project his neurosis, into the ‘idea’ of a book about liars.

It matched the curve of Botticelli’s Venus

Samantha has already adopted this pose, when standing in the shallow water between the beaches of Biarritz. The very seductiveness of Botticelli’s line has been a standing reproach to Lancelot throughout the text. So decisive an outline contains the pressure of temptation in a way he cannot hope to emulate.

it reminded him of Velázquez’s Venus

The Rokeby Venus, naturally. Velázquez was chary about painting nude women but felt justified by the exalted precedent of Titian. The cupid holds the mirror — in which the Venus sees herself reflected and we see her face — at almost the exact point which would be occupied by Lancelot’s own face when doting on Samantha in the Casa Perdida.

Boucher’s Venus. Venus O’Murphy

Miss O’Murphy was one of Boucher’s favourite models. Lancelot almost certainly means the ‘Girl on a Couch’ in the Älte Pinakothek in Munich. The Paris ‘Girl on a Couch’ adopts the same pose but is covered with a sheet. It was a standard angle for Boucher, as the Stockholm ‘Leda and the Swan’ (another Yeatsian connection) further reveals.

Leonardo’s lady caressing the ermine in Cracow

The lady, painted circa 1483, is probably Cecilia Gallerani, mistress to Ludovico il Moro and thus, technically, the usurper of Beatrice d’Este’s rightful position. Beatrice was the perfect wife but Ludovico was not a perfect man, although Leonardo’s Cecilia would have made a saint stray. The caressed ermine is an assertive, not to say potentially explosive, Freudian property, especially since it is by far the best preserved section of the picture. The girl is fading but the ermine becomes ever more clearly defined, in keeping with the orgasmic sequence of Lancelot’s demise.

They were both reading from the one book

Paolo and Francesca, in Canto V of the Inferno, read from the one book before they kiss. It is a book about Lancelot. ’We were reading one day for delight/About Lancelot, how love bound him.’ Lancelot’s final humiliation is to imagine these two lovers brought together by their mutual contemplation of his folly.

One can acquire anything in solitude, except character. Who said that?

Stendhal said it, in De l’amour. Conceptually, this is the fulcrum of the text. Lancelot, unable to escape the trap of his solipsism, has paid the price. But at the very instant of dissolution, Lancelot-as-character reveals the strategy of Lancelot-as-author. Stendhal had at least 160 pseudonyms and 30 separate disguises, one of them as a woman of quality. As Stendhal was all his characters — even Mathilde de la Mole in The Red and the Black, even Madame de Sanseverina in The Charterhouse of Parma — so Lancelot is all his. Stendhal, who devised cryptograms for the initials of his loves, wrote his own initials in the dust. Like Lancelot he abhorred the mob and yet desired the happiness of the people, as if they were two different groups. In adopting the persona of Chénier, Lancelot stopped one step short of identifying himself with Stendhal’s Julien Sorel, whose severed head, in the last scene of The Red and the Black, is placed on a marble table to be kissed by Mathilde. Samantha, the real Salome of the opera ball — Sally stole her clothes — intuitively guillotined Lancelot in advance, by making him wear the scarlet choker. He was like the legendary victim of the Saracen’s sword, who did not know his head had been cut off until he shook it. It was, of course, Stendhal who defined the novel as a mirror going down a road.


‘Klee! Clouet! Klimt! Braque! Cranach!’

All painters. Lancelot’s derivative vision reasserts itself, beginning with the child-like Klee and ending with the sensual Cranach the Elder, a powerful student of long-stemmed beauties. Our hero is himself again.

‘He gave me a book.’

The same book Elena had given Lancelot: Les Liaisons dangereuses. But Elena and Victor are not the Marquise de Merteuil and the Viscomte de Valmont. Sally is right when she says that she and Nicholas are better than that. So are the rest of their friends. Certainly Elena herself would not dream of emulating the clinical frankness which binds Laclos’s people in their desolate intimacy. So she gives the book away. And by declining to keep it, Lancelot states his preference, not entirely unjustified, for a life of deception. Radiguet in Le Bal du comte d’Orgel called Les Liaisons dangereuses a bad book in a bad tradition. Laclos’s frigid influence pervades all the literature to come. He is the origin of that element in Proust which caused E. M. Forster to say that Proust’s analytical knife cut so deep it came out the other side. But Stendhal, an emotional anarchist in love with love, founded a tradition too, and when forced to the choice, Lancelot chooses that, although typically he would rather choose both. He wants the style and the fever. Dreaming of a poised frenzy, he can attain it in one way only — by writing it down. Where can he hide except in candour? How can he conceal himself except by calling out? Hence the first word of the first chapter.

© The Peter C. Bartelski Organisation