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Notes from antiquity


Orpheus: the song of life Ann Wroe


JONATHAN CAPE, 262PP, £17.99 ■Tablet bookshop price £16.20


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esang ist Dasein”: singing is being. All things are conjured into being,


tamed and made attentive by the first downstroke on the lyre; the first chord, rather than the big bang. The Word lent harmony. The gut or metal wires sound the intervals that set in motion the multiverse of physics. And all this is done by a man, with real presence and real longings. Only Aristotle among the ancients declined to believe he had a physical original. We feel Orpheus as we feel no other mythical being. In February 1922 Rainer Maria Rilke, working on his Duino Elegies at the Château de Muzot in the Alps, was standing at his desk when he felt Orpheus enter. I know that feeling: there is a wood just below the house I lived in where, in the high harmonics of water and wind and in the air of presence behind every tree, one sensed someone there. This is not to suggest some atavistic instinct for the old religion; my destination was a Ninian church nearby, one of the earliest and most enduring missions to pagany. Nor is it to claim brotherhood with Rilke, but rather to underline the almost-universality of the Orpheus experience; a moment of woods and water, with just a hint of the underworld beckoning. Orpheus persists, uniquely, in our collective unconscious (Jung first


Last-chance saloon


Making an Exit: from the magnificent to the macabre –how


we dignify the dead Sarah Murray


COPTIC PRESS, 265PP, £9.99 ■Tablet bookshop price £9


Tel 01420 592974


Gift of Time : a family diary of cancer Rory MacLean


CONSTABLE, 198PP, £12.99 ■Tablet bookshop price £11.70


C Tel 01420 592974


oming to terms with the death of a parent is one of the hardest things to bear in this life. Sarah Murray, an extrovert British journalist based in New York, was devoted to her father. When he died and his ashes had been scattered in Dorset, she decided to embark on an odyssey around the world to investigate the way different cultures cope with death and its aftershocks. She attends a cremation in Bali; visits the


catacombs of Sicily; observes the papier mâché watches, TVs, computers and other


encountered him in a dream at the age of three). His real existence is debated: perhaps the son of Oeagrus, king of Thrace, and of Calliope, perhaps of Apollo, but no visitor to modern Bulgaria can ignore his actuality. He may have studied in Egypt, beaten time for the Argonauts on the quest for the Golden Fleece, and been torn apart by women. We experience him as a pre-echo of Christ and we sense his persistence in a figure like Jimi Hendrix with his electric guitar, trances and fire. I think Ann Wroe (a former Tablet columnist) misses a trick by not teasing out the Orphean strands that run through pop culture (those screaming girls tearing at clothes and hair; “Strawberry Fields”; Tim Buckley; everything in Bob Dylan); but only Ann Wroe could have woven together this remarkable, poetic, polytonal narrative of a life and an idea. Her scholarship is formidable. I was thrilled to see how much space she gave to Robert Henryson, whose Tale of Orpheus and Erudices his Quhene is the most underrated of his works. It is, of course, Eurydice who makes


“luxury” items which, in Hong Kong, are burnt to accompany the dead into the afterlife. In Mexico, the Philippines and the Czech Republic her part-journalistic, part-anthropological quest continues. In Ghana she orders a coffin to be made for her own use – a scale model of the Empire State Building – and has it shipped to her apartment in New York where it is a sure-fire conversation piece. Chatty, discursive, upbeat, this jokey travel noir is a modern variation on the old-fashioned English middle-class stoicism about death: keeping on smiling through. Murray externalises her grief in these investigative peregrinations, yet cannot help coming back time and again to memories of her beloved father, his quirks, humour and originality. Funny and tender, intelligent and wide-ranging, this is an original way of coping with the loss and pain of bereavement. When the mother of travel writer Rory


MacLean was diagnosed with terminal cancer, Rory and his wife, Katrin, decided that she was to be cared for, to live and to die, at home with them in their Dorset cottage. A gift of time was what they felt this last period spent together would be: this book comprises the journals not just of


Ann Wroe, who ‘weaves a complex


counterpoint that combines literary learning with a vivid snapshot of the Orphean spirit’


Orpheus human; “without her, [he] was myth rather than man”. A god would have gone down into the underworld simply to prove that he could, and to flout death, but Orpheus goes down because of a love so intense that it defies gravity and the natural order. It is one of our core cultural narratives, reharmonised by Monteverdi, brought to voice in another form by Kathleen Ferrier. In seven chapters, or “strings”, Ann Wroe weaves a complex counterpoint that combines literary learning with vivid snapshots of the Orphean spirit abroad in our world: a small boy dancing rapturously in a Bulgarian roadhouse; two drunks weaving along a boardwalk in Atlantic City with beers and kites … beautifully observed and evoked. Marvellous subjects can still, sometimes, deliver leaden books. This one, though, really is a song. In only a few places do her fingers slip on the strings. When Odysseus sailed past the Sirens, lashed to the mast, his ears weren’t stopped with wax; that was his men and that was the point of tying him, so that he could hear. And there is not much detailed examination of Orpheus’ sexuality. In one version, the women tear him apart because he has denied them his love. Albrecht Dürer placed a banner in a tree at the spot that read: “Orpheus, first of the sodomites”. What does this mean? But such quibbles are just an aspect of the book’s wonderful vibrational quality. It continues ringing long after the last page is read, after favourite passages are reread. It evokes, but it also embodies, its subject. A man might not have squeezed on through the lyre and followed, as Rilke put it. But a woman has. Brian Morton


Rory and Katrin MacLean, but of his mother, Joan, as well. The state and its agents intrude into every corner of modern British life, including, of course, the way we die. Articulate, intelligent, determined, Rory and his wife resist all the pressures to have their mother institutionalised, and in the process themselves become part-time nurses, administering injections, negotiating with doctors, researching drugs and treatments on the web, ferrying medicines to and from pharmacies. They cope very well –much more humanely, one suspects, than the professionals would have done. In discomfort rather than pain, her


strength slowly ebbing, surrounded by loving family, Joan MacLean surely had as good a death as it is possible to have. Uplifting and inspirational, this account is not in the slightest bit depressing, rather the reverse. All three people involved showed remarkable courage, resilience, sensitivity, and – in Hemingway’s memorable phrase – grace under pressure. Simply and honestly written, it is a testament to high ideals and deeply felt loving charity. A moving, exceptional book and highly recommended. Robert Carver


17 September 2011 | THE TABLET | 25


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