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Current Reading

At the moment, I'm reading, mostly, two very different books - although perhaps they're not as different as I might think. Both involve headstrong charmers, people who can't keep their feelings to themselves. They walked the earth together for a few years, and they both had international careers.

Firstly, I am reading Jane Eyre, for the first time. Aside from Shirley, I haven't read Charlotte Brontë. I read her sister Emily's Wuthering Heights when I was a teenager, and I didn't like it very much. I regarded Jane Eyre as a novel for girls, by which I mean: not a novel for adults. And indeed I have yet to encounter a passage that a mature person might construe differently from an adolescent. (And reconstruction is what Jane Austen is all about in the end - her novels are always age-appropriate because they have the knack of growing up with you, taking on shades of meaning that would be utterly lost on a high-school student, or even on a thirty-something.) But Jane Eyre is so basic a novel in the experience of literate women that I thought I really must have it for myself. It is not bad, and it is not boring. The injustices to which Jane is subjected at the start, and at the Lowood Institution until it is reformed after the typhus outbreak, seem cartoonish, not because they're absolutely implausible but because they seem designed to rouse the indignation of good-hearted girls. But the narrative voice, as in Shirley, is anything but predictable. Brontë does nothing to hide her cosmopolitan character. That's enough to hold my interest. At the moment, I've just reached Thornfield and Miss Fairfax and Jane's nice little room. I'd have to have lived under a rock all my life not to know what is going to happen, but for once I'm letting Jane herself tell me.

The other book that I am reading is Rodney Bolt's The Librettist of Venice: The Remarkable Life of Lorenzo Da Ponte: Mozart's Poet, Casanova's Friend, and Italian Opera's Impresario in America. And it is a remarkable life. Even without the Mozart connection (Da Ponte's principal claim to fame), Da Ponte's story would be incontournable. As Mr Bolt quite rightly points out, Da Ponte was born in the twilight of a medieval empire (Venice) and died in the dawn of the hyperpower (the United States). He is buried in Queens probably not five miles from where I write. Who'd a thunk it?

The most amazing little fact that I've swallowed in The Librettist of Venice is that Pietro Metastasio (né Trapassi; the pseudonym is a hellenicization), the doyen of eighteenth-century opera librettists, composed music for each of the arias that he penned. He never showed the music to anyone, though; the exercise was only for making sure that the text was singable. Imagine!

And there's one other really remarkable thing about Mr Bolt's book. He includes a color reproduction of a portrait of Mozart, by Johann Georg Edlinger, that was discovered in "late 2004." How this picture has stayed out of the papers during the bisesquicentennial of Mozart's birth (250 years) is amazing to me. It shows what Mr Bolt describes as "the effects of high living," and as an image its power to smash the Meissen idea of Mozart is unsurpassed. The wonder of Mozart is that he was a male human being just like me - and yet! He was not some angel-made-flesh. He liked to party. He was much worse at cash flow than I am. And when the picture was painted, in 1790, he was probably clinically depressed.

Are you ready?



I don't know about Meissen, but for those of us unable to see Mozart as anyone other than Tom Hulce (still to my mind more deserving of an Oscar than F. Murray Abraham), this is a stunning picture - and not one I've ever seen before. He doesn't exactly look in the pink for a man of 34, but even clinically depressed he has none of the severity of his father.

The Da Ponte biography sounds wonderful.

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