Monday, 9 December 2019

Homo Reus? Death comes to Mozart by Julia Jones

Bars 7-8 of the Lacrimosa.  Mozart's last notes?
When the 9th of each month approaches I find a quiet moment in my head ask myself what's mattered to me recently: what might interest other people who like books and writing? Not everything converts into a blog. I didn't write about Francis's and my wedding last month as as I'm still reeling from the glorious emotional impact. Instead I wrote about a war memorial which we visited on our honeymoon -- an oblique testimony to Francis's generosity in organising a holiday that included so many places I wanted to explore, which might not necessarily have been at the top of his personal wish list (four ship museums, two naval memorials and a canal viewing -- in five days!)

This month, however, there's no quiet place in my skull, fragments of Mozart's D minor Requiem are echoing round, as they've been doing since we began rehearsals in September. The Requiem begs for peace but these fragments are not peaceful  I don't think Mozart was peaceful when he died. I think he was either rebellious or terrified, but I'm not sure which.

As everyone knows Mozart didn't finish writing the Requiem. There's good evidence to suggest that the last section he was working on, before he died, was the 'Lacrimosa'. The point where he is believed to have broken off is in bar 8 where the music builds to a chromatic, dramatic climax, then goes over the cliff edge on the words 'homo reus' = guilty man.  The words are not Mozart's; they are the words of the great Latin poem the Dies Irae. It's the way he sets them that's so extraordinary and compelling. The 'Lacrimosa' follows a chilling section where the condemned sinners are depicted, cast away into the bitter flames of hell. 'Confutatis maledictis, Flammis acribus addictis.' The narrative voice pleads desperately for salvation, as it has been doing for several verses already. But it's abject and exhausted 'Cor contritum quasi cinis' = my heart as empty as a cinder. 

Weeping, says the 'Lacrimosa', with apparently exquisite sweetness, is the only possible reaction because everyone will be called up from the ashes to be judged -- and everyone is guilty: 'homo reus'. Is that what Mozart, the Catholic, thought? Is that how he died, in mental anguish? I wrote the programme notes for our concert but they're rather long and it's a busy time of year. Perhaps you should just listen to the first 42 seconds of this YouTube clip and see what your ears tell you as the music builds to that high A in the soprano part, and topples down -- 'homo reus'. 

Lacrimosa bars 1-6

(Programme notes for Waltham Singers concert, Chelmsford Cathedral 23.11.2019)

Requiem in D minor KV 626

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
completed by Franz Xavier Süssmayr (1766-1803)

At the beginning of 1791 Mozart was living in Vienna. He was married to Constanze Weber and they had conceived five children of whom only one had survived. Constanze was again pregnant and in poor health; their relationship may have been difficult and money was short. It was, however, a year of astounding productivity. Mozart wrote a second string quintet for a Hungarian patron; completed a set of five pieces for mechanical organ; supplied his salaried quota of dance music; completed the piano concerto in Bb major and began collaborating with the theatrical impresario Emanuel Shikaneder on The Magic Flute.

Visiting Constanze at Baden in June during the last month of her pregnancy he wrote Ave Verum Corpus then, soon after the birth of their sixth child, Franz Xaver Wolfgang Mozart, he dashed to Prague, accompanied by his assistant Franz Xaver Süssmayr, Constanze (and presumably the baby). Working as they travelled, he completed  La Clemenza di Tito in just eighteen days. On his return to Vienna in mid-September he felt ill and exhausted. He dosed himself with drastic remedies (which may, or may not, have hastened his death) then wrote the Clarinet Concerto in A major. He was fully involved in the rehearsals and early performances of The Magic Flute, which opened on September 30th 1791, but still had one major commission outstanding.

In July a somewhat mysterious ‘man in grey’ had called on Mozart to order a requiem. Count Franz von Walsegg’s wife had died earlier in the year; he wanted a mass in her memory and he wanted the world to think he had written it himself. The message was therefore conveyed by a third party and the requiem was to be composed in strict secrecy. So far, so mundane, but as Mozart felt increasingly ill after his return from Prague he began to believe he had been poisoned. The nature of this commission began to prey on his mind. Although, when he felt just a little better in November, he agreed that the poisoning had been a product of his imagination, yet this remained a period of intense and fluctuating emotion, both for Mozart himself and for those around him. His reported conviction that he was writing his own requiem is psychologically credible: sadly the music does not suggest that he became resigned to his fate.

There’s little agreement as to the cause of Mozart’s death – except that he wasn’t poisoned by Antonio Salieri.  The two composers may have been musical rivals but were on personally amiable terms: Mozart’s last surviving letter to Constanze in October 1791 mentions that he had given Salieri a lift to The Magic Flute and tells her how much the older composer had enjoyed the evening. Later Salieri would be young Franz Xaver Wolfgang Mozart’s music teacher. But Vienna was a rumour mill, Mozart’s private life was often colourful and speculations connected with his untimely death were passed around until the unfortunate Salieri, living with dementia in his last years, confusedly accused himself. Pushkin picked up on the story and wrote Mozart and Salieri, a short play on the theme of envy which portrays the older composer slipping poison into Mozart’s wine. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov repeated this in an opera, including quotes from the Requiem. For modern audiences however, the most potent fiction is Peter Schaffer’s 1979 play Amadeus, which became a successful film in 1984 and cast Salieri as the sinister individual who plotted to steal the Requiem and do away with its composer.

Both Pushkin’s and Shaffer’s Salieri was motivated by his corrosive jealousy of Mozart’s genius. Looking at the quality as well as the quantity of the music written during 1791 it’s an understandable reaction.  Leopold Mozart, a devout Catholic, had accepted his son’s gifts as God-given and while Mozart’s adult religious views may have been complicated by his involvement with Freemasonry, he remained a lifelong member of the Church. The structure of the Requiem follows the established format for a memorial Mass, including essentials such as the Kyrie, Sanctus and Angus Dei (but no Gloria or Credo) and additional elements; the Requiem prayer itself, the Offertory, Benedictus and Communion. The central Sequence is a setting of the mediaeval Latin poem, the Dies Irae, which was also a regular feature of a Mass for the Dead. These traditional words and concepts emerge with a new immediacy, even to listeners who have no belief in Hell or interest in the mechanics of Judgement Day.

The effect (to my ears) is a felt-on-the-pulses expression of the individual facing his own mortality – fear, grief, resentment – together with a painful acknowledgement of guilt. Mozart’s father worried that his son didn’t go often enough to Confession: today only a small minority would consider that activity, nevertheless most of us are sufficiently self-reflective to know how shameful our private failings and collective irresponsibility would appear if they were considered from a truly dispassionate perspective – as at a day of reckoning. The human consciousness at the centre of the Requiem accepts this guilt (as theology and the verses of the Dies Irae insist) but though the words are submissive, the music remains strong. The soul awaiting judgement doesn’t only beg for mercy; it wheedles, flatters, negotiates, pressurizes for it – particularly through the Sequence and also in the Offertory.

There’s definite sense of an individual experiencing consciousness throughout Mozart’s sections of the Requiem but it’s hard to find the right definition – soul won’t really do as it’s sometimes so corporeal. The perspective also changes: in the first movements (Introitus & Kyrie) it’s that of an observer. The Adagio entrance suggests the approach of a cortege: death has happened, but it is not (yet) ours. A wave of instrumental grief threatens the emotional control but, at the outset of this work, personal feeling can be sublimated by the activity of pleading on behalf of others: the primary purpose of a requiem mass, just what Mozart had been commissioned to provide. The soprano soloist offers formal respect to God: ‘Te decet hymnus’ on behalf of former civilisations (Sion and Jerusalem); then the chorus reminds itself that everything mortal will die. The request for light and peace becomes correspondingly more urgent. 

The impression of singers and instrumentalists piling up their pleas is embodied both here and elsewhere by the contrapuntal construction: voices come in one after the other all uttering the same request. Mozart was unusual for his period in that he had studied Bach’s Art of Fugue and he had also been employed to prepare new editions of some Handel oratorios. In the Kyrie Mozart chooses to quote the aria ‘And with his stripes we are healed’ from the Messiah.  It’s almost a nod to the knowledgeable, using the allusion to remind his listeners that Jesus might potentially be a source of help.  In Mozart’s version of the fugue the second subject (Christ) is introduced very quickly, just a bar after the first Kyrie (God the Father). The singers and instrumentalists hurry along, confidently encouraging one another – until they almost reach a moment of resolution…They pause, realise fully what they’ve been taking about and launch into the Dies Irae. Throughout this central section there’s a sense of soloists and singers sharing their knowledge, listening to one another and eliciting increasingly personal and confessional statements – as well as expressing their shocked reactions to the horrors in store.  The consciousness is human and alive, not yet ready to face the possibility of eternal condemnation, wondering whether there might not be a way out.

Death came for Mozart early in the morning of December 5th 1791 just eight bars into composing the Lacrimosa. Singing what may have been Mozart’s final notes feels a startling experience. Bars 4 – 8 describe the moment that guilty man is resurrected from the ashes to face judgement. It’s a steadily rising sequence that begins as a panting struggle up the D minor scale (quavers and rests) then continues past the tonic note, moving loudly and chromatically up to a high dominant A. To my ears the words at the peak of the scale, ‘homo reus’ (guilty man) sound both anguished and defiant – or is that simply terrified? The setting of the word ‘lacrimosa’, flowing and dissolving, brings a sense of mourning and human grief. Strictly speaking ‘lacrimosa’ applies to the Day, not the people, yet the lilting beauty of this music opens emotional floodgates.

Mozart’s method of composition was to sketch out lines and overall shapes of sections in advance, then return to them and fill in the orchestrations etc. There is therefore plenty of authentic Mozart still to come after the beginning of the Lacrimosa. He had already sketched out the Offertory and may have suggested the idea that the ending of the work should be a return to the opening plea (though this is disputed). In more recent years a scrap of an Amen has been discovered which might have been intended to come between the Lacrimosa and Dominus Deus. Constanze Mozart, intent on establishing the authenticity of her husband’s work, claimed there were other fragments (‘Trummer’) which guided Franz Xaver Süssmayr’s completion of the Requiem in 1792.

Süssmayr had been living and working closely with Mozart and his family, assisting as copyist for both The Magic Flute and La Clemenza di Tito (for which he also wrote the recitatives). He’d played through and discussed parts of the Requiem with Mozart, and might perhaps have been told about ideas for its continuation and overall shape. The strong liturgical basis must also have helped.  Süssmayr had previously spent eight years as a chorister and instrumentalist in a Benedictine monastery where he had gained experience in composing as well as performing church music. Bizarrely he was not Constanze’s first choice to finish the work: she turned to him only after other composers had tried and failed. There were, it seems, relationship issues (‘I was angry with Süssmayr’). The completion of the Lacrimosa, together with the Sanctus, Benedictus and Angus Dei and the orchestration of most of the Dies Irae– totalling about 1/3 of the Requiem – is Süssmayr’s, an achievement which deserves to be recognised, though it is fair to say that his sections of the work are noticeably less conflicted than those written by the terminally ill Mozart.

Mozart’s body was buried in the city’s common grave on December 7th 1791 – and the 37 year old Süssmayr joined him in 1803. On December 11th 1791 Constanze successfully appealed for a pension from the emperor. Though she may have allowed personal considerations to discourage her from immediately asking Süssmayr to complete the Requiem, in general her business sense seems to have been shrewd. There was no chance of Count von Walsegg taking advantage.  She was careful with her husband’s unpublished manuscripts, careful with his reputation – though perhaps some of those rumours about possible causes for his sudden death might have encouraged people to support the benefit concerts arranged for her and her children. Constanze married again in later life and was Mozart’s first biographer. The baby, Franz Xaver Wolfgang, became a composer.

Francis and I did attend one concert while we were away.
This was in Amsterdam where the orchestra included an unscheduled piece
by the Czech composer Pavel Haas. The announcer explained that Haas had been filmed
conducting this in Theresienstadt as part of a documentary depicting humane conditions there.
The following week (autumn 1944) he was deported to Auschwitz where he was murdered.

Saturday, 7 December 2019

S5-HVS1 by Bill Kirton

Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

This is a deliberately different blog, but it’s not very long, so please bear with me. I know it's that season, but I didn't want to do any Star of Bethlehem stuff, so I found a substitute and decided to tell you about a star called S5-HVS1. I know, I know... it's not a very romantic name. But that's fine, because it’s not a star you’ll gaze at with your loved one as you quote Byron at her/him and swear eternal devotion. Why? Because it’s heading out of the Milky Way at 1,700 kilometres A SECOND.

But it wasn’t always so hell-bent on leaving us.

Oh no. Once it was part of a binary star system, but the two of them got a bit too close to Sagittarius A*, the black hole at the middle of the Milky Way, which is bigger than 4 million suns. (Actually, 'bigger than' is probably wrong there because, apparently, when something has 'greater mass' than something else, that doesn't necessarily mean it's bigger.)

Anyway, it turned out be not a good idea, because the two stars spiralled inwards, and the one which wasn’t S5-HVS1 switched into a binary partnership with Sagittarius A*.

Well, we’ve all heard what black holes are like and, sure enough,  the star which wasn’t S5-HVS1 got sucked into its new partner and just vanished into… well, nowhere. But…

another result of this break-up of the relationship was that poor old S5-HVS1 was not only ditched by its partner, but got hurled away at a ridiculous speed and, in about 100 million years, it’ll leave our galaxy and carry on drifting through intergalactic space, all on its own, FOREVER.

But my point in writing of this event in such a seemingly flippant way is not really to highlight the phenomenon itself. It’s to register my awe at the fact that a handful of human beings (at the Siding Spring Observatory of the Australian National University, as it happens) have actually measured and speculated confidently about it and have brains huge enough to comprehend things such as enormous speeding stars, galaxies, black holes, event horizons and even conceive of eternity itself.

In fact the whole process I’ve described (thanks to a report in The Guardian newspaper) is known as the Hills mechanism, because the astronomer Jack Hills proposed the likelihood of it happening more than 30 years ago.

A member of the team, Emeritus Professor Gary Da Costa said that S5-HVS1 will just ‘keep going and eventually end up as a white dwarf like our sun; it just won’t have any neighbours’. (
I love the casual use of ‘eventually’ there.)

When Hamlet told Horatio: ‘There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in thy philosophy’, he didn’t know the half of it.

Friday, 6 December 2019

Aunty Debbie Returns ...

It’s been a while, hasn’t it? So you all thought Aunty Debbie’s helpful problem page had ceased trading since the last post? Well, no such luck – I’m still here and still dispensing wisdom like oil of cloves on a rotting tooth. And probably about as useful …

I bet you think I make all this rubbish up, don’t you? And I do. Sort of. But every ‘question’ I’ve answered in this little series has been based on fact – a snippet I’ve read online, or heard people discussing. Yes, I have on occasion embellished reality in order to make a point (hey, I am a writer; it's what we do), but the basis is all real. There really are people – authors and readers – out there who genuinely believe this stuff. And it’s my mission to put them straight!

Dear Aunty Debbie: I’ve just read this fantastic book on my kindle. Would you like to read it too? I can email it to you with another one I bought last week. In fact, I bought a USB stick from some bloke on the internet – it was only a tenner and he promised me it had at least a hundred free books on it and some of them haven’t even been published yet! How cool is that? A Canny Reader.

Dear Canny Reader: Not cool at all. In fact, you should be burning hot with embarrassment. What you think of as free stuff is actually piracy, theft, fraud – however you want to dress it up. Do you not think the authors of those books deserve to get paid for their work? I bet you were one of those people who bought cassette tapes from the dodgy man with the suitcase on the corner of the street, then got them home and wondered why the writing/images on the cardboard sleeve were blurry. Because they were ripped off from the genuine article. Digital technology makes it easy to share stuff at the same quality – but just because you can does not mean you should. Aunty Debbie says buy your goods from a reputable supplier, or direct from the creator.

Dear Aunty Debbie: I’ve always wanted to write a novel. What should I do? Can you tell me how to write, what to write and send me details of publishers. A Lazy Writer.

Dear Lazy Writer: I have enough work to do of my own – why do you think I should do yours too? If you want to write, then write. No excuses, just do it. Having time, space, a computer etc all help, but it’s completely possible to write on the bus with a notebook and pencil if that’s all you have. And write what fires you – if you’re not passionate about your subject, your reader will be bored too. As for details of publishers: if you have to ask, then you are not ready to submit stuff to anybody. Part of the apprenticeship these days is finding your way, working out how the business operates, who are the sharks and the cowboys. In the era of the internet and social media, there is really no excuse any more for ignorance. Aunty Debbie says just get on with it!

Dear Aunty Debbie: I’ve written a book and it’s 300,000 words long. It’s my true life story and it needs to be published as the world needs to know about it. My best friend says I need to make it shorter but I can’t because it all really happened. An Autobiographer.

Dear Autobiographer: Well first off, congratulations for sticking with it. That’s a lot of words. Now here’s the hard part – your life is very interesting to you, but will probably bore the pants off everybody else. Take a look in the book shops and you’ll see that all the (auto)biographies are about or by people who have a genuine story to tell. Maybe they are famous – a sportsperson, an actor or singer. Or maybe they have survived torture, abuse or other tragedy or disaster. Perhaps they have a unique perception of a common job, an undercover account of reality versus the public face. Does your story match any of that? If not, then you have a few options – you can keep it as it is and leave your life-story to your family for posterity. Or you could cut it down and spice it up a bit and publish/sell it as fiction. It all depends on what your aim is. Aunty Debbie would go for the latter, but then she loves a bit of spice …

If anybody has any questions for Aunty Debbie to answer in future columns, please send them with a crisp fiver to any address you can find for me. Aunty Debbie accepts no responsibility for any of the advice provided. You're on your own, guys ...

Thursday, 5 December 2019

Listing (Cecilia Peartree)

I was making a list of presents to give people for the occasion which I suppose we can now mention (Christmas) when I had the idea for the title of this post. It was only after I had thought of it that I remembered two alternative meanings which seem curiously relevant. I've checked online and found there are far more than two meanings, and they all appear to have originated differently. Just thought I would throw in something related to writing here!

To begin with the Christmas present list, I am very uninspired this year, a feeling that is not entirely unprecedented as I have had spells over the years of either hating the whole season or just barely tolerating it. I don't think it really gets much better than that, although I've worked out as I got older that actually it's the darkness of this time of year I hate, and that my mood will always improve marginally once we get past the winter solstice. Which of course is why Christmas and New Year happen at this time in the first place. Of course there are lots of external factors making me even less enthusiastic this time, such as the impending election (December 12th) about which I'd better not begin to comment. I''m not sure if that's what has caused me to write 'socks' opposite the names of several family members, but it must be a contributing factor. On the other hand, one of my sons told me once that he loves getting new socks for Christmas. Probably not as much as he loves new computer game technology, but it seems to be quite a close thing. My grandson is the only one I've actually bought anything for to date, because I can never resist toys and books for children.

I think part of the problem for me is that, in spite of the list-making, I feel rather listless.. Of course I have just completed 50,000 words of a novel in November for NaNoWriMo, which might help to explain it, particularly since this past month has been particularly challenging. It didn't help that on the 1st of the month I was surprised at my writing desk by the appearance in the doorway of a doctor from our local practice, accompanied by a student. This kind of thing would happen quite frequently when my husband was first released from hospital in May or thereabouts, because there were carers and physiotherapists and district nurses and they could all let themselves into the house using the key from the key-safe at the front door. It hadn't happened for a while, hence my surprise, which was magnified when the doctor announced that my husband was ill again and should really go back to hospital. This turned out to be easier said than done, because about half an hour later, having been upstairs to have a look at my husband, the doctor returned and announced that he had refused to go to hospital. This didn't surprise me as the last time he was summoned there for a scan they kept him in for a week, during which every time I went to visit him, he tried to persuade me to take him home in the car

The doctor's visit was the signal for all sorts of other tasks for me to do, such as visiting the local practice and rushing to the pharmacist for more antibiotics, and then one evening when I was waiting for our Just Eat delivery two people from something called the Hospital at Home service appeared on the doorstep, which was very disappointing as I had been looking forward to fish and chips. Anyway, things were all right in the end and I feel that my husband's stubbornness was vindicated.

As November went on, other random events took place that I selfishly resented for disrupting my NaNoWriMo activity. The whole family (apart from my husband who was full of antibiotics by that time) became ill in one way or another, and my car had to have some welding done to make it fit to pass its MOT test, a process which is still going on. Fortunately I hadn't been able to drive for 4 weeks recently following my cataract surgery, so I already had the number for the best taxi company saved in my phone and was accustomed to calling them day or night from almost any location. I even had to take Jacques the cat to and from the vet by taxi when he mysteriously developed a limp in a front paw, perhaps in sympathy with others in the family. Incidentally the 'new' cats are now allowed downstairs, which means there are 3 of them poised to jump on my keyboard as I type instead of just one. The small black and white cat who used to hide behind an old fridge in my son's game-playing room, has now taken to sleeping behind books in the bookshelves in the front room, and the grey female one has not given up on her pointless feud with Jacques, the original cat, but now wages it from the chair next to the radiator in the kitchen.

The only nice thing that happened during the month, apart from the fact that I managed to pound out 50,000 words of a historical novel sequel in just over 3 weeks, was that the optician told me my eyes were now good enough for driving even without the new lens I've just had put in my spectacles. I indulged in the pleasure of driving to work for approximately a week before the welding saga began.

To get back to the title of the post, I have an image in my mind of a ship listing as it prepares to sink beneath the waves. Although hoping not to sink, I do sometimes list to one side as I walk, although I've taken to using two sticks when I go out, especially if I have to use public transport or walk along any pavements.

Tuesday, 3 December 2019

The Ghosts of Christmas Past - Umberto Tosi

"Jonesie" decked out for the holidays
'Tis the season to be jolly whether your preference is secular or sacred, for one religion or another, one culture or a blend. 'Tis also the season to reflect on Christmases past, not all nog and figgy pudding. 'Tis the season of myths and symbols as well as good cheer, of endings and beginnings. Like the Christmas stories I love best, their layered meanings emerge silently from cold winter's darkness like the Bethlehem star.

Consider that the Nativity story - apocryphal or not - with its manger and Magi, ends darkly. Fade to The Flight into Egypt and The Massacre of the Innocents. From the Gospel of Matthew's perspective, Baby Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were refugees from unimaginable violence, the same as those families fleeing atrocities in Syria and Honduras. What distinguishes the modern era's genocides from the paranoid tyrant King Herrod's mass murder of Bethelem's infants?

"The past is never dead. It's not even past," said William Faulkner. As the Orange One prepares to light the National Christmas Tree on December 9, we bear witness to his regime's calculated cruelty in separating thousands of refugee children from their parents and incarcerating them at the U.S. southern border - one more crime against humanity, this one shamefully endorsed by an entire political party and likely to haunt America for generations to come.

I give Jonesie some Santa pointers
Don't get me wrong. I'm not a Grinch. I confess to a good measure of mawkishness when it comes to the season. I don't care for the novelty songs, but I am a sucker for carols and am always uplifted by Handel's Messiah. I've played white-bearded Santa, not only for the family but at stores and parties in years past, as I wrote about here four years ago.) I still love Miracle on 34th Street, particular the original 1947 film starring elfin Edmund Gwenn, Maureen O'Hara, and little Natalie Wood - so much so that I spun an alternative version of it into my 2015 novella, Milagro on 34th Street.

The plot of my 34th-Street Christmas tale involves two children asking a Macy's Department Store Santa to get their mother back from the clutches of ICE. (As a one-time Macy's Santa, I had heard more than one heart-tugging, out-of-my-league request from kids who really believed me to be Kris Kringle. Like my protagonist, I had sorely wished and nearly succumbed to the delusion that I possessed magical powers like the Jolly Old Elf himself.)

Five years ago when  I wrote "Milagro," however, I had no idea how awfully prescient its immigrant child separation theme would become. I intended it to be a readable narrative from the department store Santa's point of view, while socially conscious and compelling, taking in the ironies as well as the often-overlooked message of charity and compassion within Father Christmas mythology. Moreover, the novella's author proceeds again go to the American Civil Liberties Union for their untiring work on behalf of these refugee families.

Dickens achieved a perfect balance of conscience and cheer in A Chrismas Carol. It is darker than is often considered - playing on themes of conscience, mortality, and redemption. But of all the literary Christmas tales that abound, however, like many of us,  James Joyce's "The Dead" from The Dubliners, moves me most, starting with the exquisite grace and beauty of its Joyce's lyrical inner voicings.

Joyce's haunting tale conveys a sacred core of the Christmas season for me, not of Santas and lights and tinsel, but of mystery, transition, and transcendence. Each time I read it I am moved close to tears by the end, as Joyce's Gabriel awakens to the transcendence of existence.
"Generous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman but he knew that such a feeling must be love. The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself which these dead had one time reared and lived in was dissolving and dwindling.
"A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead."
Donal McCann & Anjelica Huston in The Dead, 1987
Like a Mozart concerto or Beethoven symphony, this transports me to a spiritual space every time I read it - or better yet, hear it read aloud. No matter that I  remain as was Joyce himself, a long- lapsed Catholic, and a nonbeliever. The Roman church's archetypal stories and symbology give it life along with the church's staggering sins and contradictions, These seep upwards into my own writing from parochial school days. You won't find me at midnight Mass this year. My inamorata, Eleanor and I have a cheerfully lit little Christmas tree, as well as her figurative artist's skeleton replica, "Jonsie" in the window, decked out in lights and Santa hat for the season. Finally, given all this, I will pause to reflect on the old Catholic, Feast of the Holy Innocents, December 28, which marks the slaughter of those Bethlehem babies. Whether we human beings can evolve beyond such barbarous acts remains in question. That's this year's darkest Christmas story. How will those incarcerated children in Trump's Texas and Arizona camps spend their Christmas this year?.

There is always hope. With that, I join Tiny Tim in saying "God bless us, everyone!" I wish you all the merriest of holidays and a happy new year better than the last in every way.

Due to having artificial intraocular lens implants, Umberto Tosi is technically a cyborg who sometimes impersonates Santa Claus. He is the author of Sometimes Ridiculous, Ophelia Rising, Milagro on 34th Street and Our Own Kind. His short stories have been published in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. He was contributing writer to Forbes, covering the Silicon Valley 1995-2004. Prior to that, he was an editor and staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and its Sunday magazine, West. He was also the editor of San Francisco Magazine. He has written more than 300 articles for newspapers and magazines, online and in print. He joined Authors Electric in May 2015 and has contributed to several of its anthologies, including Another Flash in the Pen and One More Flash in the Pen. He has four adult children - Alicia Sammons, Kara Towe, Cristina Sheppard and Zoë Tosi - nine grandchildren, three great-grandchildren. He resides in Chicago. (He can be contacted at

Sunday, 1 December 2019

Internet trolls and literary villains have more in common than you think, says Griselda Heppel

Let me ask you something: who do you think is the most terrifying villain in literature?

Mask of Him Who Must Not Be Named
Plenty of candidates to choose from. Voldemort in Harry Potter, Sauron in The Lord of the Rings, the White Witch in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Flashman in Tom Brown’s Schooldays, Moriarty in the Sherlock Holmes stories; or going back further in the canon, Macbeth, Iago, Edmund, Richard III (as depicted by Shakespeare, I hasten to add, before any Ricardians take me apart), Mephistopheles…

These are all splendidly evil figures. But not, to my mind, the most terrifying, for one big reason: we know what they are. The reader is in no doubt, from the word go, that each one of these is a Bad Lot, and how the hero will or won’t overcome them becomes the central drama of the story. (In Macbeth’s case you could say it centres on whether the hero’s better self will overcome his dark side.)  

No. Far more frightening, for me, is the character who begins as a warm, kindly protector, a bit of a rough diamond perhaps, but whose charm, engaging wit and genuine interest in the hero has both hero and reader completely under his/her spell. When this character’s true motives emerge – often quite late on in the story – the shock of betrayal is all the greater because of the heartless calculation behind it. Willoughby, in Sense and Sensibility, comes into this group, as does Steerforth in David Copperfield (note the positive, reliable sounding names).

But the leader in this field by a mile is Long John Silver.

Which came to me as a complete surprise. Because – and here comes a confession – having never read Treasure Island as a child, but seeing plenty of illustrations and film stills of a ferocious-looking, one-legged pirate, I assumed that Silver’s wickedness was a given from the start. Like Captain Hook in Peter Pan, or Bill Sykes (OK, not a pirate but a violent criminal) in Oliver Twist. Whereas – as I discovered when I finally got round to reading the book a few years ago – the opposite is true. Long John Silver begins as a decent, likeable, fatherly figure with a delightful wit, who takes Jim Hawkins under his wing, protecting the boy from enemies and helping put together a crew to sail in search of the pirates’ treasure. Only when the ship is well on its way does his true, coldblooded nature emerge, and that only because Jim by chance overhears him plotting murder with the other crew members. 

An obviously evil villain is dangerous enough… but one who has led both hero and reader to like and trust him? That is truly chilling. All the more so because in real life, villains don’t advertise their villainy openly; it works far better to get people’s trust first.

Troll: Friendly, or feeding and spreading suspicion?
Nowhere is this truer than on social media. Up till now, I thought I knew what a troll was. Nasty, bitter, powerless people who use the freedom and easy access of social media sites to hurl vile abuse at total strangers, knowing they can get away with it. Yes, there are legions of these and they do a lot of damage. But far more insidious and dangerous are the accounts, according to this article on, designed deliberately to destabilise whole countries and set people against each other. How? Well, they’ll start with a few bright, feelgood posts/tweets that will gain them lots of followers and retweets, before gradually introducing divisive ‘truths’ (ie convincing but imaginary 'facts') that feed and spread people’s suspicions of each other.

An aggressive, foul-mouthed, bigoted troll is easily spotted and seen for what it is; but these nice, decent, humane Long John Silvers of the internet? Not so much. 

And that is terrifying.

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