Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Newcastle journey

There is a moment you have to remember to look up on the train ride to Newcastle: it is the sight of Durham Cathedral. Just passing it makes the whole journey worthwhile and if it is a sunny autumn day with the leaves in their full Andy Goldsworthy outfits it is pretty close to sublime.

The cathedral I am used to passing more regularly is Ely, which always takes my breath away. Ely is as delicate as a spider's web. It has something of the enchanted palace about it. In certain lights, when the sun is particularly dazzling, it hardly seems there at all. Durham is a kind of miraculous fortitude, a series of ascending statements that transcend reason.

All this talk of enchantment and miracle. What do we mean when we talk of these things? My journey was chiefly taken up reading through Howard Jacobson's Booker-winning, The Finkler Question, which looks and reads like a novel but is, in effect, an enquiry into Jewishness and what, if anything, constitutes the Jewish soul. I don't think he uses the word 'soul; but that is what it boils down to. In asking, as characters do throughout the book in one way or the other, what the peculiar condition of being Jewish is, they naturally consider the history of persecutions, the astonishing successes in material and spiritual terms, and the sheer tenuous survival that is never quite assuring enough. It is particularly concerned with Jewish anti-semitism, which begins as anti-Zionism, then passes into a form of self-purgation, the emptying out of an identity that can never quite be emptied out. All this is done with a very smart acerbic wit, but also a sense of melancholy and human understanding. Not to forget terror and foreboding.

On the way home, I put down the book, pick up my iPod and listen to Beethoven's String Quartet, op 132, which is one of the greatest pieces of music I know, a piece in which you can hear Beethoven ask the same question over and over again as motifs are repeated, turned upside down and inside out, that question being, or so it seemed to me on that part of the train ride: Is there a soul? Is this it? Is that it? And if I move it up an octave or run it through in minor, or shift the harmonies around a little so nothing looks as though it's quite decided, will that be it? And some of the notes rise from a great profound depth that shakes through your lower body, and some race up in agitated cries up in the endless blind allies of the ears and nerves before returning and transforming into something else. That tentative quiet beginning grows a little more certain, then rushes into action before reconsidering and setting out again and again. Am I putting this right? Have I really phrased the question properly? And is this an answer?

I suspect it may be a hoary old cliché but the artist Beethoven puts me in mind of is Rembrandt. The same introspection, the same endless self-questioning. Is this the soul then? Is it instead that other thing? And does it exist at all? Does it, like, make sense, dude?

Yes, dude, it does at certain times. At certain times it is as if nothing else existed, just the soul with its undefined limits, and whether it is your individual soul or some altogether more complex thing in which that which is you is not divided from the world but is somehow the world looking at itself, well you're not going to know.

But Ely and Durham and Beethoven and even all that neurotic anxious scrabbling away at the bare foundations of being just to check they exist at all in Jacobson and all those Finklers, are evidences that will not be easily dismissed.


Clarissa Aykroyd said...

I haven't yet visited Durham, Ely or indeed Newcastle, but I passed Durham on the train up to Edinburgh - at night, when the cathedral was illuminated - and was transfixed...

Dafydd John said...

That's very good! I somehow wish that I spent as much time on trains as you do...

Gwil W said...

This afternoon I walked on a Beethoven Weg walking path - he was a great walker and enjoyed visiting the countryside.

Today's walk was near the Austrian health resort of Baden. The trail passed through vineyards now brightly golden in the dim fog.

Unfortunately for Beethoven his addiction to red wine was to be his downfall - for in those days the red wine was flavoured with lead and this of course made him deaf.

Wonderful composer. Up there with Shakespeare. An eternal Ode to Joy!

George S said...

Lucky to passing a great cathedral any time, Clarissa. We overlook the ruins - in winter at least - of Wymondham Abbey which is lit up half the nights of the week. Can't see it for trees in the summer, but that's OK.

Trains are great when they are not packed with people standing and spluttering, sneezing and coughing, as they were back from Nottingham the next day, Dafydd. Count me among the splutterers and sneezers.

Beethoven Symphonies, nos 3, 5, 7 and 9 plus 6 were my parents' favourite pieces of music, Gwilym. I love chamber music best so the string quartets generally do it for me: somehow they manage to stop time altogether.

I'm in Munich next week for three days and very much looking forward to it.

Gwil W said...

This morning I visited Beethoven's graveside and took a photo, also photo of the nearby grave of his disciple Schubert; I shall probably post them on my blog in the evening when I have time to download them. On way back I passed the site of the house where he died (no longer there) on Vienna's Schwarzspanier Straße.

My favourite Beethoven pieces are the piano concertos. I have the Alfred Brendel / Simon Rattle cd set.

Munich? White sausages and off-yellow Bier Kellers. I believe I have one or two Munich poems at Alan Morrison's 'The Recusant' website. Might get you in the mood!

Dafydd John said...

Living in Aberystwyth - at the end of the line - I'm afraid that I'm all too familiar with the drawbacks of rain travel as well. But on those rare occasions when the Arriva windows are clean, the mid-Wales countryside can be quite exquisite. No cathedrals, though.

I've only been through Munich - by train of course - travelling from Augsburg to Salzburg. A wonderful journey.

Beethoven has always been my favourite as well. The piano concertos, certainly, but more so his remarkable symphonies.

ashwednesday said...

Why is Ely cathedral so magical? You are right it simply takes the breath away and in some lights seems to transcend reality. The view from the train is magnificent, but then so are some of those far away views across the fields from distant roads. One of the world's best buildings, wouldn't you say?

George S said...

It's something to do with the lightness of the form as it appears against the flat landscape, and then that marina in front. I never know about 'best' ashwednesday but it is certainly wonderful.