Peter Conrad

The history of cinema began twice. All art forms are shaped by technological change, but the advent of the talkie in the late 1920s – only a few decades after the first silent films – did not so much develop the medium as kill it and replace it with something new. So abrupt was the change that the strange visual operas of cinema’s earliest years became imbued with a certain innocence, now almost impossible to replicate. To this day, silent film has an aura of mystery, a quality that cultural critic Peter Conrad addresses in his erudite new book.

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Verdi and/or Wagner by Peter Conrad & Great Wagner Conductors by Jonathan Brown

by
June 2012, no. 342

Two households. Two household names. Verdi and Wagner. To the north of the Alps, Haus Wahnfried, the Wagner compound in the otherwise unremarkable Bavarian town of Bayreuth. To the south of the Alps, Sant’Agata, the Verdi farmhouse outside Busseto, a marshy and little-visited corner of Emilia-Romagna. The respective residences reveal something of their owners’ personalities and priorities. For Giuseppe Verdi, Sant’Agata was a retreat; a place where he could escape from the hubbub of Milan, plant trees, grow vegetables, go fishing, tend livestock, and oversee his tenant farmers. For Richard Wagner, Wahnfried was headquarters of the greater Wagnerian project; a place to compose, write pamphlets, receive visitors, tend to his personality cult, and oversee his band of disciples.

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‘Genius,’ as Arthur Rimbaud put it, ‘is childhood recovered at will.’ Rimbaud himself abandoned poetry at the age of twenty and thereafter refused to look back, but Patrick White exemplified the rule in writing The Hanging Garden. He was sixty-eight at the time, and had just completed his rancorous memoir Flaws in the Glass (1981); having disburdened himself of a lifetime’s gripes and grudges, he now re-imagined adolescence in a novel about two refugees – a boy from blitzed London, a girl from Greece – sent to Sydney early in World War II. He worked on it for a few months at the start of 1981, then set it aside, suspending the lives of the disparate but psychologically twinned characters at the end of the war.

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Why do you write?

It’s the one thing I know how to do. I could never catch a ball when I was a kid, couldn’t balance on a bike, can’t drive a car – not to mention other inadequacies. It’s a relief to think that I have one area of competence, relatively speaking.

Are you a vivid dreamer?

My specialty is ghastly nightmares. In order to dream, I’d probably need to sleep more hours than I usually manage. I hate the sight of the digital clock announcing three a.m.

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‘There was a man who loved islands. He was born on one, but it didn’t suit him, as there were too many other people on it, besides himself.’ So begins D.H. Lawrence’s bleak little fable ‘The Man Who Loved Islands’. Lawrence’s islander wants control, sole possession, mastery of people and place. When his first island, fertile and beautiful, fails him because of the vast expense of making it perfect, he moves to a smaller one where, without love or desire, he drifts into marriage and fatherhood. Again he escapes. On the third and final island – a barren rock – his total isolation brings madness and death. The moral is clear. Lawrence thought of community as essential; without it we cannot be human.

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At the age of twenty, Peter Conrad slammed his Australian door shut behind him. He was travelling into the ‘wider world’, away from his native Tasmania to take up his Rhodes scholarship at Oxford; he went with barely a backwards glance. Growing up as an omnivorous reader of English literature in the years of what he has called his ‘colonial childhood’, the young Conrad had become increasingly resentful at the perverse randomness of his exile. What he could only think of as an administrative error had relegated him to an Australia that seemed vacant and vacuous. When his time came, he ruthlessly withdrew his affection from parents and country. This snake-like shedding of skin was his liberation. Crossing Waterloo Bridge in August 1968, he had – like Wordsworth before him – a moment of epiphany. As the bridge ‘ran out into the Aldwych in a sunny crux of blue dust’, the young Conrad passed innocuously through the door by which he stepped into life. In confessional mode, he later celebrated this as the exact moment of his birth. That was when the years of his Australian youth were cancelled out, relegated to a phase of mere ‘pre-existence’.

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By chance the other day, watching British director Herbert Wilcox’s toe-curling ‘Scottish’ whimsy, Trouble in the Glen (1954), one of Orson Welles’s worst films (one of anybody’s worst films), I was struck anew by the fact that even when Welles could not save a film, he was always sure to be remembered in it. Here he plays a Scottish laird, long absent in South America, who returns to take up the castle he has inherited and, failing to bring a castful of theatrically canny Scots to heel, admits his errors and ends by presiding – benignly, but still presiding – in a kilt, yet. A romantic liaison and an appalling little girl taking her first post-illness steps may be intended to warm our soured hearts, but it is the massive figure avoiding the worst punishments for hubris that grabs what is left of our attention.

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We’ve been hectored by Miss Greer and savaged by Mr Hughes, but, like Goldilocks with the three bears’ bowls of porridge, Mr Conrad loves us just right. His book At Home in Australia is a collaboration between the National Gallery of Australia and Thames & Hudson, and more particularly between himself and Gael Newton, the gallery’s Senior Curator of Photography, who rang him in London with an invitation to write a book about the gallery’s photography collection.

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As mouths go, it must be one of the most fabled of the century past. The lips, as widely parted as they could be, suggest the contours of a distended heart. There is an upper gallery of teeth, slightly imperfect, and glazed by spittle mingling with the crystal darts and droplets of a powerful jet of water issuing relentlessly from above the face. A mottled tongue is ...

Back in 1964 before I left the University of Tasmania, Amanda Howard (now Lohrey) introduced me to a serious, nondescript first-year student who, she told me, would go far. Twenty years later Peter Conrad is a Fellow at Christ Church, Oxford, and author of a number of well-regarded books on literature, opera, and television, with a reputation established on both sides of the Atlantic.

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