Of all Richard Wagner’s music dramas, the one I know best is Tristan und Isolde, as do a lot of people, I imagine. I first came to it as an undergraduate, courtesy of the LPs lent me by my tutorial partner. At the age of 19, Henry was already an authority on Wagner, thanks in large part to the volunteer work he’d been doing for three years as a scene-shifter and odd-jobber at the Bayreuth Festival.
So it was that on the Dansette record player I’d brought from home, Kirsten Flagstad’s Isolde, Ludwig Suthaus’s Tristan and Josef Greindl’s King Mark opened a window one misty afternoon on Wagner’s dark, mythical world. I followed the triangular tragedy of illicit love until, some four hours later, it played out its doomed endgame in sumptuous chords and soaring melody. From time to time that winter, I’d borrow Henry’s records again, not to hear the whole of Tristan, but just the two sections that wouldn’t stop ringing in my head – the prelude to the third act, with its heartbreaking air for cor anglais, and, in the second act, the lament of the wronged King Mark.
That king, that love triangle, came back to me recently when I decided at last to read something by a French writer of whom I’d long since heard but had never had quite enough curiosity to investigate – Joseph Kessel. I’d paired him in my mind with another French novelist, equally ‘minor’, Maurice Dekobra. Born within a dozen years or so of each other, they were said to evoke better than most novelists of the time the glittering, bohemian-round-the-edges society of the twenty years between the two World Wars. Their names conjured up sybarites moving around the fleshpots of Europe in Lagondas and luxury trains and private aeroplanes, the Jay Gatsbys of an older continent.
Dekobra worked on my imagination for one detail in particular, the marvellously suggestive title of one of his novels, The Madonna of the Sleeping Cars. Kessel too could come up w
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