Celebrating Benjamin Britten, Cyber-stalking and James Lasdun, and J. M. Coetzee’s new world
In this week's TLS – A note from the Deputy Editor
“The public face of classical music in Welfare State Britain”, Benjamin Britten hobnobbed with the Queen Mother, wrote an enormous, expensive grand opera to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, accepted a life peerage and appeared on the cover of Time magazine. Yet he retained a “resolutely workaday” musical philosophy, “concerned with usefulness to the community”, and consciously distanced himself from Romantic notions of greatness. Even at the height of Britten’s fame his work had its critics and its doubters, as it does today, in his centenary year; Ian Bostridge, the tenor renowned among other things for his interpretations of Britten’s vocal repertoire, puts the case for its enduring power.
In both his work and life Britten “swerved instinctively away from the centre ground”, not least in his homosexuality. Performing his settings of same-sex love poems with his partner Peter Pears was, he said, “rather like parading naked in public”. Bostridge reminds us that, though Britten and Pears were tacitly received everywhere as a couple, in 1954 over 1,000 men were in prison for homosexual offences. The poet and novelist James Lasdun had committed no offence beyond a “mildly flirtatious” exchange of emails with one of his creative writing students when he found himself being cyber-stalked and cyber-bullied. As “Nasreen”’s emails grew more abusive and threatening, Lasdun decided he had to fight back. His memoir of the episode, “an elaborate tale of psychological warfare and survival”, is reviewed by Elaine Showalter. Ten years ago, with his novel about a paranoid professor who believes he is being persecuted by women, Lasdun joined a distinguished company of writers in a sub-genre involving accusations of sexual misconduct that includes David Mamet, Philip Roth and J. M. Coetzee. Coetzee’s latest novel postulates a “new world” that resembles a socialist utopia, whose inhabitants are strangers to sex, irony and salt; a world in which “God and the truth are merely the storyteller’s playthings”, according to Edmund Gordon.