In the London Review of Books, Jenny Turner considers the unfairly overlooked Booker winner Penelope Fitzgerald whose work can be summed up in this phrase about her collected letters: "it looks so cosy and mumsy but it isn’t." Where to begin depends on your mood, of course, though her most popular titles are The Blue Flower, The Bookshop, The Beginning of Spring, The Gate of Angels [Kindle], and Offshore, each of which is a marvel of compression.
Also in the LRB, critic James Wood takes on Britten (and Pears) and how his homosexuality influenced his music:
"...the two men became lovers early in 1940; it’s possible that this was Britten’s first consummated relationship. His sexuality seems mysterious – not in its orientation, which was unwavering, but in its expression. The Britten-Pears union was passionate, moving in its deep fidelity and consonance, but not greatly erotic. Kildea says that Britten, always monogamous, became celibate in later life. Gay references and subcultures made him uneasy; he did not like socialising with gay couples. His assistant, Colin Matthews, ‘thought the repression extended to all brands of sexuality, not merely his own’. He was most himself, it seems, when permitted to enter into avuncular relations with handsome teenage boys, sex kept at bay – but the scene also charged – by strong force fields of shame and prohibition. In his biography of Britten, Humphrey Carpenter darkened counsel with a little innuendo and shadow; attractively, Kildea and Powell are straightforward and easy about Britten’s boys. Britten certainly fell in love with Piers Dunkerley, Bobby Rothman, David Spenser and David Hemmings (the youngest of them, and the one whose relations with Britten were ‘nearly catastrophic’, according to Pears). But these
He was in a towel following a bath at Crag House, when ‘Ben came up with an extremely soppy, sentimental look on his face, and put his arms round me, and kissed me on the top of the head. And I made the speech which I’d long prepared. I said: “No, Ben, it is not to be!”’ And nor was it … Gathorne-Hardy was 18 at the time.
Several of Britten’s operas circle around this dangerous territory: Peter Grimes, the fisherman accused of beating and murderously neglecting his boy apprentices; Vere and Claggart, differently in love with doomed Billy Budd; Aschenbach watching Tadzio. What is interesting about them is their apparently paradoxical but actually stereoscopic application of repression and sympathy. Peter Grimes mutes its homosexual resonances. ‘The more I hear of it, the more I feel that the queerness is unimportant & doesn’t really exist in the music,’ Pears decided in 1944. Doesn’t exist or mustn’t? Repression is then transferred into sympathy (sympathy for what precisely has been repressed, perhaps): Grimes is a more attractive character in the opera than he appears in Crabbe’s poem, the source text. Something similar animates Billy Budd and Death in Venice. Both operas work hard to replace actual same-sex desire with Platonised, Christian or otherwise slightly sexless versions of it (Vere’s chaste love for Billy replaces what Melville called Claggart’s ‘natural depravity’). And curiously, this very repression then effects a release: Vere’s relation to Billy is more tenderly realised than anything in Melville’s novella (‘But he has blessed me, and saved me, and the love which passes understanding has come to me,’ he sings, after Billy’s execution); Britten’s Aschenbach movingly intones: ‘Who really understands the workings of the creative mind? Nonetheless, this “I love you” must be accepted, ridiculous but sacred too and no, not dishonourable, even in these circumstances.’ Eros replaces sex. It is hard not to speculate that a similar mechanism of sexual repression and desexualised release was at the heart of Britten’s relations with unattainable teenagers.
These operas don’t merely enact repression, but dramatise it too; we see its operation. We grieve for repression itself (which is doubtless the repressed claim on our sympathies in both Melville and Mann’s works, but made more lucid in Britten’s operas, more urgent). We see repression as we should: ‘working’ and not working – at work. Something of this strange doubleness is musically embodied. There is the unease Leonard Bernstein talked about when he said that you can hear gears grinding in Britten’s work, ‘and not quite meshing, and they make a great pain’. It’s striking how many of Britten’s works rise towards declarations of apparent faith, with endings in major tonic chords. But these resolutions often function a little like the ‘happy’ ending which closes the Book of Job; they are contaminated closures, finales which cannot finalise, because disorder and dissonance have proved themselves uncontainable. This is perhaps true of Noye’s Fludde. It is certainly the atmosphere at the end of theSinfonia da Requiem, despite the great, almost quelling beauty of the last movement. ‘Death be not Proud’, the last of the Holy Sonnets of John Donne, a ferocious song-cycle written in two weeks in 1945 in the shadow of Britten’s performances in German concentration camps, ends with the rousing line, ‘And death shall be no more; death thou shalt die.’ The piano obligingly resolves into a triumphant B major chord, a weirdly hollow appeal after the abrasions we have undergone.