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Stuff I’ve Been Reading: October/November 2018

by Nick Hornby
Illustration by Kristen Radtke

Stuff I’ve Been Reading: October/November 2018

Nick Hornby
4 Snaps

books read:

  • Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution—Todd S. Purdum
  • The Order of Time—Carlo Rovelli
  • The Incurable Romantic and Other Unsettling Revelations—Frank Tallis
  • The Queen’s Gambit—Walter Tevis

books bought:

  • The Secret Life of the American Musical: How Broadway Shows Are Built—Jack Viertel
  • The Incurable Romantic and Other Unsettling Revelations—Frank Tallis
  • Making Oscar Wilde—Michele Mendelssohn
  • The Friend—Sigrid Nunez
  • Love Sick: Love as a Mental Illness—Frank Tallis
  • Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life—Jonathan Gould
  • Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder—Caroline Fraser

Where to start? One book I read this month challenges everything I, and perhaps even you, assumed about time and space; another is a joint biography of the men who wrote Oklahoma!, Carousel, and South Pacific. Which of these two is more important to us here at The Believer? Well, there’s no real argument, is there? This magazine, or this column, anyway, believes that while second-act problems in musical theater productions are perhaps not everything, they are certainly more important than mind-boggling ideas about the way we understand the stupid universe.

Something Wonderful is above all a marvelous book about the arts and the artistic process. Todd S. Purdum provides a more than satisfying biography of Rodgers and Hammerstein, their successes and failures, their marriages, their money. But he’s just as comfortable, and very acute, writing about their craft. He points out, for example, that “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’,” the opening number of Oklahoma!, the first show they wrote together, takes the shape of a folk ballad, rather than a thirty-two-bar musical number, and that the repeated lines (“There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow. / There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow”) are borrowed from the stylistically appropriate field holler tradition. The whole of Oklahoma! was a stylistic risk. The story, songs, and choreography were all entwined in a way that Broadway hadn’t seen before, effectively creating the model we have been watching ever since. And like Hamilton, you would have had more luck getting a job in the chorus than a ticket to see it.

Comparisons to Hamilton are not spurious. Every time a new Rodgers and Hammerstein show is launched, you think, Huh. That’s a crazy subject for a piece of musical entertainment—whether it’s the formation of a new state, or the relationship between a governess and a king, or the grim poverty of the life of a fairground barker, or the interactions of American servicemen and South Sea islanders. And then you remember Evita, and Les misérables, and Assassins, and you realize that almost the first law of musicals is that the subject matter must always be unlikely. Not only did Rodgers and Hammerstein write musicals that worked; they stuffed them full of songs that will probably survive as long as popular music survives. “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’,” “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” “Happy Talk,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair,” “I Cain’t Say No,” “Hello Young Lovers,” “My Favorite Things,” “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” “You Took Advantage of Me”… If you don’t like the original-cast versions, maybe you’ll appreciate the versions by John Coltrane, or Miles Davis, or Hank Mobley, or Lee Morgan. All those guys knew a good tune when they heard one.

On top of everything else, Something Wonderful has soul. The relationship between Rodgers and Hammerstein is effectively an entirely successful and redemptive second marriage for both of them. Rodgers was on the rebound from a stormy period with Lorenz Hart, who was in the process of drinking himself to death; Hammerstein had been working with Jerome Kern and others, and had endured a decade of dismal failure before Oklahoma! He was all washed-up at forty-six, before the twenty spectacularly successful years that were to come. If you need people to root for in a book, then these two provide this in spades. I’m happy to have read this book, and I was also extremely happy while I was reading it. It’s a very happy book, and you can’t say that about everything we read.

I would like to tell you I that I listen to the BBC weekly radio show The Life Scientific with enormous attention, because I am a curious-minded individual as at ease in the worlds of immunology and genetics as in musical theater. But I actually listen to, or rather hear, the program because it’s on shortly after 9 a.m., I haven’t yet turned the radio off after the news, and I’m still wandering round and round the kitchen looking for keys, spectacles, and bottles of Heavenly Vanilla Custard vape juice before leaving for my office. But a few weeks ago the Italian quantum physicist Carlo Rovelli said the following:

It is known for a fact that Newtonian time is wrong. The idea that time forms a long line, there’s a now, a yesterday, a last year, a next year… We know for sure this is a bad picture. There’s no line.

Well, that was news to me, pretty much. (“Pretty much”! Who am I kidding? I just put “pretty much” in there to suggest that I had nibbled away at the edge of this knowledge-cake, picked the icing off, as it were. But I have left it untouched. I may as well be a diabetic when it comes to science-cakes.) That was news to me. Rovelli works at the Planck scale, where things are a billion trillion times smaller than the smallest atomic nucleus, which is in itself a million millionth of a millimeter. “Is it smaller than a sand? Is it smaller than a salt?” Ali G once said incredulously to a nuclear scientist. Smaller than a salt? By my estimate, a billion trillion million millionth of a millimeter is much smaller than a salt.

I was sufficiently dumbfounded by everything Rovelli was saying to go out and buy his book The Order of Time. But here’s the truly impressive thing: once I bought it, I read it, apart from the two chapters he said I could skip if I found them heavy going. (I admit I didn’t try that hard to come to grips with them. At that point, Rovelli had become the kind of teacher who says to his students, “Well, if you really don’t think you can manage the homework tonight, don’t do it.”)

Rovelli is a wonderful writer, and so even when you (or perhaps I should just stick to the first-person singular) don’t know what’s going on, he comes up with enjoyable, occasionally beautiful metaphors to help you (me). Time is not like “the English at a bus-stop, forming an orderly queue”; rather, it’s a “crowd of Italians.” And “the difference between things and events is that things persist in time; events have a limited duration. A stone is a prototypical ‘thing’: we can ask where it will be tomorrow. Conversely, a kiss is an ‘event.’ It makes no sense to ask where the kiss will be tomorrow.” All rather lovely, but then you have to come to terms with Rovelli’s assertion that, actually, they are no things: “The world is made up of networks of kisses, not of stones.” Even a stone, it turns out, is an event, since it won’t be around forever.

In the first few chapters, Rovelli does a good job of demolishing time: there’s no present; there’s no unity because time is literally different at different altitudes or speeds, and it doesn’t flow independently of us. These are all facts, I’m afraid. The stories we tell ourselves about time passing, about now and then and tomorrow, are not accurate; they are merely convenient, because we’re still working on the story that will make sense to science. Newtonian time still works for us because we don’t know any better, in the same way that a flat earth made sense to our primitive ancestors.

The ideas in The Order of Time are extraordinary, and I rather fear you should read it. It has, however, made me a more committed Newtonian. Let’s face it, Newtonian time is going to do me for the rest of my natural life; I will continue to think of English queues rather than Italians jostling, because it makes life easier. By the time you are old, young Believer reader, you will probably be at ease with events and kisses, but I’m too set in my ways, and I can’t deal in Planck time, because I’ve only just learned how to use Spotify properly. Good luck to you, but I can’t say I envy you. The trouble with quantum physics is that it’s a thrilling mind-fuck, and clearly dizzyingly important, but if you choose to ignore it, nothing will happen to you. You’ll still be talking about last night’s takeout, and the 2006 Champions League Final, and tomorrow’s workday.

Psychotherapist Frank Tallis’s The Incurable Romantic and Other Unsettling Revelations is also about a world we know but that is still completely alien to us—if we’re lucky. We are familiar with heartbreak, separation, romantic yearning and dissatisfaction, sexual desire. But Tallis’s book is about what happens when these perfectly ordinary feelings become warped, excessive, and unmanageable in some of his patients, and as you can imagine, it’s pretty gripping. Megan, for example, was a barrister’s clerk who needed a tooth extracted. When she came round after general anesthesia, she was in love with Damon, the doctor who had performed the surgery. She was also convinced that Damon was in love with her, and that all protestations to the contrary were merely indicative of his passion. She wrote him letters; she waited outside his surgery. Her husband was upset; Damon’s wife became angry and threatened to call the police; she was put on medication that seemed only to intensify her feelings. In the end, he moved to Dubai. Megan had to settle for a little shrine—a newspaper cutting from a local paper, a paper clip, other things that Damon might have touched. All this time she remained married. Megan was and perhaps still is suffering from what was once known as De Clerambault Syndrome, although nowadays it is more commonly referred to as erotomania. G. G. De Clerambualt’s most famous patient was a woman who was convinced that King George V was in love with her, and that he communicated with her by moving the curtains. It is extraordinary, the stories people will tell themselves. (By the way, the singer Shakira communicates with me by blinking as she sings certain key words during performances, but that is a practical necessity rather than a fantasy. We’re both busy people.)

Meanwhile, Ali, a successful businessman with a wife and four children, comes to see Tallis because his wife found evidence that he has been seeing a prostitute. Ali and Tallis danced around each other for a few weeks, until eventually Ali confesses that this wasn’t the first time, or the first hooker. “It’s actually closer to three thousand,” he says. “Maybe more.” He was not only sleeping with these women but convincing them that they had a future with him. “We’d chat about what our lives were going to be like, together. We’d go to see big houses, with an estate agent—and get really excited.” Well, nobody can accuse him of being a commitment-phobe. The great thing about The Incurable Romantic is that it makes you feel better about yourself. Whether you’re happily or unhappily married, happily or unhappily single, involved in an adulterous relationship with another person or even several other people, you’re doing better than these guys.

The love lives of others are endlessly fascinating, but one of the points Tallis is making is that when we fall in love, we flirt with madness anyway. We are nuts about someone, or insanely jealous. We render ourselves temporarily incompetent, and find ourselves doing things that make sense only within the context of our passionate disturbance. And just as there are some unfortunate people who never come back after an acid trip and end up living in a tree for a decade or so, every time we become consumed by another, we run the risk of failing to make it to the far shore of contented domesticity, and of getting stranded in turbulent waters.

I read only one novel this month, Walter Tevis’s ruinously gripping The Queen’s Gambit. I was reminded of it by Michael Chabon’s recent praise of the novel in an English newspaper. I had first read it when it came out, in 1983. Tevis is also the author of The Hustler and The Man Who Fell to Earth, both triumphantly filmed, and that is how I discovered him, in my early twenties. The Queen’s Gambit is probably unfilmable because it is about chess, and there are blow-by-blow descriptive passages that are long enough for a Kirkus reviewer to describe it, upon its release, as an “on-and-off beguilement.” Well, it’s not. It’s just on, every page of it. I don’t and can’t play chess, but Tevis’s obvious love for and understanding of the game allows him to distinguish every match that his heroine Beth Harmon plays from its predecessor. Some games are as clear as the clearest Mediterranean Sea; some are as murky as the English Channel. Some require more concentration than any of us have at our disposal; some just seem like feats of brute mental strength.

Beth Harmon is a chess prodigy who discovers her gift in the most unpromising circumstances: she plays in the basement with the caretaker of the orphanage where she lives. Tevis accomplishes many extraordinary things in this spare book, not the least of which is to make a novel set during the 1950s and ’60s and written in the ’80s feel as though it were the product of the #MeToo movement. The author never forgets that he’s writing about a young woman in a dark-suited men’s world, and his sympathy is almost bewilderingly contemporary.

What a few weeks I’ve had with my books. Actually, I don’t suppose I’m allowed to say “a few weeks.” Carlo Rovelli would tell me that I’ve had a few kisses, and that those kisses are now jumbling around me like midges. Well, either way, they’re still there in my mind—the books and the weeks. I’m not sure whether either Planck time or Newtonian time applies to readers. We’re lucky that way.

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