Saturday, June 16, 2018

Kafka's Old Office

a LitHub piece from last November...
...
At the beginning of November I found myself in Prague with enough loyalty points at the Accor Chain to get myself a room in a fancy hotel way out of my usual league. There was one particular room in one particular hotel that I had been eyeing for years and much to my amazement I found that it was available.
             
The hotel was the Sofitel Century Old Town and the room was the Franz Kafka Suite. The Century Old Town occupied the former Austro-Hungarian Workmen's Accident Insurance Institute and a second floor office of this building was the place where Kafka had toiled as a lawyer from 1908 - 1922. This office and the room behind it had been converted into the Kafka Suite.
            
Kafka’s childhood home was long gone but for Kafka fans like me it was incredibly thrilling that for enough cash or Accor Reward Points you could spend the night in his old office.
             
I checked into the Century Old Town at two o’clock on a brisk November Tuesday in Prague to find that the room was not quite ready. Housekeeping was doing a quick final vacuuming I was told and I was given a voucher for a free beer at the bar which suited me just fine.
             
When the room was all set I walked up the wide, restored nineteenth century stair-case and found myself outside the Franz Kafka Suite where a little plaque confirmed me that this was indeed Kafka’s actual place of work. I put the key card in and opened the door.
             
The first thing that confronted me inside the room itself was pitch blackness. The outer door closed behind me and rather like – I fancied –Gregor Samsa I too was trapped in a bourgeoisie hell of the indoors.
             
“Aha!” I thought, you need to find the little slot to put your card in to get the lights to come on. I fumbled around and I did find the slot, but when I inserted my card the blackness remained.
            
I began to feel a little buzz of excitement. The Kafka Suite was deliciously Kafkaesque already. What fresh thrills and terrors lay ahead? The exhilaration began to dissipate when I turned my phone light on and realized that I wasn’t in a fiendishly difficult psychological maze partly of my own making, no, I was in an ordinary hallway and there was a problem with the electricity.
            
After a bit more fumbling I discovered the fuse box and although everything was in Czech it was pretty obvious which circuit had been blown by the vacuum cleaner. I flipped the switch and hey presto the lights came back on.
             
Out of the hallway I discovered that the Kafka Suite was gorgeous. The back room contained a generously proportioned bed, a huge bath, a luxurious shower and dual washbasins. But the front of the suite was definitely where the action was. The front room was an enormous light filled chamber with a sofa, a dining table and a writing desk that looked out onto the street.
             
This had been Kafka’s actual writing office. He had mostly prepared legal briefs here (the book to read on this is Franz Kafka: The Office Writings edited by Stanley Corngold) but you could imagine him working on short stories and letters in his lunch break or doodling away at ideas in the margins of his jotter.
             
The room was minimalist and contemporary, painted a bright umber with a portrait of Kafka himself lying against the wall in one corner. There was a bookcase containing mostly French hardbacks by second tier novelists of the first half of the twentieth century, but there were also a few modern paperbacks as well presumably left there by previous guests. I had no qualms at all about leaving a copy of my novel Rain Dogs on a high shelf where hopefully it will remain unnoticed for years.
             
I unpacked, showered and then made a beeline for the writing desk. I had been to Prague as a student backpacker years ago so I wasn’t that interested in sight-seeing, rather, I had come here to work.
             
The theory of literary osmosis is dubious at best but for a writer it is hard to resist the lure of attempting to compose something in the place where great literary icons did their thing.
             
 I have tried this game before and it hasn’t exactly worked out. In the old British Museum Reading Room I found what was allegedly Karl Marx’s seat while I was studying philosophy at University College London. The Marxian seat didn’t help me at all with my essays which were uninspired and generally terrible. A couple of years later at Oxford I frequented the Eagle and Child pub where JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis used to read and write. The epic fantasy novel I began there mercifully disappeared into a crashed hard drive never to be retrieved. 
             
A few years after that in Paris I toiled as a plongeur during the day while spending my evenings at the Deux Magots café. I was trying to emulate Sartre, Camus and De Beauvoir’s philosophizing while drinking enormous bowls of coffee and attempting to smoke Gitanes; but all I got from that experience was a massive jittery headache and a hacking cough.  
             
My most notorious attempt at literary osmosis was in the piano bar of the Ambos Mundos hotel in Havana in 2008. For most of that year I’d had writer’s block and with a deadline looming I took the drastic step of flying to Havana via Mexico City so I could work in the place where Hemingway supposedly wrote For Whom The Bell Tolls. Maybe I too could write my magnum opus here I thought and initially things went quite well. I got a notepad and paper and the ideas flowed. Half a dozen mojitos later I was writing gibberish and after a couple more cuba libres and mojitos I was attempting to push the deft piano player off his stool so that I could give the well heeled clientele my version of All The Little Puffer Trains Down By The Station.
            
I wasn’t going to let that happen again. This time I was going to write at Kafka’s desk (sort of) in Kafka’s office over looking the bustling Na Porici Street.
            
The Kafka Suite had generously provided its visitors with paper, pens and a rather nice mechanical pencil.
           
I took out the pencil and a sheet of paper and stared at the blank page for a long, long time.
            
Then I did a little Kafka portrait in the corner of the page, then another little doodle of a cockroach. I did a pretty good drawing of myself scoring the winning goal in the World Cup Final. Then I went to the book shelf and tried to read Georges Bernanos’s Journal d'un curé de campagne for a bit but found it pretty hard to get into.
             
Back to the dreaded blank page. I wrote a couple of opening lines and crossed them out and got a fresh sheet of paper and stared at that for a while.
            
I looked through the window at the building opposite. This must have been Franz’s view when he was writing those bloody insurance reports. It was an attractive building and on the third floor there was a large, peculiar sheep bas relief highlighted in gold paint. If it was there back then Kafka must have stared at that sheep for hundreds of hours. He did in fact write one short story about a sheep: ‘A Crossbreed’ which is a story about an animal that is half-cat, half-sheep with odd eating habits and dietary restrictions. It’s not his best work if I’m honest.
             
The sheep did not inspire me. I wrote a spoof Raymond Chandler short story once set in Ireland called The Big Sheep. It wasn't a great story and The Big Sheep Part 2 didn’t seem like a very good idea.
             
Unlike a lot of fancy hotel rooms in the Kafka Suite it is possible to open the window and let the city smells and street noise come pouring in. I pulled a chair close to the window ledge and watched the trams, cars and tourists go by for a while. There were more tourists and cars than the Prague of a hundred years ago but I imagine the citizenry riding the #26 tram was much the same.
             
It began to get dark. I noticed a beer cellar across the street called La Republica. I found my laptop and Googled it and discovered that it served liter steins of Czech beer and pre war staples of Czech cuisine such as pork ribs, schnitzel and pretzels.
             
“Maybe I’ll just go over and have one stein and a pretzel and then I’ll come back and do some serious work,” I thought.
            
Unfortunately that decision put an end to the possibility of the McKinty Magnum Opus getting started in Kafka’s office, for La Republica was a very amenable beer cellar indeed. It was full of Irish people, one of whom, as is the way of such things, knew my sister.
            
I had a very good night with a bunch of new friends. The bar wasn’t that far away from the salon where Kafka, Max Brod and Albert Einstein used to hang out, booze and chat, so I think they would have approved. When I got back to the Kafka Suite I was in no fit state to write anything at all.
             
But eventually the room did stop spinning which was nice and I settled down in the enormous, ridiculously comfortable bed.

-->
              
After a night of peculiar dreams I woke up next morning transformed into a middle aged bibliophile who had written nothing at all in Kafka’s room but who was maybe finally over his literary osmosis addiction and was sort of ok with that.

Friday, June 8, 2018

John Banville's Mrs Osmond

my review of the John Banville 'Henry James' novel from the newspaper, not a whole heartedly ringing endorsement I am sorry to say. And I don't quite know how I managed to bring Kill Bill into all of this...
...
Mrs Osmond by John Banville

When a writer turns to pastiche in the later stages of his career he is either paying a compliment to the muse that inspired him throughout the difficult times or else the poor soul has run completely out of ideas. What to make then of John Banville’s Mrs Osmond which is the second pastiche he has published in the last two and a half years? Banville’s previous effort, The Black-Eyed Blonde, was a journeyman-like sequel to the Raymond Chandler novel The Long Good-bye that although lacking Chandler’s gift for simile, did echo Chandler’s skill for characterization and occasional seat-of-your-pants plotting.  
            Mrs Osmond is a sequel to Henry James’s A Portrait of a Lady, a novel Banville has proclaimed in interviews to be the greatest example of the form in the English language.
            Hmmmm.
            Portrait famously ends with the beautiful and brilliant Isabel Osmond (née Archer) realising that the spiteful Gilbert Osmond has married her for her money and that his long term mistress is Madame Merle. Isabel quits Rome after visiting Pansy, Osmond’s daughter, to comfort the dying Ralph Touchett in England, where she remains until his death. An unpleasant encounter with Caspar Goodwood forces her to flee again back to Rome. The reader is left in a delicious state of unknowing, pondering whether Isabel is returning to Osmond to live heroically for Pansy's sake or whether she is going to somehow rescue Pansy and leave Osmond.
            John Banville steps into the breach to tell us what he thinks happens next. We don’t, of course, immediately get the satisfying confrontation with Isabel’s dirtbag scrub of a husband Gilbert Osmond. Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, make ‘em wait, Wilkie Collins observed and Banville first gives us something of a Bradshaw’s railway tour of fin de siècle Europe through France and Switzerland where Isabel meets various characters we encountered in the original. We meet again the charming Hildy Johnson prototype, Henrietta Stackpole, with her crazy ideas about freedom for women. The villainous Madame Merle shows up and the two Osmond women circle one another like sabre wielding duellists looking for an opening. We rendezvous with the terribly nice Edward Rosier, who pursued Pansy’s hand in marriage but who was turned down by her snobbish father. Isabel seeks out her sister-in-law, Countess Gemini who, in Portrait, revealed all about her brother, and we get another run in with the delightfully batty Mrs Touchett, Isabel’s aunt, who saved her from a life of genteel dullness in Massachusetts.
            Banville does a nice job building upon and enhancing these characters although the conversations don’t do a whole lot to forward the story. Banville has garnered much praise for imitating the prose, syntax  and page length paragraphs of Henry James. His homaging skills are indeed impressive and I doubt whether even a James scholar could tell the difference between a Banville description of a French railway carriage and the actual article.
            The dialogue is a little harder to swallow, for Banville often attempts a facsimile of Henry James’s ill judged attempts at wit. James’s genius clearly did not run to banter, although his admirers urge us to overlook this defect by explaining that humour does not age well. This defence is unconvincing as Portrait shares a decade with Oscar Wilde’s first plays, peak Mark Twain and Jerome K Jerome – all of whom remain laugh out loud funny. A Portrait of a Lady becomes a great novel once the gears have begun to turn and James stops malleting us with the stale jokes and ghastly repartee of its initial chapters. When Banville tries to replicate James’s jocularity the results are almost unbearably tedious.
            The wheels of Banville’s novel inevitably turn towards a revenge plot that many readers will find satisfactory. I was a little bit unconvinced by all of this and found the set to with Gilbert as anti climactic as the Bride’s meeting with Bill at the end of Kill Bill – a touchstone I’m not sure Banville or James would wholly approve of. However, this brings me to the larger point: the ending of A Portrait of a Lady was perfect as it was and when I finished Mrs Osmond I was left wondering why Banville had done all of this.
            The popular parody Twitter account @John_Banville imagines Banville, Colm Toibin and Roddy Doyle spitting at one another in a state of perpetual feud. After Colm Toibin published his best selling biographical Henry James novel, The Master, the @John_Banville account erupted in a jealous rage, claiming he could do better and sell more. The actual John Banville, I’m sure, had more lofty goals in mind but artistically Mrs Osmond doesn’t come close to The Master’s concentrated brilliance, psychological penetration or deep emotional resonance.
            Mrs Osmond however is not a total waste of everyone’s time. Banville is a professional and nothing in this book will unduly disturb a Henry James completest. Fans of the novel and the Nicole Kidman film might well enjoy this as a harmless entertainment. Mrs Osmond is competent, safe and reliably dull. I am with Gunter Grass here, it may be an arid book, but it is a book nonetheless and therefore sacred.
           The real psychic toll of Mrs Osmond will not be on the reader but will be on the author. As a Booker Prize Winner and perpetual longlistee for the Nobel Prize (another subject the @John_Banville parody account hilariously mocks) John Banville can petty much publish anything he wants now. We can only hope that something exciting happens to him in real life or else, no doubt, a disheveled, rosy-cheeked Molly Bloom shall arise from her linen sheets and be coming soon to a bookshop near you in a quality hardback edition. 

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Patient X

my review of the new David Peace novel Patient X from the Sydney Morning Herald


David Peace's new novel Patient X, his 10th, is a series of interlinked vignettes inspired by the life of Ryunosuke Akutagawa, the Japanese master of the short story who is best known in the West for Rashomon.


Akutagawa was born into a middle-class family in Tokyo in 1892, the youngest of three children. Great things were expected from the boy who was named Ryunosuke (Son of the Dragon) because he was born in the Year of the Dragon, in the Month of the Dragon, on the Day of the Dragon, and at the Hour of the Dragon. Heady stuff. Maybe too heady. Early in 1893 his mother began to lose her sanity and was confined in the family home until her death shortly after Akutagawa's 10th birthday.

Akutagawa was raised by two aunts who were mavens of the arts. He had tutors in English, Chinese and Japanese literature. He was a precocious writer of haiku and in his early 20s his stories attracted the praise of the most famous Japanese novelist of the day, Natsume Soseki. From then on a successful career in literature beckoned.

Sons of the Dragon, however, never have it so easy and while the newspapers and magazines clamoured for each new Akutagawa tale, his life began to fracture and he worried that he too was going mad. Sleep became difficult and characters from his stories began invading his daytime reveries.


The dividing line between the real and the unreal, between truth and fiction began to blur and this, of course, became grist for further fictions. At the age of 35, Akutagawa died from an overdose of his insomnia medicine.

You can see why a singular talent such as Peace would be attracted to this material. Peace, originally from Yorkshire, is a long-time resident of Japan and author of three crime novels set in post-war Tokyo. He is also the author of two biographical novels about the brilliant, eccentric English football managers Brian Clough and Bill Shankly, and this, his third biographical novel, shares unlikely thematic resonances with those two very English books.

Shankly, Clough and Akutagawa are single-minded in their pursuit of glory, they are all burdened with a vision that those around them cannot always see, they are all accused of arrogance and at the end, madness and melancholy begin to creep into all their stories.

Akutagawa is Patient X, a man intoxicated with words. Peace demonstrates this by blurring fiction and biography to give us stories of love, loss, religious allegory, fairytales, biographical vignettes and fables that map the territory between insanity, truth and lies.

My favourite story in the novel is recounted by Akutagawa's friend Soseki, who tells him the strange saga of his visit to England (Japan's lost twin island on the other side of the world) where, as a lonely student, he is befriended by a crazy artist (possibly Walter Sickert), who is almost certainly Jack The Ripper.

Peace's prose is always changing and this time there is a freer, more lyrical approach to the work and less use of his trademark leitmotif and repetition. But Patient X is still an ambitious, sometimes difficult book that rides the line between Peace's personal mythology and Akutagawa's often occult visions.

It is further proof, if proof were needed, that David Peace is one of Britain's (and the world's) most gifted and original novelists.


Thursday, May 31, 2018

The Americans - one final beat

SPOILERS

DONT READ THIS UNTIL YOU'VE WATCHED THE FINAL EP of THE AMERICANS

SPOILERS



I liked the season finale of The Americans but I felt that it could have ended with one final beat dealing with the Renee mystery. I realise and understand that the writers wanted to keep it ambiguous but, well...here are my thoughts for a very short scene that cd come at the very end of the show. 



INT. THE SAFE HOUSE - NIGHT

PAIGE is sitting alone in the safe house waiting for something or someone...

She can hear FOOTSTEPS outside the door.

She looks up.

The door opens.

TIGHT ON PAIGE'S FACE. 

                                                 PAIGE
                             (surprised)
                                   Oh, it's you.

CUT TO:

END TITLES





Tuesday, May 29, 2018

My review of Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now from the Sydney Morning Herald

SOCIETY
Enlightenment Now
Steven Pinker
Allen Lane, $35
Those of us of a certain age will remember with affection Ian Dury's hit Reasons to Be Cheerful Part 3 that came along at the dog end of the economically depressed 1970s. Dury's list of things to be happy about included rock 'n' roll, Elvis, porridge oats and the smallpox vaccine.
Enlightenment Now continues Steven Pinker's pursuit of an optimistic view of human progress.
Enlightenment Now continues Steven Pinker's pursuit of an optimistic view of human progress.
Photo: Supplied
Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now is a 556-page update of Dury's list. Elvis and rock 'n' roll don't quite make Pinker's cut but the smallpox vaccine and porridge oats (sort of) do. This is Pinker's second book-length venture into the territory of Pollyanna Whittier and Dr Pangloss, his first, The Better Angels of Our Nature, was a skilful argument against intuitional thinking on the endemic nature of violence and war; in fact, Pinker showed that violence has been declining since at least the Middle Ages and probably since the Paleolithic and we are living now in the least violent age human history has ever known.
The first part of Pinker's new book deals with the objections that were raised to his last. He dismisses his critics as woolly-headed philosophers and social scientists who clearly don't have the maths skills to read a simple bar chart. Those readers still foolish enough to resist Pinker's new and improved Whig interpretation of history are deemed to have "progressophobia".
As the book continues, Pinker explains why everything else on Earth is getting better too. This is where porridge oats and smallpox come in. Again, in a series of very impressive, well-researched and well-presented statistics, Pinker demonstrates how we are winning the war against infant mortality, infectious diseases and famine. Pinker is absolutely right about this and only a foolish contrarian could argue otherwise.
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In the 18th century the grim cleric Thomas Malthus argued that saving people from disease would only mean that they would die later from famine, but Pinker explains how the Green Revolution and improved chemical fertilisers have virtually ended famine in the First and even the Third World.
Pinker wants to show us that absolutely everything is better now than the "good old days" and, at least to me, his arguments become less convincing as he delves into the more esoteric subjects of "happiness", "quality of life", "the environment", "existential threats" and "inequality". Pinker is a very intelligent guy but in a book this broad you would need to be an expert in a dozen different disciplines to avoid making blunders and he is clearly not as well read as he might like to be in either economics, ethics or philosophy.
In his chapter on "inequality", for example, he dismisses the notion that the rich get richer at the expense of the poor by updating Robert Nozick's famous "Wilt Chamberlain thought experiment" to examine the bank account of J.K. Rowling. He explains that Rowling's wealth comes purely from the collective free choices of less wealthy people buying her books and thus everyone is better off. Pinker seems to be completely unaware that the Wilt Chamberlain thought experiment has been challenged and debunked many times since the 1970s, most notably by the philosopher G.A. Cohen, who argues that people such as Chamberlain (and Rowling) could not have become rich without an entire system in place to facilitate their good fortune and it's this system that has clearly generated vast inequalities of wealth and power.
More alarmingly, Pinker is not much worried that World War III could be a species-ending event, nor is he concerned about climate change: "humans are smart, we'll figure something out", seems to be his frighteningly glib response.
The overall effect of this book can be a little exhausting and I wonder if it really adds much to the burgeoning optimism genre that includes Pinker's earlier title, Peter Diamandis' Abundance and Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist.
I mostly enjoyed Enlightenment Now and it is a useful corrective for those doom-mongers down the pub who tell you that everything is going to the dogs. It isn't. Most things are getting better and Pinker has the stats to prove it. Pinker's hero is the charismatic late Swedish health statistician Hans Rosling, whose TED talks have electrified millions of people. Pinker urges us to look up Rosling on YouTube and if you want to feel less depressed about the future you should definitely do that or you could buy this agreeable and readable book, or you could just give Reasons To Be Cheerful another spin instead.
Adrian McKinty is the author of the Sean Duffy books (published by Serpent's Tail).

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Five Meetings With Philip Roth





From September 1993 – January 1995 I worked in the fiction section of the Barnes and Noble at 82nd and Broadway on the Upper West Side of New York. There were quite a few authors who lived in that neighbourhood in that time but the one I remember most vividly is Philip Roth whom I met five times in the mundane capacity of book seller and customer. According to my journal this is how those encounters went. Warning – mundane is the operative word here.

1. My friend Scott tells me that Philip Roth is at the Information Desk. We approach and ask if he needs any help. He asks if either of us is the manager. We say no. He asks if there’s a policy about which books get “faced out” on the shelves and which books are placed there spine only. We say there is no such policy and Scott asks if he would like his books to be faced out? He says that we must be mind readers. We face out all the Philip Roth books and Roth grins like we've pulled off a heist or something which is charming. 

2. Philip Roth comes in and asks me if we carry A Dead Man In Deptford by Anthony Burgess. We certainly do I tell him but when I look on the shelves it’s not there. I offer to special order it for him but he declines. He stands there awkwardly for a few seconds and I tell him that a lot of people have been buying Operation Shylock. He thinks I’m pulling his leg but I’m not, it’s been selling really well. Roth seems pleased about this. Scott tells me later that John Updike (Roth’s friend) gave it a bad review in the New Yorker and this (the Upper West Side) is the heart of New Yorker reading country.

3. Roth is talking to a friend of mine in the art department about what happened on Christmas Eve. A woman died in a chair and sat there the whole day dead un-noticed until she was ice cold. I sidle into the conversation and add the macabre detail that they threw a sheet over her and kept selling books (it was the busiest night of the year) until the paramedics came to take her away. 

4. Philip Roth is hanging around the display book table I have set up for St Patrick’s Day. I ask him if he’s interested in any of the books. He asks me if I’ve read Samuel Beckett’s A Dream of Fair to Middling Women. I say that I have. He asks me how it was and I tell him it was ok. He nods dubiously and does not buy it. I wonder if he ever met Samuel Beckett and I want to ask him but I can't summon up the bottle to do it. He drifts away and I curse myself. 

5. Philip Roth has an appointment to see my manager about an event. She’s late because she’s in the ladies room pumping her breasts. I explain this to him. He seems amazed by this information and asks how the breast pump works. I tell him I have no idea. He asks several more questions about the breast pump but I’m unable to answer any of them. (For the next five years or so I scan every new Philip Roth novel for a breast pumping scene but I don’t find one.) 



Todd Purdum's Something Wonderful


my review of Something Wonderful from the Weekend Australian...


In early 1942 Richard Rodgers, the composer, realised that he might have a problem on his hands, when, one night after dinner, he watched his lyricist, Lorenz Hart, drink 14 whiskies in a row. Rodgers was clearly in need of a new partner for the musical he was cooking up about the Oklahoma territory. Rodgers and Hart, two Jewish boys from Harlem had been so successful they had appeared on the cover of Time magazine but a series of flops and Hart’s alcoholism could have meant the end of Rodgers’ dreams of reinventing American musical theatre.
            Into the breach stepped Oscar Hammerstein another gifted Jewish kid from the neighbourhood (he lived literally round the corner from Hart and Rodgers) who had had some moderate Broadway hits of his own.
            The partnership of Rodgers and Hammerstein would last from 1943’s Oklahoma! to 1959’s The Sound of Music. The pair would dominate Broadway for twenty years, win thirty-four Tony Awards, fifteen Academy Awards and the Pulitzer Prize.
            Todd S. Purdum’s well written and very well researched Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution unpacks not just the personalities of Rodgers and Hammerstein but also what made the musicals themselves tick and how and why they were so ground-breaking.
            Before Oklahoma! Broadway shows had talky bits and singy bits that didn’t really gel together. Oklahoma! was a complete musical vision with unity of book, score, ballet and performance that would set the template of how to do musical theatre until 2015’s Hamilton sort of changed the game again.
            Something Wonderful will cure you of the notion that tunes are somehow composed in the ether and simply written down on sheet music. Oscar Hammerstein worked from dawn to midnight on the book and lyrics for his shows and Rodgers, who had a gift for melody, would trim, re-arrange and brutally cut songs and interludes that failed to connect with the audience. Just how much blood, sweat, tears, cutting and editing went into these productions is astonishing.
            Oklahoma! was followed by Carousel which was followed by State Fair, South Pacific and The King and I. Every one of them was a winner. Housewives, factory workers, presidents and kings found themselves ‘Whistling A Happy Tune’ or singing ‘Oh What A Beautiful Morning’. By the 1950’s Rodgers and Hammerstein were a musical producing factory who had become such a juggernaut that even their flops became hits. Who now remembers Allegro,  or Me and Juliet? Yet both of those pulled the punters in in their tens of thousands.
            Both men had happy marriages to women called Dorothy who were interior decorators. Hammerstein’s Dorothy was from Tasmania and he seems to have spent a surprising amount of time relaxing in Melbourne.
            But, into each life some rain must fall (not a lyric by Oscar Hammerstein alas) and this would be a dull book if it was a merely a record of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s upward trajectory of triumphs. Pipe Dream, an adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday, is the first of their flops to actually flop and it’s fun to read about Henry Fonda ghastly croak of a voice and Hammerstein’s starchy and confused attempt to write a musical set in a brothel but not actually set it in a brothel.
            After the failure of Pipe Dream and the moderate hit Flower Drum Song the final collaboration of Rodgers and Hammerstein is the undeniably brilliant The Sound of Music which has hit tune after hit tune, a charming book, witty lyrics and just enough darkness (the Anschluss) to leaven the pudding.
            Hammerstein was diagnosed with stomach cancer and did not live to see the superb film version starring Julie Andrews. He died surrounded by his family (including sort-of adopted son Stephen Sondheim) at the top of his game.
            Sometimes it’s best to know when to leave the stage. Purdum points out that Richard Rodgers lived long enough to see his work considered to be ‘middlebrow’ and ‘unsophisticated’ and sadly Rodgers seems to have been believed some of these criticisms and he too began drinking heavily like his ex partner Lorenz Hart. He died in 1979 a man baffled and out of touch with his times.
            Today, however, the work keeps going strong. Five thousand Rodgers and Hammerstein productions take place each year and it’s a good bet that someone somewhere is singing ‘Edelweiss’ or ‘Happy Talk’ on a stage as you read this. Purdum isn’t interested in literary criticism or Marxist deconstruction or semiotics (thank goodness) he just wants to tell the story of the plays and the personalities and he does this with breeziness, cheerfulness and aplomb. Something Wonderful is one of the most enjoyable books this reviewer has read in a rather depressing year for non fiction and that, surely, is something to sing about.