wed 19/06/2024

My Summer Reading: Tenor Ian Bostridge | reviews, news & interviews

My Summer Reading: Tenor Ian Bostridge

My Summer Reading: Tenor Ian Bostridge

The singer reveals his top reading choices for summer

The former historian enjoys revisiting the past with Richard Holmes and Nabokov

The career of acclaimed tenor Ian Bostridge (b 1964) has taken a somewhat unusual trajectory.

He was reading for a PhD on witchcraft at Corpus Christi College, Oxford before he decided to turn his hobby of singing into his profession, despite not having any formal musical training – he has admitted that he probably picked up several bad habits singing along to records of German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.

Initially he was best known for his performances of German lieder but his extensive repertoire also embraces opera - his operatic debut was as Lysander in Benjamin Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream - and even cabaret. A collection of reviews and short essays by Bostridge, A Singer’s Notebook, will be published in September by Faber and Faber.


What are you reading just now?


Footsteps by Richard Holmes. I’ve read Coleridge by Holmes and I’ve been meaning to read Footsteps for ages and I kept picking it up but somehow it always came at the wrong time. It’s absolutely fantastic and also strangely relevant to things I’m currently thinking about – I mean, the first section is about Robert Louis Stevenson travelling through the Cevennes with a donkey, and there’s a theme of wandering and being on your own, which is very connected to a lot of the thinking I’m doing about Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise at the moment, because I’m thinking of writing something about that.

[Excerpt from Footsteps by Richard Holmes (HarperPress)]

FootstepsI woke at 5 am in a glowing mist, my green sleeping-bag blackened with the dew, for the whole plateau of the Velay is above 2,000 feet. I made a fire with twigs gathered the night before, and set water to boil for coffee, in a petit pois tin with wire twisted round it as a handle. Then I went down to the Loire, here little more than a stream, and sat naked in a pool cleaning my teeth. Behind me the sun came out and the woodfire smoke turned blue. I felt rapturous and slightly mad.

I reached Le Monastier two hours later, in the local grocer’s van, one of those square Citroёns like a corrugated garden privy, which smelt of Camembert and apples. Monsieur Crèspy, chauffeur and patron, examined my pack and soaking bag as we bounced along through rolling uplands. Our conversation took place in a sort of no-man’s-land of irregular French patois and Midi twang, which battled for meaning against my stonewall classroom phrases. After initial skirmishing, he adopted a line of attack.

“You are walking on foot?” he said, leaning back into the depths of the ban with one arm and presenting me with a huge yellow pear.

“Yes, yes, I am searching for un Ecossais, a Scotsman, a writer who walked on foot through all this beautiful country.”

“He is a friend of yours? You have lost him?” enquired M Crèspy with a little frown.

“No, no. Well... Yes. You see, I want to find him.” My chin streamed hopelessly with pear juice.

M Crèspy nodded encouragingly: “The pear is good, n’est-ce pas?”

“Yes, it is very good.”

The Citröen lurched round a bend and plunged down towards a rocky valley, broken with trees and scattered stone farmhouses with pink tiled roofs and goats tethered in small bright pastures where the sun struck and streamed. The spire of a church, perched on the far hillside, pointed the horizon.

“There is Le Monastier. Look! Perhaps your friend is waiting for you,” said M Crèspy with great confidence.

“No, no, I don’t think so," I said. But it was exactly what I hoped.


What are you intending to read this summer?


I’m intending to read Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child. Everyone has told me it’s fantastic and I really loved The Line of Beauty so I’m really looking forward to it.

[Excerpt from The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst (Picador)]

StrrangersUp in the spare bedroom, Jonah settled the first suitcase on the bed, and ran his hands over the smooth hard leather; in the centre of the lid the initials CTV were stamped in faded gold. He shifted and sighed in his private quandary, alert to the sound of the guest in the house. They were making each other laugh, down below, and the noise came upstairs without the sense. He heard Cecil Valance’s laugh, like a dog shut in a room, and pictured him again in the hall, in his cream-coloured jacket with grass stains on the elbows. He had lively dark eyes and high colour, as though he’d been running. Mr George had called him Cess – Jonah said it in a noiseless whisper as he traced the C with the tip of his finger. Then he stood up straight, sprang the catches, and released the heady and authentic gentleman’s smell: toilet water, starch, and the slowly fading reek of leather.

As a rule, Jonah only came upstairs to carry cases or shift a bed; and last winter, his first at “Two Acres”, he had brought the coals up for the fires. He was fifteen, short for his age, but strong: he chopped wood, ran errands, went up and down to the station in Horner’s van. He was the boy, in all the useful senses of the word, but he had never "valeted" before. George and Hubert seemed able to dress and undress by themselves, and Mustow, Mrs Sawle’s maid, took down all the laundry. This morning, however, George had called him in after breakfast and told him to look after his friend Valance, who he said was used to any number of servants. At Corley Court he had a marvellous man called Wilkes, who had looked after George as well when he stayed there, and given him some good advice without appearing to do so. Jonah asked what sort of advice it had been but George laughed and said, “Just find out if he needs anything. Unpack his bags as soon as he comes and, you know, arrange the contents convincingly.” This was the word, enormous but elusive, that Jonah had had on his mind all day, sometimes displaced by some other task, then gripping him again with a subtle horror.


What are you planning to read next?


A biography of Gogol by Nabokov. Again, because I’m thinking a lot about that period. Gogol is slightly younger than Schubert and I’m thinking a lot about madness and people wandering. I always think of The Nose and The Overcoat with Gogol and the people in St Petersburg and the urban scene - and I know it’s a fantastically written book. I’ve read Dead Souls and seen The Government Inspector and I helped to put on a production of a play called The Gamblers at school, which isn’t done very often, so Gogol is someone I’m very interested in and really want to go back to reading again.

[Excerpt from Nikolai Gogol by Vladimir Nabokov (Penguin Classics)]

GogolNikolai Gogol, the strangest prose-poet Russia ever produced, died Thursday morning, a little before eight, on the 4th of March, 1852, in Moscow. He was almost 43 years old – a reasonably ripe age for him, considering the ridiculously short span of life generally allotted to other great Russian writers of his miraculous generation. Absolute bodily exhaustion in result of a private hunger strike (by means of which his morbid melancholy had tried to counter the Devil) culminated in acute anaemia of the brain (together, probably, with gastro-enteritis through inanition) – and the treatment he was subject to, a vigorous purging and bloodletting, hastened the death of an organism already gravely impaired by the after-effects of malaria and malnutrition. The couple of diabolically energetic physicians who insisted on treating him as if he were an average Bedlamite, much to the alarm of their more intelligent but less active colleagues, intended to break the back of their patient’s insanity before attempting to patch up whatever bodily health he still had left. Some 15 years before, Pushkin, with a bullet in his entrails, had been given medical assistance good for a constipated child. Second-rate German and French general practitioners still dominated the scene, for the splendid school of great Russian physicians was yet in the making.

The learned doctors crowding around the Malade Imaginaire with their dog-Latin and gigantic belly-pumps cease to be funny when Molière suddenly coughs out his life-blood on the turbulent stage. It is horrible to read of the grotesquely rough handling that Gogol’s poor limp body underwent when all he asked for was to be left in peace. With as fine a misjudgment of symptoms, as a clear anticipation of the methods of Charcot, Dr Auvers (or Hovert) had his patient plunged into a warm bath where his head was soused with cold water after which he was put to bed with half a dozen plump leeches affixed to his nose. He had groaned and cried and weakly struggled while his wretched body (you could feel the spine through the stomach) was carried to the deep wooden bath; he shivered as he lay naked in bed and kept pleading to have the leeches removed: they were dangling from his nose and getting in his mouth ("Lift them, keep them away," he pleaded) and he tried to sweep them off so that his hands had to be held by stout Auvert’s (or Hauvers’s) hefty assistant.

Gogol is someone I’m very interested in and really want to go back to reading again

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