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Nicholas Lezard’s Choice: ‘History Is Our Mother’ by Alice Goodman

  • Published at 06:09 pm August 6th, 2018
HIstory is Our Mother

What I was reading was not only poetry, but poetry of a very high order indeed

“Libretto”: it means “little book”. It’s a cute but perhaps condescending term, acknowledging or implying that the music of an opera is more important than the words which go with the music. (Even the lyrics of a musical are called “the book”.) And this is undeniably true: I prefer to hear The Magic Flute in German, but that’s going to mean, unless it’s in performance and there are surtitles above the stage, I’m going to miss an awful lot of the plot. So why publish the libretti of the operas Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer, and an English translation of The Magic Flute, apart from the fact that they are all by the same person?

Because they’re poetry, that’s why. And very few libretti, if any, stand alone as poetry. I can’t think of anything other, off-hand, than Auden’s for Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress. (I’m excluding oratorios from these considerations, for often they are settings of already great poetry.)

I remember visiting the rooms of the Cambridge don Eric Griffiths one afternoon in 1987. He proudly presented an LP set of something called Nixon in China, handed me the booklet of the libretto, and put it on. I was surprised for several reasons, such as 1) the fact that preliminary conversation had been disregarded; 2) this was an opera; and 3) if my keen critical senses had not been deceiving me, it appeared to be an opera about US President Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to China, a subject very much in living memory, and not one which immediately suggested itself as a subject lending itself to retelling in opera form. After all, as I recalled, nothing much during this meeting actually happened; the meeting itself was the significant event. And the characters—Nixon, Henry Kissinger, Chairman Mao, Chou En-Lai, Mao’s premier, were hardly what you could call benign figures, to put it mildly. Was this some kind of gimmick?

But as I listened, and followed the words in the booklet as they were sung, it quickly dawned on me that what I was reading was not only poetry, but poetry of a very high order indeed. Here is Nixon: “The Eastern Hemisphere/Beckoned to us, and we have flown/East of the sun, west of the moon/Across an ocean of distrust/Filled with the bodies of our lost;/The earth’s sea of Tranquillity.”

There is so much in these few lines: “east of the sun” etc. is a reference either to the folk tale of a quest for wealth, or the jazz song (recorded by, among others, Ella Fitzgerald); but here it becomes literal, referencing the Apollo moon landings in the Sea of Tranquility itself, which were at the time of Nixon’s visit still going on; the Pacific over which Nixon’s flight had passed was indeed littered with the bodies of America’s World War 2 dead, of which Nixon, as a combatant in that theatre, could have been one.

Goodman’s next opera, though, more or less finished her career, barely had it started. I remember exactly where I was when I first heard it, too, a fact which is only important as an illustration of the immediate power of the work. (I hasten to add that the composer of this and Nixon, John Adams, set the lyrics with astonishing sensitivity and force. The two, he and Goodman, were artistically made for each other. But this is about the words.) The subject was dangerous, its events much more recent in time, its narrative dreadful: the hijacking of the cruise liner Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists, and the subsequent murder, by them, of a wheelchair-bound American tourist, Leon Klinghoffer. The world of opera is a complacent one and a conservative: and if it had been shocked by Nixon, then it was absolutely scandalized  by Klinghoffer. It was a taboo subject, akin to pouring petrol on the flames of a fire already out of control.

However, once again, here was poetry, to my mind even more powerful than in her previous work. Twenty-seven years after I first heard them, the opening lines of the opening chorus, “The Chorus of Exiled Palestinians” still, and I mean this literally, because they have just done so as I write, raise the hairs on the back of my neck: “My father’s house was razed/In nineteen forty-eight/When the Israelis passed/Over our street.” It’s “razed” to the eye, but it is also “raised” to the ear. That ambiguity between both creation and destruction—as if with that very destruction, a new purpose had been born—makes the lines oscillate with terrible energy.   

Certain Zionists or their sympathizers hated it; certain Palestinians or their sympathizers hated it. The work gave voices to each cause. Goodman, a Jew who had converted to Christianity (and is now a vicar in the Church of England) found herself the target of much hatred, and it was too much for her. The translation of Emanuel Schikaneder’s libretto for Mozart’s opera was her last work (although I am not sure if it had been completed before or after Klinghoffer; the two came out in the same year, 1991). I do not have the space, now, to comment at any length on the qualities of this translation, but I checked Papageno’s first aria against my memories of the German, which for some reason have stuck in my mind, and they work perfectly.

This book has an introduction by James Williams. I wanted to write it; he has done a much better job than I could ever have done, teasing out the subtleties of Goodman’s poetry. Which, when combined with Adams’s music, makes some of the greatest art that the second half of the twentieth century has produced.

(History Is Our Mother is published by NYRB Classics, 202pp, US$15.95, GB£9.99)


Nicholas Lezard is a writer and columnist for the New Statesman in London. He is a judge for the 2018 Goldsmiths Prize for Fiction and his column, Nicholas Lezard's Choice ran in the Guardian newspaper for twenty years.