Monday, October 08, 2007

After the flute solo from Gluck's Orpheus

When he came to an end we sat silent in the darkness. So I was not prepared for it when my mother burst out, in the full flood of impatience, "Jock, nobody could play the flute like that with ill-fitting dentures. I don not believe you have false teeth at all."

"So far as I know he has not," said Constance.

"He would not have them, since he is so young for his age," my mother angrily pursued. "Jock, why must you play the clown? Mrs. O'Shaughnessy! That way of talking Scotch! When you can play the flute like that! Why must you try to spoil everything?"

He answered with no more accent than herself, "Life is so terrible. There is nothing to do with it but break it down into nonsense."

"Terrible?" asked Mamma in surprise.

"What's the good of music," he asked, "if there's all this cancer in the world?"

There came a voice out of the darkness, speaking so earnestly that it was shaken with tears. "What's the harm in cancer, if there's all this music in the world?"

I know that Mamma and Mary and Richard Quin would be as disconcerted as I by this brave answer, for it was Cordelia who had given it, Cordelia who would never know what music was. It was as if Cousin Jock had not gone far enough, it was as if life were breaking itself down into nonsense. Mama said, "Light the gas, please, Richard Quin," and we were all suddenly visible, blinking under the brightness, still pleased and startled by the beautiful music we had heard, and confused by the interchange that had followed it. Mama looked tenderly at Cordelia and said, "We must leave those poor souls who have cancer, please God we all may be spared, to work out that argument." Then she turned her eyes to Cousin Jock, who had gone back to his chair and was sitting with his face in his hands. "Why, Jock!" she said. Of course she felt kindly to him now, nobody could dislike a man who played the flute like that, no matter what he was like. "We all love you when you are reasonable. And from today you can ask my children for anything you want. None of them will forget your playing till the last day of their lives. Drink your beer, eat your sandwich."

--Rebecca West, The Fountain Overflows


  1. Oh, thank you for that. This is my favorite book in the world. And now you've triggered my need to reread it... or re-reread it!

  2. Have you read Cousin Rosamund and This Real Night as well? Are they anywhere near as good as this one?


"I don't believe in ghosts, but I see them all the time."

Sherman Alexie cancels book tour for memoir about his mother.