on 17 May 2013
"A quiet, subtle, modest masterpiece", another reviewer writes. Hmmm. . . I first contributed to this thread two or three years ago when I was about to buy the book, and I've just returned to it a second time, to see whether my first reactions stood up. Firstly, and to get this out of the way, Giles Penfold is right to say that Tanner's prose is appalling. Don't they have editors at Harper Collins? I would have sent it back and said "Probably very interesting: have another go at making it comprehensible, and I may be able to tell". Now, I hate the cult of the three word sentence -- Hemingway has a lot ot answer for -- and I'm prefectly at home with long unfolding sentences a la Walter Pater and also with academic discourse, but what I do not expect to be required to do is hunt round for a main verb, or listen to faint grinding noises as Tanner slowly gets round to another rhetorical question or condescending put-down. For in many ways this book is less about Wagner than about the author demonstrating his superiority to all other commentators, mostly by suggesting either that they haven't done their homework, or are in his word "inane", or that they are prejudiced. And it looks to me as though there's a lot of gratuitous Left-bashing going on here. Recommending quotes are shown in the blurb from such reactionary figures as Simon Heffer and Anthony O'Hear, and one always smells a rodent when writers quote approvingly from the preposterous Roger Scruton. There is a great deal of looking down the Tanner nose at any arguments he doesn't happen to accept, e.g. "That is the level of sophistication at which these arguments operate", and "A few recent examples, to show the level to which one has to descend if one is not to be felt to be just condescending". This is snotty stuff. And far from being "quiet", and "subtle", it's a pretty shrill polemic, whose chief method is to refute any criticism of Wagner as man or artist. But however much Tanner may wish otherwise, there *is* a problem with Wagner, which won't go away. Even leaving aside the anti-Semitic stuff, which comes freighted with a lot of particular historical and social context, it simply is not possible to represent Wagner as Jesus reincarnated, or to argue that his works, which may well be sublime works of art, are progressive, enlightened and humanitarian, while trying to deny that they were created by a man whom another critic succinctly describes as "hypocrite, bigot, opportunist, adulterer". (Tanner baulks at the last: Wagner was apparently only an occasional adulterer.) The defence sometimes touches on the ridiculous: Tanner asks us to remember, and make allowances for the fact, that many of Wagner's works were created when the ludicrously-extravagant (with other people's money) composer was living in poverty! This breathtaking piece of cheek reminds me of the young man hauled up in Court for murdering his parents, and asking for clemency on the grounds of being an orphan. Well, I suppose this is all good knockabout stuff, but while recognising that there is a disjunct between the art and (at least) the perception of the man, Tanner comes nowhere near teasing out just why this is such a problem when we would all like to be able to experience the work wholeheartedly, instead of at best grudgingly and fingers firmly crossed behind the back. He seems to think it's a plot by antisemitism-obsessed leftwingers and intellectual pygmies to besmirch his hero, arguing that no other artist is subjected to such unrealistic expectations of personal perfection. Well, hello. . . could it be because no other artist has ever made such grandiose and bombastic gestures and claims for himself and his art, or acted out megalomania so brazenly? I should in fairness close by saying that on its own terms, Tanner's book is rigorous and its arguments well-shaped, which is not however to say I found them very convincing, though there is certainly plenty of food (albeit often indigestible) for thought. But my overall feeling is that Tanner's worship of Wagner blinds him to the presence in this particular room of several elephants. I've read it closely twice, and I feel I've given it a fair shake: I won't be reading it again.