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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Loving Wagner, Riding with Shepherd

Any conversation with Michael Tanner, a philosophy Don at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, eventually turns to Wagner. Christopher Marlowe's former digs (he lived there in the 1580s) seemed too small to accommodate the intensity of Tanner's passion for Wagner. For a start there was the grand piano which dwarfed all else. And then there were the towers of musical scores and books stacked everywhere like some mad city planner's vision of urban chaos.

And now, Tanner has harnessed his vast knowledge and enthusiasm for the 19th-century German composer in a biography, and no one should be surprised that Wagner (HarperCollins, ?16.99, $25.50) is a vigorous defense of the genius from the contemporary critics and directors who have strived to denigrate or "domesticate" him.

While Tanner does not try to absolve Wagner of many character flaws -- overt anti-semitism, egomania and womanizing ways --he fights the modern tendency to distance the music dramas as far as possible from the composer's conception, or interpret them "critically" with hindsight knowledge of Wagner's personal misdemeanors. We may be queasy about heroes and heroism, but they are the life-blood of Wagner's work. The public performance of Wagner's music is banned in Israel, but Tanner cannot find any evidence of anti-Semitism in the musical works ("Where are the Jews in Wagner?" he asks rhetorically).

Sunday Times music critic Hugh Canning suggests that while the reader may not agree with all the arguments of this apologia (or necessarily follow them since Tanner's prose is sometimes both complex and opaque), they will be refreshed by the gusto of this subjective yet rational life of a genius.


The term "short story" is too restrictive to accommodate the delightfully capacious assortment of Sam Shepherd's prose pieces which have been collected in Cruising Paradise (Alfred A Knopf, $23). These "tales," some of them full-fledged narratives, others simply bursts of dialogue or monologue, meditations, letters, diary entries or even telephone conversations, have for the most part never been published before. But they are all strong voice pieces, which comes as no surprise from one of America's leading playwrights. And they all tread in familiar Shepherd territory: life on the road. In the motel rooms of California and South Dakota the bitter accusations of disappointed women about to leave their alcoholic husbands ring shrill and true. As do the baffled ruminations of men on love, life and the conflicting demands of American manhood.

The book opens with an interconnecting series of autobiographical passages from Shepherd's childhood. As a 7-year-old boy out on a day trip with his gun-toting, hard-drinking dad, Shepherd first learns about the attractions of acting, of pretending to be someone other than oneself. It was an attraction which was to take him all the way to Hollywood.

Compiled from the Sunday Times and the Los Angeles Times .