In today’s Impromptus, I have notes on Indianapolis and London (two different capitals). One London note concerns an evening for Paul Johnson, the great historian and writer (whom I happened to mention on this blog yesterday). I have a fuller write-up of this evening on The New Criterion’s blog, here.
The evening included a performance of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet. Reason: Well, first, it’s always a good idea to play or hear Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, but second, the evening launched the U.K. edition of Johnson’s biography of Mozart (reviewed by me in NR here).
Anthony Daniels — a.k.a. Theodore Dalrymple — was present, and he said he had a story to tell me. We did not have a chance on that night, so he has given it to me in writing, and I now share it with you. It concerns Simon Leys, the Belgian-born writer — and someone important to me. Years ago, when I was learning about the world, I got a hold of his Chinese Shadows. It taught me a lot about China. I suppose I had never heard anything but the Snow/Fairbank line. (It’s probably unfair to link those two, but we can revisit that another time.)
The story I wanted to tell you comes from an essay by Simon Leys. He was in an ordinary café and people were sitting around talking, a few playing cards. The radio was on — drivel and bad music.
Suddenly, unexpectedly, for no obvious reason, the first movement of the Clarinet Quintet came on. Everyone fell silent. Leys says that for a moment the café was transformed into the antechamber of heaven.
Then one of the men stood up, went over to the radio, and returned it to the drivel.
Leys says that this shows that the real philistine is not he who does not care about the difference between the good and bad in art, but he who does — and prefers the bad.
This essay, Daniels tells us, can be found in Le Bonheur des petits poissons.