DECEMBER 17, 2017
DURING MY JUNIOR YEAR of high school, I took piano lessons from a woman named Frances Thompson, who lived in a well-kept but fading ranch house on Grand Avenue, alone with her dying father. My lessons took place at night. I don’t remember why that was — possibly I’d asked for a late hour, to keep from cutting into my all-important regimen of time-wasting after school — but I remember the slight feeling of eeriness it created, the oddness of being in a place long familiar in the daytime but subtly transformed in the dark. Mrs. Thompson sat beside the bench, in her spindle-backed chair, wearing the big hexagonal glasses with their slender, drooping chain, and I sat on the bench, trying to coax my fingers into decoding the music I had once again failed to practice, and the brass lamp shone under its green shade on the upright, and in the windows stood a darkness that seemed to cut us off from the rest of creation, as if the studio were a kind of spaceship in which we were traveling.
That fall we worked on Bach — the French Suites, because they would teach me to play gracefully, she said. Playing gracefully wasn’t my strong suit. What I liked was to improvise, preferably at ear-bursting volume, in a mode inspired by the exquisite but agonizing passions of the tragic lovers in Merchant-Ivory movies I’d seen, and also in Merchant-Ivory movies I hadn’t seen, Merchant-Ivory movies that existed only in my imagination, where trembling hands were forever pouring glasses of brandy from cut-crystal decanters in front of hotel windows looking out across Constantinople, while the curtains blew in, filmily. I thought of this mode as “romantic.” I was good at dreaming up melodies Helena Bonham Carter might freeze to death in Australia to, somewhat less good at scales. Certainly Mrs. Thompson deserved better. She herself had studied with famous musicians, had lived in Chicago, had known something of the world beyond our barren patch of north-central Oklahoma. Probably every dried-up oil town in the United States has one music teacher whose pedagogical lineage traces back to Liszt; she was ours. She was elderly now, but there were moments when she talked about music with an expression at once so hard and so far away that even I understood she was looking into a realm I had never conceived of, much less visited.
She had standards, in other words. She wasn’t someone you could impress with little virtuosic tricks. Yet with me she was patient. She frowned but never criticized. She’d raise a hand to stop my sight-reading, give me small lectures on fingerings and voicings. We slide the thumb under the palm to keep the slurred passage even. We bring out the dissonances — see? — to register a harmonic shift. In Mozart we play allegretto lightly, lightly; and there were her hands on the keyboard, knobbed and spotted as if they’d spent a century or so under the sea, playing allegretto with a lightness that seemed simple, seemed like nothing at all, except that I couldn’t mimic it.
I wasn’t too thrilled about the French Suites. Not because I had anything against Bach. In fact it had been while playing Bach that I realized I loved classical music, one day when our seventh-grade orchestra was rehearsing the Little Fugue in G minor and I suddenly felt (I think the trombones had just come in) as though my brain were a cloud of fine golden particles through which sunlight was streaming. It was just that the pieces were so measured. To play them well took poise I hadn’t begun to develop. You had to be able to sustain multiple ideas, multiple processes, and develop them simultaneously, in all their complexity. Which meant you had to be able to get above yourself, to listen not just in the emotional thrall of the moment but with a kind of cosmic detachment. That was what Mrs. Thompson meant by grace; she meant you had to be the astronomer, and not, or not only, the supernova. I was 17. My ideal of pianism was that when you finished playing, your hair should be sticking up, because of passion. I had no frame of reference for Bach’s superb contemplativeness. Mrs. Thompson might as well have asked me to learn a different instrument. In a way, that is what she was doing.
“I figured it out,” I announced. “It just has to sound logical. Everything builds toward this weird major chord at the end.”
“Well,” she said. “Yes, but also no. Remember that an allemande is a dance. This is a suite of dances. So we’re thinking, but the thinking is dancing — dan-cing, dan-cing, dan-cing. Dancing, not banging, please.”
It was confounding to think she had a living father. Students never saw him. We entered the studio through a separate door, around back, and were never invited beyond, into the mysterious interior, where he was understood to dwell. Mrs. Thompson herself rarely mentioned him. Yet in a way his very implicitness intensified the weirdness of his being there. Coming into the studio already felt like stepping out of time. You had the little bust of Brahms, the rounds of lace. The antique metronome, like something that might have fallen back to Earth after Sputnik launched. Mrs. Thompson and I were from the same small town, but I knew it only in its current form, with its miles of strip malls on 14th Street and its three Sonic drive-ins and the constant quiet stress over how many jobs the refinery would shed next year. When she was a girl, the oil mansions were still being built. Where did her experience open onto mine? I had heard stories about our great tycoon, the scion of an ancient English family from the village of Ashton-under-Lyne, near Manchester; he had built a vast oil empire in the early 20th century, when Oklahoma was practically the Wild West. Mrs. Thompson remembered him from life. To me, she was ancient.
So the idea that, invisibly near, there was someone so much older; and that he was on the threshold between life and death, frozen there, somehow, for the old man had lain dying for years … It struck a note not at all like a Mozart allegretto. Now, from a distance of time, I think of what the duty of caring for him must have meant for Mrs. Thompson — the challenge of it, at her age, the expense, the waiting, possibly the grief. How it must have reordered her life. None of that occurred to me then. Or it did, but as something not wholly real, like the weather in another city. What was real was the feeling of being in a ghost story. I thought of the word “macabre,” which made me think of Poe, and the word “eldritch,” which I knew from Lovecraft (“the eldritch scurrying of those fiend-born rats”), and also from Dungeons & Dragons.
Once, only, I saw him. Mrs. Thompson collected sheet music. She’d been stockpiling it for decades. It overfilled her filing cabinets; stacks of it slouched on chairs and in the spaces under end tables. She needed this private library, she said, because she liked to consult alternate fingerings. In fact the impulse went deeper. I never had a music teacher who was more distrustful of memory. I, who memorized pieces faster than I could learn to play them, who couldn’t properly practice a measure until I knew it by heart, found this baffling. But to her way of thinking, it was dangerous to spend too much time away from the objective record of the printed page. Things slip. It was better to have a lot of music, even too much music, even an absurd amount of music, than too little. Too little and you risked becoming like Sviatoslav Richter, the great Russian pianist, who discovered near the end of his career that he’d spent 40 years playing a single wrong note in Bach’s Italian Concerto. He’d memorized the piece in his youth, but one tiny error had crept in, an f-sharp instead of an f-natural in the 47th measure of the second movement, the andante. And then, because his memory was prodigious, he’d replicated the mistake for decades, including on at least two recordings, without ever going back to check the score.
Mrs. Thompson wanted to look, that night, at a different edition of the French Suites, specifically the allemande that opens the second, in C minor. There was some question about what finger to use for the pivotal note in a run. I’d been playing it with my ring finger, as my yellow Schirmer’s Classics Library edition recommended, but she thought the pinkie might make more sense. We couldn’t find the book she wanted in the studio, and Mrs. Thompson didn’t quite feel like getting up from her chair, so she sent me into the house to continue the search.
I’d never been beyond the studio before. I walked down a dark hallway, toward what I supposed was the dining room, where the file cabinet she’d told me about was kept. The air was warm and had a stale-apricot, old-potpourri smell. Every so often thin lights would stretch along the wall and I’d hear the long sigh of a car sliding past on Grand; otherwise it was ticking-clock quiet.
Here was the file cabinet. I found the book, turned around to go back, and stopped, because the old man was in the room with me.
He was lying in a hospital bed. He’d been there all along; I hadn’t seen him because his bed was angled to face into the room, and so was partly hidden from the doorway. Now he was facing me. This was his sickroom, evidently. A metal stand with some sort of dangling clear sack stood beside the bed and was connected to it — to him — by tubes. The bed was raised so that he could partly sit up. A white sheet covered him to the chest. Over the foot of the bed someone had folded a patchwork quilt. His face was so thin it was as if it had been whittled down from a different person’s face.
I wondered if he was dead. I wasn’t sure how to tell. The summer before, I had gone with my father to the funeral of a distant relation, a huge man who lay in an open casket in a pair of dark blue farmer’s overalls, and I remembered how fragile he had looked, how strangely chastised, with his big hands folded over his work shirt, nose pointing up toward the lights. Maybe you can tell when someone is dead, I thought, because of the peculiar way in which they look alive.
After a hesitation, I said hello and gave him an awkward little wave. I heard him rustle in bed. He lifted his thin arm above his face, the elbow bent as if he were warding off a bright light. Then he straightened his elbow and I realized what he was doing. He was waving back at me. Arm raised above his head, he gave me a slow, exaggerated salute, as if he were hailing shore from a ship that was about to depart.
A few months ago, in a friend’s back garden in Los Angeles, I found myself paging through a book about the English Catholic poet Francis Thompson, who lived from 1859 to 1907. Thompson isn’t much talked about these days, but he wrote some of the most beloved religious poetry of the late Victorian era, work that for decades featured on Catholic-school reading lists, that was anthologized and memorized and admired by critics. (G. K. Chesterton called him “the greatest poetic energy since Browning.”) He also — this was the thesis of the book I was reading — might have been Jack the Ripper.
I know how that sounds, and you’re right to be skeptical. The case against Thompson is purely circumstantial. There’s no hard evidence. And at first glance Thompson is one of the least likely suspects imaginable. In photos, he looks like a fragile mystic. He stares out of a gaunt face with large, haunted eyes. He’s serious and celestial. At 47 he wasted away from tuberculosis. Before that he spent years semi-sequestered in monasteries, writing verses about God’s love. One of his poems, “The Kingdom of God,” contains the first use of the expression “a many-splendoured thing.” A person of strange intensities, clearly; an unsettling, even otherworldly person, but not someone you’d peg as a murderer.
Yet that very celestial quality, the sense, which Thompson strongly conveyed, that he could see into the world beyond our own, concealed a darkness — perhaps better to say it was a darkness, transmuted in his poems only through a keen effort of spirit. There’s a line Chesterton singles out in his essay on Thompson. Thompson is talking about the gulf between our world and what’s beyond it, and he says this gulf — he calls it a “crevasse” — is spanned by “Pontifical Death.” In two words, Thompson imagines death both as a bridge (a pont is a bridge, a pontifex is a bridge-builder) and as a high priest supervising the crossing over it. Which is a beautiful notion, until you look at it from a certain angle, at which point it becomes completely terrifying.
I didn’t know much about Thompson’s life, and I had to admit, as I slowly turned the pages, that some strange synchronicities emerged when you laid his biography over the timeline of the Ripper murders. Nothing definitive; just uncanny parallels, in a Dark Side of the Moon-played-over-The Wizard of Oz sort of way. Not that I believed everything in the book, exactly. The author, an Australian schoolteacher named Richard Patterson, was an amateur sleuth who was pretty clearly excited by the thought of solving one of history’s greatest mysteries, and he was willing to indulge in a lot of irresponsible speculation to make his case. On the question of Thompson’s fire-starting and doll-mutilation, for example. Patterson had some evidence to suggest that during childhood, Thompson demonstrated a pattern of lighting fires and cutting open dolls, behavior that could be taken as an early indicator of psychopathic tendencies. However, most of this evidence was ambiguous — Thompson made a joke, say, about how cutting open a doll as a child had taught him never to look for a beautiful woman’s brains. Which is ugly and misogynistic, but not necessarily serial-killer talk. But instead of treating it as suggestive but ultimately uncertain, Patterson charged ahead with the intensity of a prosecuting attorney, brushing aside all doubt.
Before long I was reading the book on two levels. On the first level, I responded only to the facts about Thompson’s life. This had the effect of awakening in me an intense pity toward the poet, who suffered terribly in his time. On the second level, I responded to the alternate reality conjured up by Patterson, in which Thompson was in fact Jack the Ripper. This had the effect of completely freaking me out. Often this split consciousness meant that a single piece of information registered with me in two directly opposed ways. That was the case, for instance, with the issue of Thompson’s education. He grew up near Manchester, in the village of Ashton-under-Lyne, where he was known as a frail, taciturn, bookish boy, unpopular with other children. In his youth he trained to enter the priesthood. Then one day he returned home with a letter from the seminary college informing his father that it was God’s will that he should look for a different career. He entered a medical college and studied to be a surgeon, but he failed his exams repeatedly, again disappointing his family.
And here’s what I mean about my two levels of reading. On the first level, the level of fact, I found this story sad. It was clear that Thompson had been under extreme pressure to pursue a career for which he was temperamentally unsuited, and I could easily imagine the anxiety, the lying to his father, the rising panic as he realized he was again bound to come up short, would again be revealed as inadequate. (In fact he seems to have had a nervous breakdown at around the time he left medical school.) On the second level, though, the story helped build the case that Thompson was a murderer. Dr. Phillips, the police surgeon who attended three of the Ripper’s murder scenes and four of the subsequent autopsies, thought the killer must have had medical training, due to the precision with which the victims’ organs were removed. Thompson, who could be placed in the vicinity of the murders at the time of the murders, had had such training. He had spent hours in the college basement cutting up corpses. He had in fact, according to Patterson, begged his father for more money so he could afford more bodies to dissect. He was known to carry a surgical scalpel on his person. He said he used it to shave.
This weird doubling of response continued, in fact compounded, as I read, so that before I was halfway through the book I almost seemed to be reading two stories, two parallel but unconnected narratives, at the same time. The outward action was the same in each, but the meanings were different. You can guess, then, how disorienting it was to read about Thompson’s time in Whitechapel at the time of the five Ripper murders, in the late summer and fall of 1888.
Whitechapel, in London’s East End, was then one of the city’s poorest districts. Thompson was in his late 20s. He’d had little success as a poet. In medical school he’d gotten addicted to opium, and he was now living as a homeless vagrant in Whitechapel’s warren of narrow streets. He slept in shelters within walking distance of where the murders took place. Many nights he spent walking up and down Mile End Road, often in the grip of delirium. Some time before, he had fallen in love with a young prostitute, whom he credited with saving his life. She left him shortly before the Ripper began murdering prostitutes.
Thompson wrote poems on dirty scraps of paper and kept them in his pockets. Those that survive show a mind not exactly planted on firm rock. The hallucinatory violence and barely controlled mania of some of his drafts from this period are startling:
And its paunch was rent
Like a brasten drum;
And the blubbered fat
From its belly doth come
With a sickening ooze — Hell made it so!
Two witch-babies, ho! ho! ho!
Even in the Christian masterworks, you find disturbing overtones. “The Hound of Heaven,” Thompson’s most celebrated poem, depicts a wayward sinner’s flight from, and eventual surrender to, God’s love. Read in a certain light, its monomaniacal focus on God’s relentless pursuit of the speaker might even seem to frame the relationship between deity and human as that between a murderer and his prey:
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days,
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the midst of tears […]
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
It was a sunny afternoon in Los Angeles. Clusters of red and purple flowers swayed in the breeze as I turned the pages of Patterson’s book, drinking endless cans of the lime-flavored seltzer that Holly brought out from her kitchen. Without quite knowing why, I’d been listening for days to Bach’s Italian Concerto, repeating again and again the slow second movement, with the dirge of its left-hand part and the clear, cold aria of the right hand. I’d become mildly obsessed with Sviatoslav Richter’s recordings, as many people do with Sviatoslav Richter’s recordings, finding in them an intensity of focus that sets them apart from other musicians’. You feel, when Richter is playing, as if this music will be heard once, and then dissolve forever. In the garden, I played through my headphones a file I’d dug up online. It was a recording from the 1950s that preserved the mistake Richter had made when he memorized the piece — that one wrong note, almost unnoticeable, a 20th of a second where he’d shown a rare fallibility.
He’d have hated me for it. Richter was a perfectionist, not inclined to self-forgiveness, and he believed that the purpose of his playing was to serve the composer’s intention absolutely. That self-annihilating quality, never quite at ease with the obvious immensity of his talent, is part of what makes his playing so riveting. When Richter realized what he’d done, he didn’t find it “humanizing”; he was devastated. The very littleness of the imperfection galled. It was nothing, but at the same time it was everything, and it was irreversible. He issued an apology in the liner notes of a CD he released on the Italian label Stradivarius in 1991 — an astonishing thing for a pianist of his stature to do, to flagellate himself publicly over a slip Bach himself might not have worried about. From then on he played the piece as it was written.
To me, though, there was something irresistible in that false note sustained over decades, the f-sharp played instead of f-natural, the tiny broken stitch between Bach’s unchanging reality and the fluid world of an artist’s mind in performance. “Perfect” recordings of the Italian Concerto existed by the dozens, I reasoned; only this one offered that strange, fleeting glimpse into Richter’s mental experience. Where else could you hear a literal act of forgetting? It was magical.
That afternoon, as I sat reading and listening in Holly’s backyard, the music and the images from the Thompson story seemed to blend together, so that in my mind’s theater, Richter’s playing became a soundtrack for the perverse costume drama of Patterson’s book. I saw Thompson as a boy, swinging from a golden chain the thurible he used (so Patterson said) to start a fire in the seminary. I saw him slicing into the pale abdomen of a corpse at the medical college. I saw his eyes go out of focus as the first dose of laudanum kicked in. I saw him praying till his hands shook. In London, where he fled after his mother died and he could no longer hide his failure at school, he read De Quincey and the encyclopedia. He took opium to sleep. Poverty ground him hard: soon he was sleeping on sidewalks. At the British Museum Library he was turned away for being unclean. Cold, dark London: fog and gas lamps, horses’ breath, shadows on stone. Verses beating in his head. He submitted a crushed and barely legible manuscript to a Catholic magazine, Merry England, edited by Wilfrid and Alice Meynell, but he had no return address; he asked the editors to send his rejection to the post office. They accepted his poems, came to Whitechapel to find him, tried to get him off the streets. He refused to go. On the night of August 30, 1888, a warehouse fire went up in the West India docks along the Thames. Massive buildings burned. Flames visible for miles. The horizon a red glow. In Whitechapel the atmosphere was festive. Such a spectacle! Look what a jolly new bonnet I’ve got, Mary Ann Nichols sang when she was kicked out of her lodging house. She didn’t have fourpence for the bed. Alright, but there were plenty of men around after the fire — she’d earn it on the street.
She went by Polly. She was 43 years old. She’d been married and had five children, but that had all fallen apart. She was an alcoholic, herself intermittently homeless; she’d lived in and out of workhouses. A few months earlier she’d found a job as a servant in Wandsworth, but she hated the work and fled to Spitalfields with a bundle of stolen clothing. It was after one o’clock when she left the boarding house. Thompson was somewhere in the area. It’s not known precisely where, though he surely would have seen the fire. At 32, Polly Nichols’s roommate, Ellen Holland, ran into her at the corner of Whitechapel Road and Osborne Street. Polly laughed that she’d earned the money she needed three times over but kept drinking it away. (And there it was, in the recording — the misplaced note, the false f.) That was the last time a witness saw her alive, though strangely, when her body was discovered an hour later, at 3:40 a.m., in the doorway of a stable, the carters who found her were unsure whether she was dead. I felt something move in her chest, one of them said. What happened during the previous hour no one knows, except that her throat was cut.
The threshold between life and death was a place Thompson visited again and again in his poems. “We unwinking see / Through the smoked glass of Death,” he wrote in one, and in another:
O world invisible, we view thee,
O world intangible, we touch thee,
O world unknowable, we know thee,
Inapprehensible, we clutch thee!
It’s when I think about this threshold that I’m most strongly reminded of a passage written about Thompson many years later. By then he’d long since been rescued from poverty. Wilfrid and Alice Meynell eventually succeeded in getting him out of Whitechapel. They sent him to a priory in Sussex to recover from his laudanum dependency. (It was at this time, Patterson notes, that the Ripper murders ceased.) Soon, with the Meynells’ help, he began to win fame as a poet. The editors’ son, Everard Meynell, wrote a book about him. It’s somewhere between a biography and a memoir. The passage I’m thinking of is one where Meynell describes the poet’s love of music, which expressed itself particularly in an adoration of the piano. Standing at the piano, Meynell says, “he would gaze at the performer, his body waving to and fro in tremulous pleasure.” As a young man, he had shirked his studies at the medical college to attend musical performances. He would tell his father that a professor had kept him back to offer him extra instruction when in fact he had gone to the home of a pianist to hear music. When he was supposed to be studying anatomy, he listened to piano music. He could not play himself, but he knew a sequence of chords, and “he struck them,” Meynell says, “with such earnestness that I, as a child, was impressed by his performance.” He held down the keys as the notes, briefly suspended, decayed, crossing as they did so the uncertain bridge between what exists and what is gone forever.