Opera in Chatwin’s Utz

In a departure from my usual medieval music posts, some random reflections on reading Chatwin’s Utz as a musicologist.

For the third meeting of Leach’s Lockdown Classic Bookclub we read Bruce Chatwin’s last novel Utz (1988; pagination, where given, from the 2005 Vintage paperback). As with the earlier two novels we had read I was struck—here perhaps even more so—by the prominent role of music and musical performance in the book. (Maybe I should back-blog the other two at some point, with my observation that the Warden in The Warden is, amusingly, a musicologist avant la lettre, and my vain attempt to parse the meaning of the intertext with Robert Browning’s ‘A Toccata of Galuppi’ in The Glimpses of the Moon, but that’s not a task for today). For the bookclub meetings—on Zoom, obviously—I make notes for discussion and devise a quiz. This post is a loosely written-up version of my notes, which I hope will divert some readers of the novel or prompt some who haven’t read it to try it.

There’s quite a lot of music playing throughout the course of Utz, from the Trout Quintet piped into the Restaurant Pstruh (p.23, despite trout being off the menu to all but the table of party apparatchiks), to Sigmund Romberg’s shmaltzy ‘When I’m calling you’ played on the organ at the eponymous character’s second wedding (p.117). But it is the genre of opera that assumes a particularly vital role, when, fairly late on in the narrative, Utz’s many affairs with opera singers are ‘revealed’ (although what they reveal is open to question). We are told that Marta, his live-in servant, regularly had to prepare dinner for Utz and his latest diva conquest, but because Marta herself is hopelessly in love with him and, as we later learn, actually his wife, she would then silently quit the apartment to avoid the sounds of lovemaking. We are told that Utz started his foreplay with a routine that involved his showing off his Meissen Commedia dell’arte figurines while playing Zerbinetta’s audience-thrilling coloratura aria from Richard Strauss’s Ariadne.


By Sean Pathasema/Birmingham Museum of Art, CC BY 3.0

Utz is beautifully crafted, with light-touch realistic scene setting that encompasses everything from the makes of car driven by Utz in the 1930s and the undertakers in the 1970s, mentioned each only once in passing, to the brand of cologne that Utz wears (Knize Ten, which is still made). And, for a short book, Utz is extremely dense with references, intertexts, and symbols. It repeatedly flags layers of additional meaning without these ever connecting in a single neat allegorical way, much as the plot itself resists any neat denouement (what happens to the Meissen figures?). Instead, the references build up various layers of implicitness, much as music itself—and opera in particular—allows ambiguity in both hiding and outing meaning (and, as I will argue, men).

Among the figures of the Commedia dell’arte, Pulcinella, Harlequin, and Columbine appear prominently, with the last two of these explicitly compared to Utz and Marta respectively. Indeed, Utz’s obsession with Meissen porcelain reportedly began with desire for a Harlequin figure at his grandmother’s house:

[A] figure of Harlequin that had been modelled by the greatest of Meissen modellers, J. J. Kaendler.

The Harlequin sat on a tree trunk. His taut frame was sheathed in a costume of multi-coloured chevrons. In one hand he waved an oxidised silver tankard; in the other a floppy yellow hat. Over his face there was a leering orange mask.

‘I want him,’ said Kaspar. (p.16)

But Utz is also Pulcinella, as his first name, Kaspar, hints. Doubleness and hidden natures abound in this narrative. Pulcinella has two contrasting natures: a scheming nature, with an aggressive sensuality and great intelligence versus a nature more dull and coarse. For Utz, both figures—Harlequin and Pulcinella—make him a trickster, a slippery figure apt to get the best of a situation in the end, traits confirmed by his ability to keep his collection—and his life—through the extreme political disruptions of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s in Prague. Marta, as Christopher Hitchens comments in his short review of it (‘China syndrome’, The Nation, Jan 13, 1997, Vol.264 (2), p.8) is actually a ‘martyr’ to her servile love for Utz; she is thus his faithful Columbine…. Or is she?

A Tatra 603 serves as the hearse for Utz’s funeral (p.7)

The unnamed narrator’s take on Utz is all we have to go on, and his uncertainty, flagged early as being radically uncertain and then resolved very late on with an overstated certainty that reeks of misdirection, as to whether or not Utz’s ‘waxy’ face sports a moustache or not is highly significant. Near the end of the novel, the narrator insists he did have a moustache because this would make him a ‘relentless lady-killer’ rather than ‘another art-collector of fussy habits and feminine inclinations, whose encounters with women were ambiguous’ because he ‘applies the stiff bristles of the moustache to the lady’s throat so that, for her, the crescendo of love-making was as ecstatic as the final notes of an aria’ (pp.111-112). It may or may not be significant that the Pulcinella mask used to feature bushy black moustache, but that mask disappeared in the century of Meissen porcelain. Nonetheless, the focus on the moustache as a symbol of masculinity in the face of two artistic interests (porcelain and opera) viewed as effeminate and, in the temporal setting here, queer, reminded me of J. P. E. Harper-Scott’s short piece on ‘Elgar’s Moustache’ (in his popular study of the composer) as a compensatory piece of facial excrement. And the additional focus on the soprano’s throat—the Adam’s apple—made me think too of Wayne Koestenbaum’s The Queen’s Throat, which both stresses the implicitness of music in which gay men can ‘come out without coming out’ and also notes opera’s production through a quasi-homosexual union of poet and composer, specifically by citing Strauss’s librettist’s emphasis on their operas being their joint children.

Chatwin, it will be remembered, was dying of AIDS while he wrote Utz, a disease that seems alluded to in Utz’s Porzellankrankheit, which ‘held him prisoner’ and  ‘has ruined my life’ (p.75). Like Chatwin, it seems, Utz is not really out about his disease or its causes. On his first trip—for his health—to the spa at Vichy, when he thinks he will leave Czechoslovakia, Utz attempts to order delicious food and realises that ‘luxury is only luxurious under adverse conditions’ (p.65). Does this serve to inform those reading this book between its queer lines that he cannot enjoy his own queerness where it is actually available to him, that he has to hoard it somewhere private in a society hostile to it society, like the collecting of porcelain and sopranos that both serve as indices to this queerness? Utz’s misogyny is seemingly endless, relentlessly objectifying women and often finding them truly disgusting in a way that significantly does not presage his later attested status as a great and prolific lover of them, a status attested to the narrator by fellow Porcelain creator and (comically?) named Dr Frankfurter. Utz’s misogyny seems, instead, to be a reaction to his early rejection by girls in his youth when his attempted conquests ‘were perplexed by the scientific seriousness of the young man’s approach, and collapsed with giggles at the minuscule scale of his equipment’ (p.18). He is not, is seems, a great lover of women and nor is his interest driven by desire, but rather mediated through a ‘scientific’ modelling of himself on the porcelain collector Augustus the Strong, a ‘voracious womanizer’.

Utz drives a Steyr coupe in the 1930s when he first meets Marta

In Vichy, however, we get a hint of Utz’s queer sexuality: the singer Lucienne Boyer (‘La Dame en Bleu’), a ‘compact and rounded woman approaching fifty’, has a ‘quivering throat’ (p.59) that thrills him to a standing ovation. Recall that Utz’s moustache will be applied ‘to the lady’s throat so that, for her, the crescendo of love-making was as ecstatic as the final notes of an aria’ (p.112; italics mine). This implies that for her orgasm is an ecstasy that Utz can only understand as being like ‘the final notes of an aria’, implying, perhaps, that his sexual congress with women lacks pleasure, and is a pleasure less than an aria’s final notes opera, the pleasure of which points to his true sexual predilection.

And there are other clues. After his copy of The Magic Moutain is confiscated at the border, Utz reads Gide while at Vichy. The title of the book is not given, but one wonders if it is The Immoralist, a clear gay calling-card. At Vichy, Utz is also troubled by mutilated war veterans, which perhaps only signals further his disgust at physical imperfection, but he is also worried by ‘the gerontophile glint of the masseur’ (p.57), hoping he is too young for this ‘very disturbed young man’ (p.57),  and also the ‘solitary men’ who are ‘tailing him’ (p.58). At that early point in the narrative, a reader might assume this covert attention is political, but in retrospect it seems that it might equally or also be sexual, particularly as it is quickly followed by a (self-defensive, deliberately misdirectional?) homophobic slur as he calls the performers billed as ‘Les Hommes en Crystal’ a ‘bunch of fairies smeared with silver paint!’ (p.58).

All this brings us back to the rather mysterious figure of the narrator and his actually very brief acquaintance with Utz in the year before the Prague Spring. The narrator does not assert himself in the first person until after the first chapter about Utz’s funeral, which tries (rather too hard) to establish its realist and reliable credential through its overly specific times, places, and descriptive detail. Then follows a rather sleight-of-hand structure in which the long back-narration of Utz’s life is book-ended with the mere ‘total of nine and a quarter hours, some six and a half years earlier’ (p.97) that the narrator actually spends with Utz. Nesting this third-person information within the story of the actual visit to Utz has the effect of making it seem as if this information was imparted in their one-to-one meeting (see Jonathan Chatwin, Anywhere Out of This World: The Work of Bruce Chatwin (Manchester UP, 2018), pp.148-9).

Early in his meeting with the narrator, Utz tells two salient tales: first, of Rabbi Loew’s golem, Yossel; second, of an Arab sheikh’s collection of (human) dwarfs. While one might assume the porcelain figures are the golem, something forged almost alchemically and magically, Utz actually calls them ‘my collection of dwarfs’ (p.37). It becomes apparent that Marta is a better fit for the golem figure (as Jonathan Chatwin has also noted (p.146 of Anywhere Out of This World)): Marta, like Yossel, is a non-Jewish servant, and described when first seen as having ‘across her forehead, a fillet of lace’ (p.38) like the ‘shem’ of the Golem. Like the Rabbi, Utz is ‘a good Jewish business man’ (p.35), getting a servant without paying wages.  The fact that Yossel supposedly went berserk and smashed everything when the Rabbi forgot to deactivate him thereby anticipates the eventual claim of Marta to have smashed his entire collection after Utz’s stroke.

In the apartment, the narrator is shown the collection to the point that he is shown the original Harlequin figure with its mark that suggests the museum will inherit it, ‘a mistake’ (p.45) says Utz. Then there is the central narration of Utz’s life from the museum men’s initial visit in 1952, through his trip to Vichy, his return and marriage, his later visits to his Swiss collection and then back to the dinner after which, while Marta bangs pans to foil the secret service listening in, he confesses to being a porcelain millionaire.

When the narrator asks to use the bathroom, Utz momentarily ‘flinched’ (p.83). The scene explicitly but, I think, superficially presents Utz as a man who is embarrassed that his guest might discern his actual, ostensibly heterosexual, living arrangements, involving the embarrassing marriage of an aristocratic connoisseur to an uneducated peasant. But the narrator presents a misreading, in which he views Marta’s bathrobe and powder as Utz’s, and imagines him as effeminate, cross-dressing, queer man. But why would he even think of this, given the ostensible context of compulsory heterosexuality and Marta’s omnipresence and devotion? I think that if the narrator had been sure that Utz was straight, his first thought would be the one that the narrator implies that Utz fears. But both of these conclusions seems suspect to a suspicious reader. Utz comes into the bedroom, from which the bathroom is accessed, to ‘hustle me [the narrator] out of the bedroom’ (p.83) but the narrator says that he is not to be hustled. OK. And why is Marta cross when the two men emerge from the bathroom? Why is Utz unable to meet her eye? Is it because this was actually a straightforward location of a sexual act between the two men, suggested by the narrator asking for the bathroom and acceded to by Utz coming into the bedroom to meet him? Is Marta’s martyrdom that of a woman who loves a gay man who will never love her, even though he needs her and exploits her without mercy?

It is at this point that Utz changes the record so that Ariadne plays, ‘the recitative of Zerbinetta and Harlequin from Strauss’s  “Ariadne auf Naxos”’ (p.93); his waxy face melts and he begins to play with his Commedia dell’arte figures. Thus the narrator is thus treated to what we later learn is the first part of Utz’s regular seduction routine. Utz also reflects on the eternal deathless nature of these fragile figures compared to the ageing and death of humans and the ‘events of this sombre century’(p.94), political contexts which, though terrible are mere ‘noises off’ in the theatre of the collector’s imagination. Not either/or, the porcelain figures are both dead and alive: as Utz notes, ‘they are alive and they are dead. But if they were alive they would also have to die’ (p.34). Not being alive avoids death and loss: can Utz’s whole attenuated life, lived through the fetish of figurines, be seen as an attempt not to die, a desire started in the wake of his father’s death, as consolation for which the original Harlequin figure was finally gifted to him?

Ariadne auf Naxos is itself an exercise in doubleness: a tragic opera written by The Composer of its Prologue is presented in a forced mash-up with the light entertainment provided by Zerbinetta’s troupe of Commedia dell’arte dancers and singers. Tragedy and lightness sit uncomfortably side-by-side, much as the aristocratic figures of porcelain (and ‘Baron’ Utz) sit side-by side with the peasant Marta and the Communist regime. Zerbinetta’s wonderful aria is her attempt to cheer Ariadne, abandoned on Naxos by Theseus, with her own experience that one love is much like another, and one can just get a new one when the old one fails. This substitution of one love for another appears salient for Utz as a whole: on one level, the explicit level, Utz substitutes his love of actually dead porcelain dwarves for his love of an actually live golem, Marta.

Or, at least, this is what the narrator tells us, both explicitly and in his claim that Utz’s failure to remain abroad was because he was missing not his figures, but Marta (pp.68-69). But I no longer believe the narrator at all—how can he know Utz’s rationale at Vichy?: the narrator’s shock at learning that Marta is Utz’s wife is only credible in a context in which he had no idea he would miss Marta more than his figures and in which he had also perhaps assumed (or known?) Utz’s homosexuality. Instead, at the implicit level, the musical level as I might call it, Marta has herself changed her loves and morphed from Columbine to Zerbinetta, with her return to the countryside, where the narrator visits her and her anserine companion. Her earlier pet goose would ‘sidle his neck around her thighs’ (p.50) in her childhood when people thought her anserine love actually anserine (i.e. silly). As well as being another story that the narrator seems unlike to have been told, this evokes another imprecise but suggestive subtext, that of the Zeus in his seduction of Leda. Like Ariadne, the substitution of one love for another has married her, ultimately, to a God.

Leda and the Swan by Antonio da Correggio – Web Gallery of Art:   Image (Public Domain)



  1. Irmgard Lerch says:

    Dear Ms Leach,
    I think I have to read this book…
    Best regards -Irmgard Lerch

  2. Alison Stones says:

    Very clever: I did enjoy this !

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