By Marty Ellacott
“Beside Strike and Midge, a portly Russian was explaining the plot of Tannhäuser to his much younger female companion.” When I first read this line from chapter 3 of The Ink Black Heart, I thought: ‘Wow, a reference to an opera! I have to go see it at some point’. But only when I heard similarities between its overall theme and IBH discussed in The Strike and Ellacott Files podcast did I get really interested. So, I watched Tannhäuser on Youtube, read the libretto and in the stage directions of act 1, scene 1 I came across – Leda and the swan!
This was just the first of a whole lot of parallels I found between the opera and the book, as well as the rest of the series and which Lindsay, Kenz and Pools kindly gave me the opportunity to share on this blog.
Tannhäuser, or in full title “Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg“ (Tannhäuser and the Minnesängers’ Contest at Wartburg), is the 5th completed opera of German composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883) and premiered in 1845. It is based on two separate legends, one about Tannhäuser in the Venusberg and the other about Heinrich von Ofterdingen and the Singers’ Contest at the Wartburg, which in German is actually a “singers’s war”. These were combined to one story by Wagner, who wrote the libretto, did stage design and costumes and also was the stage director.
According to Wikipedia, “The story centres on the struggle between sacred and profane love, as well as redemption through love.” This is precisely the struggle Strike has to go through in IBH.
For those who don’t know the opera yet, here is a brief summary based on the German libretto (Richard Wagner: Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg. Reclam 2001). Most of the quotes are from a bilingual libretto online. (N.B.: there are errors in the German text and the English translation, some of the names are written wrongly and some of the English stage directions are missing, but it’s the only libretto in English I found online).
Tannhäuser, a knight and Minnesänger of the early 13th century, has spent a year as Venus’s lover in her cave inside the Venusberg, which, in those days, means sin in two ways: the worship of a pagan religion and sexual excesses (or profane love).
Tired of the endless pleasure in his life as a god and longing to be a mortal man again, he begs her to let him go. Venus tries to charm him into staying and, as if in a trance, he sings her praises, vows to fight for her but still leaves her. Venus is furious, curses him and predicts that he will never find forgiveness and peace among humans.
Back among his friends the knights / minstrels on the Wartburg in Thuringia, Tannhäuser participates in a singers’ contest with the task of exploring the true nature of love, in order to win the hand of Elisabeth, Landgrave Hermann’s niece. Tannhäuser loved her before but didn’t know she loved him back.
During the contest, Tannhäuser makes fun of the innocent and self-denying love his friends sing about; boasts about the sensual and physical love he has known and eventually confesses to his stay with Venus.
Through the advocacy of Elisabeth, although she’s hurt by his confession, Tannhäuser is saved from being killed by the knights and sent on a pilgrimage to Rome in order to repent and pray for forgiveness and redemption.
When the older pilgrims return from Rome, Elisabeth, who has constantly prayed for Tannhäuser, is devastated that she doesn’t find him among them.
She prays for her death so she can dedicate herself entirely to begging for his redemption.
Tannhäuser comes back after having voluntarily endured extra pain to atone for his sin, but the pope has told him that just as his staff would never sprout leaves and flowers again, Tannhäuser would never be redeemed.
Embittered, Tannhäuser wants to go back to Venus but resists the temptation when he thinks of Elisabeth, who meanwhile has been granted her death-wish.
Seeing her in her coffin, Tannhäuser dies begging Elisabeth to pray for him.
After his death, the younger pilgrims bring the pope’s staff in full bloom, which is a sign that God has granted Tannhäuser redemption even though humanity didn’t.
Venus’ cave and the Ritz
The most obvious parallel between the opera and IBH is of course the basement nightclub Annabel’s in chapter 3, which symbolises Venus’s cave, with Tannhäuser / Strike giving in to the temptation of Venus, represented here by Madeline. She is also referred to as Venus’ Greek counterpart Aphrodite in the Epigraph of chapter 78, where Strike ignores Madeline’s messages: “Why should I praise thee, blissful Aphrodite?”
According to the stage directions of act 1, scene 1, which describe the Bacchanal (an orgiastic dance scene in the cave, reproduced on the dancefloor in Annabel’s), an image of Europa’s abduction by the bull appears out of the mist and dissolves, then the same happens with an image of Leda and the swan.
These two impersonations of Zeus / Jonny Rokeby, paired with his adulterous partners, also parallel this scene with IBH chapter 1, in the Rivoli bar of the Ritz, where Strike sees “a bronze-panel” of “a naked Leda being impregnated by Zeus in the form of a swan”, right at the moment when he tells Robin about his half-sister Prudence and her mother / Europa.
In the Ritz chapter, we see a growing connection between the detective partners that culminates in the almost kiss and is interrupted by Robin’s silent “no”, whereas the Annabel’s chapter shows a growing disconnection (the theme of the book) that finds its climax in the actual kiss and start of a relationship between Strike and Madeline.
This set-up of both chapters as complete opposites emphasises the stark contrast between what Strike is risking (the friendship with Robin, or a happy relationship with her) and what he is risking it for (ego-soothing but meaningless sex with Madeline). Or the contrast between the sacred love Tannhäuser felt for Elisabeth before leaving the Wartburg and the profane love of sexual adventures with Venus. In this respect, the two chapters (together with chapters 2 and 4) are a sort of prequel to the opera, that explains how and why Tannhäuser might have left the Wartburg and come to stay in the Venusberg and what happened during his absence.
Strike and Robin sit in the Rivoli bar “facing each other”, which sounds way more personal than Strike and Midge “sitting opposite each other” in Annabel’s. Strike wearing his “FAVOURITE Italian suit with a white shirt and a dark tie” at the Ritz gives the impression that he feels comfortable in it, as opposed to having “loosened his tie and undone the top button of his shirt” in Annabel’s. Robin thinks of Sarah Shadlock’s feigned admiration of Strike, which suggests that by now, Robin is the one who really finds him “strangely attractive”. This appears more romantic than Valentine telling Strike that Madeline “THINKS [he’s] sexy”.
Strike, after a few cocktails at the Ritz, feels “pleasantly buoyant and loose-limbed”, while in Annabel’s, he’s sober, “his bottle of zero-alcohol beer already warm in his hand”, and we all know what Strike is like about beer. He actually can’t wait to get home. At a quarter to midnight, he thinks: “With luck, […] once the new year had been rung in, their target would be scooped up by the schoolfriend’s family and taken safely back to their house in Chelsea.” At the Ritz, he doesn’t want the evening to end: “’Yeah, OK,’ grunted Strike, who could happily have spent another couple of hours here in his comfy chair, bathed in golden light, the smell of rose and musk drifting across the table.”
In the Ritz scene, there is a lot of sincere smiling and laughter (the latter word alone appears fourteen times!), which is a connecting force in general, but especially because Strike likes to make Robin laugh, as we know since Career of Evil (chapter 23). Even the silver-haired man, whose “smirk” when looking at Robin I initially found suspicious, seems to me, like the smiling waitress, just an example of all the other people in the bar who look at Strike and Robin and like what they see. They smile at them, appreciate them and at some point, Robin feels fond of and thus connected with everybody in the room, above all Strike.
Whereas the only laughs in Annabel’s come from Valentine making fun of the fact that Madeline thinks Strike is sexy, and from
Madeline reacting to Strike telling her about detectives having to work undercover. These two exchanges are clear signs that Strike’s and Madeline’s relationship is fake, not only on his side but on hers, too: later in the book, when her disrespect of his need for anonymity leads to rows, Strike starts to wonder “whether, for her, part of his attraction was his newsworthiness” (IBH chapter 15). There are no real smiles in Annabel’s, just a non-smile, a half-smile, a forced smile and a slight smile.
In general, the Ritz scene is full of a positive mood: Strike and Robin are “having the most conspicuously good time”. They’re “beaming” at each other when celebrating their agency’s success. Before they almost kiss, Robin’s expression is of “happiness”; even sitting in the taxi home, one of her feelings is “elation”. In Annabel’s, although it’s New Year’s Eve, the mood is rather gloomy: we witness Legs’s frustration, tears and misery, Strike being brutal about it and Madeline looking sombre because of Gigi Cazenove’s suicide. The whole scene is summed up fittingly by Midge: “Never seen in the new year in a toilet before. Hope it’s not an omen.”
When more and more people sit in the Rivoli bar, this seems to add to the pleasant atmosphere: “The bar was more crowded now than when they’d first sat down, the hum of conversation louder, and the crystals hanging from the chandeliers were each surrounded by a misty aureole”.
In Annabel’s, at some point, there is “an upheaval in the seats ahead of him, as nearly everyone had stood up to flood onto the too-small dance floor.” Not only is there not enough space to dance, nothing seems to fit: Strike has no place to sit anymore, “tipsy people were crammed on the sofas near him, shouting at each other over the music”, the dance floor is “heaving with hot bodies”, Legs’ dancing shoes “appeared a little too high for her” and the Russian “bounced out of time to Clean Bandit’s ‘Rather Be’”.
The music of the Bacchanal-scene of the opera feels very much like this to me: progressively more frantic, slightly dissonant and almost threatening.
Music is also what the Ritz chapter reminds me of, because it’s so full of poetic descriptions, especially of Robin through Strike’s eyes, that it could just as well have been one of the songs of courtly love Tannhäuser sang about Elisabeth before he went to Venus.
In spite of the outward similarity between Robin and Madeline, the way Strike looks at the latter is rather detached and matter-of-fact. Whereas every aspect of how Strike sees Robin is filled with beauty, poetry and connection. In each phrase, his feelings for her shine through. Where Madeline’s dress is “skin-tight”, Robin’s is “figure-hugging”. Same with the jewellery: “The tiny diamonds surrounding [Robin’s opal pendant] made a glittering halo in the bar’s golden lights, and whenever Robin moved, sparks of scarlet fire twinkled in the opal’s depths.” This connection between the piece and its wearer does not exist for Madeline (the jeweler): “Several fine gold necklaces hung around her slender neck”. Just hanging there, probably disconnected to each other.
As to her figure, Strike tries to do Robin “the courtesy” of not ogling her breasts, when “a deep cavern of cleavage was revealed behind the hanging opal”, and he “forced himself to look away” when she sprays perfume “into the hollow between her breasts”. With Madeline, he has no such restraint; he openly looks at her figure and notices the “stilettos that laced all the way up her smooth brown legs to her knees” and that “the strapless dress was tight across her breasts”. Strike finds her “very good-looking” but in the same sentence he thinks of her not having undergone cosmetic surgery, which says something about the type of woman he expects to meet at this place.
Even when both women are drunk (or high in Madeline’s case), he describes them very differently. Madeline is “the woman with red-gold hair, now pink-faced and dishevelled from dancing. […] She was extremely pretty and definitely high, though speaking perfectly coherently.” Again, this does not seem much of a quality for her to have, as opposed to: “Soon [Robin’s] eyes were bright and her face slightly flushed. […] She had never looked better to him: flushed with drink and laughter, her red-blonde hair shining in the diffused glow from the golden cupola above them.” Robin’s looks are not just standing on their own, they interact with her surroundings and are enhanced by them.
Drunk Robin is still very connected with Strike, asking him to hold her perfume bag when searching for her coat-ticket, him catching her when she stumbles, her liking the feel of him when he holds her tight, each smelling the other’s perfume.
Drunk or high Madeline is a little more destructive: “the half-empty champagne-flute in her hand was in danger of spilling its contents”, then “Madeline bent to put her glass down on a nearby table but missed the edge: it fell onto the carpeted floor and she shrugged as she straightened up”. Neither does she seem to care about anyone hurting themselves on the shards or that someone might need to clean up, nor does Strike help her.
In the course of the evening, Strike and Robin’s conversation becomes more and more personal: they start with “work talk” (probably current or past cases) with “increasingly loud laughter”, continuing with their families (“’Prudence said […] she’d found forgiving Rokeby “healing”’”), Charlotte, as part of a funny story (“Anthony, we can see Johnny Winkle.”), men Robin is being set up with (“’Who’s Wolfgang?’”), which leads Robin to tell Strike, for the first time, that she shouldn’t have married Matthew (“‘I knew, deep down, knew it was all wrong…’”), then they talk of the most personal subject of all between them (so far): the agency’s success, fruit of their common love of detection (“’Strike, we’re a success,’ […] ‘To the Strike and Ellacott Detective Agency’”).
In Annabel’s, all of these subjects come up, but reversed: Strike and Midge are at work and are almost as unhappy as their target, Strike’s family is invisibly present, with Leda and the swan’s image in the opera’s Bacchanal, but this time without the promise of resolution, Charlotte is brought up by her step-brother Valentine, who introduces Madeline to Strike and makes him fear a threat to his agency, and Midge wonders aloud if Robin gets together with Hugh Jacks in Switzerland, which arouses Strike’s jealousy.
When Robin and Strike look at each other outside the Ritz, they fall silent. “’Strike’, said Robin, leaning back into him so as to look into his face […] but when their eyes connected no words came.” Strike and Madeline on the other hand, keep talking, or rather “Madeline Courson-Miles glanced up at Strike, drained her champagne flute and leaned in to shout into his ear again.”
In Annabel’s, Strike keeps a clear head and remembers to go through possible obstacles: “’Are you married?’ Strike asked. ‘Divorced,’ said Madeline. ‘Dating anyone?’ ‘No.’ […] ‘In that case,’ said Cormoran Strike […]”.
Outside the Ritz with Robin, Strike “forgot in that second every stern resolution that had restrained him for nearly five years and made an almost infinitesimal dip of his head, his mouth heading for hers.”
Now comes the turning point. Suddenly, “Robin’s expression moved from happiness to fear”, which Strike is still haunted by, when “the desire in [Madeline’s] eyes was like a balm to him”. He thinks “Fuck everything” and jumps into Venus’s cave (i.e. kisses Madeline).
Venus’s cave symbolises here the whole self-destructive behaviour Strike has learned from his mother (and father): meaningless sex, or a toxic relationship, with a woman who uses drugs, loves drama and desires him only for his relative fame, as a means of dealing with his bruised ego after Robin’s “no” and continuing his denial. Strike’s use of women like a drug when in emotional upheaval runs like a red thread throughout the series:
“Consciously seeking to distract himself from thoughts of Robin, he had ended his self-imposed isolation by accepting an invitation that he would usually have avoided: dinner with Detective Inspector Eric Wardle, Wardle’s wife April and their friend Coco. […] Strike had taken her to bed in the Travelodge in the same way he had drunk nine cans of Tennent’s” (LW chapter 1).
Every other woman in his life since Charlotte: Ciara in CC, Nina in SW, Elin in COE, Lorelei in LW, and, of course, Madeline in IBH, has had the same function.
Throughout IBH, his unhealthy eating habits and his smoking also represent Venus’s cave.
The web of lies Strike starts to entangle himself in now, even though he feels uncomfortable with it, “wondering how many more women he was going to have lied to before the day was through” (IBH chapter 74), is part of the cave as well: He lies to Robin about Madeline because “he wanted her to stay single, while he disentangled what he felt and what he wanted” (IBH chapter 25). When instead, he could have thought seriously about why Robin rejected him, as indeed he does later: “Strike had told himself there were good reasons she might have been panicked by his ill-advised approach outside the Ritz” (IBH chapter 68). And he lies to Madeline in order to avoid drama although he knew exactly what to expect of the type of woman he was getting himself into with.
I’m well aware that Robin, too, lies a lot to Matthew in books 2-4 (SW chapter 32, COE chapter 23, LW chapter 18), and she feels uncomfortable about it, because she “was a truthful person and never, in the nine years that they had been together, had she lied, or not until recently” (SW chapter 28). I find these lies understandable, as they are a consequence of her discovering her true self since working with Strike and, after nine years of relative harmony with Matthew, she has to hide who she really is in order to avoid rows with him. As this is her first serious relationship, she needs some time to free herself from it.
Strike has probably lied to Charlotte for the same reasons during their relationship, because she did not leave him the freedom to be who he is. For example when she “had reacted the way other women might had they found their partners viewing online porn” on finding him browsing the Army Rumour Service site (CC, part 2, chapter 8). Like Robin, this was his first serious relationship, the only person he said ‘I love you’ to, and he’s taken some time to finally leave her, which I find equally understandable.
The difference in my view is that once Robin has finally left Matthew, I think she would never start a relationship with another man like him, because, as she tells Strike, “‘I don’t ever want to be torn again’”, TB chapter 58)”.
Whereas Strike’s ‘sin’ here, to use the opera’s vocabulary, is that, unlike Robin, he repeats the same pattern with every new woman he is involved with. In fact, he is desired by, and always chooses, women who are, “in Polworth’s view, neurotic, chaotic and occasionally dangerous” (TB chapter 52) and with whom he gets into the same situations as with Charlotte.
Like, with Madeline, the rows because she doesn’t understand Strike’s need for anonymity to do his job, baseless jealousy (even if egged on by Charlotte), violent outbursts, with thrown objects, and a kick in his stump at the end, which echoes Charlotte’s ashtray on his brow-bone (CC, part 1, chapter 2).
And it isn’t as though Strike didn’t see the warning signs on first meeting Madeline in Annabel’s: He realises she is “definitely high” (IBH chapter 3) and doesn’t seem to mind although he doesn’t like drugs. He sees how little she cares about others when she drops her champagne flute (see above) but ignores it, although (at least in general), he doesn’t like rudeness to waiting staff.
He knows Madeline is friendly with Charlotte’s stepbrother Valentine, and although “he’d made a point of ascertaining the precise degree of her friendship with his ex-fiancée before progressing to a second date”, he should have known that dating Madeline would mean a connection with Charlotte, if ever so slight, and thereby trouble (“He wasn’t delighted by the news, but it wasn’t a surprise. Charlotte had done some occasional modelling over the years he’d known her”, IBH chapter 8).
As for the threat to his agency, Strike has done nothing about Jago finding Charlotte’s nude “because it suited him to believe the coked-up Valentine was scaremongering” (IBH chapter 25).
There have been warning signs with other women, too:
When Nina Lascelles nicks the manuscript of Bombyx Mori for him (SW chapters 12, 13 and 15), Strike knows perfectly well how unprofessional it would be to sleep with her (“he had just been given a divine clout over the head to remind him of what was and what was not a good idea”). When he feels “he owed her something in return”, he does it anyway, even though, being Strike, he would have been able to find a pretext not to. And not only that, he does it again when he wants more information on Roper Chard, notwithstanding “the effort it would require to detach himself again from Nina Lascelles’s hopeful clutches” (SW chapter 31), and yet again when he needs distraction from Charlotte on her wedding day (“Tonight was not a night he fancied spending alone”, SW chapter 41).
With Lorelei, who “played Aphrodite to his Hephaestus” (LW chapter 11), Strike has ignored yet more warning signs. I don’t think I can consider her as another Venus, as she only “played” Aphrodite, and she also seems ambiguous because of her name: The “mythical siren of the Rhine”, after which she was expressly not named, sits on a rock and lures men into her trap, according to Heinrich Heine’s popular poem from 1827 , but in the 1801 poem by Clemens Brentano, on which that modern myth is originally based, she doesn’t do it on purpose but is heart-broken over a man who betrayed her and ultimately throws herself off the rock, (inspired by the Sirens of Greek mythology and the nymph Echo who was unluckily in love with Narcissus). And Lorelei Lee from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the actual source of her name (LW chapter 11), just comes across as needy.
Like Nina and Coco, Strike uses Lorelei as a distraction. But with all her expertise in bed, Lorelei only “sometimes” succeeds in driving “thoughts of Robin and Matthew […] entirely from his mind” (LW chapter 11).
Although Strike is honest with her from the start about “not [being] the man for her if she sought predictability or permanence”, the fact that he “wanted to believe her when she had told him how glorious it was to have her flat to herself and her freedom restored”, suggests that deep down he knows she is interested in more commitment than he is willing to give, as “it was convenient to assume that Lorelei felt the same way”. Yet he continues the relationship even when he “felt tiny spots of displeasure when he had told her he had to work weekends, like the first heavy drops of rain that presage storm” (LW chapter 11).
Lorelei denying this makes part of the ensuing conflict her fault but does not exonerate Strike from his own responsibility because he knew what was coming. And still, he stays with her and even calls her for help after his fall at the protest march (LW chapter 22), breaking his “no-consecutive-overnights-at-a-woman’s rule”, while he could have “phoned his old friends Nick and Ilsa, or even Shanker”. This decision leads to Lorelei saying “I love you” and being hurt by Strike not reciprocating (LW chapter 24).
Strike getting involved with all those women who, as Ilsa puts it, try to fix him down although he “clearly doesn’t want to be fixed down”, is self-destructive behaviour, because it constantly exposes him to the very drama he wants to avoid (just as Tannhäuser, who knows that Venus is bad for him but has trouble getting away from her). And much as it might come from past trauma, and much as he might dislike it, it always leads him to lie to and hurt these “neurotic” women.
Although it’s not his fault they fancy him, and no matter how badly THEY behave, Strike knows every time that he’s about to make a bad decision for both himself and the woman in question, but does it anyway, just like addictive behaviour. Which I think therapy could help him with.
Under her Spell
Like Strike, who after Robin’s rejection fears she might find him disgusting, Tannhäuser was definitely sexually frustrated before coming to Venus (“Have you so soon forgot how once you suffered, whilst now you delight in pleasure here?”, act 1, scene 2). Had Tannhäuser known about Elisabeth’s love for him, who might have seemed unattainable because of her higher social standing, he would probably not have left the Wartburg to join Venus in the first place.
Strike, too, muses about the social differences between him and Robin (“a nice middle-class family back in Yorkshire, parents married for decades and […] a bloody pony”). Several times, he thinks of her as “a woman who was destined for marriage” (COE chapter 40), implying that this is an unattainable goal for him: At first he thinks he is only capable of an affair, telling himself “it wasn’t that he wanted to be with her” (COE chapter 40). Later, when he thinks of wanting the possibility of something – yet unnamed that could be more than an affair, he doesn’t trust his ability to make it last (“except it’ll go wrong, of course, because it always goes wrong”, TB chapter 58). Even when he finally calls this ‘something’ with Robin a ‘relationship’, he still thinks of it as “impossible” (IBH chapter 2).
After one year of pleasure in Venus’s cave, the opera’s plot starts (act 1, scene 2). Tannhäuser longs for the world of mortals again and begs Venus to let him go. Three times, when she tries to charm him into staying, he takes up his harp and sings her praises, especially about why he is with her:
1. “My heart yearned, oh my senses thirsted after pleasure, after delicious gratification.”
2. “Forever envied he who, with ardent passion, has shared the godlike glow in your embrace!”
3. “Your lovely fascination is the fount of all beauty, and every sweet wonder stems from you.”
According to the German stage directions, he does that once ‘encouraged to a sudden decision’ and once ‘with a drunken gesture’, which gives the impression that Venus’s charm is working and also reminds me of Strike comparing his inability to get over Charlotte to addiction (“She’d been like a drug to him for a long time, TB chapter 8), and deleting her nude photo “like an alcoholic pushing away brandy” (TB chapter 22).
This is our second representative of Venus: Charlotte who, like Madeline, is referred to as the Greek version of the goddess: when Strike first meets Charlotte (CC, part 3, chapter 7), her then-boyfriend Jago Ross is described as “an Adonis” – Aphrodite’s lover. She is also directly compared to Venus: “Strike stared at the body no sentient heterosexual man could fail to desire, and at the face Venus would envy” (TB chapter 22). Like Tannhäuser with Venus, Strike is under Charlotte’s spell, more or less for the same reasons:
1. Pleasure, which means of course sex, but also, I think, the drama in her life that Strike knows so well from his own family, as “her childhood  had been every bit as disrupted, chaotic and, at times, frightening as his own” (IBH chapter 87). For Charlotte, “whose libido had generally been stimulated by drama and conflict” (IBH chapter 59), this trauma and pain from her childhood seems inextricably linked with pleasure. And to Strike, who had (at least partly) “believed that they could achieve redemption together” (LW chapter 11), it constitutes a strong bond between them.
The first glimpse we get of her, through Robin’s eyes, shows how much she enjoys even the row that leads to Strike walking out: “It was […] the other’s expression: livid, yet strangely exhilarated” (CC, part 1, chapter 1). Lucy also understands that Charlotte is “measuring her own worth in the havoc she caused, glorying in the pain she inflicted” (CC, part 3, chapter 9).
But Strike himself is not averse to drama: “Had it been Charlotte lying beside him rather than Madeline, he might have been tempted to throw something – not at her, but possibly something breakable, at a wall” (IBH chapter 38). And he has learned it early on. The only time he saw his parents together, in his childhood, they argued: “‘Then he clocked my mother, and he twigged. They started rowing’” (TB chapter 58).
2. Envy by other men sometimes seems as important to Strike as his own attraction to Charlotte. Shortly after their separation, he remembers it several times with nostalgia: “he had lived […] with a woman who made every man who laid eyes on her treat Strike with a kind of incredulous envy” (CC, part 1, chapter 7). Often, this envy comes with a comparison to his own ugliness: “‘How the fuck did a pube-headed trog like you ever pull that, Strike?’” (CC, part 2, chapter 4).
Being with Charlotte greatly boosted his ego: “It had been the most glorious moment of Strike’s nineteen years: he had publicly carried off Helen of Troy right under Menelaus’s nose, and in his shock and delight he had not questioned the miracle but simply accepted it” (CC, part 3, chapter 7). Helen being Leda’s daughter in Greek mythology (apart from making Charlotte Strike’s sister), is another sign for the similarity between Charlotte and Strike’s mother and another reason why the pull towards her is so great.
3. Beauty is probably THE main attraction Charlotte has for Strike. For a long time, he thinks of her as the most beautiful
woman he has ever seen: when he is drunk after hearing of her engagement with Ross (CC, part 4, chapter 5), when she texts him on her wedding day (SW chapter 41), when she cries in Franco’s, the Italian restaurant (LW chapter 50) and when he remembers their Kairos moment in the hospital (TB chapter 54).
Charlotte’s looks are compared with Leda’s, who is also a “beautiful [woman]” (COE chapter 26): Charlotte’s portrait over the mantelpiece shows her “in a cloud of long dark hair” (CC, part 2, chapter 4); Leda has “a long cloud of dark hair” in her nude photo online (COE chapters 6 and 61). Both remind me of Venus’s description with, “rich black ringlets floating loose” in the poem “Der Tannhäuser” by Heinrich Heine, written in 1836 and one of the sources of inspiration for Wagner’s opera.
In SW (chapter 41), Strike sees his fixation on Charlotte’s beauty and the status it gave him during their relationship very clearly: “he had never rid himself of a sense of wonder at her looks, nor of the gratitude they inspired, nor of pride by association” and wonders if he “invented virtues for her, to add lustre to her staggering looks”.
He has a similar moment of clarity about why he is with Madeline: “So what? People use each other all the time, Strike told an imaginary Madeline, […] Ward off loneliness. Try and find what they’re lacking. Show the world they’ve snagged a prize” (IBH chapter 76).
Exit from Venus
Though under a spell, both Strike and Tannhäuser know they have to leave. Tannhäuser gives Venus 3 reasons:
1. He’s tired of the endless pleasure: “not pleasure alone lies close to my heart – in the midst of joy I crave after pain.”
2. He craves nature and Christian spirituality: “I long for the woodland breezes, […] for the fresh green of our meadows, […] for the dear sound of our bells”.
3. He wants freedom because he knows: “if I remain with you, I can only be a slave. For freedom, then, I long, for freedom, freedom, do I thirst; for struggle and strife I will stand, though it be, too, for destruction and death.”
Strike also has three main reasons to leave Venus / Charlotte (after sixteen years in her cave):
1. He’s tired of all the rows and the pain with Charlotte. “Sixteen years of an on-off relationship that he still could not say had been more pleasurable than painful” (COE chapter 40). Unlike Tannhäuser, Strike doesn’t consciously wish for pain (“I want peace from the shit that love brings in its wake” ,TB chapter 58). But he considers it as an important part of love, probably from his experience with Leda as well as Charlotte: After vowing only to say “I love you” again when he knows “beyond reasonable doubt, that he wanted to stay with that woman and make a life with her”, he reflects that “love, to [him], was pain and grief sought, accepted, endured” (LW chapter 24).
2. He can’t accept that Charlotte uses a possible child to manipulate him (“She had lied once too often, about something tooserious”, CC, part 1, chapter 7). This is too much ego even for Strike, who, as we know since the road trip to Cambridge, has “learned Latin to prove a point to a man [he was] never going to meet again” (IBH chapter 84). What he needs in this instant is the Christian spirituality Tannhäuser craves, or, more to the point, empathy.
3. Strike resents Charlotte’s possessiveness and wants freedom, like Tannhäuser does from Venus. When he meets her again in LW, he reproaches her: “You wanted to stop me wanting anything that wasn’t you. That’d be the proof I loved you, if I gave up the army, the agency, Dave Polworth, every-bloody-thing that made me who I am.” (LW, chapter 50). The fact that “walking out on Charlotte had left him on the brink of true destitution” (CC, part 1, chapter 5), could be Strike’s version of Tannhäuser’s acceptance of death if it means freedom from Venus.
There are also reasons for Strike to leave Madeline that can be compared with Tannhäuser’s:
Strike is always hungry when with her because, unlike Robin, who puts a lot of thought in his food throughout the book and buys a whole chicken when he comes to dinner (IBH chapter 75), Madeline doesn’t seem to care enough: “If he had one quibble, it was that Madeline sometimes seemed to forget that a man of his size needed more than bar snacks at the end of a long day’s work” (IBH chapter 8).
Like the goddess, who doesn’t need what the mortal man, Tannhäuser needs (“What they possess you can easily spare”, act 1, scene 2). Interestingly, the only time I’ve found Madeline worrying about food for Strike is when she’s not with him (and doesn’t have to provide it), while he stays at home with his hurting leg:“‘Are you still OK for food?’ asked Madeline anxiously. ‘Pat’s getting it in for me,’ said Strike” (IBH chapter 43).
When Madeline tries to pull Strike into her celebrity life (“‘Your picture’s already been in the papers, though’”, IBH chapter 15) and constantly compares him to his father Rokeby / Zeus (“‘Don’t talk about my daddy!” – but you’re just fucking like him’”, IBH chapter 94), this seems a bit like Venus wanting to make Tannhäuser a god (“Or what? Can you so greatly regret being a god?”). As did Charlotte trying to make Strike embrace her upper-class world and spend more money than he had (LW chapter 62).
Also, Madeline’s habit of arriving to their dates “in a keyed-up state, talking frenetically about the latest work problem until, with a few sips of alcohol inside her, she unwound” (IBH chapter 8), reminds me both of Charlotte being nicest when she is “very slightly drunk” (TB chapter 8) and of Venus, who seems to overwhelm Tannhäuser: (“your loving is too huge for me”, act 1, scene 2), because Madeline always seems a bit too much for Strike.
By not considering Strike might be hungry (IBH chapter 13), ignoring Strike’s need for anonymity (IBH chapters 15 and 94), setting great store by fame, even though trying to belittle Strike’s (“‘You actually do think you’re Jonny Rokeby’” IBH chapter 52) and being rude to waiting staff (IBH chapter 8), Madeline, like Charlotte, shows that she lacks empathy.
In the opera, Venus tries to charm Tannhäuser into staying by promising him “nectar divine”, which he refuses, as Strike does when Charlotte beseeches him: “‘Please. One drink’” (IBH chapter 87).
Venus reminds Tannhäuser of the pleasures of their love: “Are you so soon wearied of the sweet wonder my love devises for you?” Charlotte has no more luck with Strike: “We had incredible times together” (LW chapter 50).
When this doesn’t work, Venus gets furious with Tannhäuser and curses him: “If you do not return to me, a curse, then, upon the whole wide world”. This resonates in Madeline’s “‘Fuck you. Fuck you” (IBH chapter 94). Venus’s dark prediction to Tannhäuser: “Begone, deluded mortal, seek your salvation […] and find it never!” (act 1, scene 2) could be part of the curse or simply, like with Madeline, a threat: “‘—an’ I’ve got an interview w’the Mail next week – an’ I’ll tell them—’” (IBH chapter 94 ).
Venus also threatens not to take Tannhäuser back when he returns in shame and abandoned by everyone because “to heroes alone, to menials never, does my kingdom open!” Charlotte doesn’t bother with threats; she goes straight to revenge, for which Strike knows her to have “an appetite” (CC, part 1, chapter 5) and gets engaged to Jago Ross as if to show Strike who’s the hero here.
But like Venus, who withdraws her threat in shock when she realises that it can not intimidate Tannhäuser into staying, Charlotte is devastated that Strike doesn’t “ride to [her] fucking rescue yet a-fucking-gain” (IBH chapter 25), as she confirms in their text exchange in TB (“I didn’t think you’d let me do it”, TB chapter 54), proving Strike right in his belief that it “was all a game, a game to hurt him” (CC, part 4, chapter 5).
Now, Venus makes it clear that she will always want Tannhäuser back (“Do not resist your longing from pride, if it draw you back to me!”), very much like Charlotte (“’Wouldn’t you rather have had advance warning that I want you back?’”, chapter 50). Madeline also tries to get him back with texts (IBH chapter 96) and a get-well card (IBH chapter 106).
Tannhäuser’s vow to Venus (“Never was my love greater, never truer than now when I must flee from you for ever”) could as well have been sung by Strike to Charlotte, as he did not get over her for five years but never caved in to her attempts to lure him back. Strike’s break-up speech to Madeline sounds a bit like that, although less sincere: “You’re great […] and it’s been great, but I think we want different things” (IBH chapter 79).
Venus and the whole Venusberg suddenly disappear when Tannhäuser cries out “My salvation lies in Mary!” by which he means the Virgin Mary, considered to be Venus’s polar opposite, and whose role of saving Tannhäuser is later taken over by Elisabeth.
Enter Robin, who of course does the saving for Strike. When she first arrives at the building of Strike’s office, right at the moment Charlotte leaves it, her appearance in the office stops Strike from going after Charlotte: “then that moment of madness when he had plunged after her – a pursuit ended as quickly as it had begun, with the unwitting intervention of this heedless, superfluous girl […] Perhaps he ought to be glad that the Temporary Solution had forced him to abandon the chase. There could be no going back from the scene in the early hours of this morning. This time, it had to be over.” CC part 1, chapter 1).
— Curtain —
End of Act 1
Check back in tomorrow for Act 2, where I will discuss Tannhäuser’s and Strike’s return to the world of mortals, their struggle between sacred and profane love and help that comes from an unexpected quarter.