The Malta Independent 22 June 2021, Tuesday

Marie Benoit's Diary: Trying to cope with a time afflicted by Covid-19

Marie Benoît Wednesday, 9 June 2021, 13:44 Last update: about 13 days ago

Dr Paul Xuereb was the University of Malta's Chief Librarian, 1967-1997, and was active in Malta's Library Association and in the Commonwealth Library Association. Always enamoured of the theatre, he was the Sunday Times of Malta's drama critic, 1963-2015, and was also for many years a keen amateur actor. His books and articles on the theatre include A History of the Teatru Manoel (2nd ed. 2011) and a substantial collection of his drama reviews, Curtain up! (2017). Let’s discover how his intellectual and cultural pursuits kept him going.

"Coronavirus has affected my life in more ways than one. Above all it has cut down family contacts largely to phone conversations and very rare meetings, and we have not seen our son Vanni, tied down in his embassy in Berlin, for several months. One of the first blows Covid dealt us was to make impossible a visit to Rome, Cecilia's favourite city, planned as a gift for us by Vanni and our daughter Lorraine for February last year. We paid joyful visits to Madrid when Vanni was still ambassador to Spain and we at last have a good idea of when we shall be able to visit him in Berlin. Thank goodness, Lorraine and her family are most of them in Malta, and we do meet them fromc time to time.

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Cecilia and myself made several excursions on the cliffs and in the countryside of our islands, essential breaks from the uniform life at home.  One of the pictures accompanying this article shows us both wearing the regulation masks against a background of a Xlendi sunset, a photo taken by Lorraine, a skilful photographer.

My intellectual life is largely conditioned by the books I read and the music I find on offer by television stations like Mezzo and the works streamed by great houses like New York's Metropolitan or London's Covent Garden. A rare escape from the virtual to the live was Teatru Manoel's decision to present the 2021 edition of the Valletta International Baroque Festival in the theatre for greatly limited audiences.  Much less ambitious than usual, it was still enjoyable. We were grateful to Teatru Manoel and Kenneth Zammit Tabona for giving us this treat.  I do not miss live theatre much as my hearing has got much worse.

Thank goodness I can discuss intelligently subjects related to the arts with my wife Cecilia who shares most of my likes and dislikes and whose knowledge of classical music is vastly superior to mine. Cecilia is an able pianist who spends an hour or two each day playing works by the composers she loves - J.S. Bach, Mozart and Beethoven - so the sound of great piano music played live in my own home is a familiar one.  Piano playing is just one of her activities, and her absolute refusal to spend much time doing little or nothing is a constant reminder for me not to brood in melancholy mood or do nothing of worth.  She is a member of cultural committees, the meetings of one of which she actually attends in person, while others are virtual ones.  Despite the situation, she keeps on being useful to the community, and makes me feel I should seek more than I do to help others, particularly in the book world to which I have been attached for much of my life.

Luckily I have a few friends who have kept my interest alive in what has still continued to happen in our cultural and artistic life.  In the dark days of the virus' first wave, that exceptional artist Richard England, sent online from time to time elegant and sometimes disturbing images expressive of the fear and strength of mind he was experiencing at the time. He was kind enough to allow me to reproduce on my Facebook page images which attracted the excitement and admiration of many of those familiar with that page.  My guess that he was working on a theme connected with the pandemic came true when early this year Kite published his sombrely handsome Lazarus, poetry and prose inspired by the New Testament episode of Jesus bringing back to life his friend Lazarus.

This book and my daily following of the Mass on TVM2 (many of them including first-rate homilies by Archbishop Scicluna and Bishop Galea Curmi) led me to buy the latest Maltese edition of the Bible and to follow up an opinion mentioned in England's book that Lazarus may have been the "beloved disciple" of the New Testament normally regarded as being the apostle John.

Having much more time for reading and following up what I read, I have been following the example of my good friend Mario Tabone, by allowing my interest in a book to lead me to others expressing similar or contrary views on the same topic. Andrew Graham-Dixon's  perceptive book on Caravaggio pushed me to read what Maltese and other authors have written on the painter's short but extraordinary stay in Malta, while Maggie O'Farrell's beautifully written novel Hamnet, featuring William Shakespeare (never mentioned by name in the book) and the early death of his son Hamnet which led some years later to his writing his best-known play, made me look up my copy of F.E. Halliday's biography of the great poet, and to watch a recent film, All is true, about the last years of  Shakespeare's life. Incidentally I have now learned that "Hamnet"and "Hamlet" are alternative forms of the same name.

Like Richard England, my old University of Malta class-mate Giovanni Bonello, for long now a revered author and authority on a number of subjects, from time to time emailed me new articles, one or two of them still unpublished, for possible comments, and I was glad on one occasion that my comments, lengthier than usual, proved useful, he told me. I am now waiting for another admirable author friend of mine, Paul P. Borg, an extraordinary environmentalist, whose publications I have reviewed many a time, to send me a novel in manuscript to see what I think of it.

I was fortunate to receive a commission that kept me busy and contented writing for the first months of this year. I accepted to undertake the translation from Maltese into English of a work by Albert Ganado, an author well known and much respected for his many publications on aspects of Melitensia.  It was a far from easy task, and I was glad to receive great help from Cecilia and also from two persons intimately connected with the original Maltese edition.  Compared to this task, my review of Alfred Sant's massive and impressive new book of memoirs was a much less taxing job.

I am hoping that the coming months will provide me with more occasions for exercising my brains and my writing skills, and for helping others to whom I could be useful in other ways.


Next week: Marquis Nicholas de Piro


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