Thinking aloud: a change of direction?

Regular readers of this blog – and I believe there are a few – will know that this blog isn’t particularly focussed on any one thing. I don’t even describe this as a “books blog”, or as a “literary blog”: most of my posts are, admittedly, on literary matters, but on the whole, this blog is as unfocussed and as meandering and – let’s be honest – as undisciplined as my mind. I write about whatever takes my fancy, and, on the whole, quite enjoy the freewheeling nature of it all.

However, this freewheeling approach means that this blog doesn’t really have a brand, as such. There’s no niche in which to settle. And recently, I have been tempted, sorely tempted, to give this blog a more distinctive identity. It all started recently when I started tweeting on a book I have been reading recently – a biography of Caravaggio by Helen Langdon (of which more later: watch this space, as they say). And it struck me what a wonderfully rich era, in terms of culture, the turn of the 17th century was – from the 1590 into the 1600s. For me, of course, this was principally the era of Shakespeare; but it was also the era of John Donne, Monteverdi, Francis Bacon, William Byrd, Cervantes, the young Rubens, John Dowland, Caravaggio, Lope de Vega, Ben Jonson, Thomas Campion, El Greco, Johannes Kepler, Giordano Bruno, Galileo, and so on. In short, it was one of the most extraordinary periods in the Western world in terms of culture, and the advancement of learning. Now, wouldn’t it be interesting to focus my blog on this era? Perhaps to discipline myself to write on nothing but this era?

Histories of England tend to split this era into the Tudor period and the Stuart period, thus introducing a break in 1603 with the death of Queen Elizabeth I; and in terms of “-isms”, no-one can really decide whether this was the era of the late Renaissance or the early Baroque: Byrd and Shakespeare are often referred to as Renaissance figures, whereas Caravaggio and Monteverdi are considered Baroque. Perhaps the Italians, ahead of the times as ever, decided to become Baroque somewhat earlier than the British got round to it – who knows!

As with any era, of course, it’s an era of great diversity, and there’s little point – or even perhaps convenience – in sticking labels. What does it matter whether Shakespeare was Renaissance or Caravaggio was Baroque when they were both, at the same time, producing masterpieces of unsurpassed tragic grandeur? It’s an era I really would like to immerse myself in, and writing about it here would be, if nothing else, an education for me: apart from the plays of Shakespeare – whose works I won’t claim to know well, but which I have at least lived with for a great many years – I am really not at all knowledgeable about these other major figures of the time. Wouldn’t it be great to know well the music of Byrd, or of Monteverdi? To come to a deeper understanding of those dark masterpieces of Caravaggio? To appreciate better the poetry of Donne? To re-read Don Quixote? Or, if I allow myself the freedom to go back a decade or two, come to terms – as I have long been intending to do – with the essays of Montaigne?

It’s certainly tempting. However, while I think there will be a great many posts here next year on this fascinating period, I doubt I’d want to lose the freewheeling aspect of this blog: I’d like to give myself the freedom to continue to write about whatever takes my fancy – whether it’s a piece of nostalgia, or some account of some film or play that I’ve just seen, or some concert I’ve just heard, or simply have a damn good rant. That last bit is especially important: I most certainly do not want to give up on my rants, especially when there is so much in our times worth ranting about.

So, no radical changes I suppose; but when we get into 2015 – which is now frighteningly close – do be prepared for a plethora of posts on the arts and culture of the late 16th to the early 17th centuries.

The myth of Elektra

I was at the BBC Proms concert performance of Richard Strauss’ opera Elektra a couple of weeks ago. I am not qualified to comment on the musical quality of the performance, although reviews by those who are tend to confirm my layman’s impression that it was utterly magnificent. I came out afterwards in a sort of daze, my head spinning, my mind too unsettled even to try to think of the immense drama that had been played out before me.

However, from near where I was sitting, a number of people – five by my count – walked out during the performance, the expression on their faces speaking more eloquently than words could ever have done not only of their boredom, but also of their utter contempt of that which was boring them so.

I tried to imagine myself as I was back in those heady days nearly 40 years ago, when I was trying to discover what this classical music lark was all about. How would my younger self have reacted to this harsh, uncompromising, jagged and tuneless piece of modernism? Yes, I think the music would have gone over my head completely; yes, I would have found the sounds produced unattractive; and yes, I think I too might have been bored by it all. But no, I don’t think I would, for all that, have walked out. For one thing, I like to think I would have had some degree of respect, or at least consideration, for other members of the audience who had paid to be there, and who may well have been concentrating hard on this demanding music: expecting them to interrupt their concentration to make room for my egress would, I think, have struck me, at the very least, as impolite. And secondly, I think I might have had the humility to put down my lack of appreciation to an insufficiently developed understanding; for even then, I think I was aware at some level that culture requires cultivation – that it is not reasonable to go to something as forbidding as Elektra with one’s ears untuned to its musical idiom and one’s mind unschooled to its aesthetic, and expect to be able to take it in. I might even have seen the concert as an opportunity to take a first tentative step towards an understanding. At least, I hope I would have reacted in such a manner: it is hard to look back over the years and judge accurately what one had been.

Of course, I shouldn’t make too much of this: indeed, I shouldn’t make anything at all out of this – only five dissidents from an audience literally of many thousands is a fairly nugatory matter, and I raise the matter only because it annoyed me at the time, and annoys me still. However, it is sometimes worth questioning one’s most firmly held assumptions. Culture may indeed need to be cultivated, but is there really any pressing reason to do so? It may be that it requires great effort and years of immersion into this mode of music to be able to appreciate something such as Strauss’ Elektra, but what precisely does one get in return? The story is horrific; the emotions depicted in the work, and projected to the listener, are rebarbative; there is no hint at any point of human redemption, or of that feature that Orwell had claimed must belong to tragedy – a sense that humanity is nobler than the forces that destroy it. One’s nerves are jangled by it, sure, but is that jangling of nerves in itself an end worth pursuing?

The myth of Elektra is not one that offers any comfort or solace, let alone entertainment by any reasonable definition of that word. And yet, the myth refuses to go away. In its outline, the story is simple: the princess Electra’s father, Agamemnon, had been murdered by his wife, Klytemnestra; and now, years later, Elektra awaits the return of her exiled brother Orestes; and when finally he does come, she helps him assassinate her mother Klytemnestra, and her mother’s lover Aigisthos. A simple and rather repulsive story. And yet, this story continues in its various forms to haunt the imagination. Amongst other things, it is the only story on which there survive plays by all three great Athenian tragedians – Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides – and comparing their various treatments of this story is fascinating.

Aeschylus’ play, The Cheophoroe (The Libation Bearers), is the second play of the Oresteia trilogy, and demands to be seen as such: although the protagonists are characterised up to a point, they are part of a wider pattern stretching back to the first part of the trilogy, Agamemnon, and forward to the last, The Eumenides. Here, the theme is justice – both human justice, and divine justice – and the endless cycles of violence and bloodshed engendered in pursuit of justice. Here, Orestes kills for the sake of justice: his father had been murdered, and it is but justice that his father’s death is avenged, and that he, his father’s son, should, with his father’s daughter, mete out what is right and just. But the threads stretch out far into the past and far into the future.  For Klytemnestra, too, had killed for the sake of justice: Agamemnon, leading his troops to Troy in order to carry out the Justice of Zeus, had sacrificed Iphigenia, at the altar of Artemis; he had, with his own hand, slit the throat of his own daughter, and Klytemnestra’s.

Artemis had insisted on this sacrifice. Agamemnon may have been pursuing justice in leading the Greek troops to Troy to avenge Paris’ abduction of Helen, but in order to achieve this justice, he must shed much innocent blood; and this shedding of innocent blood also calls out for justice. If Agamemnon is to shed innocent blood, Artemis had insisted, he must shed first the innocent blood of his own family, of his own daughter. For this, too, is justice.

And since that terrible day, which the chorus in Agamemnon cannot even bear to think on, Klytemnestra has been waiting for her husband to return. She has taken in the meantime a lover, Aigisthos, a cousin of Agamemnon’s, who has his own reasons, stretching back into generations, for wishing Agamemnon’s death: for generations, atrocities had been committed, the latest of these when Aigisthos had been a boy: his father, Thyestes, had been invited by his uncle Atreos, father of Agamemon, to what he believed was a feast of reconciliation; but in that feast, Atreos had fed Thyestes with the flesh of his own sons. Aigisthos’ father had unwittingly eaten of the flesh of Aigisthos’ brothers.

And so, Agamemnon, returning triumphant from Troy, the victorious soldier, is murdered by his own wife, Klytemnestra. Justice is served. But each act of justice is but a new crime calling for further retribution. And humans are caught in this infernal machine, each duty-bound to render justice, and each committing in the process a crime that but perpetuates the horror.

It is in this context that Aeschylus places the story of Elektra. The Gods demand justice; Man is the instrument of this Divine justice; and yet, Man has to take moral responsibility for the crimes committed in its pursuit. There is no end to this terrible logic, no respite. By the end of The Choephoroe, Orestes, having carried out Divine will, having justly murdered his mother who had also justly murdered her husband, can already see the Furies in pursuit: whatever the claims of justice, he has committed matricide, and must therefore be punished.

The third and last part of this trilogy appears to offer a way out. The goddess Athena institutes the concept of a “trial”: no more blind retribution, but a jury of twelve honest men and true to determine through civilised discourse the nature of the crime, the issue of guilt, and the appropriate nature of the punishment. The trilogy ends with the acquittal of Orestes, and a triumphant torchlit procession through the streets of Athens. However, while clearly this is among the many masterpieces that depict a journey from darkness into light, the light does not seem to me entirely without its dark shadows. For one thing, in this instance, the human institution of trial by jury doesn’t resolve the issue: the jury is hung, six votes each, and it takes the casting vote of Athena – in other words, divine intervention – to achieve what humans cannot, and bring to an end this cycle of violence. And neither are the Furies exiled: they cannot be. Athena incorporates them into the new legal system she has devised for humans, and this incorporation seems to me an acknowledgement that justice cannot be administered without, at some level, the presence of terror. The joy at the end of the trilogy seems to me very deeply qualified. And the more I read these plays, the more fatal these qualifications seem.

It is not difficult to see in these Aeschylean cycles of violence, in the repeated calls for justice and in the repeated bloodshed and atrocities, an image not only of our own times, but of all times since these plays were written. What human institutions we have to control these savage urges of ours seem precarious at best, and often compromised; and sometimes, indeed, the very reason for yet another cycle of bloodshed and retribution. The Furies cannot after all be banished.

If Aeschylus’ main interest was in the themes of justice and of cycles of violence, Sophocles was more interested in what this violence does to the human psyche. The past is still important, but the rights and wrongs stretch back neither so far, nor so deeply, as in Aeschylus’ plays. In this version of the story, Agamemnon had to sacrifice his daughter because he had inadvertently offended Artemis by hunting on her sacred land. This terrible human sacrifice is not, here, a connecting link in the endless chain of historic rights and wrongs, but, rather, the humour of a cruel and heartless divinity. And Sophocles’ Elektra, unlike the Elektra of Aeschylus, has grown up a fierce and feral creature. Treated even worse than the slaves, starved and beaten, barely even recognisable as human, she has one thought and one thought only – the murder of her mother. This savage desire has invaded her entire being, and deformed everything about her. She undergoes through the course of the drama a vast range of emotions, but even those emotions that are, or should be, beautiful and sacred, are here deformed. She grieves when she hears of the death of her brother Orestes, but that grief is not merely an expression of the loss of one she has loved: it expresses also her rage that her mother can no longer be murdered. Conversely, her joy in finding her brother alive is not easily separated from her joy in realising that soon, very soon, her mother’s skull will be split open by an axe. And when the axe does fall, and we hear Klytemnestra’s screams offstage, what we see on stage is perhaps the greatest horror of al:

ELEKTRA: Stab her again –
if you have the strength!
– from the translation by Robert Bagg

By the end of the play, Elektra is utterly triumphant. But in her very victory is her defeat. The one thing she has desired, had desired above all else, has now been achieved, but the cost has been horrendous: it is hard to see her even as a human being.

I had seen this play over 20 years ago now – I cannot, I’m afraid, remember the translation used – in a nerve-jangling production directed by Deborah Warner, and with Fiona Shaw striking terror into the heart with a performance of the utmost savagery. Of course, Sophocles’ play itself is a work of the utmost savagery, and it was on this version of the Elektra story that Hugo von Hofmannstahl based his libretto for Strauss’ opera. He keeps reasonably close to the play – although he starts, not as Sophocles had done, with Orestes returning to Mycenae with his friend Pylades and his old servant, but with Elektra herself and the maidservants. In Sophocles’ play, the maidservants are largely sympathetic to Elektra, and are on stage throughout, discoursing with Elektra and providing commentary; in the opera, they are largely unsympathetic to her, and do not appear after the first scene. But the most significant change is in the great confrontation between Elektra and Klytemnestra: in the play, it is Elektra’s sister Chrysothemis who tells her of Klytemnestra’s dream, and when Elektra and Klytemnestra meet, they each speak of the justice of their respective causes, though each is unable to take in what the other is saying. But in the opera, neither character refers to past events: the focus is not on the past at all, but, quite unremittingly, on their present states of mind. It is Klytemnestra who describes her dream to Elektra, and here, in possibly the most terrifying passage of any opera, Strauss’ music twists and turn and curdles and drifts off into multiple tonalities, evoking mental landscapes that most of us, hopefully, do not encounter even in our most horrific nightmares.

Elektra is on stage, still alive, at the end of Sophocles’ play: the tragedy is not that she dies, but, rather, in the deformation of her mind, in her defeat even as she claims victory. In Strauss’ opera, Elektra, her sole purpose in life achieved and with nothing more to live for, falls dead, in, one can but assume, an excess of ecstasy. But the sheer terror of brutal, implacable hatred is not something that leaves the listener easily. It has been two weeks now since that concert, and that sense of terror is with me still.

But perhaps the opera is not entirely to blame for that: always a sucker for punishment, I suppose, I have been immersing myself these last two weeks in Sophocles’ play, in translations by Robert Bagg and by Michael Ewans. (A production of Michael Ewans’ version may be seen here.)

In works I value written in languages to which I have no access, I often find myself comparing different translations; but whenever I compare translations of Greek tragedies, the differences are so often so great, I can’t help wondering whether the various translators are all working from the same text. I suppose it could also be the case that the original text contains so many different layers of meaning, that translators are forced to interpret, and highlight certain meanings above others. But I was glad I picked these two particular translations, as they are so very different in conception. Ewans (and his colleagues Graham Ley and Gregory McCart for the other Sophocles plays in the set) focuses hard on how the plays would have been staged in the Greek theatre: the various scenes are numbered, the strophes and antistrophes clearly marked, and so on. The language, if not necessarily monumental, is dignified. Bagg and Scully on the other hand aim for a greater fluidity of language, not afraid of intrusions of what may strike us as modern diction. When I had written earlier of James Scully’s translation of Sophocles’ Aias, I had been generally appreciative, but had complained of the occasional sense of bathos; but now, having read all the Sophocles translations by Robert Bagg and James Scully, I think that criticism had been more a reflection of my own expectations than anything else; for, as the translators say in the introduction, the plays of Sophocles range across a wide range of dictions, including the everyday, and that the expectation we have of a monumental quality does these plays no favours at all. Not knowing Greek myself I am in no position to argue; but it is fair to say, I think, that I have now become accustomed to their style of translation, and, while I am clearly unable to comment on its closeness either to the letter or to the spirit of the original, I no longer find in them those  moments of bathos that had struck me on my first reading.

However, I remain perplexed at some of the variations between the two translations. For instance, in Bagg’s translation, Elektra says near the start of the play to the chorus of maid-servants:

So how can I be calm
and rational? Or god-fearing?
Sisters … I’m so immersed
in all this evil, how
could I not be evil too?

In Ewans’ translation, this becomes:

My friends, in such a situation it’s impossible
to be modest and reverent; when times are bad
there is tremendous pressure to act badly to.

I suppose the two versions say similar things, but the effect is very different: “when times are bad” is hardly the same as “in all this evil”. I have no idea which one is closer to Sophocles, but in terms of how it reads in English, much prefer Bagg’s version here: it is more direct, and depicts a self-awareness on Elektra’s part of what she has become; in contrast, in Ewans’ version, Elektra’s lines seem merely defensive, and its phrasing seems to me dramatically weak.

But then, compare this following passage, when Elektra recognises her brother Orestes:

The hate of many year have melted into me,
And now I’ve seen you, I’ll never stop
my tears of joy. How could I stop?
I’ve seen you come back here first dead and then alive;
You’ve wounded me in ways I cannot understand.
– from the translation by Michael Ewans

 I think this is splendid – especially that final line. But here is the same passage in Bagg’s translation:

My hatred for her runs too deep.
Since you’ve come home, I feel
so much joy it makes me cry.
How could I not? One moment
you’re dead, the next, you’re not!
you’ve made me believe anything
can happen.
– from the translation by Robert Bagg

In this instance, it is Ewans’ version that seems to me both poetically and dramatically more impressive. But I must confess myself puzzled by their renditions of that last line. No matter how knotty the original text may be, it is hard to believe the same line of Greek yielding the different interpretations “You’ve wounded me in ways I cannot understand” and “You’ve made me believe anything can happen.” These are times when I wish I had a classical education, so I could read what the original says.

However, having spent these last two weeks since the concert perusing these two versions of Sophocles’ Elektra, and having listening to a recording of it (I have the famous recording conducted by Georg Solti with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, with Birgit Nilsson as Elektra), I find I am no nearer an answer to my original question: why should we cultivate a taste and receptive faculties to take in something so horrific and so utterly devoid of nobility or of elevated thought as this? Oh, of course, one can wheel out all the old arguments about how tragedy purges us, and all the rest of it, but I have never quite believed that: I don’t think a work such as Elektra purges us of anything – not me, at any rate. In Aeschylus’ play, this horrific story is part of a larger pattern in which, even in the joyous finale, the dark shadows obstinately remain. And in Sophocles’ play, and in the modernist masterpiece created by Richard Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hofmannstahl, we are presented with an unblinking look into the darkest abyss of the human spirit; these works depicts humans so deformed morally and mentally that they can barely be recognised as human at all. And no, I cannot defend the fascination I obviously feel for these works. Maybe those who walked out had a point after all!

On Cavaliers and Roundheads

When one sets out to stick the boot into another author’s literary style, it’s best to ensure that one’s own style is … well, if not necessarily above criticism, then, at least, competent. For if your philippic contains sentences such as this:

I like Orwell’s writing as much as the next talented mediocrity.

…then one’s likely not to be taken very seriously. From the context, one may discern that Self means it is Orwell who is the “talented mediocrity”; yet, the unfortunate construction of his sentence seems to indicate that the “talented mediocrity” is Self himself. And one can’t help reflecting that Orwell would never have written a sentence as crap as this.

But let us not get sidetracked into having a go at Will Self, enjoyable though that may be. The issues raised in his attack on Orwell deserve, I think, greater attention.

Self declares near the start of his piece:

… overall, it’s those individuals who unite great expertise and very little originality – let alone personality – who arouse in us the most perfect devotion.

This attack on the lack of originality or of personality does seem an odd prelude to a piece attacking Orwell, who was original enough to go persistently against the flow in his politics, often alienating himself from both the mainstream Left and the mainstream Right, and whose writings are generally acknowledged to project a very powerful and individual authorial personality. But Self’s piece gets odder: he goes on to characterise Englishness as essentially bland and colourless – so bland and colourless, indeed, that it has extended its baleful tentacles even to subdue the Celtic exuberance of its neighbours:

In truth the grey hold sway in Edinburgh, Cardiff, Belfast and Dublin quite as much as they do in London. Is it any surprise? Whatever their own talents, the Scots, Welsh and Irish have all been colonised by English mediocrities.

If we are talking here about literary style – as I guess we are, since that is the thrust of the rest of the piece – then I personally wouldn’t have characterised as bland or as colourless, and certainly not as “mediocre”, the literary culture of a people who have produced such flamboyant stylists as John Donne, Charles Dickens, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence, and, obviously, that chap Shakespeare. But I suppose if you don’t feel obliged to provide supporting evidence, you can assert just about anything you want. So let us not worry too much about that, and continue.

After this curious preamble, Self moves to his theme: the “Supreme Mediocrity – George Orwell.”

At this point, Self anticipates with relish, as all self-regarding iconoclasts do, the gasps of horror his iconoclasm will occasion:

I don’t doubt characterising Orwell as a talented mediocrity will put noses out of joint. Not Orwell, surely!

This is followed by an extended passage of heavy-handed sarcasm:

Orwell the tireless campaigner for social justice and economic equality; Orwell the prophetic voice, crying out in the wartime wilderness against the dangers of totalitarianism and the rise of the surveillance state; Orwell, who nobly took up arms in the cause of Spanish democracy, then, equally nobly, exposed the cause’s subversion by Soviet realpolitik; Orwell, who lived in saintly penury and preached the solid virtues of homespun Englishness; Orwell, who died prematurely, his last gift to the people he so admired being a list of suspected Soviet agents he sent to MI5.

That last bit is a reference to the revelation, made some years ago, that Orwell had compiled a list of prominent public figures who, to his mind, had Communist sympathies, and were, hence, unsuitable as writers for the Information Research Department, a propaganda department that had recently been set up by the Labour government. This revelation created at the time something of a rumpus, and remains a contentious issue; but I personally can’t help wondering whether there would have been such a rumpus had it been revealed that Orwell had compiled in the mid-30s a list of writers sympathetic to Nazism. In retrospect, as we all know, or should know, Soviet Communism was every bit as great an evil as Nazism; and in the late 40s, when Soviet Communism was indeed a great danger, and when many public figures were indeed sympathetic to it, the moral ambiguity of the situation seems to me to have been far too great to allow for any simplistic apportioning of blame. However, I do not insist on this point: no doubt there are many who, with good reason, are more censorious on this point than I can bring myself to be. But whatever we may think of Orwell’s action on this matter, it does seem to me a tad spiteful, and, indeed, malicious, to bring it up in a piece that is about Orwell’s writing style, not his politics.

And finally, after all that, we come to the heart of the matter: Self thinks Orwell a mediocrity because Orwell wrote plain English:

It’s this prose style that has made Orwell the Supreme Mediocrity.

And worse, in his essay “Politics and the English Language”, Orwell recommended writing plain English. In brief, it’s the old story of Cavaliers and Roundheads: Orwell was a Roundhead, and Self thinks it is better to be a Cavalier.

Self then goes on to declare war against the Standard English that Orwell stood for, declaring it to be “mediocre”, and preferring instead language of greater flamboyance – in short, preferring the Cavalier rather than the Roundhead aesthetic. Self claims, amongst other things – although, as ever, he offers no arguments in support – that African-American vernacular English “offers its speakers more ways of saying more things” than does Standard English. That may or may not be so, but I do know that whatever merits this particular vernacular may have, if ever I am ill and am admitted to hospital, I would much prefer my medical report to be written in the plain Standard variety of English that Self so looks down upon.

No doubt Self would think this is a trivial and mundane point, and that, as a literary artist concerned with richness of expression, he is far above such trivial and mundane matters. But it’s thanks to these trivial and mundane matters that our world works. Medical files, journalism, parliamentary reports, reportage, business references – all these things and more require writing that is, above all, lucid. And for this, it is Roundhead writing one must turn to, not Cavalier. Orwell himself was primarily a journalist and essayist, and much of his writing – including his two most famous books – is didactic in nature; so it is hardly surprising that he preferred the Roundheads to the Cavaliers when it came to writing style. Indeed, it is noticeable that Self himself, in making his didactic point, has adopted a style that is – the odd “fulguration” apart – more Roundhead than Cavalier.

Orwell’s advice on writing is actually excellent advice for anyone who sets out to write lucidly: to judge from his article, Self could, I’m sure, learn much from it. But Orwell was addressing a particular kind of writing: the title of this essay is a bit of a give-away – “Politics and the English Language”. Orwell was specifically talking about political writing, where lucidity is vital; in other kinds of writing, he most certainly did not insist that the Roundhead way is the only way to write well: his obvious admiration, as evidenced in his literary criticism, for Dickens, Joyce and Lawrence, should leave no-one in any doubt at all that on that point. What he was insisting was that in certain kinds of writing, lucidity is of primary importance; and to achieve lucidity, one must eschew flamboyance. “The simpler the better” is not a dictum that always holds true; but in certain kinds of writing, it does.

And even for other kinds of writing, there is, pace Self, much to be said for simple English. If “the simpler the better” is a foolish maxim in the context of creative writing, “the more flamboyant the better” does not seem to me any better. My own personal preference in these matters is actually for the Cavaliers rather than the Roundheads: I much prefer Faulkner, say, to Hemingway; but given the choice between the harmonious simplicity of Bunyan’s prose, say, or the flamboyant prose of some writer with a tin ear for the rhythms of English prose (let’s not name names), I certainly know which I prefer!

“To thine own self be true…”

This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

These lines are often cited as great wisdom, as evidence of how wise and profound a thinker Shakespeare was. They are spoken, however, by Polonius, who is anything but a wise and profound thinker. Indeed, he is a shallow man, a pompous, long-winded buffoon, one of those “tedious old fools” that Hamlet refers to so contemptuously. These lines of wisdom occur towards the end of an excruciatingly tedious oration delivered by Polonius to his son Laertes, peppered from beginning to end with cracker-mottoes of the most mind-numbing banality. Far from depicting profundity, these lines serve merely to depict Polonius as a man who has no conception of the complexities of life that Prince Hamlet is grappling with, a manwhose idea of wisdom is no more than a few trite and meaningless platitudes.

For what does it mean to be “true to one’s self”? What, for that matter, is “one’s self”? The very opening line of this play, a seemingly casual “who’s there?” spoken by a guard on duty on the battlements, rings through the rest of the play: it poses the question of identity. Is Hamlet being true to his self when he is a sweet prince, greeting his social inferiors Bernardo and Marcellus with courtesy? Or is he being more true to his self when making nasty and obscene suggestions to Ophelia in the open court? When he fails to kill the king when given the opportunity to do so, or when he plunges his sword into the arras only a few minutes later thinking the king is hiding behind it? Even after all these centuries, we have not come close to plucking out the heart of Hamlet’s mystery, and this is because his true self, like all our true selves, whether we recognise it or not, is complex: we do not even know what these true selves are that we are instructed to be true to.

To see Polonius’ exhortations to his son as pearls of wisdom is to see the complexity of this play through Polonius’ uncomprehending eyes. It is a grotesque reduction. It is to see the moral paths of Right and Wrong as clear as they are in Aesop’s fables, and characters as flawed for not seeing what is so apparent. It is to imagine that identifying a tragic flaw on the part of the protagonist can help us come close even to an adequate understanding of these endlessly intricate works. Such reduction leads not merely to a simplified view of these works, but to a distorted view. Far from helping us understand the work, it takes us further from it.

Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of me! You would play upon me, you would seem to know my stops, you would pluck out the heart of my mystery, you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass; and there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ, yet cannot you make it speak. ’Sblood, do you think I am easier to be play’d on than a pipe?

“Women in Love” by D. H. Lawrence

Note: I suppose I should preface this post with what is known as a “spoiler warning”, as it is impossible to discuss this novel even superficially without mentioning certain particulars of its plot, such as it is. However, this novel is not by any stretch of the imagination a plot-driven novel, and the question “what happens next” is not what keeps the reader reading. As such, any prior knowledge of what the plot offers does not, in my opinion, detract from the experience of the novel in any way, even for the first time reader. But if you haven’t yet read this novel, and are planning to, and would prefer not to know what happens next, it’s probably best to give this post a miss.

 

Towards the end of Women in Love, shortly before the narrative hurtles towards its catastrophic climax, Lawrence treats us to a scene of rare comedy. Gudrun and Gerald, on their way to an Alpine resort, are in a smart London café, the Pompadour, and at a nearby table sit some people they know from the arty, bohemian set. These people are laughing very loudly: they are much amused by the rather absurd figure of Rupert Birkin, who is absent from this scene, and who is a friend of Gerald’s, and, at this stage of the novel, the husband of Gudrun’s sister Ursula. Birkin, a thinly disguised portrait of Lawrence himself, feels things very passionately, and speaks his mind openly and frankly. And he speaks about things that matter to him, things that are, to him, of vital importance: love, mortality, sex, passion, our place in the universe, the future of humanity itself – in short, all those things one normally doesn’t talk about in polite society, except perhaps superficially. These people find Birkin’s po-faced earnestness dreadfully funny. One of them produces a letter Birkin has written, and, to everyone’s great amusement, starts to read it aloud. Gudrun, who has never herself been particularly close to Birkin, is nonetheless irritated, and offended on his behalf. Why does he write to these people? she asks herself. Why does he so expose his very soul to their superficial jeers? Eventually, she walks up to them, and asks if the letter is genuine. Oh yes, they tell her, perfectly genuine. “May I see?” Keen, perhaps, to share the joke with her, they hand her the letter, whereupon she politely thanks them, and calmly walks out of the café, letter in hand.

It is a surprising scene in many ways. For one, it displays a comic streak in Lawrence’s make-up that I, for one, had not suspected. But more intriguingly, I think, it indicates that Lawrence knew perfectly well how his work was likely to be received in many quarters, of the mockery and laughter his earnestness would invite. And, at that specific moment, I understood Gudrun. At other times in the novel, I found it difficult to enter her mind – to relate to her, to use current book-group parlance. But at that moment, I could very much relate to her: for Lawrence’s earnestness, his seriousness of purpose, his very intense perceptions of this world, whether one sympathises with them or not, are not things to be jeered at. Quite the opposite: in times such as ours when superficiality is so prized, these are things to be thankful for.

For this novel, like its predecessor The Rainbow, is unashamedly about serious matters. It is not surprising that Lawrence’s stock, which was so high back in the 60s and 70s, has now fallen: modern taste prefers its serious dough to be leavened with a bit of wit and humour and a lightness of touch, but Lawrence will have none of it. Even if it meant appearing ridiculous.

The four protagonists of this novel are all driven by ideas. They speak about these ideas openly to each other, baring their very souls in a manner many readers find disconcerting. Of course, it may be objected, people in real life don’t speak like this, but that seems to me a pointless criticism: people don’t speak to each other in Jamesian prose either, nor in Shakespearean blank verse, but that does not prevent us appreciating The Wings of the Dove or Othello.  Lawrence was not aiming for photographic realism, any more than Henry James or Shakespeare were. The realism he was aiming for was clearly of a different order, and, in order to get closer to it than I have previously managed, I had, I felt, to trust the author, to put behind me my modern impatience with high seriousness. Better at least to be Gudrun in the Pompadour than that arty bohemian set ridiculing that which they do not even make the attempt to understand.

But, it will be objected, much of what these characters say is meaningless – gibberish, even. Especially much of what Birkin says – and, he, after all, is a self-portrait, and hence, Lawrence’s mouthpiece. What’s he on about anyway? What exactly is Birkin trying to say? Even to ask such questions is, it seems to me, to misunderstand the nature of the book. For this is a novel, not a tract: it is a book not really about ideas, as such, but about people who are driven by ideas, and this, I think, is an important distinction. The ideas these people have are often inchoate and incoherent, and sometimes even preposterous: none of the characters here has a grand comprehensive message to impart to the world, and neither, I think, does Lawrence himself. But they are all searching, grasping, exploring different possibilities; trying desperately to articulate what they feel so intensely, to pin down that which cannot be pinned down in a world in which nothing seems solid; failing, trying again, failing better. They are not consistent: their thoughts ebb and flow depending on their state of being, whom they are with, and any number of other factors. And they come into conflict with each other – often bitter conflict. There is no lovers’ tiff in literature to compare with the ones Ursula has with Birkin:

‘This is a degrading exhibition,’ he said coolly.

‘Yes, degrading indeed,’ she said. ‘But more to me than to you.’

‘Since you choose to degrade yourself,’ he said. Again the flash came over her face, the yellow lights concentrated in her eyes.

You!‘ she cried. ‘You! You truth-lover! You purity-monger! It stinks, your truth and your purity. It stinks of the offal you feed on, you scavenger dog, you eater of corpses. You are foul, foul, and you must know it. Your purity, your candour, your goodness—yes, thank you, we’ve had some. What you are is a foul, deathly thing, obscene, that’s what you are, obscene and perverse. You, and love! You may well say, you don’t want love. No, you want yourself, and dirt, and death—that’s what you want. You are so perverse, so death-eating. And then—’

And even by the end, as those startling final lines make clear, the conflicts aren’t resolved. Resolving conflicts, presenting clear, reasoned arguments, conveying a coherent message – not only are these all beside the point, they are quite antithetical to the heart of the matter. For it is not really the ideas that matter: the novel is far, far more than the sum of its characters’ ideas, such as they are. What this novel depicts is people locked in these ideas, in conflict with them and with each other, struggling desperately to find something they know not what. It is a depiction of four very different people struggling to make some sort of sense of their lives.

Much of this had emerged also in The Rainbow, but Women in Love, we know almost from the first sentence, places us in a world which, though physically the same as the world presented earlier and featuring some of the same characters, inhabits a very different fictional landscape. The Rainbow had taken the form of a sort of family saga: not a traditional family saga, perhaps, but the links with tradition were still visible in the depiction of the majestic progress of generations succeeding and supplanting each other. But here, the break with tradition is more apparent. The novel opens with two sisters discussing marriage, and we could be in Middlemarch say; but these sisters seem already weary with the world; from the very start, they seem to have no illusions to lose:

“Don’t you find yourself getting bored?” she asked of her sister. “Don’t you find that things fail to materialize? Nothing materializes! Everything withers in the bud.”

“What withers in the bud?” asked Ursula.

“Oh, everything – oneself – things in general.” There was a pause, while each sister vaguely considered her fate.

What it takes Dorothea Brooke bitter experience to realise, these sisters seem already to know. But vaguely, only vaguely. Everything in this novel is in a state of flux: nothing can be pinned down for sure.

Soon, the men are introduced to complete the quartet: there’s Rupert Birkin, a school inspector; and Gerald Crich, eldest son of the family that owns the local coal mines. All these characters are on edge in their different ways, their nerves frayed.

Gerald is energetic and powerful, and manages the coal mine with a ruthless efficiency. And he is masterful: he is determined to master the world around him into usefulness, as he has mastered the coal-mines. When his horse is frightened by passing of a train, Gerald pits his will against the horse’s, forcing the creature to stand by the tracks despite its intense terror. (This episode of Gerald attempting to impose his will on the horse may remind the reader of Vronsky in Anna Karenina: for all their obvious differences, Tolstoy and Lawrence do cross paths at times in quite surprising ways.) As Ursula says, Gerald has “plenty of go”. But then, Gudrun asks ominously, “where does his go go to, what becomes of it?” As the novel progresses, this question resounds more insistently: Gerald has go, yes, but seems aware of a profound emptiness within himself. It is here his mastery stops: he is frightened even to look inside.

When he had been a boy, we are told, he had accidentally killed his brother with a gun he hadn’t realised was loaded. The sisters disagree about the import of this incident:

‘Perhaps there was an unconscious will behind it,’ said Ursula. ‘This playing at killing has some primitive desire for killing in it, don’t you think?’

‘Desire!’ said Gudrun, coldly, stiffening a little. ‘I can’t see that they were even playing at killing. I suppose one boy said to the other, “You look down the barrel while I pull the trigger, and see what happens.” It seems to me the purest form of accident.’

‘No,’ said Ursula. ‘I couldn’t pull the trigger of the emptiest gun in the world, not if some-one were looking down the barrel. One instinctively doesn’t do it—one can’t.’

Gudrun was silent for some moments, in sharp disagreement.

The incident is reported rather than depicted, and the reader has to decide which of the two sisters is nearer the truth – to what extent, indeed, Gerald may have had, or has still, the desire to kill.

He certainly desires Gudrun. Immediately following the death of his father, unable to make sense of the great mystery he has witnessed, his mind in turmoil and only half aware of what he is doing, he finds his way into the Brangwens’ family home at night, and presents himself in Gudrun’s bedroom. He does not know why he has come, why he has so risked being caught. “What do you want of me?” Gudrun asks, in a voice described as “estranged”.

“I came – because I must,” he said. “Why do you ask?”

She looked at him in doubt and wonder.

“I must ask,” she said.

“There is no answer,” he replied, with strange vacancy.

Gudrun takes pity on him, and they become lovers, but pity is hardly an adequate basis to satisfy the needs and desires of these people, needs and desires the nature of which they cannot even begin to articulate, even to themselves. And that “strange vacancy” within Gerald becomes ever more apparent: where, indeed, does all that go go to? The question resounds all the or strongly in the final section of the novel, set in an Alpine resort, where, surrounded on all sides by blank walls of icy whiteness, Gerald, now openly despised by Gudrun, finds that there really is nowhere for that go to go to: it can only turn in upon itself, and embrace death, the icy chill of the outside world reflecting the icy chill of his own inner emptiness.

As in Anna Karenina, the strand of this tragic couple is intertwined with a strand featuring a happier couple – Ursula Brangwen and Rupert Birkin; but, also as in Anna Karenina, happiness, if such it is, is a complex thing: it is not final, it is not absolute, for nothing here can be final or absolute: they are forever locked in conflict, Ursula disagreeing with and fighting bitterly virtually everything Birkin says, everything that is important to him. But this conflict does not imply unhappiness, or even incompatibility, for in this of all novels, people’s motives, the dark roots of their words and their actions, remain inscrutable and mysterious, and elude comprehension: these people don’t themselves understand why they say or act as they do. When questioned, they can only answer, as Gerald does to Gudrun, “there is no answer”. Birkin knows that the life he leads is hateful, and that there must be an alternative: he wants something, but does not know what. He is fumbling, feeling his way, shattering the placid reflection of the moon in the water only to see the broken fragments of that shattered reflection forever re-establishing itself. He needs the opposition that Ursula presents. But he is aware, as indeed, are the other three of the quartet in their own way, that there is something irredeemably rotten about the life he lives, and the life everyone else lives, and, indeed, the very world he lives in: something else must at least be searched for, even if it is not found. Several times he muses on a world in which humans have ceased to be, and wonders if this will necessarily be a bad thing: won’t something better than humans replace us? Life won’t stop just because we have, after all. And even if nothing should replace us, why not leave the world to the birds? He finds this curiously comforting.

And yet he is not depressed, or in any way depressive. For all his dissatisfaction, he loves life too much. It is, one suspects, precisely because he loves life so much that he cannot endure its imperfections, its shortcomings – that he must always be searching for new ways of being. And in Ursula, too, as we know from those ecstatic closing chapters of The Rainbow, runs some mysterious vital force, that same force that in the earlier novel had so frightened Anton Skrebansky. And so the two remain at the end of the novel, together, happy (if we allow ourselves to use that word), but locked nonetheless with each other in an unending conflict.

At the end of the novel, Rupert weeps for the dead Gerald. They had brought his body back from the cold waste of snow and ice, curled up and frozen: they had to wait for the body to thaw before they could straighten him. And Rupert weeps.

“He should have loved me,” he said. “I offered him.”

It is not merely, or even perhaps primarily, Gerald’s death that Rupert laments, but that emptiness, that “strange vacancy” inside Gerald, that prevented him from accepting, let alone returning, Rupert’s offered love. Rupert contemplates the inert mass that had once been Gerald:

Birkin looked at the pale fingers, the inert mass. He remembered a dead stallion he had seen: a dead mass of maleness, repugnant. He remembered also the beautiful face of one whom he had loved, and who had died still having the faith to yield to the mystery. That dead face was beautiful, no one could call it cold, mute, material. No one could remember it without gaining faith in the mystery, without the soul’s warming with new, deep life-trust.

And Gerald! The denier! He left the heart cold, frozen, hardly able to beat. Gerald’s father had looked wistful, to break the heart: but not this last terrible look of cold, mute Matter. Birkin watched and watched.

Again, like Tolstoy, Lawrence had a fascination not only with death, but with also the physical nature of that great mystery, that ultimate loss of human consciousness, and that inexplicable transformation of a vital force into matter (here strikingly capitalised).

Birkin had on several occasions protested that it was not love that he wanted; or at least, that love was not enough. But he had loved Gerald, and Gerald had succumbed to the blankness that was death without having accepted it, without being capable even of accepting it. And it is this Birkin laments – this “strange vacancy” in Gerald, all that go that ultimately had nowhere else to go to.

No degree of familiarity could ever reduce this great mystery of death, and here, Lawrence presents it with a terror and a grandeur that belongs only to the greatest of tragic works. But this is not the end. In the very last page, Birkin tries to express to Ursula why he had wanted Gerald’s love: she is all that he craves for in a woman, he says, but he wanted a love with a man that would be equally powerful, equally important. We may or may not interpret this as homosexual love: it hardly matters. Ursula replies that what Birkin wants is unreasonable; that he cannot have such a love because it is impossible. “I do not believe that,” says Birkin, and on that fractious note this mighty novel ends.

***

Reading Lawrence is not easy, but I suppose one should expect it to be easy in the first place. As with any work of literature that is worth one’s attention, it attempts to express that which language is not really designed to express, and in the process, language is stretched to its limits, and it sometimes fractures. Lawrence is not afraid to take risks; he isn’t even afraid to be thought absurd. One may, as that arty set at the Pompadour café, find it all merely ridiculous – and, to judge from various comments I have seen on the net that pass as “reviews”, the Pompadour set are still very much with us. Well, one can’t dictate how readers should feel about any novel. I still find Lawrence extremely difficult, but on loosening my scepticism and my resistance, trusting him as an author, and going, as it were, with the flow, I found here a fearsome tragic magnificence, and a sense of some great and irreducible mystery. Lawrence may be troublesome, but he is worth the trouble.

“Sketches From a Hunter’s Album” by Ivan Turgenev

“Sketches From a Hunter’s Album” by Ivan Turgenev, translated by Richard Freeborn, published by Penguin Classics

While Turgenev is generally recognised as among the major European novelists of the 19th century, his work seems curiously under-appreciated. Few readers – even knowledgeable readers – seem to have read, or even for that matter know about, any of his novels apart from Fathers and Sons and, possibly, First Love. His last two full-length novels, Smoke and Virgin Soil, aren’t even easy to get hold of in English: the translations I have – by, respectively, Rochelle Townsend and Natalie Duddington –  seem to have been, till very recently, the only translations available, and they both date back several decades. The more recent translations of these works, by Michael Pursglove, seem to have passed by virtually unnoticed.

056Perhaps it is Turgenev’s misfortune to have been both contemporary and compatriot of Dostoyevsky and of Tolstoy: it is difficult making oneself heard when flanked by two such thunderous voices. And what makes it worse is that Turgenev’s own voice is gentle, and refined: he is not one for shouting, or for drawing attention to himself. But once one has adjusted one’s ears to the lower volume, his voice, one finds, is firm, and eloquent, and often deeply lyrical. And disconcertingly sane. No visionary moments of epiphany, no delving into the mysterious recesses of the human consciousness, no mad questioning into the nature of the universe, no vast epics encompassing movements of entire peoples, but, rather, a gentleness, a level-headedness, and a moderation that, in comparison with the work of his compatriots, can appear at first glance merely insipid.

But if insipidity is indeed the reader’s first impression, it is a very mistaken one. For Turgenev’s moderation is a passionate moderation, a consequence not of aloofness nor of indifference, nor yet of cautiousness, but of a passionate belief that only through moderation can the truth be apprehended. Certainly the picture of Turgenev that emerges in Isaiah Berlin’s essay on Fathers and Sons (it is included in the excellent collection Russian Thinkers) is that of a quite remarkable man. He had grown up in an aristocratic family that treated its serfs – in effect, slaves – with horrendous cruelty: his maternal grandmother had once murdered a serf boy with her own hands simply because she was annoyed with him, and, he being her property, she could do as she pleased with him without being answerable to anyone. Turgenev’s mother was, from all accounts, also a monster: as a boy, Turgenev witnessed regularly the most atrocious cruelties inflicted routinely on serfs. He knew full well, from first hand observation, the institutionalised horrors of Russian society, and longed for radical change. And yet, at the same time, what the radicals had to offer horrified him. Moderation became for him not merely a default position, but a moral duty. Naturally, as a sane voice in an insane world, he was reviled from all sides. Relations with Tolstoy were never particularly warm, while Dostoyevsky excoriated him on every possible occasion – while not being above, it seems, borrowing money from him – and caricatured him very cruelly and unfairly (although, admittedly, also very funnily) as the author Karmazinov in Demons.

It was with Sketches From a Hunter’s Album, written mainly in the late 1840s and early 1850s (with a few extra additions some 20 years afterwards), that he first made his name. These short pieces are, as he insisted, sketches rather than stories: quite frequently, Turgenev is content depicting a situation without feeling the need to extend or to develop it. Rarely is there anything that we may understand as a plot: when a character is described, it is not so that the reader can understand the character’s subsequent actions: rather, the description is an end in itself. We don’t even always get an epiphany, as Joyce was later to call it – some moment of revelation that becomes the crux of the story: a situation is been described, and characters are presented, and that, for Turgenev, is enough. However, it is noticeable that the additions made to this series in the 1870s are very different in nature: in these later sketches, there is most certainly a narrative arc, and, on occasion, narrative tension; but it is hard to say whether this change came about because Turgenev had now become more adept at storytelling, or because he had merely lost the ability to maintain interest without narrative. A bit of both, perhaps. The earlier and the later stories are different in nature, but there isn’t, I think, any question of either being superior to the other.

The sketches are written in the first person: the narrator is, like Turgenev himself, one of the landed gentry. He is also a keen hunter, who travels far and wide with his servant looking for some good shooting; and the sketches tell of the various people whom he meets in the course of his travels. These people he meets with are landowners, often on the lower end of the social scale; and peasants , serfs – or, in plain English, slaves. Possibly Turgenev is the only major Russian writer of his times to depict the lives of peasants: even in Tolstoy’s panoramic novels, peasants appear mainly as peripheral characters. Tolstoy did, admittedly, depict peasants in his later shorter works, but by that stage his fiction had become too didactic to allow for objective depiction. There’s little didacticism, however, in Turgenev’s depictions in these sketches. This is not because Turgenev did not feel strongly about the oppression of the peasantry, but rather because he was not by nature a didactic writer: using fiction to preach was not an aspect of his aesthetics. Of course, one could depict the cruelties and injustices without explicitly preaching, but even here, Turgenev had to be careful: stories critical, even implicitly, of the social order would not have got past the Czarist censors. However, one doesn’t need to read too deeply between the lines to get some picture of the relationships between serfs and masters:

Arkady Pavlich poured himself a glass of red wine, raied it to his lipe and suddenly frowned.

“Why has this wine not been warmed?” he inquired of one of the manservants in a fairly sharp voice.

The man was confused, stood rooted to the spot and turned pale.

“Well, I am asking you, my dear chap,” Arkady Pavlich continued quietly, without taking his eyes off him.

- from “Bailiff”

The detail of the servant turning pale tells us all we really need to know.

Although the oppression and the cruelties are never far away, it is not really the central purpose of these sketches to highlight these matters, either explicitly or implicitly: Turgenev was not writing a Russian version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. He was interested in these characters not as props for an ideology, but as people. And he is interested also in the landscape in which they live. I don’t think I have ever come across descriptions of light and of landscape that are quite so sheerly beautiful as the ones Turgenev gives us here: the beauty of the prose comes through even in translation (and of course, translator Richard Freeborn deserves much credit for this). The light in the forest steadily diminishing as evening falls; a hot summer day on the plains turning into darkness; the rivers, the woods, the skies – these depictions are not mere scene-setting, but integral parts of these sketches. This focus on the joys and sorrows ordinary people, and on the beauty of the landscape they inhabit, may even remind the Anglophone reader of Wordsworth, but Turgenev does not find in them, nor even seek, intimations of immortality: he is happy to see the landscape just for what it is, and take delight in it for what it is. Unlike his two great contemporaries, Turgenev’s vision of life, as far at least as may be judged from these sketches, was not in any sense religious.

And in some stories, there is, indeed, great delight. In “Bezhin Lea”, for instance, one of the most famous of these sketches, the opening pages are given to the most exquisite description I think I have read of landscape and light: there is no narrative as such, nothing in particular that the story is aiming towards – the delight is simply in the glorious representation in prose of the visible world. Then, after darkness falls, the narrator comes across a small group of peasant lads keeping watch over their flocks by night; and he spends the night with them, listening to the stories and the bits of folklore the boys exchange with each other. And that is it: that is the whole story. No build-up of tension, no climax – nothing of that nature: not even some sort of revelation, some Joycean epiphany. And there is something about it that is very warm and open-hearted, and generous of spirit. Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky may have presented visions of greater depth and breadth, but one can’t help feeling that it is Turgenev who is the most companionable of this trio.

And yet, his picture of the peasants is by no means idealised. In, for instance, one of the later stories,  “The End of Chertopkhanov”, the main character hears a hubbub in the near distance, and asks a peasant woman, who is sitting with a child and apparently unconcerned about the rumpus, what is going on:

“The Lord knows, sir,” the old woman mentioned and, leaning forward, placed her dark, wrinkled hand on the little boy’s head. “It sounds like our lads are beatin’ up a Jew.”

“What d’you mean – a Jew? What Jew?”

“The Lord knows, sir. Some Jew’s dropped in here. Who knows where he’s come from. Varya, to Mum now, there’s a good boy. Shoo, shoo, you bad thing!”

The old woman shooed away the chick and Varya seized hold of her skirt.

“So there they are, beatin’ him up, my good sir.”

“Why? What for?”

“I dunno, sir. Probably it’s over some business. An’ why shouldn’t he be beaten? Didn’t he crucify Christ, sir?”

A Zola might have given us a horrific detailed description of the beating itself, but there’s something utterly chilling about Turgenev’s handling of the scene that no direct description could, I think, match.

The stories range from the comic and satiric to the ironic, the sad, and, at times, the tragic. A composite picture emerges of a section of Russian society that I don’t think I have found in the works of any other Russian writer. And through it all shines the genuine decency and gentleness of the narrator. Perhaps the most touching of these sketches in “An Old Relic”, in which the narrator comes across a peasant woman whom he had previously known as a beautiful and lively young girl, but who is now paralysed after a freak accident, and spends all her life in bed, living on the charity of other peasants, and uncomplainingly waiting for death. Turgenev endows her with a nobility and a heroism. He does so not to make a point, but because he genuinely loves people. For all the evils depicted in these sketches, it is this love of the landscape, of people, and, indeed, of life itself, that comes through most strongly in this remarkable collection.

“There Was a Boy” by William Wordsworth

Some time ago, deciding that I needed to write more about poetry in this blog (though not quite certain how to go about it), I started a series that I called, rather foolishly, “Poem of the Month”. The intentions were good: I really had meant to write about a poem each month. However, since that first Poem of the Month back in April, I have been most remiss on the matter. I suppose this blog is too freewheeling in nature – I tend to write about whatever takes my fancy, really – for any regular series such as this to be viable. However, I don’t want to give up on the idea altogether. So “The Poem of the Month” continues – as long as it is understood that it does not imply that I’ll be writing about a poem every month.

***

There was a Boy; ye knew him well, ye cliffs
And islands of Winander! many a time,
At evening, when the earliest stars began
To move along the edges of the hills,
Rising or setting, would he stand alone,
Beneath the trees, or by the glimmering lake;
And there, with fingers interwoven, both hands
Pressed closely palm to palm and to his mouth
Uplifted, he, as through an instrument,
Blew mimic hootings to the silent owls
That they might answer him.—And they would shout
Across the watery vale, and shout again,
Responsive to his call,—with quivering peals,
And long halloos, and screams, and echoes loud
Redoubled and redoubled; concourse wild
Of jocund din! And, when there came a pause
Of silence such as baffled his best skill:
Then, sometimes, in that silence, while he hung
Listening, a gentle shock of mild surprise
Has carried far into his heart the voice
Of mountain-torrents; or the visible scene
Would enter unawares into his mind
With all its solemn imagery, its rocks,
Its woods, and that uncertain heaven received
Into the bosom of the steady lake.

This boy was taken from his mates, and died
In childhood, ere he was full twelve years old.
Pre-eminent in beauty is the vale
Where he was born and bred: the churchyard hangs
Upon a slope above the village-school;
And through that churchyard when my way has led
On summer-evenings, I believe that there
A long half-hour together I have stood
Mute—looking at the grave in which he lies!

Wordsworth’s blank verse is based on underlying iambic pentameters, as is the blank verse of the two other undisputed masters of the form in English – Shakespeare and Milton. But Wordsworth sounds very unlike either: his tone is almost invariably conversational. While Shakespeare’s blank verse has an irresistible dramatic impulse (hardly surprising, given that it occurs in his dramas); and while Milton’s blank verse is grand and sonorous; Wordsworth’s blank verse seems to give the impression that he is sitting next to us, not orating grandly, but conversing – conversing in a voice that is gentle, quiet, but firm. This conversational effect is achieved partly through his avoidance of words not generally used in everyday speech (although when he does from time to time break this rule and introduces words such as “vicissitude” or “diurnal”, the effect can be electric); and also through a simulation of the kind of thing we tend to do in conversation – drifting off from one subject to another, parenthetical comments leading on to other matters so that the original subject is forgotten, and so on.

Consider, for instance, the sonnet “Surprised by Joy”, Wordsworth’s infinitely touching lament for his dead daughter. The opening line strikingly tells us that he has come across an unexpected joy, but almost as soon as he starts to tell us about this, another thought – that his daughter, with whom he had instinctively wished to share this joy, is no longer there – overtakes it. The rest of the sonnet is about his loss: whatever joy it was that is referred to in the first line is now seemingly forgotten. Only seemingly, of course: a poem, especially a poem as tightly knit as a sonnet must be, cannot be as rambling as our conversation often is. But in simulating this rambling that is typical of conversation, Wordsworth gives us the impression of conversation. And he also, vitally, I think, uses this conversational mode to leave certain things unsaid. He leaves unsaid what this “joy” is that is mentioned in the opening line; however, the word “joy”, so strikingly introduced, resonates in our mind even as we go on to read of the most inconsolable grief. And the impression is conveyed of a certain joy that is present even in the midst of heartbreak – a joy that cannot be spoken about directly because our language is not designed to communicate directly matters so intangible.

Much of greatest poetry does seem to me to communicate various matters that language, as commonly used, is not designed to communicate. The poet uses any feature of language he can – sounds, sonorities, syntax, and rhythm; imagery and symbolism; and so on – to communicate these various matters. Wordsworth adds to this armoury things that are mentioned as if in passing before being seemingly forgotten, but allowing these passing references to colour the rest in the reader’s mind.

This particular poem, “There Was a Boy”, appeared in the 1798 edition of Lyrical Ballads, and later, in an expanded form (the form given above), in the 1805 edition. It was later incorporated into the posthumously published 1850 text of The Prelude (V, 364, et seq.) but it seems to me more effective as a standalone fragment, purely because its fragmentary nature itself communicates something important. The tone, as so often with Wordsworth, is conversational, and the opening line gives the impression that we are coming in in the middle of a conversation, and that much has already been said to which we have not been privy.

There was a boy…

It’s almost as if Wordsworth is giving a specific example of a general principle. This general principle he has presumably been discussing earlier, but that was before we had started listening, and so, we don’t know what it is. We are only allowed to hear this specific example, of this boy who had once been (and who presumably is no more), and from this specific example, we must try to infer as best we can the general principle that it illustrates.

Immediately after these first four words, Wordsworth seems to drift off for a while, addressing not us, but nature itself:

…. ye knew him well, ye cliffs
And islands of Winander!

And then, in the next few lines, Wordsworth describes how this boy, in the evening, would mimic the hooting of the owls, encouraging them to answer him. Whatever the general principle was that Wordsworth might have been talking about before the poem starts, it is the specific that he details, lingering lovingly on each specific point. The vocabulary used is almost without exception the vocabulary we would use in everyday conversation, with the occasional word thrown in, such as “interwoven”, reminding us that, for all its everyday speech, this is, after all, a poem. No, not “thrown in”: carefully placed. But the conversational tone gives the impression of its just being “thrown in”.

The word “interwoven” seems important to me. It is used here to describe the boy’s fingers as he makes the sound of the owls, but it has, I think, other associations. It reminds me of the similar word “interfused”, that Wordsworth used so unforgettably in the “Tintern Abbey” poem, written at roughly the same time as this one:

…And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused…

The boy, in mimicking the sound of nature, becomes interwoven with it; and nature itself seems interwoven with something else. This sense of interweaving becomes clearer in the following lines; for once the noise of the birds dies down, there follows “a silence that baffles his best skill”. “Baffle” of course has multiple meanings – to frustrate; to impede progress; and various other shades of meaning in between. All of these must be considered. The boy is “baffled” – he is perplexed by this silence; and at the same time, this silence impedes his skill in mimicking the owls, for it contains within it something that is greater – something, perhaps, “more deeply interfused”. For it isn’t complete silence. As the boy listens to this silence, he perceives in it “with a gentle shock of mild surprise … the voice of the mountain torrents”. And, moving from the aural to the visual, the “visible scene would enter unawares into his mind”. Nature itself invades the boy’s being, with “all its solemn imagery”. But if Nature itself is an image of something else, Wordsworth is again silent on what it is an image of.

The “voice of the mountain torrents” has now entered into the “heart” of the boy; and now, the “visible scene” is received into the bosom … not of the boy, as may be expected, but of the “steady lake”:

…. received
Into the bosom of the steady lake.

The boy is at this stage so much part of the Nature around him, there is no reason to distinguish any more between them.

But what is received into the bosom of the steady lake is startling – so startling, indeed, that it seems to me to lie at the very heart of this poem:

…and that uncertain heaven received
Into the bosom of the steady lake.

“Uncertain heaven”. What does Wordsworth mean by this? That we are uncertain whether or not the scene described really is heaven? Or that we know this to be heaven, but are uncertain about the nature of what we experience here? This ambiguity lies at the very heart of this remarkable poem, but Wordsworth, having dropped his hints, moves on. As we generally tend to do in conversation.

In many ways, this poem seems to me a sort of expanded sonnet. In a regular sonnet, the last six lines tend to give us a somewhat different perspective on what we had read in the first eight: we get something similar here – the last, shorter section of the poem giving us a different perspective on what we have read so far. Wordsworth had shown us the boy when he had been alive; but, as the past tense used in the opening line had told us, that boy is no more. And he is no more not because he has grown up and become an adult, but because he is dead. He died, Wordsworth tells us quite directly, before his twelfth birthday, and is buried in a churchyard that “hangs” on a slope above the village school. The verb used here is interesting, as it has been used strikingly in the earlier section in the poem:

Then, sometimes, in that silence, while he hung
Listening…

He had “hung” listening to the silence, and had allowed himself to become part of the Nature that was around him. Now, he “hangs” again, in death; and in death, as in life, he is become a part of, and at one with, Nature, with the “rocks and stones and trees”.

The last four lines are almost prosaic: these lines could very easily be used in conversation. But what we have read so far imparts to these lines a tremendous depth of feeling:

And through that churchyard when my way has led
On summer-evenings, I believe that there
A long half-hour together I have stood
Mute—looking at the grave in which he lies!

So great is the discrepancy here between the everyday nature of these words and the intensity of feeling communicated by them, it is hard to imagine anything more laconic and understated. And more Wordsworth will not say – presumably because more cannot be said: language is after all limited in what it can directly express. Beyond what Wordsworth has already said, he is “mute”, as mute as he is by the boy’s grave. But enough has been said to allow us a glimpse of something – something that the poet may have been talking about before we joined his conversation.

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