“No sighs but of my breathing; no tears but of my shedding”: The Merchant of Venice at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, 2015

Since the issue is going to come up sooner or later, let us cut straight to the chase: I do not think The Merchant of Venice is an anti-Semitic play, although, admittedly, the basic outline of the story is: a story about righteous Christians outwitting an evil murderous Jew could hardly fail to be otherwise. But, just as Mozart and da Ponte took for Cosi Fan Tutte a story that was in its outlines misogynistic and transformed it into something that transcends the crudeness of its source material, so Shakespeare, I think, did something similar here. In the first place, the Christians in his play are far from righteous: they are, Antonio excepted, mercenary – every bit as covetous as they accuse the Jew Shylock of being; they are thieves, or, knowing about and condoning as they do Lorenzo’s and Jessica’s theft, accessories to theft; they are filled with hatred for a fellow human being for no better reason that that he is Jewish, and there is no doubting that Shakespeare knew the human cost of this. Indeed, it is this human cost, most obviously for the tormented, but also, I think, for the tormentors, that seems to me to be at the centre of this drama that presents us with a picture of humans all very badly in need of the Quality of Mercy.

As for Shylock, he is much more in this play than merely an “evil Jew”: we would hardly get major Shakespearean actors queuing up to play this role had he been no more than a conventional villain. What he attempts to do in the latter part of the play certainly is evil – there can be no doubt about that – but Shakespeare goes much, much further here than is warranted by Shylock’s nominal role as the comic villain: Shakespeare depicts here a man who is, step by step, layer by layer, stripped of everything he possesses – his wealth, his profession, even his faith; he loses his own daughter, who prefers to side with her father’s tormentors rather than with her tormented father; and, by the end, he loses completely his own humanity. As Howard Jacobson says in a typically trenchant piece of writing in the programme notes, no character in Shakespeare is so stripped of everything as Shylock is: even Malvolio departs with a threat of revenge on the whole pack of his tormentors; even Lear is granted a possibly redeeming vision; even Macbeth is allowed a final show of defiance; but Shylock is left with absolutely nothing. His tormentors push him close to the edge of the abyss, but – and here is the terrible irony, too terrible almost to be contemplated – that last step into the abyss, Shylock takes himself. In reacting to the stripping of his humanity, he strips away himself the last vestige of it. By the end of Act Four, Shylock has become an irrelevance: even his exit seems inconsequential:

PORTIA: Art thou contented, Jew? what dost thou say?
SHYLOCK: I am content.
PORTIA: Clerk, draw a deed of gift.
SHYLOCK: I pray you, give me leave to go from hence;
I am not well: send the deed after me,
And I will sign it. (IV, i)

Shakespeare could quite easily have given Shylock a few lines that lay bare the anguish of his soul: this is Shakespeare, after all: he could write anything he wanted. But he didn’t. What he gave us instead is utterly prosaic. Olivier famously howled off-stage like a stricken animal after his departure, but, magnificent though that was, and chilling even when I see it at home on DVD, there is no indication of it in the text: it’s almost as if Shakespeare had gone out of his way to make Shylock’s departure from the action of the play as low-key as possible. Shylock leaves the action, and the play can carry on without him: he no longer matters.

Makram Khoury as Shylock

Makram Khoury as Shylock

The problem I have found both when reading it, and also in the various productions I have seen, is that the strand of the story involving Shylock is so overwhelming in its power that is overshadows the other strand involving the three caskets, and Bassanio’s wooing and marrying of Portia. This latest Royal Shakespeare Company production, directed by Polly Findlay, neatly sidesteps this problem. The cost, some may say, is too heavy, as Shylock inevitably loses some of his immense tragic grandeur (one really has to go to the Olivier performance to get the full measure of that); but the gains are, I think, considerable: for the first time in my experience, the other strand of the story commands full interest, rather than appearing, as it so often does, as a tiresome adjunct to a magnificent and terrible tragedy. Care is taken also to bring Antonio – superbly played here by Jamie Ballard – to the forefront: he is, after all, the Merchant of Venice (although both Bassanio and Shylock can also be seen as the merchant of the title), and it is he who holds together the two strands of the play, borrowing of Shylock to provide Bassanio with the means of wooing Portia. But all too often in productions, Antonio fades into the background, overshadowed by Shylock in terms of dramatic stature. Not here. The production opens and closes with Antonio alone on stage, and his famous opening line – “In sooth, I know not why I am so sad” – is delivered as if in anguish. And soon, the cause of the anguish becomes apparent: Antonio is losing his young lover, Bassanio, and, while acknowledging that this is only to be expected, he finds this loss hard to bear. Some, I know, will object to this interpretation, but I think the text can support it, insofar as no modification is required to accommodate it; and it does, I think, give Antonio a dramatic presence that, in other interpretations, he all too often lacks.

Indeed, Antonio’s love for Bassanio seems to be one of only two in the whole play that is untouched by considerations of money (the other being Shylock’s love for his dead wife). Bassanio tells Antonio quite openly that he seeks to woo Portia because he has squandered his own estate, and is in need of funds: has ever a romantic adventure started with so unromantic a cause? It is not merely Bassanio’s motive that shocks, but his insouciance: it does not even occur to him that this is an ignoble motive, so accustomed is he to living in a society in which everything has a price and nothing any real value. When Shylock refers to Antonio being a “good man”, he means it only in the sense that he is financially sound. Even the seeming nobility of the Venetian courts in refusing under any circumstances to by-pass its laws has, at bottom, a sound financial reason:

The duke cannot deny the course of law:
For the commodity that strangers have
With us in Venice, if it be denied,
Will much impeach the justice of his state;
Since that the trade and profit of the city
Consisteth of all nations. (III, iii)

Money taints everything here. Lorenzo, for instance, speaks his line “Beshrew me but I love her heartily” only when transported by delight on seeing what Jessica has stolen for him from her father. In the famous trial scene, Bassanio throws across the floor of the court the money he has brought with him to pay Shylock off, so the entire climactic scene takes place with the characters literally wading through filthy lucre. The set itself – abstract, with a vast polished metallic floor and wall –suggests a world in which money rules absolutely, and covetousness is universal: in this world, Shylock becomes a convenient hate-figure on whose head the others can transfer their own guilt.

The one exception to this general covetousness is Antonio, and this makes him a far more sympathetic figure than is usual. He is still hateful in his racism, though: that is not underplayed. In this production, he spits on Shylock’s face – a moment that draws shocked gasps from the audience –and once again, this is consistent with the text: Shylock, in his first confrontation with Antonio, reminds him that he had spat on him, and had kicked him, and Antonio, far from denying any of this, replies that he is likely to do so again. And Shylock bears it all, as he puts it, with a patient shrug, “for sufferance is the badge of all our tribe”. Makram Khoury, the Israeli-Palestinian actor playing Shylock in this production, has an immensely dignified stage presence, and this, somehow, makes the spitting and the abuse that he bears with “a patient shrug” seem all the more horrible.

Marvellous though Makram Khoury is, his performance, in keeping with the tenor of the production, is underplayed. Very expertly underplayed, it must be said, but underplayed. His final exit from the court scene is as low-key as Shakespeare had written it: having lost utterly everything, there is nothing further left in him – no grandeur of a tragic downfall, no defiance, not even an expression of hurt. Normally, at the final bow, the actor playing Shylock, despite having appeared in only five scenes, comes on after all the rest of the cast to take his applause, but here Makram Khoury appears with everyone else – a member of an ensemble rather than a star performer – and this seems appropriate for a production that presents this play very much as an ensemble piece rather than as a star vehicle.

The court scene is, of course, a huge climactic set-piece, and one could not underplay this even if one wanted to. The strewing of the cash across the floor is a marvellous moment, and particularly striking is Antonio’s sheer terror on facing what he thought was certain and immediate death: his repeated whimpering, which did not stop even after his reprieve, is not something I’m likely to forget in a hurry. And Portia’s “quality of mercy” speech, which can all too easily become a set-piece almost divorced from the rest of the action, is delivered with a particular immediacy and passion by Patsy Ferran: when she reminds us that mercy is an attribute of God himself, it is hard not to wonder whether even these unregenerate characters crowding the stage, Jew or Christian, could perhaps someday be redeemed by divine mercy. But this possibility, visible for but a moment like some distant vision, soon dissipates: the Jew refuses to show mercy, thus taking himself the final step in the stripping of his humanity; and the Christians, having won the day, exult in their most unrighteous triumph.

Despite the high drama of this fourth act, there is little danger here of anti-climax that all too often hampers the fifth. The fifth act here is also full of drama, the seeds of this drama having been cunningly laid in the great court scene, where Portia could see for herself the true nature of the relationship between Antonio and her newly-married husband. And when, in the course of that court scene, Bassanio says to Antonio:

But life itself, my wife, and all the world,
Are not with me esteem’d above thy life.

it is well noted. After this, Portia asking Bassanio for the ring is no joke: it is a test – a test that Bassanio (significantly at Antonio’s urging) very conspicuously fails. Shylock would not have exchanged “for a wilderness of monkeys” the ring he had received from his wife when he had been a bachelor: Bassanio, however, at the urging of his former lover, does, and this lays the foundation for the drama in the final act: the business with the rings is no joke here – it is deadly serious. Portia eventually relents, and forgives Bassanio: perhaps she has not forgotten her earlier speech on “mercy”. But the ending is more open-ended here than usual: the marriage promises to be rocky.

***

In the last Shakespeare production I saw, I lamented the cuts that seemed to me the take the very heart out of the play. There were some cuts here too, but only two that I’d take issue with. Shylock’s “I hate him for he is a Christian” is cut simply to “I hate him”. Presumably this was done to prevent the audience siding against Shylock from the start, but it really was unnecessary: we see soon enough why Shylock has good reason to hate the Christians in this play. Hatred but breeds hatred, after all. O tell me where is hatred bred, in the heart or in the head?

Also cut is Portia’s line expressing relief that the prince of Morocco had chosen the wrong casket – “Let all of his complexion choose me so”. Presumably, this is cut to prevent the audience from disliking Portia, but this line too, I think, is important: Portia is no Desdemona, after all, and maybe she too is in need of the divine mercy that she later invokes. As for the other cuts, I can but approve: the various clownings of Lancelot Gobbo are among the weakest scenes Shakespeare ever wrote – it’s almost as if he had lost interest in the comedy – and I doubt that even the finest of comic actors could make too much out of them. The distasteful scene where Gobbo “jokes” with Jessica that her conversion from Judaism will raise the price of pork has, however, been rightly retained.

***

Every time I come out of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre after a performance, I feel I have been brought a little closer to an understanding of what we, as humans, are. This production presents characters living their lives of anger, of hatred, of betrayal, of greed and cupidity, but also, just occasionally, of real love: Antonio continues to love Bassanio, and Shylock continues to love his wife, who is dead. And through all this meanness and pettiness, of unmotivated hatred and murderous rage, what emerges is a group of people all desperately in need of divine mercy, of redemption. This production achieves a unity that I don’t think I have seen before in this play, and it does so by underplaying Shylock’s tragic stature: possibly that is a price worth paying. But underplayed though Shylock is, as we drove back home afterwards down the motorway, it was that infinitely sad line of Shylock’s that kept going around my head:

No sighs but of my breathing; no tears but of my shedding.

What an extraordinary play this is!

A case of identity: literature and identity politics

This happened some twenty and more years ago now, but it sticks in my mind. I was at some social gathering, and a young lady to whom I had only been introduced a few minutes earlier asked me if I had been to see Bombay Dreams, a West End musical featuring Bollywood music that was, at the time, rather popular. There was no particular reason why she should ask me this, other than that, very obviously, my appearance indicated that I originated from somewhere in the Indian subcontinent. No, I replied politely. Was I planning to see it? No, I replied again, Bollywood isn’t really my kind of thing. She seemed a bit surprised, as I remember, but didn’t say anything. Much later in the evening, we bumped into each other again, and this time she asked me why I had turned my back on my own culture.

The first thing that bothered me about this was her assumption that she knew what my culture was. Actually, she didn’t: if “my culture” indicates the culture in which I had grown up, Bollywood films and Bollywood music weren’t part of “my culture” at all: these were most certainly not things I had grown up with, either at home or outside. But something else bothered me: it was the implication that, whatever my cultural background may or may not have been, it was somehow wrong for me to have moved away from it – that my identity was somehow pre-determined by the circumstances of my birth, and that for me to deviate from it was somehow reprehensible.

This was, as I say, a long time ago, and at the time, the term “identity politics” did not have quite the currency it has now. I think I was barely aware of it then. Now, of course, one can hardly get away from it: “identity” is one of those terms – like “political correctness”, or “multiculturalism”, and all those other things that people get so hot-under-the-collar about – that everyone seems to use, but no-one ever thinks of defining. This allows X to define “identity” and “identity politics” in one way, and argue for their reasonableness; while Y defines them another way, and rages against their unreasonableness. And given their respective definitions – implicitly assumed, though rarely stated – they are both right.

Even “trigger warnings” – a rather hot topic these days, one I ranted about here rather intemperately only quite recently, and which my more reasonable friend Mark Dietz then commented on with characteristically greater circumspection: despite the demands that were made for “trigger warnings”, both the nature of these desired warnings and the reasoning behind them seem to me curiously unclear. Three quite different things seem to me to be conflated in these demands. The first is simply a request that teachers guide their students sensitively through issues likely to prove distressing, or contentious, or difficult, or, indeed, any mixture of these three. Such a request does seem quite reasonable, I suppose, and if we are to take, as Prof. Aaron Hanlon does, the benign view that this is all that is being asked for, there is, I guess, little to complain about – although one may reasonably ask how a general reader, who does not have the benefit of a teacher’s guiding hand, can be expected to deal with the difficulties that the poor darling little rosebuds of students need so gently to be led through. Perhaps the underlying assumption is that these cornerstones of literary traditions are read only by those who have to, and that the rest of us, very sensibly, keep away from them; and that those of us who don’t really deserve all we get. Which is fair enough, I suppose. But, leaving that aside for now, if demands for “trigger warnings” go no further than this, I think we can all live with them.

The second aspect we may also view charitably: it concerns those students who have suffered some sort of trauma in the past, and are now suffering from PTSD – Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Now, I most certainly would not wish to belittle this issue, although I would insist that this is the provenance of the therapist rather than of the English teacher. The best we can do here is to ensure that the teacher is aware of this issue, and refer the student to an appropriate therapist should it raise its head. Certainly, in the incident cited by those demanding “trigger warnings” – of the lack of concern for a student who had previously been sexually assaulted – the teacher’s insensitivity is clearly unacceptable.

But there is a third interpretation of these demands, and it is this third interpretation that particularly troubles me. And this interpretation concerns “identity politics”. Since I have been censorious earlier in this post about discussing concepts without adequately defining them, let me, if not define, at least try to characterise what I understand by that term, based on my own observations.

I personally would characterise “identity politics” along the following lines:

“Identity politics” is a loose term describing a set of ideologies that views each individual’s identity in terms of such signifiers as race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, class, nationality, and so on. It further considers the feelings and emotions that are direct consequences of identity, as determined by such signifiers, to be of the utmost importance, and any attempt to deny the validity or importance of these feelings and emotions, or even any attempt to question or to challenge them, or to look beyond them, is perceived as oppressive. This is particularly the case when it comes to identities the possessors of which are, or have been, or are perceived to be, oppressed, disadvantaged, or discriminated against in some way. Protection of these feelings and emotions is then given the highest priority both in public policy, and in private interactions.

Now, this is merely how I, personally, understand “identity politics”: I would welcome other perspectives.

If this is indeed, what “identity politics” is, then there are, I think, a number of very legitimate objections to be made against the concept. The first is that it subsumes personal identity to the identity of a group, thus denying, or at least refusing adequately to acknowledge, the variety of identities that inevitably exist within any given group. It further denies individuals within the group the freedom to dissent – the freedom to disagree with the core values of the group they have been born into, and also to the freedom to adopt values not belonging to the group: adherents of identity politics frown on such dissent. I have, personally, experienced such disapproval frequently, from all sorts of sources: that incident, though fairly harmless in itself, of that young lady insisting that I should, being of an Indian background, enjoy Bollywood music, was but a prelude to what has followed in the years since. The belief that one’s values should be determined by the accidental circumstances of one’s birth, and that to deviate from them is somehow a betrayal, though to my mind an invidious belief, is extraordinarily widespread: I have heard it expressed in various forms over the years, from the fairly innocuous to the downright malicious and nasty, from people of all ethnic backgrounds, and from right across the political spectrum. Those who follow these matters on social media will be more than familiar with such pejorative terms as “Uncle Tom” and “coconut” – terms referring people with dark skins who have, quite unaccountably, exercised their freedom of choice to choose for themselves values other than those that Identity Politicians insist have been pre-determined for them. Recently, in what purported to be an academic conference, a comfortable professor of media studies from a prestigious American university described as “native informants” those Muslims who no longer believe in the religion into which they were born. So much for freedom of thought.

(As an aside, if what applies to Muslims applies also to Hindus – and why should it not? – I think I too, going by the good professor’s formulation, and despite the disapprobation I am bound to attract for not identifying myself as an adherent of the religion of my forefathers, should declare myself to be a “native informant”. I’m not entirely sure, though, what I am meant to be informing on, to whom, or, for that matter, how much the job pays.)

There are, it seems to me, a great many attributes that combine to create any individual’s unique identity. Some of these may indeed be innate and immutable – such as race, or gender, or the religion practised by the family into which one is born; but there are also many that are acquired by choice – tastes, opinions, politics, religious beliefs (or the lack thereof), lifestyles, and so on. The ability to choose for oneself one’s identity may be limited – I cannot choose to be Chinese, for instance; nor can I choose to be, say, an operatic tenor, much though I’d love to – but all choices are necessarily limited to some extent or other: but despite such obvious limits, the scope we have to determine our own identities is actually very broad – far more so, I think, than is generally reckoned. And for all the attributes that combine to create an individual identity – whether innate or acquired – any individual is, or should be, at complete liberty to decide the weighting he or she chooses to give to each. To deny any individual this choice is to force the individual to accept an identity that has been pre-determined; and this seems to me at least as oppressive as any of the other oppressions that proponents of identity politics claim to oppose.

The pre-determined view also seems to me to see identity as something that is fixed rather than fluid, and, once again, this is surely erroneous. I am not, for instance, the person I was thirty years ago; or even twenty, or even ten years ago: my identity, as with so many other things, is something that has evolved over the years, and will surely go on evolving. Through experience, one’s perspective alters, one’s values change. Identity politics, by focussing on those attributes that are essentially immutable, seem to me not to recognise this fluidity: “finding one’s self” is seen as a process of discovering what one already is – or, rather, what Identity Politicians think one should be, given one’s background – rather than exploring the potentials of what one may become. Such a view of identity merely impoverishes us.

A final fatal flaw of “identity politics” – and one that makes identity politics inimical, I think, to the study of literature – is its implicit assumption that our feelings and emotions are triggered primarily, or even solely, by the nature of our identities. I strongly – indeed, passionately – believe this to be wrong. For me, perhaps the greatest gift we possess as humans is our ability to empathise – or, as Auden put it, our ability to “weep because another wept”; that, regardless of what our own background may be, regardless of our race or gender or sexuality or of any of these things, we can make a leap of the imagination, and enter into the minds of people whose identities are very different from our own. To deny this greatest of gifts is to deny all that is finest in humanity. It is to see the mass of humanity as but a multiplicity of tribes, each tribe enclosed within its own space, unable to communicate with any other. These enclosed spaces may be what Identity Politicians refer to as “safe spaces”, but one doesn’t go to literature merely to be enclosed in these “safe places”: study of literature requires us to venture into “dangerous spaces”.

And the leap of the imagination that is required to venture beyond our “safe spaces” is what literature encourages us to make. Indeed, it is what literature demands. It puts before us perspectives other than our own; it urges us, challenges us, to absorb these different perspectives, and, in the process of so doing, broaden our own. Sometimes, these perspectives encountered are profound and original, and in such cases, absorbing these perspectives into our own enriches us to an extent far, far greater than I think I have the ability to articulate. But none of these wonders can happen if we were merely cower within our pre-determined “safe spaces”, as Identity Politicians seem to demand we must.

So what exactly is being demanded by the Identity Politicians – those brave warriors who urge faculties of literature to issue trigger warnings because, as they put it, “identities matter”? That teachers should teach sensitive subjects sensitively, and be aware that some students may be suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder? Or are these demands, as I suspect, going further – that we tailor the teaching of literature, or, indeed, choose the texts to be taught, in view of the identities, or the perceived identities, of the students? If so, that is simply the end of literature. Better not to teach literature at all than to teach it under such conditions. Such a demand implies a denial of literature itself.

It is not surprising that this demand to incorporate identity politics into teaching has reared its head so prominently in the teaching of literature. For literature is, it seems to me, more perhaps than any other branch of learning, a powerful denial of the basic underlying assumptions of identity politics. Literature tells us that we are not prisoners to the circumstances of our birth, that we are not stuck inside our pre-determined “safe spaces”. It broadens our mental horizons; it makes us realise that the world we inhabit is a big world, bigger than we’d ever imagined; it blows away all those putrid little tribalisms that so diminish us in the name, of all things, of freedom.

And no, I still haven’t seen Bombay Dreams. As I say, it’s just not my kind of thing.

“The Idiot” by Dostoyevsky

[All excerpts from The Idiot in the following post are taken from the translation by Alan Myers, published in Oxford World Classics series by Oxford University Press. Please note also that it is impossible to discuss this novel, even in terms relatively superficial, without revealing some elements of the plot.]

When one doesn’t quite know where to start, it is perhaps best to start by conceding the fact: if nothing else, such a concession may win the reader’s sympathy, and perhaps even some measure of forbearance in the face of subsequent incoherence and inarticulacy.

Dostoyevsky’s novels have made, and continue to make, a huge impact on me, and yet, when I try to explain why, especially to sceptics, I find myself unable to express myself adequately. One should not, I say, try to apply to Dostoyevsky those criteria whereby we judge the novels of Austen or of Tolstoy or of James to be great: Dostoyevsky was a law unto himself. But how can one explain this law that was so unique to this writer? There seems at times to be no correlate for anything within the novel to anything outside it. But neither is it the case that these novels occupy a world entirely of fantasy: quite the contrary – they throb with the messiness and the ambiguities and the ungraspability of life itself. They depict a reality, although the reality they depict is heightened, and the nature of the heightening remains elusive. The characters seem almost constantly to be in varying states of hysteria and of delirium, and are extreme, grotesque – acting, it often seems, as no character in real life never acts: or perhaps they do, but not so consistently, and not with such unremitting and uninhibited intensity. The fictional world they inhabit seems closed in and claustrophobic, and yet, at the same time, open to the loftiest thoughts and ideas and intuitions on the most elevated of themes. Ideas are expressed concerning the most fundamental aspects of our human lives, and yet each idea seems undermined even as it is expressed: nothing seems able to hold its shape long enough to achieve any kind of solidity, and no argument along rational lines seem ever to develop. The narrative seems crammed with symbols and patterns, but as soon as one tries to identify and to follow through the symbols, or to use the patterns to understand what happens, they almost immediately break down.  This is not realism as it is commonly understood, and neither is it a forerunner of the modern “magic realism”: there is nothing in these novels that is physically impossible, or even, perhaps, granted the extreme and febrile nature of all the characters, psychologically implausible; but the logic whereby the characters act, and whereby the action flows, seems to belong to some strange dream world, some vague, elusive borderline between sanity and insanity, where the rules of rationality that most of us normally use to understand the world seem not to apply.

Dreams play a major part in these novels, and, especially, in The Idiot. At one point in the novel, Myshkin, reading Nastasya Filippovna’s letters to Aglaya, sees these letters as dreamlike, and, indeed, relates them to his own dreams:

The letters had much in common with dreams. Sometimes you have fearful dreams, impossible, bizarre; when you wake up, you remember them clearly and marvel at an odd fact: first of all, you recall that your reason never deserted you all through the dream; you even recall that you behaved extremely shrewdly and logically throughout all that long, long time when you were surrounded by murderers, who tried to deceive you, concealing their intentions, treating you in a friendly fashion, while they had their weapons ready and were only waiting for a signal; you recall how cleverly you hoodwinked them eventually, and hid from them; then you guessed they were perfectly well aware of your trick and were just pretending not to know your hiding-place; but again you outwitted them and cheated them, all this you remember clearly. But why was it that your reason was able to reconcile itself to the obvious absurdities and impossibilities with which your dream was crammed? One of your killers turned into a woman before your very eyes, then from a woman into a sly and hideous little dwarf – and you accepted it at once as an established fact, with barely a hesitation, and this at the very moment when your reason, on the other hand, was at a pitch of intensity and demonstrating extraordinary power, shrewdness, perception, logic? (III, 10)

This is very much how I find myself feeling about the novels. There must have been some logic that carried me through it, I think to myself when I look back on them: my mind was definitely working very hard – indeed, at fever pitch – while I was reading. But how then could my mind reconcile itself to the absurdities and the weirdness with which the novel is so crammed? It could be that my mind is such that it can suspend disbelief at Dostoyevskian absurdities: having spoken to Dostoyevsky-sceptics, not all minds, I know, can; but the other possibility is that, at some mysterious level, within some obscure and rarely-visited compartment of the human mind, these are not absurdities at all; and that it is this compartment of the mind that Dostoyevsky addresses, and in which the action of his novels unfold. But how that elusive compartment of the mind can be described when we are no longer inhabiting the dream remains problematic.

In The Idiot, Dostoyevsky tried – to his own mind, unsuccessfully – to depict the perfectly good man in an imperfect world – indeed, a mad world. In a letter written to his niece near the time he started work on the novel, he confesses to the difficulties inherent in this idea: the only truly positive, good figure is, after all, Christ. Dostoyevsky then cites two figures in literature whom he thinks “perfectly good” – Don Quixote, and, rather surprisingly perhaps, Mr Pickwick, and goes on to say that they are successful creations because they are comic: they are ludicrous, and are mocked for being so, but, since they are unaware of their own worth, they arouse sympathy. But Dostoyevsky did not want to go down this path: there is no shortage of comedy in The Idiot, but Prince Myshkin, the Idiot of the title, is most certainly not a comic figure. Nonetheless, Dostoyevsky had somehow to account for his otherwise unaccountable goodness, and also to elicit the reader’s sympathy on his behalf: so he made him ill: Myshkin, like his creator, is epileptic. Early in his life, he was literally an “idiot”, his illness having retarded his mental development. During the course of the novel, we see him as a different kind of “idiot” – a man innocent of human wiles and deceptions, and almost embarrassingly open and frank to all, assuming always the best in everyone he sees. Such guilelessness in itself is enough to mark him out as an “idiot”, but even those who describe him as such find themselves forced to concede that despite his “idiocy”, or maybe even because of it, he has startling insights into the very souls of people around him.

But how can such a person exist in human society? For, from the very start, this innocent, this ingenue, is thrown headlong into a world teeming with the most turbulent and unruly of passions and desires – all of which call for a judgement that he is neither equipped nor willing to pass. And here, right from the start, we begin to see cracks in perfect goodness: not that Myshkin isn’t perfectly good, but rather, that such goodness cannot even survive, let along emerge triumphant.

Such a summary is grossly inadequate, as, indeed, any summary of so complex a novel must be. Myshkin’s essential goodness is recognised by all: they may feel uncomfortable about it; they may even resent it, as Ippolit frequently does, or as the buffoonish General Ivolgin does towards the end of the novel, when he sees Myshkin’s refusal to judge him as a slight. But Myshkin’s refusal to judge – following, presumably, Christ’s injunction “Judge not, that ye be not judged” – is not to be confused with a failure to understand: for he understands, and describes often with a disconcerting openness, the passions and the intricate paradoxes governing the minds of those around him. But he steadfastly refuses to judge, or to condemn, even when judgement and condemnation seem explicitly to be asked for – even when the characters themselves ask for judgement. For, despite his all-encompassing love, and despite even his insight and his understanding, there seems a curious distance between him and the other characters – a distance that seems incapable of being bridged. For Myshkin’s love seems unaware of the object of his love. Nastasya Filippovna herself expresses this powerfully in one of her feverish letters:

Artists always depict Christ according to the gospel stories; I would paint him differently: I would show him alone … I would leave him alone with just one child. The child would be playing near him, perhaps telling him something in his childish prattle. Christ would not be listening to him, but presently fall to thinking; his hand would rest unconsciously on the child’s little fair head. He looks towards the distant horizon; a thought as great as the whole world dwells in his look; his face is sad.

An abstract love for the whole of humanity precludes love for a specific person, the essence of which lies precisely in its preferring this one person to the rest of humanity. And this, Myshkin seems incapable of: like Jesus in the imagined painting, the hand is tenderly on the head of the person he loves, but the mind is elsewhere: it is looking to the distant horizon, saddened by thought that is as great as the world itself.

Myshkin, from almost the start, finds himself at the focal point of two interlocking love triangles, and in both, while the sincerity and openness of his feelings cannot be doubted, he seems curiously lacking in passion. In one, he is in competition with Rogozhin for Nastasya Filippovna; and in the other, he has to choose between Nastasya Filippovna and Aglaya. Inevitably, parallels and contrast develop – between Myshkin and Rogozhin one the one hand, and between Nastasya Filippovna and Aglaya on the other.

In the very first scene of the novel, Myshkin and Rogozhin are seated opposite each other on a train. Towards the end they walk on opposite sides of the road to Rogozhin’s house, where Nastasya Filippovna lies murdered. Rogozhin seems in all respects to be Myshkin’s opposite, his “dark brother”, his ghostly double, who exchanges crosses with him in a deeply symbolic gesture, and who, soon afterwards, attempts to murder him. Yet, it is dangerous, in this of all novels, to be so schematic about matters: if Rogozhin is indeed possessed with all those dark passions that are absent in Myshkin, he seems curiously unable to act upon them. At the end of the first of the four parts of the novel, Nastasya Filippovna goes off with Rogozhin, with Myshkin following them, and what exactly happens afterwards Dostoyevsky, intriguingly, does not narrate to us; instead, he allows us to pick up fragments and rumours. But it is strongly indicated that “nothing” happens between Nastasya Filippovna and Rogozhin: if Rogozhin is indeed throbbing with passion, it is passion on which he appears unable to act. It is not for nothing that the vast, old, rambling house of his, so full of menace and foreboding and so explicitly symbolic of Rogozhin’s own character, has a wing housing a sect of religious fanatics, of castrates.

There is, indeed, a sense of fanaticism about Rogozhin himself, although the nature of this fanaticism seems, as so much else in this novel, elusive: it does not appear to be religious fanaticism – Rogozhin is at no point depicted as religious – but his brooding and demonic presence bespeaks, as does the house he inhabits, some profound fanatic darkness of the heart.

Nastasya Filippovna and Aglaya, though kept apart in this novel until a climactic scene towards the end, also emerge as complementary opposites – recondita armonia di bellezze diverse. Aglaya seems a cold, haughty beauty, reared in the comfort and safety of the Yepanchin household and possibly something of a spoilt youngest daughter. Nastasya Filippovna, on the other hand, is the “fallen woman”, orphaned as a child and “seduced” – as the euphemism has it – by the man who was ostensibly her protector. In our own time, we do not regard the “fallen woman” as particularly sinful, especially when, as in this case, the woman in question had so little power over her own fate; but things were different then: a “fallen woman” was one who could, like Violetta in La Traviata (or her original, Marguerite, in La Dame Aux Camelias), be famed in the demi-monde, but who was not acceptable in “polite society”. It should not surprise us that, living in such an environment, the fallen woman Nastasya Filippovna harbours a tremendous sense of guilt; but at the same time, she harbours a rage for those who have caused her to be fallen, and who have instilled in her this unmerited sense of guilt; and the guiltier she feels, the greater her rage. She wishes to abase herself, and yet hates herself for wishing so; and she hates even more those inhabitants of “polite society” who expect her to do so. In Myshkin, she sees, for the first time, “a man” – a real man who does not even think of judging her; and yet, this judgement is precisely what she desires: even this lack of judgement drives her into insanity.

Both women are attracted to Myshkin – Aglaya for his openness and his utter lack of worldly guile, and Nastasya Filippovna for his compassion, and his refusal to judge. But ultimately, the kind of love that is demanded of him he cannot give: as with Christ in the painting imagined by Nastasya, his love is divorced from its object. His very refusal to judge is indicative of his ultimate detachment.

Judgement and condemnation, and the oppressive nature both of their presence and of their absence, seem to me to be very much at the centre of this novel. Myshkin introduces early the theme of the “condemned man”, as he speaks with his usual uninhibited frankness of a friend of his who had been condemned to death, but who had ultimately been reprieved. What goes on in the mind of such a man who is expecting at any given moment to die? Dostoyevsky knew this, of course, from his own experience: such a man has a heightened sense of time, a sense that does not however return when the unexpected reprieve restores him to the common light of the everyday.

Myshkin himself is also, of course, a condemned man, although in a somewhat different sense: his illness can, and eventually does, recur with such force as to return him to his previous state of literal idiocy. And Dostoyevsky, in one of the most vivid and immediate passages of writing I think I have ever encountered, describes, again from personal experience, the heightened sense of awareness that is experienced immediately before an epileptic fit; and, as with the heightened sense of time experienced by the condemned man, this too is subsequently lost. In this heightened sense of awareness, one senses, if only momentarily, a sense of the most perfect harmony and of beauty. But then comes the fit, and the vision fades, and all that remains of it is but a vague and ungraspable memory. But this conjunction of beauty and of harmony in that mystic moment before the fit leads us into another major theme of the novel: the redemptive power of beauty – the power of beauty to bring harmony.

This particular theme is, however, deeply problematic. Myshkin is himself quoted as saying that “beauty will save the world”, although, as with Ivan Karamazov’s dictum “If God didn’t exist, then everything is permitted”, we never hear him say this directly: it is a sentiment that is merely associated with him, and it is left to us, the readers, to determine what, if anything, this can mean. The nearest Myshkin comes to expressing this idea is in his unexpectedly impassioned address to the aristocratic guests at the Yepanchins’ – shortly before he has his second fit in the novel, and where a sense of disorientation and of the mystical harmony that precedes the fit is presumably already upon him:

“… and is it really possible to be unhappy? … Do you know, I cannot understand how one can pass a tree and not be happy when seeing it! Talk to a man and not be happy at loving him! Oh, it’s just that I can’t find the words … and so many beautiful things at every step that even the most desparate man finds something beautiful! Look at a child, look at God’s dawn, look at the grass growing, look into the eyes that look at you and love you … “ (IV, 7)

Yet, as ever in Dostoyevsky, even when an idea is expounded, even if the idea is  precious, it is immediately undermined: Myshkin, in the course of this extraordinary scene, clumsily breaks that all too obvious symbol of fragile beauty, a Chinese vase. Earlier in the novel, he had told Aglaya’s sister, Alexandra, simply to paint what she sees, and to find beauty in it; and yet, throughout the novel, beauty is at odds with what is seen, and rarely if ever accompanies harmony. Nastasya Filippovna and Aglaya are both very beautiful in their different ways, but in neither is there anything remotely resembling harmony, or anything capable of achieving salvation: both are deeply troubled souls. And as for the artist finding beauty in what he sees, the work of art that is central to this novel, and which is described in detail, is one that finds the most heart-breaking ugliness in the very figure who, to Christians, is the epitome of moral beauty: Holbein’s painting of the dead Christ.

“Dead Christ in his tomb” by Hans Holbein, Öffentliche Kunstsammlung, Basel

Here is a painting utterly without hope. Myshkin describes it as a painting that may cause humanity to lose its faith. Even the most beautiful of men, a man who is both divine and human, has succumbed here to the ugliness that is death; the body is stark and bare and utterly devoid of any hint of divinity; rigor mortis has set in, and the greenish tint of the dead flesh seems to indicate corruption; and the features on the face are contorted by the agony in which the man had died. Here is the ultimate failure, not only of goodness, but of the divine: beauty is not present even as a consolation. If we are to look for harmony in beauty, all we find here is a hideous emptiness – a negation in the dead Christ of everything that the living Christ had stood for.

And of course, this is also an image of Myshkin himself – the positively good man: whatever beauty there may be in his goodness, nature will not spare him, ay more than it had spared Christ himself; nor will nature even allow him a beauty that, we are told, could save the world. At every turn, Dostoyevsky seems intent on undermining the very ideas that to him were precious.

And yet, the idea of beauty saving the world remains precious, even if only as an idea. In Dostoyevsky’s fictional world, ideas are not discarded simply because they are undermined, or refuted: ideas here are also states of being, of emotions, and they persist even through failure. The idea of the positively good man is one that is doomed to failure, and, indeed, the sense of devastation one feels in the final pages of this novel is unlike anything else I think I have come across. But the idea that has failed so spectacularly nonetheless remains, co-existing even with the forces that have defeated it. And the forces that defeat it, the forces that draw our lives away from beauty and from harmony, are more than merely acknowledged: they are depicted with the utmost force and vigour, and nowhere more so than in Ippolit’s “confession” – his “necessary explanation”, as he calls it, but which seems neither necessary, nor explanatory of anything. If Myshkin’s very presence communicates a sense of essential human nobility and moral beauty, Ippolit’s “necessary explanation” depicts something very different, and is worth examining in some detail.

It is in this section of the novel that we encounter a discussion of Holbein’s painting, and of its terrible implications. Significantly, a reproduction of this painting hangs in Rogozhin’s house, that great heart of darkness where we are sure the final act of this immense tragedy will be played out.

Ippolit too, like Myshkin, is a condemned man, a teenager dying of consumption, but Dostoyevsky seems to do everything within his power to alienate any sympathy the reader may have for him. The first time we see him, he is supporting the absurd claims of Burdovsky’s “rights”; and once these claims are shown to be baseless, he reacts angrily Myshkin’s magnanimity: the very fact that Myshkin can be so generous and so noble to the very people who had so ignobly tried to get the better of him, is, to Ippolit, so indicative of Myshkin’s moral superiority as to be insulting. The paradox is irresistible, and occurs throughout the novel is various guises: thus, the buffoonish General Ivolgin feels slighted not because Myshkin judges and condemns him, but because he doesn’t; and, more significantly, perhaps, Nastsya Filippovna feels belittled by the very feature in Myshkin that has attracted her so to him – his refusal to judge. If judgement and condemnation are terrible things, lack of judgement or lack of condemnation can be terrible also, as they belittle the very concept of one’s moral agency. Ippolit senses this immediately: Myshkin’s forbearance is so great an indication of his moral superiority over those whom he refuses to judge that Ippolit can only see such forbearance as a mortal insult.

Later in the novel, he reads his “necessary explanation”, and here, we seem to find ourselves in the world of Notes From Underground: in that earlier work, the narrator had started by telling us that he was a “sick man”: Ippolit too, as we know, is a very sick man. Like the nameless Underground narrator, Ippolit has no illusions about himself, or of the world he inhabits. As with Melville’s Bartleby, Ippolit’s world is defined by a huge, blank brick wall – Meyer’s wall, which is the view from his bedroom window: it defines a world that is blank, inexpressive, ugly – a world that, far from providing intimations of redemption or of transcendence, tells us in no uncertain terms that such things do not and cannot exist. If beauty is indeed to save the world, what salvation can there be in a world beset with such ugliness?

Ippolit goes on to lay bare his own soul, and, as with the Underground Man, he makes no attempt to hide its utter ugliness. He tells us of his neighbour Surikov, a desperately poor man:

I know of one poor man who died of starvation later on, as I was informed, and I was infuriated: had it been possible to bring that poor man back to life, I believe I should have murdered him. (III,6)

Ippolit hates and despises this man because of his meekness, because he has passively accepted his poverty and his misery. He then goes on to narrate a grotesque scene in which he and Surikov stand over the corpse of Surikov’s baby, who had frozen to death; and Ippolit, with what can only be viewed as a calculated cruelty, tells the bereaved father that the death of his child was entirely his fault.

… the wretch’s lips began to quiver and, grabbing my shoulder with one hand, he showed me the door with the other and said softly, almost whispered I mean: “Get out, sir! (III,6)

Ippolit is struck by the utter lack of anger on Surikov’s part, and, even for this reason,  can feel for him nothing but contempt. Later, Ippolit dreams that Surikov has come into a lot of money, but is frightened by his wealth, and doesn’t know what to do with it. Ippolit suggests that he melt down all the gold and make out of it a coffin for his dead child, and that he exhume his child for the purpose of re-burying him in this golden coffin. And this suggestion Surikov, in Ippolit’s dream, accepts gratefully.

The world Ippolit presents in his “necessary explanation” is a world desperately in need of redemption: it is a world of cruelty and suffering, and of soul-sapping ugliness. But the very feature that we are told could save the world is very conspicuously absent: there is, and can be, no redemption. Meyer’s wall, for all its ugliness, at least tells us this truth. The essence of such a world appears, in another dream Ippolit has, in the form of a hideous scorpion-like creature:

It was something like a scorpion, but not a scorpion, it was more loathsome and much more horrible, in that there are no such animals in nature and it had appeared specially to me…(III,5)

In this dream, Norma, a family dog that had died some years earlier, appears, and it too is frightened and revolted by this scorpion-like creature. Norma nonetheless attacks it, but:

All of a sudden, Norma gave a piteous whine: the foul creature had managed to sting her tongue after all. She opened her mouth in pain, whining and howling, and I saw the mangled creature had managed to sting her tongue after all. She opened her mouth in pain, whining and howling, and I saw the mangled creature was still wriggling across the width of her jaws, emitting large quantities of white fluid from its half-crushed body on to her tongue, like when a cockroach is squashed … That’s when I woke up, and the prince came in.(III,7)

As with the parables of Kafka, a passage such as this both demands and resists interpretation. To see the scorpion-like creature merely as a symbol of evil seems far too obvious: perhaps it is a symbol also of disease – not merely Ippolit’s, but also of Myshkin’s: Myshkin’s entrance at this very point is surely not accidental, and the horrible “white fluid” on the tongue of Norma is certainly more suggestive of epilepsy than of consumption. But it perhaps does not matter what it is a symbol of: what matters is the sense of grotesque revulsion the dream evokes. And this creature that evokes such revulsion does not exist in nature: it has appeared specially to Ippolit. To Ippolit, and to Ippolit alone, is given the vision of the essential unredeemable horror of the world, and of life. This sense of horror reappears in another dream he tells us of, this time featuring a tarantula; and it seemed to him  – although he could not swear to it – that on his waking from the dream, Rogozhin, Myshkin’s ghostly double, had come into his room, and had sat in the chair under the icon lamp, silently staring at him.

In these dreams and visions – the scorpion-like creature, the tarantula, Rogozhin’s silent stare – there is no room for Myshkin’s vision of beauty redeeming the world. Ippolit rejects such a vision quite explicitly:

And what are they after with their ridiculous “Pavlovsk trees”? Trying to sweeten the last hours of my life? Can’t they realise that the more I forget myself, the more I surrender to this last illusion of life and love, with which they try to screen off Meyer’s wall and everything that is frankly and openly written on it, the unhappier they make me? What do I want with your nature, your Pavlovsk park, your dawns and sunsets, your blue skies and your smug faces, when all this feast that has no end has begun by excluding me alone? What is there for me in all this beauty, when I am forced to be aware every minute, every second, that even this tiny fly buzzing in the sunbeam near me, even that is a participant in all this festival and chorus, knows its place, loves it, and is happy, while I am the soul outcast, and only my cowardice has prevented me from wanting to face it before now! (III,7)

As an answer to Myshkin’s optimistic piety, it seems unanswerable. Ippolit, facing imminent death, wishes only for the truth, and the truth is what is so “frankly and openly” written on Meyer’s brick wall.

Curiously, Myshkin himself responds to Ippolit’s pessimism. Later in this same chapter, Myshkin thinks back on this part of Ippolit’s “necessary explanation”, and “a long-forgotten memory” stirs within him, and takes on “clarity of form”: remembers the time in Switzerland, when, unable to speak, cut off from the lives of others – from life itself – by his illness, he had observed the beauty of the world around him, this great God-given feast in which even the buzzing fly partakes, but from which he, and he alone, is excluded. And he remembers now clearly the pain of utter hopelessness that had then seized him. It is hard not to be reminded here of Kafka’s famous line, quoted by Max Brod, that there is “plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope—but not for us”.

By the end of the novel, Myshkin is, once again, becomes, quite literally, an “idiot”; meanwhile Ippolit, seemingly to everyone’s chagrin, is still alive, although still under the sentence of death. One had yearned for a redeeming beauty, but had been denied it; the other had never believed in it in the first place. And both are condemned. It is no surprise that Dostoyevsky had felt that the Great Idea that had inspired the novel had failed: it probably never really had much of a chance to begin with.

But the failure, if failure it is, is of the idea, not of the novel. It has from the first a doom-laden sense of tragic foreboding, a sense of a profound darkness poisoning a world that tantalisingly promises redemption, but which does not deliver on the promise. It is a world in which only an “idiot” can be a good man, but, being but a idiot, cannot survive. The closing chapters of this novel, where the two ghostly brothers, Myshkin and Rogozhin, keep watch over the murdered Nastasya Filippovna, have haunted my own dreams ever since I first read this novel nearly forty or so years ago: they retain still the power to haunt my imagination. Indeed, in this, my latest reading, I realised that as I was approaching this ending, I was, at least in some measure, frightened of what I knew I would encounter. Only in the chapters leading to the denouement of Anna Karenina have I encountered in a novel such overwhelming tragic power.

***

I started this post by saying I did not know where to start. Now that I am near the end, I realise that I don’t know where to finish either. This vast, complex work seems to be beyond analysis: it constantly demands to be interpreted, but seems greater than the sum of all possible interpretations. One should, given the content, finish the novel in a mood of the deepest despondency, but for some reason, one doesn’t: I suppose this is because the idea that is projected with such power and immediacy of transcendence, of redemption, does not disappear merely because it has been defeated. The fictional world presented in this novel is unlike any other, and, very possibly, it operates only in some obscure and rarely visited compartment of the human mind: but each re-reading hits me with the force of a whirlwind.

Starting again on “Don Quixote”

There was a time when virtually everything I read, I read for the first time. Those were the years of heady discovery, when I would survey all that I had yet to read, and determine that I would conquer, if not all, at least as much as I possibly could. It could be said, with some justice, that I was not so much a reader as a train-spotter, delighting myself by ticking off newly spotted trains on my list.

I was, of course, young then, but even in my youth, I soon became drawn to re-reading certain books – partly because I wanted to enter again those fictional worlds that had so enchanted me, and more importantly because I realised that so much of what I had already read I had not adequately taken in. Sometimes, this realisation would strike me even as I was reading the work: I could quite often sense, though not quite grasp, powerful undercurrents in what I was reading, and I’d know that I needed time for the work to sink into my consciousness; I’d know I needed to revisit. And now, with more years of reading behind me than I could possibly look forward to ahead, I find myself at a stage when the majority of what I read I have read before. I have always known, of course, that in my pursuit of literary excellence, I would never, as Alexander had done, run out of new worlds to conquer; but that realisation no longer spurs me, as it once had done, to conquer as many worlds as I possibly could: I find myself less enchanted now with the idea of conquest. What I want now is to understand as much as I can.

So now, Don Quixote. It is my fourth reading, but in some ways, it is my first: this fourth reading is my first with the mindset I now have. All books need the reader’s response to complete them, and, inevitably, my response now will be different from what it had been before.

And the translation I am reading is different also: it is John Rutherford’s version, published by Penguin Classics, and is one of a triumvirate of recent translations (the other two being by Edith Grossman and by Tom Lathrop) that have all garnered praise both for their accuracy, and for their liveliness and wit.

The first time I read Don Quixote, I was fourteen. I read the older Penguin Classics version, translated by J. M. Cohen. I found out later that this version had a reputation for being very scholarly and accurate, but a bit dull and lifeless. Certainly, “dull and lifeless” would have been at the time my own appraisal of the book, but whether this was due to the translation, or my being, as I suspect, too young to take in such a book, I don’t think I am in a position to say. My second reading came in my late 20s, when, having read a glowing recommendation of it in The Observer by the late Anthony Burgess, I excitedly purchased a re-issue of a translation made in the eighteenth century by Tobias Smollett (who, of course, was a fine novelist in his own right). Smollett’s version was everything Cohen’s wasn’t: it was colourful, lively, and very, very funny. Perhaps inevitably, Smollett had cast it in the mould of his own times: in his hands, it became an eighteenth century picaresque novel, of the kind Smollett himself used to write. It was raucous and energetic, but, many opined, it lacked the qualities of inwardness and of nobility, and the melancholy of unfulfilled and unfulfillable aspiration that had led Dostoyevsky to describe this as the “saddest of all novels”. Further, standards of translation were looser then than they are now: Smollett’s version was not always, so I’m told, the most accurate.

But so taken was I with the qualities this version possessed, I was not so concerned with those that it didn’t. So when I tackled the book again in my early 40s, it was Smollett’s version again that I went for. But now, with the new translations so widely acclaimed and so easily available, there seems no reason to put off a fourth reading. It has been about fourteen years since I last read this book: I seem to encounter it every fourteen or so years, so now is as good a time as any. Especially as so much of my reading these days is of literature written in the times of Shakespeare.

So, how should I approach this book now? It is not possible to discard all the baggage that comes with a work such as this: it is not possible, however much one tries, to put out of one’s mind what one has already heard and read. That Don Quixote is at the same time insane, in that he mistakes windmills for giants and sheep for armies, and also sane, for he can perceive in life a rare beauty that others cannot; that Sancho Panza is the ideal complement to Don Quixote because he is down-to-earth and can see the windmills and the sheep for what they are; that the novel is thus both sad and funny at one and the same time; and so on and so forth – all truisms that anyone could spout about the book without even having read a single page. Is it possible, I wonder, to put this out of my mind when reading, so I can approach it fresh? No, I don’t think it is. Inevitably, my view of Don Quixote – or of The Iliad, or of Hamlet, or of Faust, or of Anna Karenina, or of any of those books that have so exercised our collective consciousness over the centuries – is a view seen through the lens of past readers and commentators.

Well, I have started it now. And soon, I shall be posting here, no doubt, comments on it, which, since it is unlikely that I can think of anything to say about this book that has not already been said, are likely to be mere re-creations of comments that had been made before. At least in this way I can out-Borges Borges, for Borges’ Pierre Menard had merely re-written Don Quixote, whereas I, if I go about this correctly, have the opportunity of re-writing its critical commentary.

So now, in my armchair at weekends, in bed at night, on commuter trains while commuting, I find myself transported into the world of the great Don Quixote and his loving squire Sancho Panza – for, amongst other things, Don Quixote is also a great love story: rarely have two characters loved each other to the extent that Don Quixote and Sancho Panza love each other.

And sometimes, when I am not reading, I find myself listening to recordings of Richard Strauss’ magnificent tone poem Don Quixote. And when I do, I cannot help thinking that, with all due respect to John Rutherford, to Edith Grossman, and to Tom Lathrop, and, indeed, to all others who have attempted this monumental task of translating Cervantes’ novel, it is Rchard Strauss’ translation of Cervantes’ novel into a musical form may well be the greatest translation of them all.

Jane Austen’s writing desk

This is the house in the small Hampshire village of Chawton into which Jane Austen moved with her mother and sisters in 1809.

Jane Austen's house in Chawton

Jane Austen’s house in Chawton

 

And this very small desk is the one on which Austen used to write. It was on this desk that she revised Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility; and on which she wrote Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Persuasion.

Jane Austen's writing desk

Jane Austen’s writing desk

 

The village of Chawton itself is idyllic. There’s everything you’d expect from a traditional English village – a pub serving good English ale, a village church, …

The village church in Chawton

The village church in Chawton

 

…and even cricket on the village green.

Cricket on the village green

Cricket on the village green

Lear eviscerated: Jonathan Miller’s latest production of “King Lear”

Although it’s often quoted as if it were a profound piece of wisdom, I have never really understood what Wilde meant by the line “Each man kills the thing he loves”. I suspect that, as with most other Wildean epigrams, he was more concerned with sound than with sense. But I couldn’t help thinking of that line on seeing the Northern Broadsides touring production of King Lear, featuring Barrie Rutter in the title role, and directed – for the eighth time, I believe – by Jonathan Miller.

This is a production I very much wanted to like. Regional theatre companies are amongst the most important aspect of our artistic life here in Britain, and the standard of Shakespearean production in this country – despite some ill-considered sniping to the contrary – remains very high. Putting on such a colossal masterpiece such as King Lear is precisely what a company such as Northern Broadsides should be doing. And there can be no doubt that Jonathan Miller loves this play: he would hardly have directed it eight times if he didn’t. In the programme notes of this production, he is quoted as saying that this is the play he “knows best”. His production of King Lear for the BBC Shakespeare series in the early 80s struck me as, in many ways, quite outstanding: it would certainly be my top recommendation for anyone wanting a performance of this play for home viewing. And yet, this latest production, which is likely, given Jonathan Miller is now 80, to be his last of the work, never springs to life. I do not think this is a fault of the cast, who were hardly given the opportunity to make the most of their parts: no – it is Jonathan Miller himself who, for reasons I cannot fathom, appears to have killed the thing he so obviously loves.

Of course, Jonathan Miller has long held views on this play that may be described as idiosyncratic. Perhaps uniquely amongst major theatre directors, he does not see King Lear as an epic play; he does not see Lear himself as a towering figure, larger than life; he does not see the drama as a work of cosmic significance: the characters in this play, he insists, are contending not against cosmic forces, but against each other. This is not, I admit, my own view of the work, but I am always happy to have my views challenged, especially by someone who has thought as long and hard about the work as Miller has obviously done. But he has a strange way of making his point: to demonstrate that the play is not epic or cosmic, he simply removes from it all passages that suggest the epic or the cosmic. If, say, a pianist is convinced that Beethoven’s piano sonatas contain no slow music, and tries to demonstrate this by omitting all the slow movements in performance, I doubt anyone would be taking that pianist too seriously; yet, I do not see that Miller’s approach is any different.

It is not that I insist on a full presentation of the text. In the first place, what is generally regarded as a “full text” is really a conflation of two quite separate texts; and, in general, most Shakespeare plays can, in performance, take a bit of judicious cutting. But here, the text wasn’t so much cut as eviscerated. In scene after scene, some of the most affecting, extraordinary, and – dare I say it – epic and cosmic of passages were simply cut away.  Of course, in saying this I realise I lay myself open to the charge of being a mere Shakespearean tourist, as it were, wanting merely to savour the famous highlights, like those who step off the tour bus for a few minutes to take a snap of the Eiffel Tower before being whisked on to the next famous landmark. But I plead “not guilty” to that. The cuts imposed by Miller were so ruinous that they seemed to take the very heart out of the play. I understood how Miller doesn’t see the play, I got no sense of how he does.

For instance, I can understand – though not necessarily agree with – the excision of the passage depicting the mock-trial in III,vi: if the Folio text is regarded as Shakespeare’s own revision of the earlier Quarto text, Shakespeare made the cut himself. But if the reason for this excision is textual, it is hard to account for the excision of the lines Shakespeare had added in the Folio text: Lear’s last line, for instance, which, at the very point of extinction, seems to hint at a transcending vision. Perhaps Shakespeare was being too “cosmic” here for Jonathan Miller – I don’t know.

The famous storm scenes too had their dark heart removed. In other productions I have seen, and even in my readings of play, the combination of Lear’s ragings, the Fool’s increasingly irrelevant gibberings, Poor Tom’s utter gibberish – in which the very structure of language seems to break down – and, of course, the elemental nature of the storm itself, transports me into a world of apocalyptic terror. But here, Lear does not rage – so when the French doctor later says his “great rage … is killed”, one can but wonder what he is on about; and much of the Fool’s part, and virtually all of Poor Tom’s are cut. After the Fool speaks a prophecy (mainly nonsense: Shakespeare has taken us into a world here that has stopped making sense), he speaks the very strange line “This prophecy Merlin shall make, for I live before his time”, and suddenly, we realise that the Fool is actually prophesying a prophecy, and chasms open at our feet; the very structure of time itself seems to have collapsed. In this production, the prophecy is retained, but not the line that follows, and, as a consequence, nothing very much is communicated to the audience at all. (This entire passage appears only in the Folio text, not in the Quarto, but since only part of it is retained, I doubt that the reasons for the cut had anything to do with textual considerations.) And while there is, as I said, some textual argument to support the excision of the mock-trial (which appears only in the Quarto text), one wonders what could have prompted Miller to cut the entire scene in which it appears.

And so it continues. The scene where the mad Lear meets the blind Gloucester – which projects the most terrible of tragic visions more powerfully than just about any other scene in drama that I can think of – is cut to shreds; and even at the end – where, in this production, Lear, instead of entering with Cordelia’s corpse in his arms, totters in weakly after her body – the chilling animal-like cries of “Howl! Howl! Howl! Howl!” are cut. And, of course, Lear’s final line, which really does hint at the cosmic dimension that Miller insists isn’t there, is also cut. All that is grand; all that is magnificent, colossal, epic; all that is visionary; is cut away.

One does not, I agree, need to be epic to communicate artistic visions of passion and of intensity: to consider an example from a rather different medium, Rafael Kubelik’s recording of Mahler’s mighty 6th symphony is conceived on a much smaller scale than the grand, epic readings of Barbirolli, Bernstein, Solti or Karajan, but is nonetheless overwhelming on its own terms. But that is not so here: there was nothing, absolutely nothing, to compensate for all that was missing. At times, it seemed no more than a perfunctory run-through of selected scenes from the play. Indeed, I can think of no better argument to counter the “Meant-to-be-seen-not-read” contingent: any reading of this play yields greater dividends than seeing a production as limp as this; and anyone whose sole acquaintance with this towering masterpiece is this production will come away with a very distorted and diminished view of Shakespeare’s work.

***

Normally, I try not to write on this blog about what I don’t like, and I feel a bit bad, I must admit, about writing this particular post: the tradition of Shakespearean performance remains very strong in Britain, and I have no wish to join the ranks of trendy detractors who seem hostile to the very idea of “tradition”. But I do have a genuine respect for Jonathan Miller, admire much of his work as director, and really was looking forward to a production that I was hoping would open up, for me at any rate, new ways of looking at this endlessly fascinating play. But in the event, for reasons best known to himself, Jonathan Miller really has killed the thing he loves. He has killed it stone dead, and I don’t have the faintest idea why.

“On the Eve” by Ivan Turgenev

“On the Eve” by Ivan Turgenev, translated by Gilbert Gardiner, Penguin Classics

 

I wonder to what extent Turgenev was interested in plot. Not a lot, I’d guess, judging from his first three novels, since the central plotline in all three of them is more or less the same – a young girl with a sheltered upbringing in a provincial town awakens emotionally, and falls in love with a newcomer into the closed society she inhabits, but it all ends sadly. However, what is of interest is not so much the plot but what the author makes of it, and in these three novels, Turgenev uses this basic plotline to make quite different things. In his first full-length novel, Rudin, he had explored the character of the “superfluous man” – a man who is intelligent, articulate, and capable, but who is, nonetheless, curiously ineffective; his next novel, Home of the Gentry, is more a “pure” love story, for the most part, as far as I could see, unadulterated with political and social concerns: I got the impression reading that novel that had these concerns not been so pressing, and so weighing so heavily on Turgenev’s mind, this is the kind of novel he would have preferred to write. But these concerns could not be dismissed: in his next novel, On the Eve, the very title vibrating with social and political resonance, these issues return, as it were, with a vengeance. The dreamy melancholy of balmy evenings and singing nightingales has not gone away, but there are other matters simmering furiously below the surface.

The principal character here, Elena, is, like Liza in Home of the Gentry, pure-hearted and loving, recently grown into adulthood; but unlike Liza, hers is a restless soul, not at peace either with those around her, or, indeed, with herself. The older generation, once again, has little to offer, but where Liza’s mother had merely been foolish, Elena’s father is immoral, openly keeping a mistress while at the same time demanding respect for himself and deference to his social standing. The future this father demands for his daughter is one of unaspiring mediocrity and moral corruption, and the husband he proposes for her is every bit as uninspiring and as mediocre as himself; Elena, a somewhat less gentle soul, perhaps, than Liza in the previous novel, cannot even begin to take him seriously.

It is easy to see why Elena falls instead for Insarov, the newcomer into her society, and, to a far greater extent than the corresponding figures in the previous two novels, very much an outsider. He is not even Russian: he is a Bulgarian, committed to the cause of his country’s freedom. He is quietly heroic, undemonstrative, but of firm integrity and of unwavering principles, and it is easy to see why Elena falls for such a man: she finds in him a moral seriousness that she longs for, but which she has been starved of.

It is this sense of moral seriousness, or the lack thereof, that marks out the difference between the older generation and the newer. Turgenev was to return to this theme with quite explosive effect in his next novel, Fathers and Sons, which, in its nuanced depiction and its even-handedness managed on publication to alienate both fathers and sons, but here the depiction is more schematic. It’s not that the younger generation are all necessarily admirable: there is, after all, Elena’s proposed husband who appears to have taken on willingly all the shortcomings and absurdities of the older generation (and who is, incidentally, one of Turgenev’s rare forays into caricature, although it is perhaps fair to say that it is not in caricature that his gift primarily lies). But despite the presence of this unpleasant young suitor, all that is genuinely admirable in this novel comes from the young. There’s the talented young sculptor, Shubin, who sees through the hypocrisies of Elena’s father (although he is more amused than outraged by it all); there’s Bersyenev, the student of philosophy, who is himself in love with Elena, but, Sidney-Carton-like (though not in quite so spectacular a manner), forgoes his own happiness for hers; there’s Insarov himself, whose undemonstrative heroism and tenderness for Elena were such that I couldn’t help picturing him as the Paul Henreid character (Victor Laszlo) in Casablanca; and, of course, there’s Elena herself, determined that her own life would be free from the moral turpitude of her father’s, or the submissive acquiescence of her mother’s. The scope for action was far more limited for women than it was for men, but, given this, Elena’s determination not to succumb to what is expected of her, and her actions both before and after tragedy strikes, are every bit as heroic as Insarov’s.

(Chekhov, curiously, picked up this theme in one of his finest short stories that is variously translated as “A Marriageable Girl”, “The Fiancee”, “The Betrothed”, and “The Bride”: in this story, a young woman, in order to give herself the education that she had been denied, walks out of an engagement that promises a future merely of comfortable mediocrity.)

The story itself is simply told, with all Turgenev’s gift for gentle lyricism. Admittedly, there are fewer balmy evenings and singing nightingales here than in his previous novel: the political and social tensions simmering under the surface don’t allow too much room for that kind of thing, but, as with Home of the Gentry (although to a somewhat lesser extent), it is hard to read this without feeling that one is in the hands of a consummate lyric poet. The characterisation is deft, particularly of the minor, incidental characters: I couldn’t help feeling that the lovelorn but self-sacrificing Bersenyev would have made an interesting protagonist in his own right in another novel. And once again, Turgenev knew better than to overload so short a narrative and so slender a plotline with too many characters: the errors of judgement in Rudin are not here repeated.

It is towards the end of the novel that Turgenev offers us a major surprise: having set it all up as another novel of love in a provincial town, he suddenly switches the scene to Venice, a sophisticated European city, and, in every way, as far as can be imagined from the setting of the rest of the novel. A writer of Turgenev’s lyrical gifts could easily have given us page upon page of the most exquisite description, but the novelist takes precedence here over the lyrical poet: he gives us only as little as is required to convey a sense of changed locality – albeit a locality very dramatically changed. And here he develops a theme that had only been hinted at earlier: death. I am not sure what it is about the city of Venice that seems to suggest forebodings of mortality, but Turgenev certainly got there long before The Wings of the Dove, or Death in Venice. There is a sense here of decay and of death, but even in this there seems to be a curious beauty:

“Venice is dying, Venice is deserted” – so her inhabitants will tell you; but it may be in the past she lacked such charm as this, the charm of a city fading in the very culmination and flowing of its beauty.

Here, in the city in whose very decay is its beauty, Elena and Insarov attend a performance of Verdi’s recently composed opera, La Traviata – a work Turgenev describes (rather disconcertingly for those of us who love the work) as “in truth rather a commonplace piece”*. But whatever Turgenev may have thought of its artistic worth, he had certainly been struck by its death-haunted quality: it, too, like Venice, fades in “the very culmination and flowing of its beauty”. He gives us a fascinating account of the performance of this “commonplace piece”, and the tragedy is foreshadowed: it is no great surprise when it comes.

But tragic though the plot is, thematically, it is the quiet and undemonstrative heroism both of Insarov and of Elena that seems to me to be at the centre of the novel, and this heroism suffuses the entire work with a radiant, optimistic glow: one is left feeling that where the older generation had failed – where, indeed, they had scarcely even tried – the younger may perhaps succeed. And even if they don’t, their effort to progress morally from the state they have been left in by their fathers has about it an innate nobility. Such sense of optimism and belief in the essential nobility of humans are perhaps somewhat alien to modern sensibilities, and Turgenev himself was to revisit them; but if, indeed, such ideals are out of phase with the modern mind, a novel such as this serves to remind us of what we have lost.

 

 

* According to volume 2 of Julian Budden’s invaluable The Operas of Verdi, La Traviata was given its first performance in Venice in 1853, and, for various reasons, it was not a particular success, although Verdi may have exaggerated the extent of its failure. The performance attended by Elena and by Insarov would have been the revival in in 1854, when its qualities became more apparent, although, presumably, Turgenev remained unimpressed.

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