Goethe’s Faust, Part 2, with lemurs

A few weeks ago, Tom (from the Wuthering Expectations blog) and I decided to read Part 2 of Goethe’s Faust at the same time, hoping that our joint efforts could throw more light on a difficult work. Tom’s posts on this poem may be found here, and here.

The extracts from Goethe’s “Faust”, Parts 1 and 2, in this post are taken from the translation by David Luke, published by Oxford University Press.

It’s the lemurs that got me. In Act 5 of the Second Part of Faust, Mephistopheles enters with, we are told, “lemurs”. Translator David Luke explains in an endnote:

Lemurs (Lat. lemures): restless souls of the dead. Goethe had seen an ancient tomb near Naples on which they were portrayed as skeletons wit still enough muscles and sinews to enable them to move.

Pretty sinister and gruesome, in other words. However, I found it difficult to remove from my mind an image of Mephistopheles accompanied by ring-tailed lemurs – not quite what Goethe perhaps had intended. But then again, what had he intended? Is the grotesquely comic image lodged in my mind really so out of place when this entire epic second part is infused with the grotesquely comic? The image I have of Goethe is that of a lofty and Olympian seriousness, and while I don’t doubt that Goethe’s artistic intentions are very serious indeed, the general tenor of this second part of Faust is that of the bizarre, the outlandish, the preposterous. This second part, written mainly in the last few years of his long life (and some twenty years and more after the publication of the first), Goethe gave free rein to a very strange and uninhibited poetic imagination, and produced a work that is as puzzling and as enigmatic as it was, no doubt, meant to be.

Faust had occupied Goethe for, on and off, some 60 years of his life. It was some time in the early- to mid-1770s that he first conceived of it, and the First Part was published in 1808. He had always planned a continuation, and had worked at one – again, on and off – over many years. In 1827 he published a dramatic poem Helena, which was later to form the bulk of the third act of this Second Part. But it was only in the last six years of his life that he focused hard on this, and, in July 1831, he declared it finished, and put his seal on the work. It was, at his own request, published only after his death in 1832. In short, Faust is, quite self-consciously, the major life’s work of a poet who is generally reckoned to be one of the towering figures of the western literary tradition: the two parts, taken together, form one of the greatest and most monumental peaks of western literary culture. Which makes things somewhat difficult for the humble blogger – especially one who, despite a couple of earlier readings of the work, finds himself very much in unfamiliar territory.

True, I have written posts before on such great literary monuments: there are many posts in this blog on the plays of Shakespeare, or on Don Quixote.  But these are works I have lived with: although I do not pretend to be a scholar, these works are now part of my mental furniture, as it were, in a way that Goethe’s Faust isn’t. There is also a mountain of critical writings on Goethe that I haven’t even set foot upon. But, proceeding on the reasonable assumption that no poet wrote to be read only by experts, perhaps it isn’t entirely a waste of time to record what this lay reader made of it all.

In brief, I was dazzled. This second part is very different from the first in a number of ways. The first is a play, and, with a few cuts (it seems too long to be accommodated in a single evening’s performance), can easily hold its own on the stage. The second part, despite being set out like a play in five acts, isn’t dramatic at all: at no point is there any dramatic tension or dramatic momentum; the dramatic continuity between the five acts seems questionable; and, most importantly, it lacks human interest. Never does the reader (or the audience, should it be staged) wonder what is going to happen next. Every scene, every character, seems allegorical: each element of the work seems like a symbol of something else, though what those something elses may be isn’t at all clear. Often, I got the feeling that Goethe, in his old age, wasn’t really writing for any readership, as such: he was writing for himself. We know from his conversations, for instance, that the character of Euphorion in the third act represents Byron, but I could find nothing in the text to indicate this: this was simply Goethe’s private association that, in the text at least, he preferred to keep private. I imagine there are many more such private associations scattered throughout the work, but since Goethe chose not to reveal them to us, I don’t know that it serves much purpose to look outside the text to discover what they might have been.

(This second part too has been staged, I gather, but reading it in my study, I could not imagine it in the theatre. In any case, there must have been quite extensive cuts to get it to fit in a single evening’s performance.)

But it’s dazzling. I do not know whether Goethe’s imagination has always been this weird, but it seems quite demented here, in this product of his old age. But a question arises: if a work of art is to have both a diversity and a unity, is there really a unity here? Is there some unifying factor binding together all the wild exuberance? One answer could be that it is held together by the story of Faust itself: the scholar, dissatisfied with his life, makes a pact with the Devil, gets what he wants for a limited time, but then, at the end of the allotted time, forfeits his soul. However, between the making of the pact at the start of the First Part, and its resolution in the last act of the Second, there seems little (if any) reference to it. The famous pact-making scene in Part One is worth recalling:


If ever to the moment I shall say:

Beautiful moment: do not pass away!

Then you may forge your chains to bind me,

Then I will put my life behind me,

Then let them hear my death-knell toll,

Then from your labours you’ll be free,

The clock may stop, the clock hands fall,

And time come to an end for me!


We shall remember this; think well what you are doing.

But do we remember this? This pact is not referred to, directly or indirectly, till the very last act of the second part. All through the famous tragic tale of Gretchen that occupies the rest of Part One, through the phantasmagoric episodes that make up most of Part Two, this entire episode seems, as it were, set to one side. But it does lay out what may be the central theme of the work. Faust is only damned if he is ever satisfied with the way things are at any given moment; and its corollary is that he is saved if he strives, and continues to strive, in search of that satisfaction that his earthly moments cannot give. And it is this eternal striving that is could be, perhaps, the work’s central theme. But striving for what, exactly? There can be no direct answer to this: it is perhaps inevitable that Goethe is drawn into a world of symbols and abstractions.

Part Two opens with a scene of the utmost lyricism: even in translation, it is exquisitely beautiful (and of course, translator David Luke has to take the credit for that). Faust is asleep, and spirits around him sing of a new beginning. Part One had told us the traumatic tale of Gretchen, and if Faust were simply to forget about her, he would appear merely heartless, which he is not; and if he were to carry with him the emotional scars of that tragedy, that would get in the way of Goethe’s artistic purpose. The only way out is to have the whole thing erased from Faust’s mind, so he could start anew. When Faust awakes, he speaks, surprisingly, in terza rima. This Dantean reference cannot be accidental: here too, as in the Commedia, we are concerned about the progress of the soul. Except, as David Luke tells us in his introduction, Goethe did not like the use of the word “soul”, (possibly, I’d guess, because of its religious associations): he preferred a term derived from Aristotle’s metaphysics – “entelechy”, which Luke describes as “the unit or monad of discarnate force which survives the death of the body and precedes physical existence”.

This opening scene of Part Two is a sort of prologue leading into the main action of Act One: we are now at the court of an emperor, whose financial means are straitened. Faust and Mephistopheles solve the problem with the introduction of paper money (and hence, inflation), but there are two things along the way that don’t seem to be part of what is, in essence, a comic story. Firstly, there is a long scene featuring a carnival masque, in which all sorts of figures appear – figures who may just be carnival revellers in costume, but, then again, who may really be as they seem. This scene is remarkable in that it is long but doesn’t lead anywhere: it throws no further light on the dramatic situation, or on the characters; it dissipates rather than enhances what dramatic tension may have existed. It is there purely for its own sake, and the effect it creates – that of a mad jumble, a wild exuberance and a colourful zest – serves no purpose in the wider scheme of things. What matters here is the texture of the scene itself. The other feature in this act that seems extraneous to the essentially comic tale presented is Faust’s descent into the underworld to visit some mysterious, primeval beings called the “mothers” (and much scholarly ink has been spilt on what exactly they are, and what they signify), and his subsequent glimpse of the pure ideal of beauty – Helen.

His longing for Helen, for pure beauty, is met in the third act: here, Goethe takes us into what is ostensibly classical Greece, but is, rather, a fantasy world suspended seemingly both geographically and in time. Here, he marries Helen, and fathers a child with her – Euphorion. This Euphorion (a representation of Byron, as we gather from Goethe’s conversation) is a spirit of Romanticism, and falls and dies by trying to reach too high; and Helen, more mirage than person, does not so much die as will her passage into the afterlife. It is a very strange act – a sort of play within a play – that, in presenting a marriage between Faust and Helen, presets also on a symbolic level a marriage between the medieval Gothic and the classical, the Christian and the pagan. Euripides (whom Goethe had described as the most tragic of the Athenian tragedians) is very much to the fore here: Goethe makes use of the legend Euripides himself had used in his play Helen, in which the true Helen is spirited away, and only her double is abducted by Paris. In metrical terms, too, Euripides is evoked. All very fascinating, but nonetheless deeply enigmatic. There is no point asking what this is all leading to: as with so much else in this work, it appears to serve no end but its own. But what is its own end? I don’t know that I could even try to answer that without delving deep into Goethe scholarship.

Similarly enigmatic, though for different reasons, is the Second Act that had preceded it. Here, we have another mad Walpurgis Nacht, as we had in Part One of Faust, but this time, the figures that appear are all from the classical world. (And even those reasonably versed in classical mythology would be well advised to read an edition with copious notes.) And this time, the Walpurgis Nacht scenes are bigger, longer, and even madder than they had been in Part One. We find ourselves in a very surreal world, where anything can happen. Figures seem to appear and disappear at will. Inanimate objects speak. Philosophers Thales and Anaxagoras argue over what is the most potent force in shaping the world – water or fire. A seismic eruption causes a mountain suddenly to appear, and new life forms inhabit it. And, perhaps strangest of all, there is the Homunculus. The name, I take it, is derived from the early chapters of Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, where it refers to the spermatozoa – life awaiting creation; but while Sterne’s comedy is bawdy, Goethe’s seems to me merely grotesque. His Homunculus is also life awaiting creation: it is a creation of an alchemist – a life still in a glass retort, waiting to be embodied into earthly life. This glass retort containing life not-yet-born also travels through the Aegean during this classical Walpurgis Nacht, also speaking lines of poetry.

What are we to make of this mad disorder – this maximum entropy, as it were? It has certainly been very influential: one can see its influence quite clearly in, say, Ibsen’s Peer Gynt (although Ibsen’s dramatic focus, unlike Goethe’s, was always on the human), or in the “Circe” chapter of Joyce’s Ulysses. It seems to stand outside time, and, despite the stage directions speaking of the Peneus or the rocky inlets of the Aegean, it seems to stand outside space too. Is it simply a wild burst of exuberance, and nothing more? It’s certainly a lot of fun, but once again, I suspect I’d have to delve deep into Goethe scholarship to understand something of Goethe’s symbols, and what exactly this allegory is allegorising. But even without any of that, it is easy to enjoy the fantastic, uninhibited nature of Goethe’s imagination.

We are with the Emperor again in the fourth act, this time in a military campaign; and in the final act, there is the reckoning. The pact made early in Part One, and which had seemingly been forgotten since, now reappears. In Faust’s last speech, he refers back explicitly to the terms of the pact:

Only that man earns freedom, merits life,

Who must reconquer both in constant daily strife,

In such a place, by danger still surrounded,

Youth, manhood, age, their brave new world has founded.

I long to see such multitude, and stand

With a free people on free land!

Then to the moment, I might say:

Beautiful moment, do not pass away!

Faust might say that, but he doesn’t; and he hasn’t. He has kept his side of the bargain. He says he will wish the moment to stay when all mankind has earned its freedom, but not till then. Instead of ever being satisfied with the moment, he has always striven, and so, his soul – his “entelechy”, the essence of what he is – is saved. But striven for what? In this last act, we see him an old man, but an active an, involved in all sort of improving projects, such as reclaiming land from the sea. But in his way stands the cottage of an elderly couple – Philemon and Baucis, the gentle, hospitable couple from Ovid’s Metamorphosis. And, in the process of carrying out Faust’s orders, their cottage is burned, and they are killed. He had not meant them to die, any more than he had wished Gretchen’s tragedy in Part One, but their deaths, nonetheless, are a direct consequence of his striving: “Well, do it – clear them from my path!” When Faust hears of their deaths, he proclaims that this was not what he had wanted, which certainly is true; but is this the striving to be rewarded with salvation? Nothing seems straight-forward.

In Goethe’s version, Faust is saved – either because he has kept his side of the bargain (he has never asked for any moment to stay); or, perhaps, he is saved through the grace of God. The former seems to me more likely, as God has been curiously absent from this story of salvation and damnation (except in the Prologue in Heaven before Part One). Christ has been strangely absent too: no blood of Christ streaming through the firmament here, as in Marlowe’s play. But for all that, the final scene, titled “Mountain Gorges”, is surprisingly religious in feeling. “Surprising” because I could find no evidence elsewhere in the text of a Christian underpinning, or any adherence to Christian doctrine.

However, the imagery Goethe uses in this final scene is very Christian (though, once again, Christ is curiously absent). Though neither God nor Christ appears, the Virgin Mary does – perhaps rather surprisingly so given Goethe’s Protestant background. But it isn’t clear to me whether this final scene is explicitly Christian, or whether Goethe is, rather, using imagery from the Christian religion as symbols for his own different ends – just as he had used classical imagery as symbols towards his own ends earlier in the work.

Disembodied voices declaim ecstatically as Faust’s soul is saved: even Gretchen, whom Faust had wronged (albeit unwittingly), joins in what is essentially a vast song of praise:

Virgin and mother, thou

Lady beyond compare, oh thou

Who art full of glory, bow

Thy face in mercy to my great joy now!

This explicitly echoes Gretchen’s prayer from the first part:

O Virgin Mother, thou

Who are full of sorrows, bow

Thy face in mercy to my anguish now!

There, she had been pleading for mercy for her own sake; now, she is rejoicing in the mercy shown to another, even to another who, in earthly life, had wronged her. In her earthly life, she had sinned, but now, as a penitent in the afterlife, she too has been saved. But saved in what sense? Given this work has not been a Christian work, can these tropes of salvation and damnation be seen in Christian terms? Or are these, once again, symbols for something else? And here again, we are left trying to interpret – trying, perhaps, to put into words that which can not be put into words – not even by Goethe.

The knots in this complex work are too intricate for me to untie. This seems one of those works that need to be lived with, so that, over the years, it seeps into the brain, and becomes part of one’s consciousness. Me – I have only dipped my toes in. But even doing that has proved a most enjoyable experience, mainly because of the wild exuberance of Goethe’s poetic imagination. After all, though much has eluded me, I’ll always treasure the image of Mephistopheles with the lemurs.

Comic errors, dark forebodings

The Comedy of Errors is a very early Shakespeare play, possibly even his first, but one need make no allowances: it is a fast-moving comedy, and still very funny. But it’s one of those early plays that tend, perhaps, to get overlooked – a bit like that other very early play The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Neither is often revived, or, I suspect, often read. But whereas The Two Gentlemen of Verona is, to my mind at least, frankly tedious, The Comedy of Errors is never less than entertaining, and there are some elements to it that, on my recent re-reading, quite surprised me.

I had remembered little more than a light-hearted farce. And, for the most part, “light-hearted farce” sums it up well. It has formed the basis of a well-known musical (The Boys from Syracuse); the Royal Shakespeare Company have presented their own musical version of it; and even Laurel and Hardy made use of it, as the basis of their film Our Relations. As a light-hearted farce, it works well. There are two sets of twins who are, unwittingly, in the same town at the same time, and naturally, there are all sorts of comic misunderstandings. The plot, as I gather, is taken from the play Menaechmi by Plautus; but Shakespeare had increased the complexity of the plot by introducing two sets of twins rather than one; and he had also introduced to the characters a certain depth who, in Plautus’ play, existed only to serve the plot. (I make this latter observation somewhat gingerly since it is gleaned merely from various learned accounts I have read of Shakespeare’s play: I won’t pretend to have read Plautus’ play, tempting though it is to do so.) Shakespeare presents the complex plot with a clarity that bespeaks a technical skill quite astonishing for a novice playwright, and the pacing seems well nigh perfect. But what really surprised me on this reading was the sense of darkness and of violence lying just under the surface. This was not necessary for the plot to work: if the plot were Shakespeare’s sole interest, he need not even have hinted at anything at all under the surface, especially as the surface itself is more than sufficient to hold the audience’s attention. But that darkness, with its potential to break out and to take the play into more disturbing regions, is most certainly present.

This underlying sense of darkness looks forward to his later, tragic works in ways that Shakespeare himself was unlikely, so early in his career, to have foreseen. The chaos lying just below the surface is very apparent in Othello, say: as Othello himself knows, when he loves Desdemona not, “chaos is come again”. Of course, in The Comedy of Errors, we know that order will prevail in the end – not so much because the disorder we see is a consequence merely of misunderstanding (Othello’s tragedy, too, is a consequence merely of misunderstanding), but because we are assured, both by the title and by the general ambience, that what we are seeing (or reading) is a comedy, and we know comedies don’t end in disaster; but the intensity of the disorder that does break out, and almost prevails, goes well beyond what may have been expected from a farce.

Consider for instance these lines spoken by Antipholus of Ephesus to his wife:

Dissembling harlot, thou art false in all;
And art confederate with a damned pack
To make a loathsome abject scorn of me:
But with these nails I’ll pluck out these false eyes
That would behold in me this shameful sport.

He calls her a “harlot” for no reason (as Othello does Desdemona); and threatens even to pluck out her eyes – a horrific image that, famously, becomes all too real later in King Lear. Did Shakespeare really have to accentuate the potential violence, or, rather, Antipholus’ potential for violence, to such an extent in what is, after all, a light comedy? The other characters are sure he is mad, or perhaps possessed by some kind of evil spirit, and, if we make the concession of seeing this evil spirit possessing him as a metaphor, they aren’t wrong.

Or take the violence inherent in the master-servant relationships. It is not, indeed, clear whether the two Dromios are servants, as we would understand the term, or slaves. Dromio of Ephesus is specifically called “slave”, but we shouldn’t perhaps make too much of that, given “slave” was a common derogatory term, like “knave”, and not necessarily to be taken literally. However, Egeon, in his narrative in the first scene (which is surprisingly dark for a farce), clearly says that the twin brothers Dromio had been purchased at birth (“Those, for their parents were exceeding poor, I bought…”). We see both Antipholus of Syracuse and Antipholus of Ephesus beating their respective Dromios, and Shakespeare, happy even at so early a stage in his career to give voices to his downtrodden characters, gives Dromio of Ephesus a rather affecting speech expressing the misery of an existence in which he has to take beatings merely at the whim of his master. He goes so far as to imagine being driven out of door to become a beggar once, thanks to the beatings he takes, he is no longer capable of service:

I have served him from the hour of my nativity to this instant, and have nothing at his hands for my service but blows. When I am cold, he heats me with beating; when I am warm, he cools me with beating; I am waked with it when I sleep; raised with it when I sit; driven out of doors with it when I go from home; welcomed home with it when I return; nay, I bear it on my shoulders, as a beggar wont her brat; and, I think when he hath lamed me, I shall beg with it from door to door.

This is all way beyond the realms of light comedy. If light comedy were indeed Shakespeare’s primary purpose, he would have had masters and servants on gentler footing; or, at the very least, he would have suppressed a passage such as this. But he doesn’t, and we are free, I think, to ponder why.

None of this is to say that The Comedy of Errors is a tragic play: it isn’t. It is a light comedy, a farce, and it works superbly well as such. But there are, I think, intimations of the darkness of vision, of a disorder that spreads fast, and of a chaos that lies under the surface of our everyday lives, and of a cruelty and a violence in our everyday relationship, that seem to indicate that the seeds of his later tragic vision had always been present, even in a light farce such as this.

POSTSCRIPT: It was remiss of me not to provide a link to a post on this play in Di Nguyen’s blog. She provides a more detailed account of the characterisations, especially of the sisters Adriana and Luciana. So here it is.

“Eugene Onegin” by Alexander Pushkin

The extracts from Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin” given in this post are taken from the translation by Tom Beck, published by Dedalus.

In Chapter 6 of Pushkin’s verse novel Eugene Onegin, the young poet Lenski is killed in a duel (and no, I am not prefacing this post with one of those tedious “spoiler warnings”: the effect made by this poem does not depend on discovering “what happens next”). It is, possibly, the most famous duel in all literature. Lenski goes into the duel with presentiments of his own death, and, the night before, writes a poem lamenting his lost youth and his possibly shortened life, and imagining that Olga, to whom he is betrothed, will mourn for him afterwards, and remember him. It is, inevitably under the circumstances, a deeply felt poem. But immediately after giving us this poem, the narrator mocks it:

That’s how he wrote, “obscurely”, “limply”,

(“Romanticism”, I believe,

though what’s romantic here I simply

am quite unable to perceive!

but then, who cares?) As dawn approaches …

This seems cruel and insensitive. Lenski may not have been a great poet, as Pushkin undoubtedly was. He possibly wasn’t even a very good poet. But given the situation, this is hardly, one might feel, the right time for literary criticism, and Pushkin’s scathing lines do seem harsh and insensitive. But here’s the point: a poet as harsh and as insensitive as these lines suggest would not have been capable of writing a poem so delicate and so sensitive as Eugene Onegin. We must, I think, in this of all books with its various different levels of irony, learn to distinguish between Alexander Pushkin the narrator, and Alexander Pushkin the author: the author Pushkin has created the narrator Pushkin as a sort of alter ego of himself – not entirely separate from himself, but not entirely the same either.

Of course, Cervantes had played with this sort of thing quite spectacularly in Don Quixote (especially in that dazzling second part), and Nabokov, a fervent admirer of Eugene Onegin, also made use of this technique: in Pnin, for instance, there is a remarkable passage where the eponymous Pnin breaks down in despair, and the narrator, who presents himself as a Russian émigré named Vladimir Nabokov, pokes fun at him mercilessly. But we must, at points such as this, learn to see beyond what this narrator is telling us. The real author Nabokov (as distinct from the Nabokov who is the narrator) is no more mocking Pnin than the real author Pushkin is belittling Lenski’s deeply felt emotions: the narrator’s mockery enlists our sympathy for the subject of the mockery.

But it remains a fact nonetheless that Lenski’s poetry is pretty poor stuff, and, however much sympathy we may feel for him, neither the author Pushkin nor the narrator Pushkin is going to pretend otherwise.

Those of a more romantic disposition have begged to differ. In Tchaikovsky’s operatic version of Eugene Onegin, Lenski’s poem forms the basis of an exquisitely beautiful and passionate tenor aria: the Lensky in the opera really is a poet, and, indeed, a great poet, for only a great poet could sing an aria so heart-stoppingly lovely. And the tragedy in the opera is that so great a poet should be cut down in his prime. But the tragedy in Pushkin’s poem is subtly different: here, for all Lenski’s depth of feeling, he never would really have amounted to much as a poet even had he lived. And he doesn’t even leave behind much of a memory: after his death, even his beloved Olga quickly forgets about him and marries someone else. The tragedy here is that Lensky’s death is as inconsequential as his life had been, and, most likely, would continue to have been had he lived. The tragedy here is that his fate isn’t even perceived as tragic.

When Pushkin comes to describe he duel itself, he adopts for a while a quite objective stance, almost as if he was writing a technical handbook on how to load a pistol:

The pistols gleam, the priming hammer

resounds against the ramrod head;

the bullets drop, pushed by the rammer,

The lever clicks, the powder’s fed

in little greyish streams to trickle

into the pan; the rough and brittle,

securely fastened flint is raised

again …

The duel takes place, and the expected happens: Lenski is killed. And then, Pushkin gives us an unforgettable poetic image that is way beyond anything that Lenski himself might have come up with – an empty house, bereft of people:

… but here, as in a house, unlightened

And bare, where all is empty, chill,

The heart forever remains still,

The shutters closed, the windows whitened …

This, one suspects, is Pushkin the author of the poem rather than Pushkin the narrator. But it isn’t always easy to distinguish.

The plot, such as it is, is built around what are, in effect, two non-events. The young, naïve Tatyana falls in love with Eugene, and writes him a love letter: nothing comes of it. And towards the end, it’s the other way round: Eugene this time falls in love with Tatyana, and writes her a love letter, but nothing comes of that either. In between, Tatyana has a very weird and surreal nightmare that seems to take us into the world of folklore and of mythical monsters; a duel is fought and the poet Lenski is killed by his erstwhile friend Onegin; and then, Tatyana visits a real empty house – that of Onegin’s, who, full of remorse and self-disgust after killing Lensky, has left the place.

This empty house is clearly a metaphor for Onegin himself, the man she still loves despite his having rejected her. But what the metaphor reveals about him is not entirely clear. Tatyana goes into his library, and finds an image of the almost stereotypical Romantic. There is a portrait of Byron, and a bust of Napoleon. The books are of Romantic literature. Tatyana herself has been moulded by literature of a pre-Romantic era (“… she read and then stayed staunchly loyal / to Richardson and to Rousseau …”), and by the traditional folklore she had taken in from her peasant nanny, and which had informed her strange dream. We are all moulded by our experiences, after all, and what we read is part of our experience: the relationship between fiction and reality, of how the former affects the latter, and, in particular, our perception of the latter, is, as in Don Quixote, one of the major themes of this work. Tatyana is still very much a simple and rather naïve village girl, and Onegin, as Tatyana discovers here, is a Petersburg sophisticate, a dashing dandy, almost a stereotypical restless Romantic. But also, perhaps, like the now empty house, Onegin is a frame without a soul. Perhaps. It is dangerous to impose so apparent and so fixed an interpretation on this most subtle and elusive of works, a work that so consistently pulls the rug from under our feet.

It is the titular character Onegin whom we meet first in this poem. He lives a dissipated life amidst the sparkling ballrooms and salons and theatres of Petersburg, and he is bored. He has a friend who is the poet Alexander Pushkin, the narrator of what we are reading. Onegin has to go out into the sticks to look after his ailing uncle, and that makes him even more bored. But it is worth it: the uncle dies, and Eugene becomes a man of property as well as the man of idle leisure he has always been. But the country life doesn’t suit our man about town. He is terminally bored. His friend in the country is the local landowner Lenski, and this Lenski introduces him to the Larins – the mother, a somewhat foolish widow, and her two daughters, Olga and Tatyana. Olga is betrothed to Lenski, and Tatyana, to whom we are now introduced, is a naïve and sensitive girl, and she soon has her head turned by the dashing Onegin. But the love letter she rashly writes him earns her only a stern and cold lecture from its recipient: she is well put in her place. Later, Tatyana has a strange dream in which she is at first lost in a fearful tumultuous winter night, but then a bear who at first frightens her leads her into a cottage, which is inhabited by all sorts of weird and wonderful monsters; and among these strange monsters is Onegin himself. One could have lots of fun trying to analyse the dream: Pushkin himself refuses to do so.

It is then that the duel takes place. Motivations are not clear: Pushkin refuses to spell anything out. Onegin is unhappy to be there among these uncouth country people who are so clearly far beneath him; and he is annoyed with Lenski for having brought him here. But why he should start flirting with Olga deliberately to make his friend Lenski jealous remains obscure. But there appears to be a sort of inevitability about it all – about little things leading to bigger things, until the sequence of events acquires such momentum that it becomes impossible to stop. Here, what starts off as no more than little annoyances lead to tragedy.

The last of the eight chapters forms a sort of epilogue. Once again, the central event of this chapter is in essence a non-event: a love letter is written, but nothing comes of it. But it rounds off with an almost formal symmetry the events that had occurred earlier. This time, it is Onegin who finds himself attracted to Tatyana. He has returned from his wanderings, and finds Tatyana no longer the naïve village girl, but a married woman, and a society hostess. And this time, it’s her turn to reject him. Her rejection isn’t cold and unfeeling, however, as Onegin’s had been: she freely admits she still loves him; she insists that she has not changed, and that the sophisticated front she now puts on is but a front. But nonetheless, she will not stoop to becoming Onegin’s mistress.

As ever, Pushkin does not delve into the psychology of these characters: he lets us do that. Why exactly does Tatyana reject Onegin? We have to piece that together. Why exactly does Onegin now fall in love with the country girl he had once rejected? Has he now changed, and become capable of loving that country girl that Tatyana insists she still is? Or does he now love the sophisticated society hostess he now sees, and which Tatyana says is but a front? Can we actually believe Tatyana when she says she hasn’t really changed? Would the Tatyana we had first seen have been capable of carrying out such a role? These are all questions we, the reader, can puzzle over, just as we puzzle over the imponderable questions of life itself.

Pushkin ends the poem leaving Onegin thus stranded, but not before he has given us an understated climax which, on repeated reading, strikes me as among the most moving things I’ve encountered in literature. As he is reading in his room, “between the lines there kept appearing / quite different lines …”

And then a kind of slow stagnation

Comes over him and dulls his thoughts,

And to his mind Imagination

Deals out a hand of cards … of sorts:

He either sees, as if reposing

Upon a melting snow and dozing

A youth, and then he hears with dread

A voice remark, “Well, well, he’s dead.”

Or else he finds long-gone detractors,

Base cowards and old enemies,

Young ladies famed for treacheries,

Departed, charming malefactors,

Or he espies a country place

And at a window sees … her face.

I remember well that sense of exaltation I felt when I had first read that scene in War and Peace in which the wounded Andrei is in the surgical tent at Borodino, and, in his delirium, seems to relive all sorts of feelings and sensations from his past; and finally, just before he passes out, he sees in his mind’s eye Natasha’s face. It remains one of the most wondrous chapters in fiction, but I hadn’t realised at the time just how much Tolstoy had taken from Pushkin. Having now read Pushkin’s novel in verse, I find echoes of it resounding through the entire range of Russian literature. Take, for instance, that scene in the final act of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, where Tusenbach, before going to the duel where he knows he will be killed, meets with Irina, but, not receiving any encouragement from her, fails to say anything of what he wants to say, and, after a few inconsequential words, leaves: this is Lensky meeting with Olga the night before his duel. This is not to say that either Tolstoy or Chekhov (or any other Russian writer) stole from Pushkin: it means that Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin was a permanent presence in their minds, a presence from which none of them could escape

For the poem itself is a marvel. It seems at times a series of contradictions: the narrative tone often appears casual, but the whole thing is very carefully structured; and it is written as a sequence of sonnets (only the two love letters escape the strict sonnet form). Each sonnet follows the same formal pattern, consisting of three quatrains followed by a concluding couplet. The rhyming scheme is abab ccdd effe gg. Each line is an iambic tetrameter, although the lines denoted above as a, c, and e have an extra unstressed syllable at the end. This form is applied strictly, and, for all the apparent looseness of the narrative, is never varied.

It is a product of Romanticism, but not really in itself Romantic: Pushkin was satisfied seeing the world for what it is, and wasn’t interested in the Romantic sense of striving for the transcendent, for something beyond. He plays all sorts of games with the narrative, and includes long rambling digressions – all in the manner of Byron’s Don Juan, or (an even greater influence, I think) Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. But Eugene Onegin is very different from either Don Juan or Tristram Shandy: alongside all the playfulness, and all the verve and gaiety and even the seeming mockery, there lies a sadness – a sadness all the more effective for not being stressed or pointed out. And it’s not a case of there being passages of gaiety and passages of melancholy: they all seem, somehow, to co-exist. The touch is of the lightest, but its impact, especially on repeated reading (this is one of those works that need to be lived with rather than read just once) is immense. The three principal characters, – Onegin, Tatyana, Lensky – haunt the reader’s imagination just as, clearly, they have haunted the imaginations of all Russian writers since. Indeed, Pushkin himself, in the course of the poem, often refers to these characters as “my Onegin”, “my Tatyana”, “my Lensky” – and one may suspect this is Pushkin the Author just as much as it is Pushkin the Narrator. It is a taffeta-like work, changing tints every time one looks at it, thus making it impossible to pin it down. In the end, as with all great art, one can but stare and wonder.

Completing Dante’s “Commedia”

Dante in the morning, Goethe in the afternoon – that’s the way to do it! You want to be highbrow, you do it properly! No farting around!

It hadn’t been planned like that. I happened to be reading Dante when fellow blogger Tom, of the Wuthering Expectations blog, suggested on Twitter that we have a go at reading together Part 2 of Goethe’s Faust. And since Tom is a reader of vast experience and understanding (he has read, and, more impressively, has taken in what seems at times to be the entire range of western literature), it seemed too good a proposal to turn down. And in any case, I was, I admit, struggling with Dante. I found myself reading very slowly, and not really taking in too much of what I was reading. Not taking in enough to my own satisfaction, that is.

I had started on Dante several years ago now. He is, after all, one of the most monumental figures of western civilization, and I felt I needed to know at least something about him. I wanted to know why so many major poets of the western world, from Shelley to Eliot to Mandelstam, seemed so besotted with him, why they appeared to centre their entire poetic sensibilities around the Commedia.  So I embarked on the Inferno, in the translation by Robin Kirkpatrick. Well, I read it; I read also Kirkpatrick’s excellent introductory essay and his copious notes; and I tried my best to make some sense of it, really I did. My attempts to make sense I recorded here, in what is, in retrospect, an almost comically inadequate post.

I had, obviously, to work harder. I started reading all kinds of secondary literature on Dante: Reading Dante by Prue Shaw, the various essays in the Cambridge Companion to Dante, and so on. There was also a wonderful detailed essay by Eric Griffiths as an introduction to the anthology Dante in English, which traces the influence of Dante on English language poets over the centuries. And let’s not forget also the somewhat irreverent and very amusing comic strip version of the Inferno, by Hunt Emerson and Kevin Jackson. So, armed with all this, I thought to myself: “Come on then, Dante, old boy, I’m ready for you!” I returned to the Inferno (again in Kirkpatrick’s translation), this time not worrying about how a modern secular reader should interpret this account of Hell, but, rather, accepting for what it is – an extraordinarily vivid and colourful depiction of human follies and of vast, endless human suffering. Encouraged by this success, I moved on to the Purgatorio, again in Kirkpatrick’s translation. Here the theme was not so much human suffering, but human aspiration. It lacked something of the vividness and immediacy of Inferno, but I managed this one too. I didn’t, however, blog about it: I felt I hadn’t taken it in enough. I understood what the poem was about because I had read books and essays on what it was about, but were I to try to write about it, I’d end up merely regurgitating what I had taken in from secondary sources rather than what I had actually felt on reading it. For, truth to tell, I hadn’t really felt very much.

On the Paradiso, I hesitated. Even Danteans often say this is more for the specialist rather than for the general reader, and I was, to be honest, a bit intimidated. But I found myself buying Clive James’ translation of the entire Commedia recently (you know what it’s like when you walk into a bookshop and find yourself unable to resist!), and I thought I’d now give the whole thing a shot – Hell, Purgatory, Heaven – the works! And boy, was I right to have been apprehensive! There seemed to me a lack of what I’d call “human interest” – no tales of the lives these souls had led while on earth. And, perhaps rather surprisingly for a poet who had so powerful a visual imagination, neither was there much description, if any, of physical settings: we have, after all, outsoared the mere earth, and are drifting through the solar system into realms of the ethereal: no room for physicality here. Lights of different kinds play a major part, but there’s nothing solid, nothing for an earthy mind like mine to hold on to. I do not doubt its greatness: T. S. Eliot would hardly have been so ecstatic about it had it lacked greatness. But yes, I did find it extremely difficult, and – admit it I must – to my shame, I found my attention wandering.

But now I have read it. As Edmund Hilary famously said after conquering Everest, I’ve knocked the bastard off. At least I now know its contents. And the various bits of secondary literature I have read helps me understand, on a cerebral level, what it is all about. But I was far from feeling it, and poetry needs to be felt.

So, while I was struggling with the final cantos of Paradiso, I received the suggestion from Tom that we should have a go at the second part of Goethe’s Faust, and I accepted with alacrity.  I had read it before, of course, but, once again, hadn’t taken much out of it, but I did remember it possessing a vitality and an energy that the Paradiso seemed to me conspicuously to be lacking.

Now that I have finished both the Dante and the Goethe, I think I had best not blog on Dante (since I have not taken it in adequately); and as for Faust Part Two, I think I had best save that for another post. Not that I claim to have understood Goethe adequately either, but I do at least have a few things of my own to say about it – thoughts other than those gleaned from secondary literature. With Dante, I don’t.

So why did I read these books? In more general terms, why should we struggle with books where enjoyment, if it comes at all (and it doesn’t always), comes only after the expenditure of much effort? The standard answer, if online comments on these matters are anything to go by, is that we read such books merely to “show off”; but in a world in which erudition isn’t in general much valued, the expenditure of such effort to attain something which most people don’t really care about Anyway does seem remarkably pointless. No, I don’t think it’s to “show off” to a non-existent audience; I think, rather, that, having in the past experienced something, at least, of what literature at this level has to offer; and knowing just how stupendous the rewards of such literature can be; we feel that the effort put into works that have garnered so great a reputation across centuries is, to put it crudely, a good bet. These works, we tell ourselves, would hardly have garnered so immense a reputation if they didn’t have something immense to offer. Of course, it is true that we will not be able to take in everything: no-one can take in everything. But there is no reason not to try to take in what we can.

What we are capable of taking in is determined both by nature and by nurture. We have, each of us, our own individual temperament: my own temperament is such, perhaps, that it relishes more the human comedies of Shakespeare or of Cervantes than the divine comedy of Dante. But that part of our receptivity that is determined by our temperament, our nature, is not an unmovable constant: there is also nurture, and yes, we can most certainly nurture our minds – that is, to train our minds to take in, understand, and even enjoy that which previously we could not. And when we can do this, the enjoyment is immense. Unless, of course, we are to believe that only that which can be grasped immediately can truly be called enjoyment.

This seems to me something that many people I encounter online, who often describe themselves as teachers or as “educators”, seem unable (or unwilling) to understand: an education in literature is not about setting the children that to which they respond immediately: it is about nurturing their minds, so they become capable of responding to that which is more profound, more subtle, more complex – that which, for these very reasons, often resist immediate response, but which, once responded to, enrich our lives more, far more, than might initially have been thought possible. To actually campaign (as many are doing) to deprive children of such possible enrichment is deeply reprehensible. Indeed, it seems to me quite shameful.

And this, I think, is why I read Dante, despite my struggling with much of it, and despite my not getting too much out of it: I wanted to try to nurture my mind to try to get at least something of what so entrances so many other readers – readers whose intellect and whose discernment I respect. In short, I wanted some of what they are having. Even in my advanced years, as the long day wanes, ’tis not too late, I feel, to seek a newer world. I think I succeeded partially with Inferno, less partially with Purgatorio, and, I fear, not at all with Paradiso, but I am glad I made the effort. For if I hadn’t, how would I have known?

Of course, there are times when the best efforts of nurturing don’t quite succeed, and I fear my attempt with Dante is an example of that. Nature is sometimes too strong a force for nurture to overcome. But I’m not repining. When I think of all that I have absorbed (at least, up to a point); all that I have responded to (usually through having to work at it: these things are rarely spontaneous); I can only feel grateful. And grateful particularly to my schoolteachers who were happy to set me works by Shakespeare and by Keats instead of fobbing off with some vapid morality tale more “relevant”, as some ideologues nowadays may insist, to my background.

I may return to Dante some day if, now knowing what’s in the Commedia, I ever feel that I am ready to take it in. But I have the final third or so of Finnegans Wake still to read. Now, there’s a struggle! And of course, I’m continuing with the struggle purely to show off. So there.

Back to Shakespeare: my latest readings of “As You Like It” and “Richard II”

It’s pointless even trying to speculate what went on in that very strange mind of Shakespeare’s: he writes As You Like It, the sunniest and most lyrical of pastoral romantic comedies – a play that, one might think, would thrive on flights of fancy – mainly in prose; while Richard II, a historical and political drama unremitting in its seriousness, he writes entirely in verse, liberally throwing in large numbers of rhyming couplets for good measure. I know that in these posts on Shakespeare I pretend to have a modicum ofunderstanding of his plays – an author, even of blog posts, should, after all, have a claim to some degree of authority – but there are times when it is best to admit that I don’t really get what he was up to.

Yes, I’ve been reading Shakespeare again. And it’s been a surprisingly long time since I had last read one of his plays. Oh, I have dipped into them often enough, and browsed passages, but, apart from his two narrative poems, his verse is dramatic verse, and demands to be seen in the context of the drama. (Even the sonnets seem to me best regarded as dramatic monologues, with the speaker and the dramatic context left to the reader’s imagination.) I know there are some who think otherwise: I have even encountered those who claim not to care at all about the drama (which, apparently, is “stolen” anyway); and who, further, tell me quite seriously that the language is all that matters. But that really won’t do: literature is the least abstract of all the arts: its basic building blocks are words, and each word has a meaning (and often more than just a single meaning) beyond itself – that is, it has a significance beyond how it sounds, and how it looks when written. Language without context is nothing. And in Shakespeare, the context is dramatic. Those who look merely for “the language” may find it hard to account for the effects produced in King Lear by such lines as “World, world, O world!”, or “Never, never, never, never, never” – effects that are well beyond my powers of articulation to describe.

So it’s back to the plays. It’s Project Back-to-Shakespeare. Why have I left it so long? Because I have taken them for granted, I think. I know they’re there. And many of these plays, I know, reside permanently in my mind anyway. But that’s really not good enough: if I am to live with these plays, I have to re-read them regularly, and re-read them with as fresh a mind as is possible. So I have decided to be a bit more disciplined: once a month, whatever else I may be reading at the time (and I am still reading Clive James’ translation of Dante), I have promised myself to re-read a play by Shakespeare at least once every month. For familiarity all too often breeds indifference, and it would be sad if I were ever to become indifferent to these works which, I think, have meant to me more than any other work of literature I know of.

So, we’re now nearly two months into this year, and I have read two plays – which isn’t bad given how bad I am at keeping promises to myself: As You Like It, and Richard II – the comedy written mainly in prose and the tragic drama written entirely in verse.

As You Like It has always struck me as a strange play. Oh, it’s clearly a great masterpiece, no doubt about that – but it’s a play I don’t feel I’ve quite got to grips with – at least, not to my own satisfaction. Sometimes I think this is because it lacks drama, but that’s not the reason: Love’s Labour’s Lost similarly lacks drama, and I have always loved that. I think what puzzles me is that various dramas are set up in the first act, only to dissipate as we move into the second. Of course, this is clearly what Shakespeare had intended: the Forest of Arden is a magical forest – not like the forest of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where real magic is involved, but a magical place all the same, where all who enter are cleansed of their evil intent, and are reconciled.

For there is much evil that needs cleansing. There’s a Duke who usurps his place, having unlawfully deposed his brother, the rightful Duke; there’s an elder brother who hates and mistreats his younger, and plots to have him killed; and so on. Indeed, the conflicts are laid out with such clear distinction between Good and Bad, we seem to be more in the realms of folktale rather than of anything claiming to be realistic drama. Even the rightful Duke, we are explicitly told, is living in the forest with a band of loyal followers “like the Old Robin Hood”.

I think I had previously underestimated just how important folklore is in Shakespeare’s dramatic output. It’s very apparent in those three late plays that it’s very tempting to describe as a trilogy (Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest): these, indeed, are fairy stories (albeit with Shakespeare’s own individual stamp on them). But I think Shakespeare’s fascination with folklore can be traced to many of his earlier plays too, where, even within an otherwise realistic context, he is happy to introduce plot devices that seem straight out of fairy tales. I don’t know, for instance, that one could make much sense of All’s Well That Ends Well (written during a period when Shakespeare was occupied mainly with tragic drama) without considering it as a sort of fairy tale. Both this play and Measure for Measure (also written during this period) feature the much-criticised “bed trick” – that is, a plot device whereby a man has sex with a woman thinking her to be someone else. Such a contrivance is, of course, more than a bit silly, but I think it becomes less so if we can consider it in the context of folklore, or of the fairy tale – that is, in the context of a semi-magical world where the unlikely becomes the everyday. In the late play Cymbeline, Shakespeare pushed this element of folklore to its utmost limit, thus ending up with a plot which, if considered in a strictly realistic mode, fully lives up (or down) to Johnson’s famous dismissal: “unresisting imbecility”. But the mistake isn’t Shakespeare’s, it is ours: it lies in considering the work in a strictly realistic mode, when really, it is Shakespeare’s variation on the story we now know as “Snow White”. Even the mainspring of King Lear, the most unbearably terror-stricken of all his tragedies, belongs to the world of fairy tales.

And so in As You Like It. The Robin Hood like existence of a merry band of outlaws living in the forest we have had before, in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and it is pure folklore. The various conflicts laid out in the first act are all the stuff of fairy tales, the stuff of dreams, and, as Prospero is later to say, they vanish into thin air. As in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the forest here is a magical place where human wrongs are put right (albeit without the explicitly supernatural agents); but Shakespeare seems to insist here that it is the forest that is real, and the outside world with all its conflicts that is the dream. Reconciliation here is real: dissension isn’t.

The Forest of Arden is both Ovid’s Golden Age from Book 1 of the Metamorphoses, and also the Garden of Eden. But not quite. The forest harbours snakes and lions, there’s hardship, there are brambles and cold winds, there’s unrequited love, and the shepherd Corin speaks of masters of “churlish disposition”. And, further, there are question marks about the deposed Duke’s right – effectively – to set up in this forest his own surrogate dukedom.

Looking forward in Shakespeare’s career, there are clear parallels between this play and the much darker later play The Tempest. In both, a rightful duke, deposed by his brother, comes to an untamed land and effectively establishes his second dukedom there. And in both cases, people from his earlier dukedom come into his later one. Prospero’s right to his new dukedom is questioned in The Tempest, and the right of the deposed Duke in As You Like It doesn’t pass without question either, despite the benign and benevolent nature of this second dukedom. And this questioning comes from Jaques, who insists that it is the humans in the forest, including the deposed Duke, who are the usurpers of nature’s realm:

Thus most invectively he pierceth through
The body of the country, city, court,
Yea, and of this our life, swearing that we
Are mere usurpers, tyrants and what’s worse,
To fright the animals and to kill them up
In their assign’d and native dwelling-place.

Even the good-natured Duke loses patience with Jaques, and at one point, has a quite surprising outburst:

For thou thyself hast been a libertine,
As sensual as the brutish sting itself;
And all the embossed sores and headed evils,
That thou with licence of free foot hast caught,
Wouldst thou disgorge into the general world.

Despite these lines, I have never seen Jaques played as a sort of monster with “embossed sores and headed evils”: I’d like to, as that would align him to Caliban (and also, intriguingly, to Thersites in Troilus and Cressida). Tony Tanner, in his Prefaces to Shakespeare, tells us that A. D. Nuttall says “it is not a waste of the imagination to consider Jaques as a Caliban who has been civilised”, although, since this otherwise excellent book lacks a bibliography, he doesn’t tell us where Nuttall says this. (It certainly isn’t in that quite superb volume Shakespeare the Thinker, the only work of Nuttall’s I have read, and I’m not enough of a Shakespeare scholar to know Nuttall’s other books.) But relating Jaques to Caliban strikes me as astute and illuminating, as they are both constant reminders of the deep flaws in our civilised states, and of how ripeness may shade into rottenness without our even noticing.

But neither the brambles and cold winds, nor the masters of churlish disposition, nor even Jaques’ latent Calibanism, can detract from this being the happiest, the sunniest of Shakespeare plays. Despite Jaques’ refusal to be part of the harmony that reigns at the end, the harmony does indeed exist: it is real, as is the reconciliation upon which it is based. A good friend of mine, and a lifelong Shakespeare lover, tells me that he imagines Heaven to be a bit like the Forest of Arden. I think he has hit it. Given our fallen human state, the Forest of Arden is indeed about as close to Heaven as it is possible to imagine. Human differences cannot be wished away, but, who knows, maybe there can be a reconciliation. True, by the time Shakespeare came round to writing The Tempest, even this hope for meaningful reconciliation had been dashed, but here it is still very much alive. I have, I admit, failed in the past to come to terms with this play, but the longer I spend immersed in its world, the more I find myself falling in love with it. At one point, Marlowe’s famous line “Whoever loved that loved not at first sight?” is approvingly quoted. Well, Marlowe was wrong, and Shakespeare was wrong in approving of it: I did not love this play at first sight, but I think I can honestly say that I love it now.

And then, last week, my second stop in my Back to Shakespeare project: Richard II, a play I have long admired, but have always found a bit difficult to love. And the problem, I think, is the central character. The flaw, I hasten to add, is not in the characterisation (which is brilliant), but in the character himself: Richard does not seem to have the stature to be at the centre of so immense a tragic drama. In As You Like It, Jaques had said that all the world is a stage, but he had meant that metaphorically: Richard appears to take it literally. All the world is a stage, and he, the king, is the star player, the actor constantly in the spotlight. Never does any protagonist in any Shakespeare play speak so much, and to so little purpose. Hamlet talks a lot, both to others and to himself, but that’s because he has much to say: his speech is often very concentrated, because so many ideas are packed into it; and often, his mind moves so quickly from one idea to another, it is difficult keeping up. That is never the case with Richard: his is never an active mind: all too often, especially in the latter part of the play, he seems content reflecting on what’s happening rather than directing it. Throughout, he has very little dialogue, but a great many speeches. If he is indeed an actor on a stage, he seems to be more of a Chorus than a protagonist.

There are effectively two Richards – one before going off to the wars against the Irish rebels (in what we would nowadays think of as a “colonial war”), and another when he returns. Historically, his Irish war was a success, but Shakespeare keeps quiet about that, presumably because he does not wish to show Richard in too active or too heroic a light. Before he goes, he is corrupt, venal, callous, in every way unfit to be king; and once he returns, and finds his kingdom invaded by the cousin Bolingbroke he had once banished, he is self-dramatising, self-pitying, and still in every way unfit to be king. It is hardly a surprise that he is deposed, but he speaks of deposition even before Bolingbroke has made clear his intention in that respect – even, indeed, as Bolingbroke is showing him the respect due to a reigning monarch. Of course, we may say Bolingbroke is dissembling, and that his intentions are very obvious; we may agree that the deposition is inevitable. But the truth is, I think, that Bolingbroke isn’t yet sure of his own intentions, or even of his own motivations. And there is, one might have thought, scope for resistance on Richard’s part. But Richard doesn’t show any. To begin with, his mood swings wildly from one speech to the next, but with a strange inevitability, he keeps returning to, and after a while settles upon, a melancholy contemplation of his own wretchedness. He moves from playing a reigning king to playing a deposed one. But is there any reality behind all this play-acting?

This, it seems to me, is what’s at the centre of this play. Of course, there are a great many other themes too: it’s a historical play about politics, about the divine right of kings, about loyalty and rebellion, about the conflict between keeping one’s oath (upon which one’s very souls depends) and doing what is right for one’s country. But the focal point of the drama is on the king’s identity. In the earlier acts, he had been King: a bad king, it is true, but King. That was his identity. He was God’s own anointed, God’s own minister, and whatever he did must, by definition, be God’s own wish. But once he is no longer king; even before that – once his status as King is questioned; then what is he? If his very identity is predicated entirely upon the fact of his kingship, then what is his identity once that kingship is no longer there?

Lear, in a later play, found himself facing the same question, but there, even as his own mind was falling apart, he started thinking, or trying to think at least, these question anew. Richard does not have the capacity to do this: all he can do is to pity himself. During the deposition scene in Act 4, Richard, solipsistic as ever, asks for a mirror; and, after examining his face – the face of one who is no longer a king – he dashes the mirror to the ground, shattering it in an overtly theatrical gesture. Bolingbroke, a man of fewer words, has a pointed rejoinder:

The shadow of your sorrow hath destroy’d
The shadow or your face.

The shadow of the face is obviously the reflection of the face, but what is the shadow of the sorrow? Bolingbroke had meant, I think, the dramatisation of the sorrow. As a man of few words but to the purpose, he has little time for his cousin Richard’s endless play-acting. But Richard seizes on this expression, and comes up with a quite different expression. Shadow of his sorrow? Yes, of course, it is! How can it be otherwise? What is inside us cannot find adequate expression in anything we can say or do, and so, whatever we say or do must be a shadow of the substance that is in us.

‘Tis very true, my grief lies all within;
And these external manners of laments
Are merely shadows to the unseen grief
That swells with silence in the tortured soul

Bolingbroke, a pragmatic man living in a pragmatic world, has no time for that which cannot be expressed or perceived. And he may be right. However, it raises for us an important question: if something can neither be expressed nor perceived, how can we know what it is? How can we know if it exists at all? Is there a substance behind the shadow?

I imagine that Shakespeare, as a dramatist, must have pondered this point. In the earlier play Love’s Labour’s Lost, Shakespeare had pondered the question of language – the question of whether mastery of language (of which, he must have known, he was extravagantly possessed) depicts reality, or, whether it loses itself in its own virtuosity and becomes merely a game that hides reality from us. Here, Shakespeare ponders the question of shadow and substance: if there exists inside us a substance that cannot be adequately expressed by anything we may say or do, then how can he, a dramatist, depict that substance when what we say or do is all that can be depicted? If all the world’s a stage, it must follow that there can be nothing in that world beyond what can be shown on stage. Richard insists there is more, but is it not possible that his extended self-pity really is all there is? And that beyond it, there is nothing? Right to the end, Richard is haunted by the possibility of his own nothingness:

… and by and by
Think that I am unking’d by Bolingbroke,
And straight am nothing: but whate’er I be,
Nor I nor any man that but man is
With nothing shall be pleased, till he be eased
With being nothing. 

It is a wonderful play, but I doubt it will be too many people’s favourite, as As You Like It certainly is. Despite the various recurrent themes that one may find across the entire range of plays (A. B. Nuttall’s Shakespeare the Thinker is particularly good at teasing these out) these two plays are as different in themes and in treatment as is possible to imagine. It is hard to imagine them proceeding from the same mind. But then again, it was a very strange mind, and there is probably not much point trying to guess what went on inside. Maybe the plays and the poems that overwhelm us so are but the shadow of his genius, and the substance of that genius (should it exist of course) will always remain for us inaccessible.

With apologies to Cole Porter

This is what happens when you have hours of insomnia to while away:

You’re the top,
You’re a Bach partita,
You’re the top,
You’re Cinecitta,
You’re the pleasing quails in the ghostly tales of James,
You’re Messi’s verve, you’re Federer’s serve, you’re Hunger Games!

You’re the Wiz,
You’re the vaccine Pfizer,
You’re the fizz
Of a can of Tizer,
You’re the zest and zing when Beatles sing “Get Back”,
You’re Billy Bones, you’re Indy Jones, you’re Armagnac!

You’re the best,
You’re the flower bed border,
You’re the rest
That the doctors order,
I’m out of rhymes, and so, betimes, must stop,
But if baby, I’m the bottom, you’re the top!

Marks out of 10

No matter how you look at it, no matter what criteria of literary excellence you apply, it has to be conceded that King Lear is a play with severe shortcomings.

Let us consider a few of these criteria. The construction, say. Shakespeare welds together a plot and a subplot that are so similar in nature, that the climactic point of the subplot (Edgar revealing himself to his father) has to take place offstage to avoid repetition. Or what about the characterisation? Once again, it seems lacking. Edgar’s motivation in keeping his identity from his blind father for so long is never explained. (Edgar is given a somewhat clumsy aside at one point to say “Why I do trifle thus with his despair is done to cure it”, but it isn’t at all clear how his trifling with his father’s despair will help cure it.) Cordelia’s sullen behaviour in the first scene is also unexplained: clearly, she finds Lear’s game distasteful, but since she has been in court long enough to know of the dire consequences of crossing the king in front of others, and since, further, she has been with her father long enough to know his volatile character, her lack of the most basic tact seems frankly weird. The character development isn’t always too coherent either: in Act 1, we see Goneril expressing entirely legitimate concerns about her father and his retinue; next thing we know, she is a raving monster, with no intermediate step. None of the characters here may be analysed to the depths to which we may analyse Hamlet and Claudius, Othello and Iago, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra: in comparison to such characters, those in King Lear are rather straight-forward.

And there’s little sense of time or of place. There is a lot of travelling in the play, and yet, we have no idea how far Goneril’s castle is from Gloucester’s (or how long it takes or Lear to make the journey between the two); how far Gloucester’s castle is from the cliffs of Dover (and how long it takes Edgar to lead his father there); and so on. We do not know exactly at which point in the temporal scheme of the drama the French armies invade England, or how much time passes between the invasion and the battle.

Or let us consider the influence the play has had, and how powerfully it has entered our collective consciousness. Even here, I think, King Lear may be lacking. Hamlet is notoriously a play made almost entirely of well-known quotations; everyone has heard of the “green-eyed monster” of Othello; we all know that age cannot wither Cleopatra, nor custom stale her infinite variety. Is there anything in King Lear that has entered the public consciousness to such an extent? Even if there is, we may safely say, I think, that it does not surpass all those elements of those other plays that have also entered the public consciousness. And given that King Lear is sorely lacking in all those other respects discussed above, once we tot up the scores, the conclusion seems inescapable that King Lear is a lesser work of art.

And so on. Take all of these criteria of excellence into consideration, add a few more that I haven’t thought about, and it must be admitted that, compared to the other major tragedies of Shakespeare – Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, Antony and CleopatraKing Lear is an inferior work: whatever criterion one applies, it is found wanting. We may even wonder why it is classed among his major plays in the first place.

But here’s the twist: not only is King Lear almost universally acclaimed as a towering masterpiece – one of the greatest manifestations of human genius and worthy to take its place alongside the best – if one were to take a poll of Shakespeare scholars and Shakespeare lovers, it is likely to be the Shakespeare play that is most highly regarded. Somehow, all those criteria of excellence, which we may like to think of as objective, go for nothing. So the play has grave shortcomings: who cares?

This seems to me to cast doubt on the validity of what we may consider to be objective criteria, or, indeed, on the very concept of objectivity itself. And yet, if we are to reject objectivity in these matters, what are we left with? I used, many years ago now, to contribute to a public board on books – any book, of any height of brow – and there were many on that board, I remember, who used to insist that, in the words of Hamlet, there is nothing good or bad but thinking that makes it so; that there isn’t, nor could there ever be, any objective standards in these matters, and all that matters is one’s subjective opinion, and that’s it. I used to try to reduce this to absurdity and ask whether my causal doodles could be deemed better art than Rembrandt’s drawings if I thought them so, and the answer I received was “yes, if they seem better to you, then they’re better, and there’s no more to be said”. It was a difficult proposition to argue against, but I found myself dissatisfied with it; for if it were indeed so, then the very concept, not merely of artistic greatness but even of artistic merit, becomes irrelevant. For how is one to judge that merit when there is no objective measure?

So one could, perhaps, analyse a novel or a play, say, in all sorts of ways – in terms of structure, of characterisation, of the use made of language, of the thematic development, and all the rest of it. And maybe, one could give each of these constituent elements marks out of ten. To make it more objective, we could ask several knowledgeable and perceptive readers to give their marks out of ten, and take the mean of these scores for each identified category. And then we could sum these marks up to give us an objective a score as it’s possible to devise.

But these additive utility functions can be very awkward. Even if we try to apply such a model to something so simple as rating a meal, we run into difficulties. For instance, I may enjoy a pizza, and award it 8 out of 10. And when the waiter offers to sprinkle parmesan cheese on it, I agree, for a pizza is even better with parmesan cheese. So I give the parmesan cheese 1 point, and hence, judge pizza with the parmesan (8+1 = 9 points) to be even better than pizza without the parmesan (8 points). But then, for afters, I ask for an ice cream, which too I love (I’ll give that 7 points, since I don’t love it quite as much as the pizza). According to the model of the additive utility function, ice cream with parmesan cheese (7+1=8) should be even better than the ice cream on its own. Which is nonsense, obviously: the whole thing is a crap idea. And if such a model doesn’t work with something so relatively simple as a meal, how can we hope to introduce something like this into literary criticism?

Of course, utility functions do not need to be additive. One could devise all sorts of complications – if X, theN A*log(B); if not X, then exp(A) +B, etc. – but I think we may agree that the sheer level of silliness is quite overpowering by this stage. No, we might as well face it: if we break up a work into its various different aspects (including that of the influence it has exerted on subsequent writing), and either try to combine them into a utility function or place them into a checklist, we’re unlikely to reach any kind of meaningful measure. We’ll certainly not find anything that will rank King Lear alongside the likes of better constructed works such as Hamlet or Othello, even though the overwhelming consensus of critical opinion seems rather to insist on this point.

So I find myself in a bind. I cannot accept that there is no objective criterion whereby Rembrandt’s drawing may be rated higher than my doodles; and yet, at the same time, there seems no means of objectively rating a work of art.

But it’s not, perhaps, one extreme or another. There is a middle ground, I think, between pure objectivity and pure subjectivity, but a middle ground so very messy and so full of ifs and buts that it is hard to describe. The purely subjective approach fails because of its inability to distinguish my doodles and Rembrandt’s drawings; and the purely objective approach fails because no objective measure can be devised to measure artistic merit as we feel it. For art has to be felt: it must produce what Nabokov described as a “tingle in the spine”. But every major work of art has at its core a great mystery, which resists measurement; and sometimes, as in the case of King Lear, this mystery can be so profound that all other considerations, all perceived shortcomings, seem irrelevant.

It seems to me that the only realistic measure of artistic merit is what I call the consensus of the cognoscenti. For such a consensus does exist. If all were purely subjective, and if our individual subjective responses were unrelated to each other, then such a consensus would simply not be possible. The very fact that a consensus exists – that King Lear is considered a great play, Middlemarch a great novel, The Waste Land a great poem – indicates that our various individual subjective responses have a curious tendency to converge.

(I add “of the cognoscenti” to my formulation, because, quite clearly, the opinions of someone unused to reading classic literature, but who fancies trying some out for a change, and who reads – and gets bored by – Anna Karenina, and gives it a dismissive two-star “review” on Amazon or on Goodreads, is neither here nor there. I personally know nothing about Ming vases, say, and I appreciate that my opinions on the quality of Ming vases is fairly irrelevant to everyone except me – and even, perhaps, to me.)

Of course, the consensus will never be unanimous: even among the cognoscenti, there will be those who may dislike Anna Karenina, say, and have good reasons to do so. But a consensus is rarely unanimous: it exists all the same.

And neither will the consensus be stable over time. Some things, however, are: Homer and Sophocles, Virgil and Horace, Dante and Shakespeare, have all been admired by a very large consensus for quite a few centuries now, and it’s hard to envisage a time when they won’t. But one may easily point to other writers and works that have drifted in and out of the consensus across the ages. But, at any given time, a consensus – of the cognoscenti: let’s not forget the good old cognoscenti – most certainly does exist, and the very fact of its existence argues strongly against the view that everything is purely subjective.

And such a consensus can apply with comparisons as well, I think. For those who take an interest in the novel as literary form, there is a strong consensus concerning the greatness of Anna Karenina. There is a further consensus that Oblomov, say, by Ivan Goncharov, is also a very fine novel, perhaps even a great one; and a third consensus also exists, I think, that no matter how great Oblomov may be as a novel, Anna Karenina is even greater (although, accompanying that view, there will be entirely reasonable objections that such a comparison is ludicrous, since novel-writing is not a competitive sport). Of course, one may legitimately prefer Oblomov to Anna Karenina – even if one is part of that cognoscenti I spoke of – but that preference will generally be seen as a bit eccentric.

Like it or not, it is in our nature to compare. And most of the time, it is a pretty harmless parlour game. Who is the greater writer – Homer or Shakespeare? Shakespeare or Tolstoy? Tolstoy or Proust? One may protest that such comparisons are meaningless, and that they devalue literature itself: I wouldn’t argue with that. But at the same time, unless one subscribes to pure subjectivism in these matters – that the quality of any work is determined purely by one’s subjective reactions and by nothing else – then comparison becomes important: if we cannot state with some confidence that Henry James was a greater novelist than E. L. James, we might as well forget about the very concept of literary excellence.

So, as I say, it’s all very messy. Just about everything one may say on this matter is beset by ifs and buts, with reservations and objections. We are still torn between, on the one hand, our desire to measure, and, on the other, our awareness that certain things resist measurement; and further, our conviction that the unmeasurable can still be of the greatest importance. I could – and indeed, have done, right here on this blog – write page after tedious page explaining why King Lear means the world to me, and why I would rank it among the very greatest works of literary art, despite all its flaws and shortcomings. But could I demonstrate it beyond doubt to a sceptic? No. There is no way to quantify the great mystery at the heart of it.

Flaubert on Balzac

“What a man Balzac would have been, had he known how to write!” wrote Flaubert to Louise Colet (in a letter dated December 16th 1852). And then he added, rather intriguingly, “but that was the only thing he lacked”.

This may seem rather strange coming from Flaubert, for whom, if the popular image is to be believed, good writing was the only thing worth striving for. If the ability to write was the only thing Balzac lacked, it surely follows that he had other qualities which too were worthwhile. And since Flaubert only knew Balzac through his books, those other qualities must have been apparent in his books,despite (as Flaubert saw it) his inability to write. And this leads us to a somewhat un-Flaubertian conclusion: there exist qualities in literature distinct from the ability to write well.

Flaubert does not clarify what precisely he means here. He certainly wouldn’t have allowed such imprecision in his novels, but this was, after all, only a private letter. And we may, I think, take a guess that his implied distinction was between, on the one hand, writing prose well, and, on the other, those various other qualities that may conduce to the quality of a novel, even if the prose itself is unremarkable.

But what qualities are these? If we define “good writing” to cover everything it takes to produce a good book, then, by definition, there cannot be anything else. But if we restrict the definition, and consider “good writing” to refer specifically to the ability to construct sentences elegantly; to select those words and images that express with absolute precision what the author wants to communicate, and no more and no less; to arrange those words to produce euphony of rhythm and of sonority, or to produce a dissonance if that is the intended effect; and so on and so forth; then, in a novel, it isn’t difficult to identify various other qualities that may also enhance its literary merits. The construction, say – the pacing over long stretches, and the ability to tighten and to loosen tension appropriately, in order to create a coherent shape across the span of the work; the ability to communicate a sense of place, and of atmosphere; the ability to invent plot, and to ensure that the reader remains interested in the affairs of entirely fictional characters; the ability to create characters – and make them appear to think and to feel and to behave in a manner that is credible given their innate natures, and given the circumstances in which they find themselves; the ability to depict these characters developing through experience; and so on. And, on top of all that, I’d argue – at least, in those novels we think of as being novels of quality – a certain vision of life. By which I mean a certain way of looking at life, individual to the author, which appears to the reader as being in some way striking, and memorable. And if the ability to write was, for Flaubert, the only thing Balzac lacked, then, presumably, these other qualities he must have possessed.

And here I must make a confession: Balzac’s reputation puzzles me. Flaubert obviously thought highly of him, despite his alleged inability to write (a flaw which, one might have thought, would have damned him irretrievably given Flaubert’s aesthetics); Henry James, who seems in many ways the antithesis of Balzac, admired him immensely; and Somerset Maugham – a novelist whose star has now fallen but who was often astute in his criticism – once said that Balzac was the only novelist whom he would unhesitatingly describe as a “genius”.  Now, I really don’t want to say too much here about my own reactions to Balzac: I have read only four of his novels (though they are among his most highly rated), and a few short stories; and three of those four I read over 40 years ago. The last Balzac novel I read was Illusions Perdues, and even that was nearly 30 years ago. So my memory of those works, frankly, isn’t particularly strong. Also, these novels made so little impression on me that, despite my mania for re-reading, I have never felt the urge to return to them. And, since one tends not to be too perceptive about books one does not like, my own opinions on Balzac really do not seem worth communicating. There must have been something about Balzac to have impressed such fastidious tastes as Flaubert and James: the loss, I’m sure, is entirely mine.

But the impressions I retain of Balzac, such as they are, are those of a novelist who took a keen interest in the structure of society, of how society worked, and who understood money: I got the impression that he knew exactly how much each of his characters earned, and how; how much they spent, how much they invested, how much disposable income they had. These things fascinated him, and, it may be argued, given the importance of these matters in our lives, other novelists, especially those claiming to be “realist”, should take a little more interest in them. But, at the same time, his characters seem to me to have little or no inner lives; their aspirations rarely, if ever, rise above accumulating wealth, acquiring social position, and having sex. I frankly thought Balzac vulgar, and his fictional world limited merely to what is coarse. D. H. Lawrence once described Balzac as a “gigantic dwarf”: I’m not at all sure what he meant by that, but whatever he may have meant, I’m with him.

I am not, of course, insisting on any of this: if Flaubert and James admired Balzac (despite his inability to write, that is), then who am I to stand against them? But I frankly do not feel the urge to return to Balzac, as I often have done with many other writers I didn’t “get” the first time round. If I don’t “get” Balzac, I’m content to remain in that state.

But what about Flaubert’s own writings? Can it not be argued that his characters, too, inhabit a world that is irredeemably coarse and vulgar? That they are bereft of anything we may describe as a “spirituality”? That they too have nothing worthwhile to aspire towards? Flaubert’s prose was, of course, exquisite – no-one could accuse him of not writing well – but does that fact alone raise his work above the vulgarity of what he depicts? – the vulgarity that is, in effect, the central theme of his novels?

For many readers, I know, the answer is “yes, it does”. Flaubert saw life as entirely pointless and futile, and the only thing that mattered was his act of recording that pointlessness and futility. It is, in short, the quality of his writing, that purely aesthetic quality of his prose, that raises it above all the vulgarity he depicts. Now, I have never been entirely satisfied with this view. I think this comes down to a difference in how we, as individual readers, read things, but, if this is how we are to read Flaubert, his works would be, it seems to me, lacking in one of those qualities I had mentioned earlier that great novels ideally should have – a certain vision of life, “a certain way of looking at life, individual to the author, which appears to the reader as being in some way striking, and memorable”. For an empty eggshell cracked open merely to reveal its emptiness does not seem to me the stuff of great art, no matter how exquisite the act of cracking.

I think Flaubert offered more, but what more I think he offered isn’t, however, easy to explain. But perhaps we may get some idea of it if we consider the ending of Madame Bovary. (And here, I suppose I should issue one of those tiresome “spoiler alerts” for those who haven’t read it.)

At the end of the novel, after Emma’s death, her deceived husband, Charles Bovary, dies of grief. In a sense, this is another cynical touch: Emma had despised Charles, and had been unfaithful to him. Nonetheless, he was clearly devoted to her, to such an extent that he could not go on living without her. No matter how one views this, it is difficult to be cynical about what is clearly a great depth of feeling. Somerset Maugham, whose astuteness in these matters I was praising earlier in this post, felt that Flaubert could have conveyed the futility more powerfully if Charles’ mother had arranged another marriage for him, but Flaubert, I think, knew what he was doing: if he depicts Charles’ depth of feeling here, it is because he wanted to; that depth of feeling is the very point. Of course it is absurd that such a nincompoop as Charles should be able to feel so deeply, but the messy and uncomfortable fact is that he does. And yes, that depth of feeling is futile, but it is also, for me at any rate, unbearably sad – all the sadder precisely because it is so futile, so utterly pointless.

And this is what I get in so much of Flaubert: indeed, this is what seems to me at the very core of Flaubert – a sense of futility and absurdity, true, but also a profound awareness of the immense sadness that things should be so.

Earlier in the novel, in one of its most celebrated passages, he had written:

 … la parole humaine est comme un chaudron fêlé où nous battons des mélodies à faire danser les ours, quand on voudrait attendrir les étoiles.

This has proved difficult to translate into English, as there is no direct equivalent of the word “attendrir”, which means, as I understand it, to soften – to soften emotionally rather than physically, that is – to make one more amenable to gentler emotions. Lydia Davis translates this as follows:

… human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when we long to move the stars to pity.

Other translations I have consulted (including the old Penguin translation by Alan Russell – the first translation of this novel I read, and one I am still much attached to) also go for “move the stars with pity”, and I can’t frankly see how it can be translated otherwise. But however one translates it, “attendrir” indicates a softening of our emotions, and acquiring of certain feelings that are, at least, not too distant from “pity”. And pity is what I feel at the end of Madame Bovary. And I feel this pity in other works by Flaubert too – L’Education Sentimentale, Un Coeur Simple, Bouvard et Pécuchet: no matter how cynical the guffaw, no matter how implacable Flaubert’s insistence on the pointlessness of it all, our human inadequacy in the face of what life throws at us is, at heart, pitiful. How else can I explain the fact – for fact it is – that Frédéric Moreau’s last meeting with Madame Arnoux, towards the end of L’Education Sentimentale, has me in tears, even on repeated readings?

But once again, I do not insist on any of this, any more than I insist on my reading of Balzac. I know there are readers whose discernment I respect who feel otherwise. But I can only record my own reaction here.

But obviously, this Flaubert whom I love so dearly himself loved dearly Balzac, a writer whose works mean so little to me. When Balzac died, Flaubert wrote in a letter (to Louis Bouilhet, dated November 14th 1850):

Why has Balzac’s death “affected me strongly”? One is always saddened by the death of a man one admires. I had hoped to know him later, hoped he would have liked me.

No doubt I am just a sentimental old fool, but I find this rather touching too. I do get the feeling that Flaubert regarded himself as following in Balzac’s footsteps, and would have liked Balzac to have approved of him, and to have approved of his work. That he had a great regard for Balzac is clearly beyond doubt. But if only he had known how to write!

[The excerpts quoted here from Flaubert’s letters are taken from The Letters of Gustave Flaubert, selected, edited and translated by Francis Steegmuller.]

Acquired tastes

While it is often said with what seems to me a tiresome insistence that personal taste is the sole arbiter when it comes to appreciating and evaluating the arts, the extent to which we may direct those personal tastes is not, perhaps, too often acknowledged.

Goodness! – what a way to start off a new year’s blogging! I think I got a bit ahead of myself there, and started the post with a sentence that should, rightly, have come at the end – a conclusion, albeit a somewhat tentative one, rather than a starting point. But anyway – a Happy New Year to you all! Well, as happy as is possible, that is, given these strange times.

But if I may go back to the point I’d introduced a bit earlier than I think I should have done, I think it is most certainly true that one may, to a very great extent, direct one’s tastes in certain directions. I don’t mean, of course, that we may like whatever we set our minds upon liking, but that we do quite often set our minds upon liking certain things; that we do quite often end up liking them; and that we wouldn’t have ended up liking them had we not set our minds to like them in the first place. How else can one account for “acquired tastes”?

Most of the things I value most highly now, I find, I had to work at. I do not know whether my experience is typical: I rather suspect it isn’t. Looking back – which is something I feel I am entitled to do without disapprobation given I have now turned 60 – it could be because, during my childhood, taking in anything required an effort: the English I read in books, the English I heard in the classroom and on television, all needed to be translated into my native Bengali in my head before I could absorb it. So, taking my time and working at something before I decided whether or not I liked it became, as it were, second nature: I didn’t expect it to be otherwise, even when I had reached the stage when I discovered I had unmediated access to the English language. Love at first sight was never really for me. Lust at first sight – yes, frequently, as I discovered when I entered puberty; but love at first sight proved for me more elusive.

But let us move away from all this pointless amateur psychoanalysis. The truth, I think, is more likely to be that I am just a bit slow on the uptake, and that it takes time for anything to enter into my thick skull. But as long as it enters eventually, I think I can live with that. (I don’t think I have a choice in the matter, after all.) Most of my tastes I think are acquired, rather than spontaneous attractions. I didn’t take to chess immediately, nor to cryptic crosswords; nor even to single malt whiskies. And this is particularly the case when it comes to the arts. No doubt there are those who fall in love with Picasso on first seeing one of his paintings, or who become an ardent Wagnerian immediately on hearing Tristan und Isolde: I can only say that I am not among them. My first hearing of the now familiar opening strains of Tristan und Isolde merely prompted to my mind the question (and please pardon the profanity: I was young then) “What the fuck’s this?”

I was fifteen, I remember, when our English teacher at school (a lady of whom I have the fondest memories) presented us with Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale”. I wouldn’t say I disliked it: rather, I had no idea what to make of it. I couldn’t, in modern parlance, engage. And I couldn’t engage because I didn’t have the first idea how to engage. But that is what the teacher was there for: that is what the education system itself was there for – to help me understand how to engage, and, equally importantly, help me appreciate why it was worth making the effort to try to engage. So well did my teacher succeed, that I remember going into the centre of Glasgow not long afterwards (we lived in the outskirts of the city back then) to buy myself a volume of Keats’ poems. I have that volume still, much battered, and much loved.

And this, I think, is where many go wrong. I see much on the internet, often from people claiming to be teachers or “educators”, arguing in favour of removing from the classroom works prominent in the canons of English literature on the grounds (among others) that children cannot “engage” with them. But engagement is not necessarily a starting point: indeed, if the work is difficult, or intricate, or requires a level of thought and of understanding that has not yet developed – in short, if it is a work that merits teaching – it will most likely not be a starting point. Engagement is, rather, the desired outcome of a good education.

And those acquired tastes help sustain me still – some acquired by my own efforts, and some others that needed a bit of help. I’m so glad my English teacher didn’t think that my lack of immediate engagement was a bar to my ability ever to engage; and I’m so glad she didn’t insult me by assuming that the horizons of a teenager of Indian background would not be up to encompassing the thoughts and feelings of an early nineteenth century Londoner. Britain in the 1970s was certainly far more racist than it is now, but that particular form of racism had not yet raised its ugly head. And for that I remain grateful: had I been left only to what I had loved at first sight, I’m not sure I’d have gone much further than glam rock.

And this is the point where I think I should have placed the opening sentence of this post. “Whoever loved that loved not at first sight?” Marlowe had famously written (and Shakespeare had approvingly quoted), but, with all due respect both to Marlowe and to Shakespeare, let me propose a New Year toast to all which we love, and which we spent time and effort learning to love – to all those acquired tastes that, over time, have proved well worth acquiring.

Season’s greetings 2020

Around this time of the year, along with some maudlin observations of the passage of time, I usually announce that the blog will be shutting down over the Christmas season, but perhaps such an announcement would be superfluous this year: my output has slowed down to such an extent that a few weeks without a post would hardly be worthy of comment. I am not sure why my output has slowed: perhaps after all these years I have finally realised that I never really wanted to write about books anyway, but had used that as an excuse to write what are in effect childhood memoirs. Now I am aware of that, I can, I feel, be more unapologetically autobiographical.

But may I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year – well, as merry and as happy as our strange times will allow – and leave you with this rather lovely triptych by Hans Memling of the Adoration of the Magi that I saw in the Prado last year.

See you all next year!

Triptych of The Adoration of the Magi by Hans Memling, courtesy Prado Gallery, Madrid