“The Captain’s Daughter” by Alexander Pushkin

*** SPOILER WARNING: Inevitably the following will let slip a few details of the plot ***

It is generally thought that all one needs to do to get to grips with serious literature is to pick up seriously literary works and start reading. This is undoubtedly true up to a point: one must start somewhere, after all, and how does one start other than just picking up books and start reading them? But experience does make a difference: once one has read a bit, one does learn to read works with a mind more receptive to certain things. For instance, when I first read Pushkin’s The Captain’s Daughter, aged about sixteen or seventeen, and determined in my enthusiasm to gobble up everything I could find by nineteenth century Russian authors, I really didn’t make much of it. It seemed to me a rather drearily conventional story. Young man joins army, gets posted in the outposts, falls in love with his commanding officer’s daughter, and rescues her from danger once rebellion erupts and her parents are killed. Big deal, I thought. Where was Tolstoy’s epic sweep, Dostoyevsky’s anguished questionings, and all the rest of it? I put it aside respectfully: it was by the revered Pushkin, after all, and, no doubt, his greatness lay in poems which, as a non-Russian speaker, I didn’t have much access to back then. It is only now, over forty years later, that I have returned to The Captain’s Daughter, and … well, as I say, experience counts. It is still a story about young soldier in the outposts rescuing his beloved during a rebellion, but, I now find, seeing it as no more than that misses just about everything that is important.

We non-Russian-speaking enthusiasts of Russian literature do, I think, get a bit tired of being told that though we may rave about Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, it is Pushkin who is regarded as the supreme writer of the Russian literary tradition. We get a bit tired of this for a number of reasons. Firstly, what we read of Pushkin in English does not seem as thrilling or as exciting as the works of the Big Two. And secondly, we are, I think, implicitly enjoined to do something that most of us are too lazy to do – that is,  to learn Russian well enough to read their literature. And thirdly, Pushkin seems in many ways the very antithesis of all that we have come to see as typically Russian: he does not have the grotesque sense of humour of Gogol or of Dostoyevsky; he does not probe into the dark recesses of the mind as Dostoyevsky does, and explore the “big themes” of God and spirituality and the universe and all the rest of it;  he does not present us with the epic canvases of Tolstoy, seemingly peopled with the whole of humanity. In contrast to all this, there is a lightness about Pushkin’s works: his writing is clear, elegant, precise, even perhaps delicate, unencumbered with musings about the human soul; and his works are generally short. The Captain’s Daughter is more a novella than a novel, after all, taking up just a bit over a hundred pages. Great he no doubt is – we non-Russian speakers can hardly dispute the point with scholars who know the language – but it does seem a shame to hand the crown to someone who goes against all the preconceptions we have (and love) about what Russianness literature ought, at least, to be.

Certainly, The Captain’s Daughter begins fairly conventionally – the hero’s childhood on his parents’ country estate; his education (or, rather, lack of it) at the hands first of faithful family retainers, and later, of a drunken French tutor; his entry into the army and his posting in Southern Russia; his youthful extravagance and lack of judgement; and so on. And then, of course, he falls in love with the daughter of the commanding officer, the Captain’s Daughter of the title. The prose, in the translation I read (by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler), is exquisite (there is a fascinating essay towards the end of the volume in which the translators discuss the nature of Pushkin’s finely wrought prose, and the approach they had taken to find an equivalent in English); and the story moves along at a fine pace. But in terms of content, there is little to indicate anything much more than I had gleaned from my earlier reading all those years ago. But then, Pugachev’s rebellion breaks out. This was an actual historic event, which took place in the early 1770s, during the reign of Tsarina Catherine the Great: Pushkin had a particular interest in this rebellion, had done much first hand research on the topic, and had even written a history of it. In this novel, the rebellion erupts with shocking force. There is a particularly horrifying scene where a captured enemy combatant is brought in to be interrogated. Pushkin’s description of his appearance is, as ever, precise, and is unforgettable:

The Bashkir, his feet hobbled by a block of wood, stepped over the threshold with difficulty. Removing his tall hat, he stood in the doorway. I looked at him and shuddered. Never shall I forget the man. He must have been over seventy. He had no nose and no ears. His head was shaven and he had no beard, only a few grey hairs sprouting from his chin. He was short, thin and bent, but fire still gleamed in his narrow eyes.

The Captain has been presented as a mild and gentle man, kind to his subordinates and loving to his family, but duty is duty, and when the prisoner refuses to talk, he orders him to be whipped. And it is at this moment that the prisoner opens his mouth, and reveals that it was not just his ears and nose that had been cut off after the previous rebellion. It is a shocking moment

The fort is helpless against the attackers, and soon, Pugachev and his men are in charge. The Captain is hanged. His beloved wife, stripped naked, is also hanged. The daughter only escapes because she had been hidden by faithful servants. And our hero, Grinyov, survives because Pugachev, unexpectedly, spares him. We soon find out that Pugachev has recognised our hero. Earlier in the novel, when Grinyov and his faithful family retainer Savelich were making their way to their posting, they had become lost in a terrifying blizzard, and had only found refuge because a peasant had guided them to an inn; and Grinyov, in his youthful extravagance (and much to the disapproval of Savelich), had rewarded this peasant with his own hareskin coat. And this act of generosity Pugachev had not forgotten.

Not that Pugachev is by any means noble by nature: he is cruel and savage, as any warlord is. But the picture Pushkin presents of him, is just a few economical strokes of the brush, is exquisite. Pugachev, despite being a peasant, claims to be the rightful Tsar: he claims to be Peter III, husband of the Tsarina Catherine, whom Catherine had deposed (he was murdered soon after his deposition by Catherine’s men). He knows, of course, that his claim to be Tsar Peter isn’t true, but in the areas under his control, denying it is treason, and a hangable offence. He tells Grinyov a fable at one point of a raven and an eagle: the raven lives much longer than the eagle, but the eagle, after trying to live like a raven, decides that he prefers a shorter life living off live flesh than a longer life feeding off carrion. In brief, Pugachev probably knows that he will eventually be defeated; but rather that than live his entire life a peasant.

To Grinyov, Pugachev is what is known in the trade as a deus ex machina – a man who sets things right because he has the power to do so. But what is interesting here is not that he does this, but, rather, why he does this. To Grinyov he is effectively a second father, first sparing his life, then letting him return to his own side, and, later, when Grinyov returns to rescue his beloved, the captain’s daughter, setting her free himself, and uniting her with him. And he does this not because he is by nature kind and compassionate (we have seen for ourselves the atrocities he has committed), but because he has genuinely developed an affection for this young couple, and also, we suspect, because he is flattered by the image of himself as a kind and compassionate man – a father, as a Tsar should be, to his childlike subjects. And of course, we know all along that the captain’s daughter, Maria Ivanovna, is an orphan only because Pugachev himself had killed her parents.

The story could have ended with the eventual suppression of the rebellion, but Pushkin has an extra turn of the screw up his sleeve for the final chapter. This extra turn I had completely misread in my earlier reading: I had thought that the final chapter was only there to present the Tsarina Catherine in a good light. I couldn’t have been further from the truth. Grinyov, after a miscarriage of justice, is deemed to have been a collaborator with Pugachev, and is exiled; and now, it is the turn of the captain’s daughter, now his wife, to become the saviour. And she does not save him directly, any more than Grinyov had saved her directly: she appeals to the Tsarina Catherine, and it she who saves Grinyov by graciously overturning the sentence. Another deus ex machina. But we may look a bit more deeply into this. If Pugachev’s earlier role as the deus ex machina was morally ambiguous, should we take this one at face value? Although Pushkin doesn’t mention it in his narrative, Catherine had become Tsarina only after deposing her husband, who was later murdered, possibly on Catherine’s own instructions. Is her claim to the throne, to power, any more secure than Pugachev’s? Pugachev, of course, was cruel and brutal, but was the side he was fighting against any less so? We remember, after all, the old man who had had his ears, nose and tongue ripped off. And if Pugachev had been flattered by the image of himself as a gracious father to his subjects, could something similar not be, at least in part, Catherine’s motivation also? The parallels between Pugachev and Catherine seemed to me so obvious on this reading that I am astonished this novel had got past the censors. But maybe I am looking for things that aren’t really there, and maybe Pushkin’s ending is, as I had thought all those years ago, merely decorative, intended to highlight the graciousness and mercy of a great Empress, and nothing more. Maybe.  

This is an adventure story where there really is no adventure; while the hero Grinyov is certainly brave, he doesn’t have to do anything, as such, to rescue his damsel in distress: Pugachev does all that for him. And the resolution in the final chapter also comes about not because the hero or heroine had to do much, but because the Empress sorts everything out for the better. As an adventure story, it is, in truth, pretty lame. But with experience, one learns to look a bit further, and what one then sees is a work of art of considerable moral and psychological complexity, but executed with an ease – or, at least, an apparent ease – that belies its depths.

“The Europeans” by Orlando Figes

There’s something about the mid-19th century that fascinates me. Or rather, to be more precise, there’s something about the arts and the culture of the western world of the mid-19th century that fascinates me. But that’s too cumbersome for an opening line.

Pick just about any decade or two any time in history, and it would be easy to reel off the great writers, painters and composers who were active at the time, and the great works that were produced; and the mid-19th century is no exception in that regard. But what makes this period exceptional for me is that there were so many works of that era that mean so much to me personally. Let us, for instance, consider the single decade, the 1860s. It was Dickens’ last decade, and saw the publication of his last two complete novels – Great Expectations, and Our Mutual Friend; George Eliot weighed in with The Mill on the Floss, Lewis Carroll published the first of his two Alice novels, Robert Browning published Dramatis Personae and The Ring and the Book, while Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s last poems were published posthumously after her death in 1861; Tennyson wrote Enoch Arden, and Trollope … well, a quick glance at the reference books indicates that he was, as usual, scribbling away like no man’s business. Across the channel, there was the publication of the final edition of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, Flaubert published Salammbô  and L’Education Sentimentale, and Zola made his mark with the wonderfully lurid Thérèse Raquin. From Russia, we have Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons and Leskov’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, while Dostoevsky was keeping himself busy with From the House of the Dead, Notes from Underground, Crime and Punishment, and The Idiot. Tolstoy only wrote one major work in that decade, but that major work was War and Peace. And in the meantime, Ibsen, after many years churning out plays that are now only remembered because he went on to write better stuff, got off the mark as an artist with Brand and Peer Gynt, possibly the last great plays written in verse. And all this time, across the Atlantic, the two great American poets of the 19th century, Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, were writing some of their finest works.

And this is just literature. There were revolutions happening in the other arts too. Music could not be the same again after Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde: composers who came afterwards were either influenced by Wagner, or reacted against him, but they could not ignore him. Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg was also composed in that decade, as were Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, Verdi’s La Forza del Destino and Don Carlos, some of the later works of Berlioz and some of the earlier works of Brahms … and so on, and so forth.

Meanwhile, in the visual arts, the two giant canvases exhibited by Manet – Olympia and Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe – were arguably as revolutionary in painting as Tristan und Isolde was in music. The artists now known collectively as the Impressionists (rather misleadingly, since they were all very different from each other) – Manet, Degas, Monet, Pissarro, Renoir – were all establishing their distinctive styles and artistic visions.

Even acknowledging that we can find significant artistic activity in just about any decade we may care to look at, this seems to me quite exceptional. And if we look at the decades before and after the 1860s (don’t worry – I won’t be providing more boring lists!) we can find similar flowerings of artistry, in all areas. It could well be that I find this era particularly fascinating merely because I am personally attached to so many of its artistic creations, but I do find it hard to escape the conclusion that there was something in the air – something special was happening. But it’s hard to put one’s finger on it without making crude generalisations.

It seems to me that, around the mid-century – 1850, say – Europe, culturally, was between, as it were, two “-isms”. Romanticism wasn’t quite dead – indeed, I don’t think it ever died – but the writers who flourished in the latter half of the century cannot really be described as “Romantic”: indeed, many, such as, say, Flaubert, may rightly be described as rebelling against Romanticism. Similarly in art: the label “Romantic” may easily be applied to Turner, say, or to Delacroix, but not to the artists now known as the Impressionists, nor to the next generation who are labelled (not too imaginatively) as the post-Impressionists. Like the writers of that era, they were neither Romantic, nor Modernist. The composers who flourished in the latter part of the century are still known as Romantic – Wagner, Verdi, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, etc. – but many of the earlier generation of romantics (Mendelssohn, Weber, Chopin) were already dead by 1850, and Schumann died shortly afterwards in 1856 (although his productivity had been tragically cut off towards the end by severe mental illness). Although some of the old-timers did continue into the latter half of the century (Berlioz, Liszt, Wagner, Verdi), styles, inevitably, had moved on from the early days of Romanticism: Berlioz had already done much of his best work (Les Troyens excepted), while the best work of Wagner and of Verdi was yet to come. In short, whether they had labels or not, artists of the later half of the 19th century, despite the lack of an “-ism” to characterise them, were, I think, producing works that were significantly different from what had come before. And it is this period – this “inbetweenism”, in between the first wave of Romanticism and the emergence of modernism – that fascinates me. While there are, of course, many artists from outside this era whom I revere – Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Beethoven, and various others who carry that terrible stigma of being “dead white men” – it is this in-between era to which I most feel drawn.

And so, when a trusted friend recommended me to read The Europeans by Orlando Figes, I had little hesitation. It is, ostensibly, the story of Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev, and the somewhat curious ménage à trois he had with famous opera singer Pauline Garcia-Viardot, and her husband, the art critic and translator Louis Viardot; but Figes hangs on this narrative line a fascinating cultural history of Europe in that period. He considers all kinds of factors that shaped the direction of the arts – political, economic, social, technological, even legal: the establishment of copyright laws, for instance, and the various bilateral agreements between nations, transformed the direction not only of literature, but also of music publishing. The greater ease of transport not only made travelling between countries easier, it increased the catchment areas of opera houses, and an increased potential pool for their audience meant a decreased requirement for a constant supply of new works. And so on. Within a few decades, the world changed in all sorts of very important ways, and the arts, to survive, and, quite often, to flourish, had to adapt and change along the way.

The narrative of Figes’ book begins in 1843, when Turgenev and Pauline Viardot first met, and continues till 1883, with the deaths of Louis Viardot and of Turgenev. An early chapter fills us in on the events before, and a concluding chapter on events afterwards – focussing, naturally, on Pauline Viardot who lost the two men in her life within a few months of each other. Their story, fascinating in itself (all three were remarkable figures) is particularly appropriate for a book that is essentially about European culture, since they were the most cosmopolitan of people. Turgenev was Russian, Louis Viardot was French, and Pauline Garcia was Spanish, but they all seemed most at home in Germany, and travelled and lived extensively around Europe. Pauline Garcia wasn’t, to judge from her portraits, particularly beautiful, but she possessed, apparently, an extraordinary personal charisma, and her singing was, from all accounts, mesmeric. At one point, we are told of Turgenev observing Dickens in the stalls, listening to Pauline singing Orfeo in a revival of Gluck’s opera (the revival was organised by some chap called Hector Berlioz) with tears streaming down his eyes. Turgenev met briefly with Dickens on the way out, and Dickens was sufficiently moved by the performance to write what is effectively a fan letter to Pauline Garcia-Viardot.

Throughout, one gets what could be called “cultural name-dropping”: there goes Manet, there’s Wagner, there’s Tolstoy – and look over there! – there’s Brahms, there’s Flaubert. The entire book, apart from anything else, is a veritable Who’s Who of major cultural figures of the time. There are some, admittedly, who remain on the fringes: Turgenev appears never to have met with Verdi, for instance, despite Verdi’s immense stature, even at the time. Although we are told Pauline Viardot had performed in Verdi’s Macbeth and Il Trovatore, we are also told of her antipathy to Verdi’s music; and Turgenev himself had been a bit rude about La Traviata in his novel On the Eve. The tastes of Turgenev and of the Viardots tended to run more towards the Germanic rather than the Italianate: Pauline Viardot was, like many others, entranced by the music of Wagner, though she was (much to her credit) outraged when Wagner reprinted his notorious pamphlet “Judaism in Music”. Another of my great cultural heroes of that era, Ibsen, doesn’t really get much of a look in either, despite having spent most of his best productive years in Europe.

The two events that most shook the lives  of Turgenev and the Viardots were the revolutions of 1848, and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. (The unification of Italy doesn’t appear to have touched them much, as their focus was more on the north than on the south.) For the latter Turgenev and the Viardots sided strongly with the Prussians, despite Louis Viardot’s French nationality: this was partly because they were living in Baden at the time, but also because they felt this war would help bring down the hated monarchy of Napoleon III.

Interestingly, Verdi, another great artist with liberal leanings, sided with France in this conflict, saying in a private letter that whatever the Italians knew about freedom and liberty, “we have learnt from the French”, and expressing great unease about growing Germanic nationalism. It has long seemed quite curious to me that, despite his own position as a sort of cultural representative of Italian nationalism, he chose for his next opera, Aida, a storyline that was very explicitly anti-nationalist. It is of course wishful thinking on my part that so great a cultural hero of mine should share my own political biases, and I think I should read up a bit more to see if this was indeed the case. But I continue to think it remarkable, nonetheless, that at a time when various types of nationalism around Europe were on the rise, Verdi should compose a work that so eloquently depicts human love overcoming the barriers of nationhood that separate and divide us.

For, while this era was an era of greater cosmopolitanism, it was an era also of increased nationalism: perhaps one cannot have one without the other. People became increasingly worried that with nations coming closer together, local traditions would be erased, and all different cultures homogenised. Perhaps the most notorious expression of this was the monologue Hans Sachs is given towards the end of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, where German artists are encouraged to keep German art “pure”. This feeling was echoed by all other nationalities – the Czechs, the Russians, and the citizens of the newly united Italy. (Even Verdi urged that Italian composers should be true to the spirit and the traditions of Italian music.) There seemed to be a genuine fear that individual national characteristics will be swallowed up by the international whole – a fear that is still, incidentally, very much with us. This feeling was particularly acute in Russia, where Slavophiles and those who looked to western liberalism were virtually at each other’s throats. This conflict was very apparent in relations between Turgenev and Dostoyevsky. They met when Dostoyevsky, in Baden, visited Turgenev: he had not wanted to, but the two had met accidentally in the street, and, since Dostoyevsky owed Turgenev money, he did not want Turgenev to think that he was deliberately avoiding his creditor. There are conflicting reports on what exactly passed between the two men, but it was certainly most acrimonious, with Dostoyevsky angrily denouncing Turgenev’s last novel Smoke, and Turgenev (according to Dostoyevsky) claiming that he was proud to regard himself as a German rather than as a Russian. Turgenev later denied he had ever said such a thing. And Dostoyevsky’s debt to Turgenev never did get paid.

Like many others at the time of the Franco-Prussian War, Turgenev and the Viardots found themselves refugees in England, and the picture that emerges of England at the time reads almost like a catalogue of every single stereotype about the coutry: bad food, a highly polluted foggy and dismal London, and the like. Prices in England were much higher than elsewhere in Europe: despite the shocking levels of poverty, there was clearly much more money circulating in England than there was elsewhere in the continent. (Although Figes doesn’t mention it, one suspects that the rather extensive British Empire may have had something to do with that.) And there was the cultural insularity. The British book trade depended far less on translations than did the book trades of other countries, and when Turgenev spent a few days as a guest of Tennyson’s (yes, he pops up as well), he was surprised to find that not only did this eminent man of letters know nothing of any literature written in any of the countries across the channel, he wasn’t much interested in finding out about it either.

Turgenev had his personal flaws, as does anyone, but he does emerge as a very kind and decent person. So, indeed, does Louis Viardot. Pauline Viardot, in many ways, does appear to be a stereotypically temperamental prima donna, but Figes captures the immense personal charisma that drew so many people to her. Both Louis Viardot and Ivan Turgenev died in 1884: Viardot was some twenty years older, so his demise was perhaps not so unexpected; Turgenev died after a very painful and distressing illness. Among other things, he wrote on his deathbed a touching reconciliatory letter to Tolstoy (with whom he hadn’t always been on good terms), telling him that he considered it a privilege to have lived at the same time. Turgenev, his great friend Flaubert, Wagner, Distoyevsky, Manet and Liszt all died within about five years of each other: culturally, it did seem like the end of an era. And of course, a new one was just around the corner. But what an extraordinary few decades these were! We could see this era, of course, as a sort of bridge between Romanticism and Modernism, but really, beyond a point, labels are pretty meaningless: they may help us see patterns amid all the chaos, but sometimes, these labels create patterns don’t really exist. This Inbetweenism that existed in the years covered by this book – roughly, 1843 to 1874 – remains, for me, one of the most wonderful periods of artistic and cultural activity, and The Europeans I found a quite enthralling guide. Among other things, it makes me want to revisit the works of Turgenev (“the novelist’s novelist” according to Henry James), and of his friend Flaubert. On the whole, this is the cultural era in which I feel most at home.

“Mahabharata”: a modern retelling by Carole Satyamurti

Well – I’ve knocked the bugger off, as they say!

Some 900 odd pages of blank verse. Some two and a half times the length of Paradise Lost. (Or so I’m told: I didn’t count the words.) And it was still an abridgement.

The poet A. K. Ramanujan once remarked that no-one reads the Mahabharata for the first time. He was referring to Indian readers, of course. The stories are so widespread, that everyone knows them, or, at least, some of them. Even I, who have lived in the West from the age of five, have been acquainted with the stories from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata from comic strip children’s versions, which, as I understand, are ubiquitous in India. Indeed, when Indian television, Doordarshan, dramatised the Ramayana and the Mahabharata in the 80s and 90s, it was effectively these comic strip versions they adapted, thus meeting expectations of its target audience, but producing (as far as I could discern, at any rate) merely a festival of kitsch.

Of course, as I grew older, I wanted to look beyond these comic strips. I read the Ramayana in Ashia Sattar’s excellent (though abridged) translation (I do get the impression that the full, unabridged version is for the specialist rather than for a lay reader such as myself), but the situation is considerably more complex when it comes to the Mahabharata.

There are two complete translations currently under way, one published by University of Chicago Press (nearly complete), and another in the Clay Sanskrit Library (published by NY University Press). Penguin Classics publish a complete translation in ten volumes by Bibek Debroy, but that’s not very easy to get hold of outside India: at least, I have never seen it in even the bigger British bookshops, though it can, no doubt, be ordered. More easily available in Penguin Classics is a translation by John Smith, but Smith only translates selected passages, with the bits in-between narrated in parentheses. I found that a bit fragmented, to be honest, and kept losing the thread. There’s an older complete translation from the late 19th century by K. M. Ganguly, but, having looked into it, I found it written in a very correct and somewhat pedantic English, and I didn’t think I’d be able to manage it all.

There are also, of course, several complete translations of the Bhagavad Gita (which is a part of the Mahabharata); and mention should also be made of W. J. Johnson’s thrilling translation, available in Oxford World Classics, of the Sauptikaparvan, the terrifying 10th book of the Mahabharata: it stands up as a great poem in its own right.

I was considering placing an order on the Debroy translation, or maybe starting on the other complete translations currently in progress, but, to be frank, I wasn’t sure I wanted to devote a year or so of my life to reading the whole thing. Did I really want to plough through the various genealogies?  The details of Vedic sacrificial rites? I am, after all, but a lay reader, and the Mahabharata seems too vast an ocean simply to dive into.

And in any case, what do we mean by “completeness”? Both internal and external evidence suggest that it was written across a few centuries – from, perhaps, 400BC to about 400 AD – and, very obviously, by different authors. However, from what I gather, there is, despite the vast diversity, also a unity, which suggests that at some time, a poet, or, perhaps, a committee of poets, collated them all together, and maybe adapted their material to impose some sort of unity. But a text such as this never stays still. As Wendy Doniger says in her introduction to the Satyamurti book, there are literally hundreds of Mahabharatas – translations, recensions, and retellings into different Indian languages – each one a new creation, and each a valid creation, in its own right. Indeed, many of these versions are themselves great literary creations. The very idea of putting together a “standard text” seems an absurdity. But nonetheless, given the importance of the Mahabharata (both in literary and in other terms), some sort of standard text seemed desirable, and, to this end, the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Poona (now Pune) collated and calibrated all existing manuscripts from different parts of the subcontinent, and published a critical edition in 21 volumes between 1919 and 1969, and that edition is, I believe, generally regarded by scholars about as close to a standard text as is possible. I am, of course, in no position to judge: I am, as I say, but a layman.

Carole Satyamurti’s version is not a translation: she describes it as a “retelling”. It is, and should, I think, be taken as, a modern English poem (it was published in 2015). Satyamurti casts her retelling in blank verse based on iambic pentameters, as this is the form that approximates most closely to the natural patterns of English speech. She stays very close to the content and to the structure of what we may (despite quibbles) refer to for convenience as the “original text”. There are abridgements, of course, but despite this, she still produces a poem that is about two and a half times the length of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Not knowing Sanskrit, she has worked from literal translations, especially the version by K. M. Ganguly. And of course, inevitably, she has refracted the entire material through her own poetic sensibilities. I see no problem with any of this: to insist of textual purity in the case of something such as this is an absurdity; and in any case, given the hundreds of Mahabharatas Wendy Doniger talks about, Satyamurti’s “retelling” seems very much a part of what is a time-honoured tradition.

I compared some of her text to parts of the John Smith translation; to the various translations I have of the Bhagavad Gita (which is, of course, a part of the Mahabharata); and to W. J. Johnson’s translation of the Sauptikparvan. While Satyamurti’s wording and versification are, of course, her own, she certainly has a respect for the original text (however we choose to define it), and remains close to it in terms of content. For those not wishing to wade through one of the complete translations, and even for those who do, this version seems admirable – a most welcome addition to the tradition of new evolving Mahabharatas.

The content itself, as one would expect given the history of the book, is almost unbelievably diverse. Heroic legends, mythology, folklore, animal fables; historical chronicle, courtly romance, fantasy and magic, high tragic drama; religious instruction, philosophical disquisitions, homely wisdom, cosmic visions … it’s all there, and placed in a narrative structure of startling sophistication (Vinay Dharwadkar discusses the narrative structure in some detail in a fascinating afterword to Satyamurti’s book). And she doesn’t just focus on the narrative: much of her volume is devoted to the various other aspects too, thus giving a sense of the range and plenitude of the work, rather than merely reducing it to what may be found (at least in outline) in the comic strip retellings. After all, the major event of the poem, the great apocalyptic battle of Kurukshetra, is over after Book 10: there are still eight more books to go, and many of these are taken with Bhisma’s long disquisition to Yudhisthira – firstly on how best to rule a kingdom, then on the nature of dharma (of righteousness),  on how society is to be structured, on what happens to the soul after death, on the will of the gods and the action of men, and so on. One may understand why the comic strip adaptations may skimp a bit here, but Satyamurti gives these passages their full weight. The whole isn’t reduced merely to a sequence of events.

The narrative itself is splendid. And, underlying all the dazzling diversity, there runs insistently the question: “What is the right thing to do?” The concept dharma is often translated as “religion”, but in its Sanskritic context, it means considerably more than that: it refers to righteousness, to the moral code that one lives by. That dharma exists is never questioned: indeed, there exists a god Dharma, who exemplifies the very concept. Dharma is often presented as something humans must follow in order to keep the cosmic forces in balance, in order for existence itself to be possible. What is at issue is what dharma entails, and many characters, throughout this vast epic, are puzzled by this. Even when they are given answers to their dilemma, sometimes by divine authorities, they remain puzzled.

The most famous of these answers comes in the extended passage known as the Bhagavad Gita, still revered by many Hindus as their principal scripture. Here, the hero Arjuna, before the great battle of Kurukshestra, tells his charioteer Krishna (an incarnation of the god Vishnu), of his horror of what he knows will come: in this battle, countless thousands will die; he will have to inflict injury and death upon his own kinsmen, his revered teachers – upon men whom he loves and respects; such a thing can only be a great evil, and he would rather renounce his claim to the kingdom than take part in such an atrocity. Krishna’s answer forms the substance of the Bhagavad Gita, and, while it is resplendent and magnificent – expanding as it does to depict a vision of divinity, and of the cosmos itself – I must confess that I have never personally found it morally or aesthetically satisfying.  And even in the context of the epic, Krishna’s answer does not silence the questioning: the same question recurs, in different forms, and proposed answers never quite satisfy.

Krishna’s answer is effectively this: Arjuna must act according his dharma, which is his duty, and, as a kshatriya, that is, as a member of the warrior caste, his duty is to fight. He must carry out his duty for its own sake, without expectation of earthly reward, without attachment to anything of this earth. He will not be morally responsible for anyone’s death, as the soul itself cannot be killed: it is immortal, has always existed and will always continue to exist. One’s individual soul is not entire in itself, but is part of the Brahman, the Godhead, the universal soul that has always been and always will be, that is in all things, in all beings, past, present, and future, created and uncreated. Arjuna, as an individual human, is contained in all parts of the cosmos, as all the cosmos, including all other humans, is contained in him.

This cosmic vision is indeed magnificent, but what it enjoins us to do, I must admit, I find less than satisfying. For what sort of dharma is it that results in such immense suffering, such mass carnage? Of course, we all hold to some of this: no-one attaches blame to the soldier who, following his duty, kills on the field of battle – much though we may deplore the battle itself. But the idea of a duty that is allotted to us by birth, predestined, that we must carry out, struck me as unsatisfactory when I first read the Bhagavad Gita as a young lad, and strikes me as unsatisfactory still. And, despite the Mahabharata’s significance as a book of religious instruction, this answer doesn’t seem entirely to satisfy the writers of the epic either. That collective authorship is continually questioning, never wholly satisfied by the answers put forward, even from divine mouths. Arjuna, many years later, says, astonishingly, that he has forgotten what Krishna had told him. Yudhisthira, the most righteous of men, poses similar questions to the great seer Bhisma, and receives similar answers, but he, too, is failed to be convinced by them. This is not to say that these religious teachings are debunked: rather, that there can be no one satisfactory answers to such questioning. Various contradictory things appear simultaneously to be true. And these contradictions are acknowledged. The dharma that tells us to do our duty, even if that means killing, is not compatible with the dharma that tells us to have compassion fir all, and to harm no living thing. Far from papering over such contradictions, they are pointed out.

And dharma itself proves to be a slippery concept. Bhisma actually explains to Yudhisthira (in a disquisition on the nature of power that isn’t too far removed from the writings of Machiavelli) that there can be different types of dharma, not merely for different people on account of caste, but also in different situations, and eventually, the wise man must decide for himself what the true dharma is at any given point. Nothing, in short, is fixed, or can be fixed, in this endlessly complex and ever-changing world. But even that isn’t the final answer: there is no final answer – merely a multiplicity of questions that we cannot stop asking ourselves. Arjuna’s voice of distress at the start of the Bhagavad Gita remains potent, and cannot be silenced.

The principal story tells of a dynastic struggle between the sons of two brothers – Dhritarastra, who was born blind, and Pandu. Dhritarastra has one hundred sons by his wife Gandhari (and here, we have to go into the realms of folklore and of magic to explain this miraculous occurrence), and Pandu has five, by his two wives, Kunti and Madri. (Although, to be accurate, Pandu is not the biological father: the poor man is under a curse that decrees that his point of orgasm will also be his point of death. His “sons” are fathered by various gods.) The Kauravas (the sons of Dhitarastra) and the Pandavas (sons of Pandu) become embroiled in a dynastic conflict. From the beginning, the two sets of cousins have not got on well together. The kingdom is split between the two sets, but then, Yudhisthira, the eldest and most virtuous of the Pandavas, is invited by the Kauravas to a game of dice, and here he loses everything to his cousins – his kingdom, and even his brothers, his wife Draupadi (who is the wife of all five Pandava brothers); even his own self. Draupadi, now no more than a slave, is called for, and is humiliated, while her five heroic husbands sit by, unable to protect her.

The penalty for losing the game of dice is reduced to years of exile in the forest, but afterwards, a dynastic struggle emerges between the Pandavas and the Kauravas – a struggle that climaxes in the catastrophic battle of Kurukshestra: the Pandavas emerge victors, but it is a pyrrhic victory, as the slaughter on both sides is overwhelming. Yudhisthira, the eldest of the Pandavas, and the most righteous, is horrified, and is determined to renounce all he has won. His brothers remonstrate with him, but neither they, nor all the wisdom imparted to him by the great seer Bhisma, can convince him otherwise: it is only a horse sacrifice to the gods that somehow reconciles him to his fate, which, we are told, was preordained by the gods anyway.

At the end, the Pandavas, now old and feeble – even the heroic Arjuna can no longer wield his arms – journey into the Himalayas to reach heaven, and all but the righteous Yudhisthira die on the journey: only Yudhisthira may enter heaven in his bodily form, but even there, he refuses to do so unless the dog that has accompanied him is allowed entry also. His compassion for, and attachment to, the dog is seen as virtuous, even though we have repeatedly been enjoined to leave behind all earthly attachment. For here, everything is true – even contradictory things.

This, in essence, is the main story of the Mahabharata, though there are also innumerable sub-stories, interpolated stories (including the entire story of Rama that had been the focus of the earlier epic, the Ramayana), parallel stories, that, taken together, form a vast and magnificent collage of the entire range of Indian folklore and mythology. These stories have taken on their own life, in all sorts of ways. Right at the start, for instance, we are given the story of Sakuntala, whose son Bharata, begins the dynasty that is later to tear itself apart in the Battle of Kurukshestra: the poet Kalidasa later expanded the story of Sakuntala to create the most famous play of Sanskrit literature.

And there are stories told almost in passing, such as the story of Ekalavya, a tribal youth, who asks the great Drona to teach him the arts of warfare. Drona, given Ekalavya’s low birth, refuses. So Ekalavya builds a statue of Drona, and practices in sight of the image. Later, when Drona is out hunting with his royal students, they come across a feat of archery that surpasses anything even the great Arjuna could do. Arjuna is aggrieved, as Drona had promised him that he would be the finest. Drona asks Ekalavya who is teacher had been, and Ekalavya answers it was he, Drona, in the shadow of whose image he had studied and had practised his art. So Drona, as teacher, asks for a fee: he asks of Ekalavya the thumb of his right hand, without which all his skills would become useless. Ekalavya, without hesitation, slices off his thumb. This story is told only in passing, but such is its resonance that the figure of Ekalavya has been adopted as a symbol for the struggle for Dalit rights.

And there is the story of Karna, one of the great tragic figures of all literature. He is a half-brother of the Pandavas – though neither he nor the Pandavas know it: he was born to Kunti, an illegitimate son, before her marriage, and his father was Surya, the sun god (as in Greek mythology, Hindu gods often impregnate mortal women). And as a baby, to hide the mother’s shame, he had been, like the infant Moses, placed in a cradle, and allowed to drift down the river. He had been found and brought up by Adhiratha, and had grown up not knowing his origin. And as he grows up, he develops skills in warfare every bit as great as Arjuna’s, but his assumed low birth is held against him. In the tournament to decide a suitable husband for Draupadi, he is the only one who could match the extraordinary feats of Arjuna, but even before he can begin, Draupadi herself calls out that she will not marry anyone of such low birth, and he has to withdraw, humiliated. (Draupadi, lucky lady, ends up marrying all five Pandava brothers.) But Karna is offered friendship by Duryadhana, the eldest of the Kauravas, and Karna becomes his loyal friend.

Later, as battle looms, Krishna, in an attempt to persuade Karna not to fight, tells him his true parentage: if he fights for Duryadhana, he would be fighting against his own brothers. Even Kunti, his mother, comes to him, makes herself known, and tries to persuade him not to fight. (This meeting is the theme of a very famous poem by Rabindranath Tagore.)  At last, Karna knows what he had desired to know all his life: he now knows who he is. But as soon as he knows it, he knows he must reject it. Duryadhana had offered him friendship, and nothing, not even the fact of his own origin, could weigh against that.

Throughout, the question is asked – sometimes explicitly, but always implicitly – how much of what happens is of these characters’ agency, and how much is pre-ordained by the gods. Krishna tells us it is all pre-ordained, and, being himself an incarnation of the god Vishnu, I suppose he should know: Bhisma says the same thing. But then we run upon the usual objections: if all is pre-ordained, humans can have no agency – so why the insistence upon dharma?  Of course, it is an old dilemma, and after millennia of musing upon it, no culture, eastern or western, has come across a solution to it: it is one of those questions we must learn to live with unanswered, as reasonable answers appear to contradict each other, but the Mahabharata does not shy away from this contradiction either. The actions of the individual characters do certainly shape the events, but at times, the characters themselves seem to be in the grip of something larger than themselves, something over which they have no control. This is particularly apparent in the fateful dice game, where Yudhisthira, playing against the expert gambler Shakuni, keeps on staking more and more, even though he knows he will lose. This is, of course, on one level, a psychologically accurate depiction of addiction, but in the context of the wider narrative, we must question whether his will had become subordinate to something greater – to what the gods have willed for him. And later, before the war begins, Duryodhana, the eldest of the Kauravas, repeatedly rejects all overtures of peace, insisting that he can win, despite being told at each turn by his advisers that he cannot, and that, furthermore, he is in the wrong. Furthermore, all the omens are portents are against him. But he is adamant: he will fight, no matter what. Once again, we cannot help but feel that he is not in command of himself here, that he is being ruled by something greater than himself – perhaps, once again, the will of the gods. At the end, we see him, arguably the villain of the whole piece, in heaven: for, after all, he has carried out his dharma – he has done what his dharma had demanded of him. As with so much else in this epic, this raises far more questions than it answers.

As we approach the battle, there is a growing sense of terror, and of the inevitable: this is an approaching horror that cannot be stopped. The great Battle of Kurukshestra itself takes up some five or so of the Mahabharata’s eighteen books. The whole is narrated in three voices – not three distinct voices, as they merge into each other, but three very recognisably different voices. The first of these belongs to the realms of heroic narration; it tells of great heroes and of their superhuman feats of courage and skill, providing so exciting a spectacle that even gods gasp in wonder and in astonishment; the second speaks of the sorrow of it all, of the horror, as men in their countless thousands are horribly slain, mangled, and mutilated; and the third voice speaks of the apocalypse: what we are witnessing, this unspeakable carnage, is the promised end, or an image of that horror.

As the battle progresses, all rules of warfare, all considerations of chivalry, fall by the wayside, and it soon becomes unmitigated butchery on all sides. Karna is killed by his nemesis Arjuna, but Arjuna breaks all rules of warfare in doing so: he attacks Karna when Karna’s chariot is stuck in the mud, and beheads him:

                    It fell to earth

as the red disc of the sun

drops at sunset. It was afternoon. 

                  When Karna fell

the rivers ceased to flow, the sun turned pale,

the planet Mercury seemed to change its course

Karna is not, of course, the only victim, although he is perhaps, with Arjuna, the most heroic. Gandhari, the wife of Dhritarashtra, had voluntarily put on a blindfold when she had married, swearing never to take it off, so she would never see more than her blind husband; but in the aftermath of the carnage, she is granted a special vision to see the devastated battlefield for herself, where all her hundred sons have perished. It’s not just the heroes who have died: there are men, just ordinary men, for whom, we are explicitly told, no poems will ever be written, but who have died horribly. We are given the image of a woman who has found her husband’s headless trunk, and is now searching for the head she had once loved – that she still loves. A mother sees her daughter-in-law weeping over her husband’s severed arm:

His wife is bathing it with her hot tears,

mourning the hand that lately would have loosened

her clothing, stroked her breasts, caressed her face.

Even the queen who had donned a blindfold, and had sworn never to see again, cannot turn away from visions such as this. There is no victory here, for anyone. And afterwards, Kunti tells her Pandava sons to say special prayers for their great enemy Karna, for he had been their brother.

Much later in the poem, Dhritarashtra and Gandhari, and Kunti, mother of the tragic Pandavas, are granted a mystic vision, where, for one night, all the dead arise from the waters, and are reconciled with each other, and with the living too – a radiant vision in which all losses are restored, and sorrows end. It is up to the reader whether to take this as but a vision of something wished-for but impossible, a fulfilment of a much-desired fantasy; or whether it is some sort of foreshadowing of what will, some day, happen. But even if it does happen in some realm beyond human imagining, all we are left with in our mortal lives is loss, and devastation. An epic of the range of the Mahabharata has a bewildering variety of tones and registers, but, on the basis of this version at least, it is hard to see the overriding tone as anything other than tragic. Even by the end, where Yudhisthira and the dog enter the Kingdom of Heaven, it is the tragic mode that predominates.

All these various registers are accommodated with seeming effortlessness in Satyamurti’s blank verse. The underlying metre is the iambic pentameter, but Satyamurti is by no means rigid in this: most lines have nine, ten, or eleven syllables, and five stresses, but Satyamurti allows such things to vary as and when she needs to. She achieves narrative drive when required, but also repose, contemplation. The verse is supple enough to depict magic and wonder, sorrow and tragic intensity; and it can accommodate as well the various philosophical and moral disquisitions. It is, indeed, a quite extraordinary achievement. Even if we think of it purely as a modern English poem, it is a remarkable work in its own right. Satyamurti passed away in 2019, a few years after the publication of this poem in 2015, and it is a worthy, and quite majestic, memorial.

By the end, one is left with a sense of the sheer wonder of it all. Yes, there are many aspects of the poem that will be alien to many readers, especially of the West: caste, for instance, which plays a major part; or the concept of reincarnation, and of karma. But then, there are aspects of The Iliad, or of The Aeneid, or even of Christian poems like the Commedia, that are similarly alien to our modern Western sensibilities, but which can nonetheless touch us to the very heart.

I am now wondering whether I should attempt one of the complete translations. I think I should. But whether I do or not, I am so glad I tackled this. For those wondering what the best way is into the vast and seemingly intractable literary masterpiece that is the Mahabharata, Satyuamurti’s extraordinary blank verse English poem can be recommended without reservation. It is masterly, and it does, indeed, touch the very heart.

Trouble at the Proms

Before sitting down to write these posts, I generally mull over in my mind what I am planning to write, and try to formulate at least some of the key sentences. And in the course of doing so for this particular post, I found it very hard to dispense with the word “wankers”. It is not a word I like to use, especially on this blog, which I like to think of as an oasis of refinement and sophistication, but in this instance, it does appear to be, as the say, le mot juste. Let me explain.

The Proms, or, to give it its full title, the Promenade concerts, are a series of concerts of western classical music (with the occasional diversion) organised by the BBC, and held in the very impressive surroundings of the Royal Alert Hall in London. It last over a great many weeks over summer, and features not only the excellent BBC orchestras, but other orchestras and ensembles from around the country, and, indeed, from around the world. It features also conductors and soloists – singers, pianists, violinists, etc – of the highest calibre, again, from all around the world. When I go to these concerts nowadays, I generally fork out for seats, but in my younger days, when I was more suited to such things, I used to queue up for standing tickets in the Arena (that is, the large space immediately in front of the orchestra) which were, and still are, available at an extremely modest price.

It has been called, with reason, the greatest classical music festival in the world. I suppose it could be said that, away from the summer months, London itself presents a festival of classical music: no other city, I think, has so many orchestras and ensembles, or so many venues, such an embarrassment of riches of visiting artists. To state a personal preference, I actually prefer concerts in Barbican Hall, or the Royal Festival Hall, or the Wigmore Hall, or wherever, to Proms concerts. But there’s no denying that a fully packed Royal Albert Hall, or even a less than fully packed Royal Albert Hall, does provide a real sense of occasion. Some of the very best concerts I have attended have been at the Proms.

However, to most people, the Proms do not bring to mind images of orchestras playing Beethoven or Berlioz or Stravinsky: the public image of the Proms is that of the Last Night, where, traditionally, the second half of the concert (televised live by BBC) is a party. Patriotic songs – Rule Britannia, Land of Hope and Glory, Jerusalem – are sung (with the audience singing along), flags are waved, speeches are made, and a good time, it seems, is had by all. Except by those who see in all this a deplorable and cringeworthy display of jingoism. Is it really suitable, they ask rhetorically, to sing, in this day and age, lyrics such as this?

Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set
God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet

Or what about this, written at a time when Britain was itself heavily involved in the slave trade?

Rule, Britannia! Britannia rule the waves,
Britons never never never shall be slaves

Of course not. How could such lyrics fail to offend People of Colour? And if they aren’t offended – and it seems the vast majority of them can’t give a toss – then they jolly well should be! They can’t leave us to do all this outraging on their behalf by ourselves!

It is at this point I find myself reaching for the word “wankers”, although I am unsure whom to apply that epithet to – those bedecked in the Union Jack singing these rather silly and outdated lyrics, or those who get ever so offended on behalf of others. On balance, I think I side with the Promenaders on this one. Of course, if the Promenaders came out of the concert shouting racist slogans, or beating up foreign-looking people, that would be another matter; but since they don’t, since it all seems pretty good-humoured – and indeed, a great many of the Promenaders, hailing as they do from different parts of the world, happily wave their own national flags without incurring any disapprobation from others – I can’t in all honesty see a problem.

Personally, I must admit I find the ritualistic singing of these songs rather embarrassing and cringe-inducing, but I have devised an excellent solution to overcome this: I don’t go to these Last Night concerts. And neither do I watch them on television. It’s a cunning scheme, I know, but it works for me.

Traditionally, the penultimate night of the Proms used to be given over to a performance of Beethoven’s 9th symphony, and that is the night I always regarded as the real Last Night of the Proms; but sadly, that tradition has now fallen by the wayside. Beethoven’s 9th symphony is still performed, but is usually tucked away somewhere in the schedules away from the prominent slot it used to have.

However, I should perhaps think twice before labelling the concert-goers of the Last Night “wankers” en masse, merely for enjoying something I don’t. A friend of mine, who used regularly to attend the Last Night, tells me that neither he, nor anyone he knew, took the words of these songs at all seriously: it was all a bit of ironic, tongue-in-cheek fun, a knowing enjoyment of the naffness of it all. It’s all part of the fun of the party. I can believe that: this knowing, tongue-in-cheek enjoyment of naffness is something I can identify as very typically British. Problem remains, though, that I am not really a party person. For many, I am sure, there is nothing finer than bonding, even to jingoistic songs, with people who, till then, had been strangers; but while I am all for Alle Menschen becoming Brüder, I am sufficiently British to expect them to keep a decorous distance from me thereafter.

There are, however, other objections to the Last Night jamboree – aesthetic objections rather than moral ones: after months of concerts featuring some of the very finest music the western world has produced, is it really appropriate to showcase the whole thing with a medley of rather silly and trivial patriotic numbers? The idea, of course, is to lighten up at the end, have a party, but must “having a party” necessarily involve all this triviality – all this jingoistic vulgarity that’s so much at odds with what had come before? Of course, it’s easy, all too easy, to dismiss this kind of objection as mere puritanism: dost thou think because thou art virtuous there shall be no cakes and ale? But I do, I admit, have more than a sneaking sympathy with this stance. Given its prominence, the Last Night does tend to colour public perceptions of the Proms as a whole, and of classical music in particular; and expecting it all to be a party (as some seem to do) does, perhaps, distract somewhat from the seriousness of serious music. Despite the temptation to airily proclaim that everything is a bit of a laugh really, and that nothing should be taken too seriously, we should perhaps concede that certain things are indeed serious, and that an element of gravity, of decorum, isn’t perhaps always out of place.  Life devoid of seriousness seems to me unlikely to be very fulfilling, or even, for that matter, very enjoyable.

But be that as it may, all these arguments about the Last Night, pro and contra, have rumbled on for years now. However, this year, as with everything else, it’s all out in the open: all hell has broken loose. Of course, with the coronavirus lockdown, the Proms have had to be cancelled this year: BBC Radio 3 has been filling its summer schedule broadcasting recordings of Proms concerts from the past. But they did decide to have a few live concerts, albeit without a live audience. And one of these live concerts will be the Last Night – complete with patriotic songs. Which means, yet again, a tedious rehash of all those arguments relating to them. And, on this occasion, the conductor herself, Dalia Stasevska, appears to have a few problems with these patriotic songs. So, naturally, the organisers of the Proms had to discuss the matter. But, in a mischievous article in the Sunday Times, we were told that the BBC is “agonising about ‘decolonising’ the Last Night’s traditional bill”; that they were considering dropping the songs “in the wake of the Black Lives Matter” movement; and that “organisers fear a backlash because of their perceived association with colonialism and slavery”. Given that there had been no call from any of the protest groups associated with Black Lives Matter – no demand, not even so much as a request – the epithet “wankers” may not be entirely irrelevant here in reference to such reporting.

But of course, outrage sells: it boosts the ratings. We love being outraged. That angry splutter, that furious indignation, that heart-warming glow of moral certainty – what can there possibly be to match that? Nothing much to get outraged by? No matter – make one up! Soon, BBC News got in on the act as well, citing the Sunday Times piece, and explaining to us why People of Colour (that is, people like myself) may indeed find the lyrics of these songs “offensive”.

The Proms organisers reached their decision soon enough: the songs will be played, but, for this year only, in instrumental versions. Given that these songs are occasions for concert-goers to sing along to, and that there is no live audience this year, that seems to me a rather reasonable decision. But by now, the floodgates had been opened to wankers of various shades. The Arts Minister, Oliver Dowden, weighed in; so did our beloved Prime Minister, who knows a populist stance when he sees one. Suddenly, all sorts of people who had never shown the slightest interest in classical music, or in any form of culture really, are outraged – outraged, I tell you! – that these culturally vital songs have been dropped from this great showcase for classical music. Even if they’ve not been dropped.

And wankers from the other side weren’t reticent either. There still – as far as I know – been no demand from any of the protest groups regarding these songs, but suddenly, calls from various individuals to drop them for being so racist and insensitive seem to have multiplied – again from many who had shown not the slightest interest in the culture of classical music before, and who, quite literally, can’t tell their Arne from their Elgar.

(I should point out at this stage that that this Arne-Elgar gag is not my own. But since there is no copyright on it, I am as entitled as anyone else to recycle it.)

But we are where we are. Far more people, it seems, care about being outraged over outrages done to culture than care about culture itself. ‘Twas ever thus, I guess. But that does leave me with a dilemma: with so many wankers around all over the place, which group of wankers should I laugh at?

Some reflections on “Rebecca”, “Jane Eyre”, and Meatloaf

I’ll do anything for love – but I won’t do that.
– Meatloaf

I tend to find “spoiler warnings” a bit silly. If I am going to talk about a work of fiction, then of course I’ll be mentioning certain elements of the plot! But still, given the complaints I get when I don’t issue such a warning, I prefer to err on the side of safety in these matters. Even when I am writing about Ibsen plays. Who, for heaven’s sake, would watch (or read) an Ibsen play for the sake of the “plot”? As if it mattered! But clearly, some do. And there are certain works where the plot really does matter, and for these, it is as well to issue a Spoiler Warning – as I do here. Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca is one such work. And Jane Eyre too, I think. So if you haven’t read Jane Eyre or Rebecca, or not seen any of the various adaptations, it would probably be best to give this post a miss. There! Now the obligatory throat-clearing is done, we can get started on the post proper.

Rebecca, like Jane Eyre, to which it is consciously a homage, is a sort of mash-up of two well-known fairy tales, “Cinderella” and “Bluebeard’s Castle”, and each poses the rather uncomfortable question “What if Prince Charming turned out to be Bluebeard?” Addressing this question requires a rather delicate balance between Prince Charming and Bluebeard. In Jane Eyre, Mr Rochester, when Jane first meets him, has many characteristics that would be perfectly consistent with a Bluebeard: he is rough in his manners, and is blustering; his past, by his own account, has been far from blameless; and he speaks of the women in his life with a sort of disdain, as if they were no more than objects. He has, indeed, the various unpleasant characteristics that come so easily to a young man with sufficient wealth and leisure to have all worldly vices within easy reach.

Despite all this, Jane falls in love with him, thus incurring the wrath of many modern readers who like their heroines to be kickass, and to sock one to the patriarchy. However, love is blind, as we all know, and Jane falls for this big, blustering bag of patriarchal tropes. Even after they are engaged, Mr Rochester seems to treat Jane as if she were a doll for him to dress up. And then, of course, on the very day of the wedding, he really is revealed to be a Bluebeard – of sorts, at least: his secret chamber houses his former wife, still living, but insane. He pleads with Jane to remain as his unmarried mistress, and it costs Jane a tremendous effort to resist this temptation: she would do anything for love – but she won’t do that. She sacrifices her desires to placate her moral sense.

Later in the novel, Jane is presented with another temptation, very different and very subtle, when St John Rivers asks her to marry him, and accompany him to India, where he is to bring Christianity to the benighted heathens. Here, the temptation is that of sainthood – of denying her desires to serve what, in those days, would certainly have been considered morality. But Jane resists this also, and returns to Mr Rochester. Now, he is blind and helpless: he is, indeed, Samson from Milton’s poem Samson Agonistes, a man in despair, in a darkness that is more than just literal, and, furthermore, aware that it is his own sinfulness that has led him to this pass. The lines given him seem quite reminiscent of Milton:

But I always woke and found it an empty mockery; and I was desolate and abandoned—my life dark, lonely, hopeless—my soul athirst and forbidden to drink—my heart famished and never to be fed.  

And here are the closing lines of Milton’s sonnet “Methought I saw my late espoused saint”:

But O as to embrace me she enclin’d
I wak’d, she fled, and day brought back my night.

Now that the more unpleasant elements of his character have vanished, there remains a Prince Charming – albeit a very broken and very vulnerable Prince Charming – whom Jane can now accept without angering even the most censorious of ideologues: the patriarchy has been kicked well and truly into touch.

Of course, there had been indications throughout of an essentially decent man underneath it all: we are told, for instance, that Mr Rochester’s domestic staff are well paid and well treated, and that local people wanted to work at Thornfield Hall; despite Rochester’s bluster, no-one seems intimidated by him, and the housekeeper Mrs Fairfax thinks the world of hm; and, though Jane herself is in every way in a subservient position, Rochester, far from treating her like a menial, engages with her in conversation with a disarming openness. Even the revelation of the mad wife in the attic is not entirely to Rochester’s disadvantage: he could easily have deposited her into one of those unimaginable hell-holes where people considered to be out of their minds were left to rot, but, instead of doing that, he had lodged her under his own roof, and had her looked after as best he could. There is quite clearly a decent man at the core of this seemingly unattractive personality, but this decent man has to come out into the open, and the Bluebeard elements relinquished, before he could be worthy of Jane.

In Rebecca, it’s all a bit different. The first act of the novel, set in Monte Carlo, is unambiguously Cinderella, complete with a wicked stepmother. A young girl, downtrodden, presented as very ordinary in every way, attracts against the odds the attentions of a dashing and eligible aristocrat, and is swept off her feet to become the lady of a great stately home. It seems almost the epitome of every romantic story ever written: Cinderella gets her Prince Charming. But this is only the first act of a five-act drama, and once the second act starts, shades of Bluebeard start closing in upon Prince Charming. And here, the Bluebeard comparison isn’t merely figurative: he really had killed his former wife. (In Hitchcock’s film adaptation, this rather important detail had to be changed, but it is quite unambiguous in the novel: Maxim de Winter had murdered Rebecca.) And the unnamed narrator, without the slightest hesitation, without the slightest compunction, quite happily becomes an accessory after the fact. Till Maxim confesses to her his guilt, she had imagined her husband still to be in love with the dead Rebecca, the beautiful, charismatic woman with whom she cannot hope to compete; but the revelation that he had hated her, and that it is she, not Rebecca, whom he loves, lifts a great weight off her mind; and she seals this declaration of love (for that is what the confession, in effect, is) the only way she can: she shares his guilt, even guilt for a crime so terrible as this. She will do anything for love. Even that.

For the guilt is indeed terrible. Maxim had cold-bloodedly shot an unarmed woman who was not even attempting to defend herself; and he had killed also (as far as he is aware at the time) her unborn child. There wass no remorse, either immediately afterwards, nor later: he had, very deliberately and methodically, cleaned up the mess, and got rid of the body. Daphne du Maurier uses all her considerable skills as a narrator to weigh the scales in favour of Maxim and of his second wife, the unnamed narrator: Rebecca certainly had been a really nasty piece of work, and those characters ranged now against the de Winters – the sinister housekeeper Mrs Danvers, and Rebecca’s cousin and lover, the coarse and bumptious Jack Favell – are presented are horrendous, despicable people. But the fact remains: Maxim de Winter is a cold-blooded killer, and his second wife, knowing full the facts, is an accessory.

And yet, Rebecca is still widely regarded as, essentially, a romantic story – perhaps, even, as an archetypal romantic story, as the downtrodden, mousy woman (with whom we are all encouraged to empathise) gets her Prince Charming, against all odds. And in a sense, it is an archetypal romantic story. But it is the tale of Bluebeard’s Castle lurking beneath the tale of Cinderella that gives it such a powerful frisson. The novel ends with the destruction of Manderley, but also with the assurance that Cinderella and Prince Charming are very much in love with each other, and are likely to live happily ever after – the perfect end, one might have thought, to a perfect romantic story. But if we cast our minds back to the second chapter of the novel, we remember a somewhat different picture. There, we had seen the second Mrs de Winter and Maxim living out dull, dreary lives in small hotels in France, trying desperately to avoid anything that may bring back their past, and avoiding especially large hotels so as not to meet with people who may recognise them. If we bring our memories of this early chapter to the final chapters of the novel, the pieces fit in a most disconcerting manner: Maxim, at the end of the novel, is, it is true, legally cleared of any wrongdoing; but he is told by the local magistrate Colonel Julyan – who himself has possibly pieced out the truth – that he will do what he can to prevent gossip. It is certainly clear to Colonel Julyan that a legal verdict can have but limited effect, at best, on what people may think, or even, in private, may say. It is no wonder that, afterwards, Maxim and his wife live almost like fugitives, trying their best to avoid anyone who might recognise them.

None of this indicates a happy and romantic ending. Maxim and the second Mrs de Winter are indeed close to each other, but the ties between them are not merely the ties of love: they are the ties also of a terrible shared guilt.

It is to Jane Eyre we must go to for a truly romantic ending. Jane too would do anything for love – but she stops short of sharing Mr Rochester’s guilt: she wouldn’t do that. Rebecca, though written in a prose style that, in comparison with Charlotte Brontë’s, can often appear merely functional, and sometimes even bland, seems to me a more disquieting work. It is certainly not the Cinderella story that, on the surface at least, it claims to be.

“When We Dead Awaken” by Henrik Ibsen

*** SPOILER WARNING: The following post inevitably reveals some of the plot details of this play, and so, if such things are important to you (they needn’t be), it is possibly best not to read this post till you’ve read or seen the play for yourself.  

All quoted passages are taken from the translation by Barbara Haveland and Anne-Marie Stanton-Ife, published by Penguin Classics

IRENE: When we dead awaken.
RUBEK [ shakes his head sadly] Yes, and what do we see then?
IRENE: We see that we have never lived.

Ibsen subtitled his play “A Dramatic Epilogue”, but what it is an epilogue to he left unclear. As, indeed, he did so much of the play. It could be an epilogue of the series of plays he wrote after finally returning to Norway in 1891, that is, from The Master Builder onwards. It could be an epilogue to the series of twelve prose plays from The Pillars of Society onwards – the twelve plays that he had himself referred to as a cycle. Or maybe we can cast the net even further back, and include the verse plays Brand and Peer Gynt that he had written in the 1860s.

Neither is it particularly clear what precisely Ibsen had meant by “epilogue”. Did he mean a conclusion to the series? Or did he mean an addition once the series had already been completed – a sort of afterthought?

From The Pillars of Society onwards, Ibsen had published a new play every two years, regular as clockwork (the only exception being An Enemy of the People, which he had written in one year): this last play had taken him three years, and, shortly after completion, he had suffered a severe and debilitating stroke. The internal evidence of the text suggests that what we have is an unfinished play: the last of the three acts is surprisingly short, and while it wraps up the two strands of the plot, this third act, very uncharacteristically for Ibsen, takes us thematically no further than where we had been at the end of the second.  It isn’t hard to infer that Ibsen could sense his health failing, and finished it as best he could.

To my mind, this final play, unfinished as it probably is, is an epilogue in the sense that it is the conclusion of a long series, and, indeed, of a long journey.  If we think of this journey as starting with The Pillars of Society, we may see it as a passage from the hurly-burly of day-to-day life to the mysterious and elusive regions of death. But if we cast our nets back further, and see Brand and Peer Gynt as the starting point of that journey, we may see this epilogue as returning to where he had started: for much of the time here, we are not in the real, material world, but, as in his verse plays, in a world of poetry and of symbols. (Michael Meyer said that, as a translator, he would have preferred this play to have been written in verse, as so much of its content seemed to him to lend itself to poetic metre). And as in Brand, this play too ends with a seemingly divine voice of forgiveness as the protagonist is overwhelmed by an avalanche high in the mountains: it is hard to believe that this striking similarity is merely accidental.

But no matter how we may choose to view this play, it has never found much acclaim. It is rarely revived, and, as late as 1980, Michael Meyer was complaining (in the preface to his translation) that “it has never been adequately staged in London”. It wasn’t much admired at the time either: after publication in 1899, Ibsen’s English translator, William Archer, wrote in a private letter that “it is scabrous to a degree – if it weren’t like deserting the Old Man, ’pon my soul, I’d let someone else translate it”. He also said, again privately, that it seemed like evidence of senility on Ibsen’s part.

The play was, admittedly, admired at the time by Bernard Shaw, who found in it “no decay of Ibsen’s highest qualities” (although it is interesting that he felt compelled specifically to reject that criticism); and also by a young James Joyce, who thought it among Ibsen’s greatest works, “if not, indeed, the greatest”. But generally, it is a play that tends only dutifully to be admitted to the canon, a somewhat disappointing finale to whatever it is that it’s an epilogue to. It is granted almost a grudging acknowledgement as the last work of a great writer, but it seems not to have stirred the imagination as the earlier plays have done. While there is a stream of actors and actresses queuing to play Stockmann and Solness and Borkman, Nora and Rebecca and Hedda, Rubek and Irene remain, in contrast, barely known.

Perhaps it is not too hard to discern why this play is so unloved. There is, about this play, a curious lack of solidity. Even other difficult plays, such as, say, The Master Builder, for all their poetic imagery and the symbolism, are very recognisably set in a real world, and the characters are beset by real worldly concerns. But here, for much of the time, especially in the dialogues between Rubek and Irene, the dialogue is barely intelligible at all in terms of reality. Throughout the series from The Pillars of Society onwards, Ibsen had been moving steadily from a real world to one that was more poetic, more mythic, but reality had never completely disappeared: but here, that is just what it seems to do. In writing about the previous play, John Gabriel Borkman, I had suggested that in the final act, the three protagonists are already dead, and what we see played out on stage is a sort of dream of spirits set in some vague hinterland beyond life. However, it is still possible to see it as real action in a real world. But in this play, even that possibility seems to disappear – and it is perhaps not surprising that the most disappointed reactions to this play tend to come from those who try to see it primarily in realistic terms. We are in a shadowland here: Irene specifically describes herself as dead, and it is not clear that she means it merely as a metaphor; Rubek, too, is most likely dead; indeed, the very title of the play tells us they are dead. There is about the play an ethereal, rarefied, fleshless quality that seems to hold both the audience and the reader at a distance. No wonder Ibsen referred to this play as an “epilogue”: where, after all, was it possible to go beyond this?

The scene locations are always important in Ibsen’s plays. In Hedda Gabler, for instance, it is important that all four of its claustrophobic acts are set in Hedda’s drawing room. But generally, in the later plays of the series, we tend to break out of the bourgeois drawing room. In the three plays previous to this one – The Master Builder, Little Eyolf, John Gabriel Borkman – the action had moved, significantly, from the confines of the drawing room to the open, unconfined spaces outside. In Little Eyolf, there had also been a vertical movement – first, from the drawing room down to the shore of the fjord, and then, for the final act, up high above the fjord, and above the house. This descent, and then the ascent, had reflected the mental states prevalent in each of the three acts. In When We Dead Awaken, all three acts are set outside, and, once again, we have a vertical movement, but this time, we are constantly ascending. In the first act, we are, as the stage directions tell us, “outside a spa hotel”. In the second, we are “at a sanatorium high up in the mountain”. In the third and final act, spa hotel and sanatorium both disappear:

Wild, high mountain ravine with sheer precipices in the background. Snow-capped peaks rise to the right and are lost in the floating mist high above.

We are very far here from the stuffy drawing room bourgeois drama that Ibsen is still associated with. The physical movement of the drama, as implied by the stage directions, takes us away from everyday life into something far more elemental. And one wonders to what extent these stage directions describe not so much what we may see on stage, but, rather, landscapes of the mind. For, as Peter Watts points out in the introduction to his translation (in the older Penguin Classics edition), Ibsen, as a practical man of the theatre, must surely have known it would be impossible to depict on stage a stream upon which characters float leaves or flowers, or children playing in the distance. Neither could he have expected he stage directions at the end of the play to be realised in performance:

The clouds of mist sink more densely over the landscape. Rubek, holding Irene’s hand, climbs up over the snowfield to the right and soon disappears among the lower clouds. Biting stormblasts thrust and howl to the air … Suddenly, a thunderous roar is heard up in the snowfield, which slides and hurtles down at furious speed. Rubek and Irene are indistinctly glimpsed as they are hurled along in the mass of snow, and are buried by it.

Perhaps modern stagecraft can handle all this, but certainly in Ibsen’s own time, it was a tall order. Which seems rather to suggest that Ibsen was not writing with the theatre in mind, but, as with Brand and Peer Gynt, he was intent more upon creating a theatre of the mind – something to be imagined rather than realised in actuality. It’s not that he necessarily intended this to be closet drama: rather, he wanted us to imagine, to play over in our minds, that which could not be realised in reality. And it is much the same with the drama itself: it demands that we imaginatively enter Ibsen’s poetic world. If we insist on tying it down to reality, we are bound to be disappointed.

And yet, the opening scene would not be out of place in any of the earlier realistic plays. The whole thing starts off with a scene that promises a drama rather different from what subsequently unfolds. In the grounds of the spa hotel, sits Rubek, an elderly and distinguished sculptor, and his much younger wife Maja. And, in the course of what is really quite a short and naturalistic dialogue between them, the entire story of the marriage is laid out. One can understand why Shaw, no stranger himself to the art of drama, declared that this play “shews no decay” in Ibsen’s artistry: had Ibsen wanted to write a strictly realistic drama, he was still more than capable of doing so.

And yet, we don’t need to look too far into this apparently realistic dialogue to catch intimations of deeper matters. Almost he first words spoken by Maja are: “Just listen to how silent it is here!” She finds the silence “overwhelming”. Soon, their relationship is laid bare. They have been married for “four or five years” now. He is a distinguished man, honoured and feted – a sculptor, internationally renowned. She, much younger, is, in effect, almost a sort of “trophy wife”. Although there is no acrimony between the two, there is not much evidence of warmth either. They have a villa somewhere in the foothills of the Alps – which Maja insists on referring to as a “house” rather than as a “home”; and whatever it is they had been looking for in the marriage, neither has found it. The history of their marriage is laid out in symbolic terms as they speak in realistic terms of their train journey into Norway, back “home”:

RUBEK: I noticed how silent it became when we stopped at all the little stations – . I heard the silence – just like you, Maja –
MAJA: Hm – yes, just like me.
RUBEK: – and then I realized we’d crossed the border. That we really were home. Because the train would stop and wait at all the little stations, even though there were no passengers.
MAJA: Why did it wait for so long? When there was nothing there?
RUBEK: Don’t know. No passengers left the train, no-one boarded.

Four or five years of marriage, of uneventful monotony, no-one coming or going, and hearing only the overwhelming silence.

Maja is bored. She had not wanted to come “traipsing” up here, she says, and has to be reminded that it was she who had wanted to make this trip. And she has noticed that Rubek is restless, and can no longer settle his mind on his work.

As a sculptor, he had made his name with a piece he called Resurrection Day. On that, he had worked day and night. And it is a masterpiece, he insists, with a vehemence that doesn’t quite suggest confidence:

… because Resurrection Day is a masterpiece! Or was, at first. No, it still is. And it shall, shall, shall be a masterpiece!

It is acclaimed by the whole world, but the “whole world”, Rubek insists, “knows nothing! Understands nothing!” They are but the mob and the masses. Since that work, Rubek has settled for sculpting portrait busts for wealthy clients. But what they do not know is that, despite the strictly realist exteriors, Rubek had, for his own satisfaction, worked in, “under the skin”, features of animals.

The picture that emerges of Rubek is not a very attractive one. He is a man utterly immersed in his own ego, contemptuous of humanity around him, seeing others as mere beasts. And, despite the fame and fortune he has won, he is uncertain of his own worth: both his fame and fortune, after all, derives from the “mob” that he despises – that knows and understands nothing – mere beasts.

When he had married Maja, he had, she reminds him, promised to take her to the top of a mountain, and show her “the glory of the world”. He is now surprised he had said that to her, and confesses, quite unashamedly, that it was merely an old catchphrase of his, one that he had said that before to others: whatever glory of the world he had believed in, it means nothing to him now. Perhaps he had never quite believed it himself.

All this Maja hears, and, so the stage directions tell us, she looks at him bitterly. But she is far from distraught. Rubek’s honesty in admitting all this is brutal; that he can admit this so openly to Maja suggests that, in his all-consuming egotism, he doesn’t really care what she may feel. And she, having lived with him for four or five years, isn’t really surprised. When he asks her teasingly if she is offended, she (“coldly, not looking up”) answers “No, not in the least”. Why should she be?

It is at this point that the drama, somewhat abruptly, moves to a different plane. A new element is introduced almost as if it were a ghost story – and, as we soon find out, it is, in a sense, a ghost story. The previous night, Rubek had seen, or thought he had seen, at a distance, passing through the grounds of the hotel, a pale lady dressed in white, and a small dark figure behind her. The manager of the spa solves this apparition easily: it is one of the guests, accompanied by a “Diakonisse” (which as is explained in the notes of the latest Penguin edition, is “a woman in charge of the social work of a Lutheran parish”). Michael Meyer and Peter Watts refer to her as a “nun” in theor traslations, but this suggests the Catholic rather than a Lutheran church; Barbara Haveland and Anne-Marie Stanton-Ife, translators of the new Penguin edition, refer to her, no doubt more accurately though perhaps a bit more awkwardly, as a Sister of Mercy. As soon as the manager has explained the apparitions, we see them ourselves, walking across the back of the stage, crossing across the park towards the pavilion. Almost immediately, another figure enters, a figure as earthy and as physical as the pale lady had been ghostly – Ulfheim, a somewhat brash and bumptious squire, who is out bear-hunting. His presence injects into the play a rough vitality that had, till now, been missing, and Maja, fascinated by his bear-hunting stories, is instantly attracted. Soon, Rubek is left alone on stage (Maja having most happily left with the bear-hunter Ulfheim), and he is joined by the pale lady in white. The two had recognised each other.

The introduction of Ulfheim so soon after the appearance of the ghostly pale lady brings to the proceedings a somewhat schematic symmetry that warns us not to take what we see too literally: this is not a naturalistic drama. And soon, once Rubek is left on his own, the mysterious lady joins him. They had known each other before. And whatever indication of realism we had been given till now vanishes in the scene that now unfolds.

This scene, which takes up most of the latter part of the first act, is impossible to summarise: in dramatic terms, it couldn’t be more different from the realistic scene we had had seen earlier between Rubek and Maja. This lady’s name is Irene: it was she who had modelled for Rubek’s Resurrection Day, the masterpiece that had made his name, and which, he vehemently insists, is, and must be, a masterpiece. But she states quite explicitly, right at the start of the scene, that she is dead, and I am not sure we shouldn’t take her literally: she may indeed be a ghost. Since she had known Rubek, she says, she had married twice: she had driven her first husband mad, and had murdered the second (“with a fine, sharp dagger I always take to bed with me”). She had had many children, she tells us, but she had murdered them too. She had stood naked on a revolving stage in variety shows, in tableaux vivants; she had been committed to a lunatic asylum, bound in a strait-jacket. And now, she insists, she is dead.

How much of this are we to take literally? Ibsen doesn’t help us. But at this point of the play, after the naturalistic opening scene, we feel the ground very noticeably shifting beneath us, and we aren’t sure quite where we stand. Or, indeed, if we stand at all.

And, as Hilde had done to Solness, and Ella Rentheim to Borkman, Irene accuses Rubek. The love she had offered him then, when she had posed for him and let him gaze upon her naked form, he had never returned. He had never so much as acknowledged that love. He used here merely for what he needed.

RUBEK [defensively]: I never committed any sin against you! Never, Irene!
IRENE: Yes, you did! You sinned against my innermost being!

We may be remined here of Ella Rentheim’s accusing Borkman of the sin for which there is no forgiveness.

In a realistic drama, we would have expected Rubek simply to have dismissed Irene as some sort of madwoman: after all, he was an artist and she a model, and that’s all there is to it. But, for reasons we may only guess at, Rubek doesn’t dismiss her. He, like Solness, is stricken with guilt. We have seen Rubek consumed by his own ego, and locked in a loveless marriage; the humanity around him he holds in contempt – depicting others merely as beasts; in his calling, he had not so much brought stones to life, but had turned the warmth of humanity itself into stone – into something less than human. The charge he now faces, of having rejected a love hat had been offered him, of – as Ella Rentheim had put it in the previous play – killing the love in another being, he cannot now dismiss. None of this may make much sense on a strictly realistic level, but we are in a dream play now.

As the curtain goes down on Act One, we may feel somewhat disoriented: what kind of play is this, really? It seems a play divided: the realism with which it opens doesn’t so much modulate into a dream: rather, the realistic element and the dreamlike element are almost brutally juxtaposed right next to each other.

And the second act doesn’t really clarify matter either. The stage directions tell us that there are children playing in the distance, and throughout this act, we can hear their happy laughter. It seems almost like a vision of a prelapsarian paradise, or maybe the Elysian fields we may go to once we too, like Irene, are dead. We are, admittedly, a bit higher up the mountain, but are we still in the real world? The opening scene of this second act may suggest that we are (as before, the first part of this act is dominated by a realistic scene between Rubek and Maja); but the second part consists of a scene between Rubek and Irene, and here, all semblance to reality seems to vanish. We have to take this as a sort of dream play: it makes little sense to consider it otherwise.

The scene between Rubek and Maja is, however, in a realist mode, and it serves but to confirm the impression we had received of Rubek as a narcissist. He had, as we know, told Maja that he would take her to the top of a mountain and show her “the glory of the world”, but, as he had admitted, without any embarrassment at all, that was just a pat formula he had been in the habit of using: he had not meant it seriously. He had married her, effectively, to be served by her. But Maja is no mere cipher in the play: she refuses the task allotted her:

RUBEK [somewhat uncertain]: What I now feel so vividly – and so painfully – that I need, is to have someone around me who is genuinely close to me –
MAJA [interrupts him tensely]: Aren’t I, Rubek?
RUBEK [dismissively]: Not in that sense. I need to live with another human being who can complement me – complete me – be one with me in everything I do.
MAJA [slowly]: Yes, I wouldn’t be much help to you in those difficult things.
RUBEK: No, you’d make sure you weren’t, Maja.
MAJA [in an outburst]: God knows, I wouldn’t really want to be!

Rubek, self-absorbed, can see Maja only insofar as she serves him, or is capable of serving him, but Maja is having none of that. She can sense that Rubek has more of a relationship with the mysterious pale lady than he does with her, and she doesn’t in the least resent it, any more than Rubek resents Maja being attracted to Ulfheim, the bear-hunter. They are both honest about where they are: it is too late in the day for jealousy.

Rubek is aware of some deficiency in his own self, of some vast, empty chasm. His Resurrection Day sculpture had bought him fame and wealth and public acclaim, but by then, he no longer loved his own work. “Those public homages and those bouquets left me,” he says, “left me nauseated and desperate, and nearly drove me deep into the darkest forests.” But Maja has had some four or five years of hearing Rubek talk about himself: she doesn’t even pretend to be interested.

And then, as in the first act, the very realistic scene between Rubek and Maja is followed b a scene between Rubek and the ghost-like Irene, and, once again, we are in a different world, where the rules of everyday life seem no longer to apply. They speak again, as they must, of the time when Irene had posed for him, and had been his inspiration. That sculpture, Resurrection Day, Irene refers to as their “child”, just as, in Hedda Gabler, Thea had referred to Loevborg’s writing as their “child”. But this child did not turn out as Irene had thought. What she had posed for was a figure of a girl, bright and young and fresh, awakening to a new day, with a “transfiguring joy of light” upon her face: this was the Resurrection Day that she had thought of as her child: it was a sculpture of hope, of idealism. But then, afterwards, Rubek had coldly thanked her, and referred to their entire relationship as an “episode”. Which, in a realistic world, it is, but we aren’t in a realistic world any more, and we are asked to accept that in this dream world, Rubek’s cold indifference to her had sucked out her very soul, and left her spiritually dead.

We cannot be sure what exactly had occurred between the two in the real world. Ibsen is concerned here with poetic imagery, not with the mere mechanics of the plot. But whatever had happened, Irene had offered him love, and life, and he had turned them down. And after she had left, Rubek had turned against the idealism that he had initially depicted: he had enlarged the plinth, and had moved to the background the figure of the young girl  awakening to a new day with the transfigured light of joy on her face; and around this figure, he had placed others – other people, with “animal faces  concealed beneath the skin”. And in the front of what is now a group, he had placed himself, “a guilt-marked man who cannot quite free himself from the earth’s crust”.

It is at this point that Irene draws a knife, and is about to strike – to kill him as she had, so she says, killed her second husband, and all her children. And if that was metaphorical, then, perhaps, this is too: there seems no ground rules whereby we may interpret the dramatic action. But she puts her knife away. Back then, she remembers, Rubek had promised her too that he would take her to the top of a mountain, and show her the glory of the world. Perhaps, back then, before it had become but an empty catchphrase, he really had believed that. But now, Irene reminds him of that old promise, and they decide to do just that. When we dead awaken, Irene says, we shall find we have never lived.

One wonders how Ibsen had intended to write to third act. What we have now is but a few almost perfunctory pages that complete the plot, such as it is.  The second act had ended with Maja, now determined to leave Rubek for Ulfheim, singing like some Ariel of her new-found freedom. But Rubek and Irene, who are now both dead (maybe Irene did kill him after all!), head for the mountain-top, perhaps to Resurrection Day, and perhaps to see the glory of all the world.

Most of the third act, as it currently is, concerns Maja and her new partner Ulfheim. Maja has at last found the freedom she wants, and, in the brief scene between them, she shows herself more than capable of holding her own with her new chosen partner. One suspects that Ibsen had planned after this a long scene between Rubek and Irene, before they head willingly to their deaths – or, perhaps, to their resurrection, since they are already dead. But this scene is now cut to only a few lines. Although they know there is a storm coming, they head upwards, to the mountain top. And as they are inevitably overcome by the avalanche, the Sister of Mercy who had accompanied Irene speaks over their deaths a Latin benediction – “Pax vobiscum” (“peace be upon you”); and meanwhile, in the background, we hear Maja sing her song of freedom.

***

It is not hard to see why this very strange play has not won the acclaim of Ibsen’s earlier plays. This strange mix of the realism and the dream play, with the abrupt swings between the two modes, gives it, as it were, two dramatic centres of gravity, and the two remain in contention with each other to the very end, as the pax vobiscum blends with Maja’s singing from below. At one level, we are, with Maja and Ulfheim, very much in the land of the living; at the other, we are, even more certainly than in the final act of John Gabriel Borkman, in the company of those who are already dead. And yet, this contention between these two worlds is surely what Ibsen had intended.

More puzzling still is the content. Put simply and crudely, it concerns a man who is, in the eyes of the world, a great success, but who feels an emptiness inside, because, despite having been offered both life and love, he had rejected them; and who is finally persuaded by her whom he had rejected that he is as dead as she is, and that he may only redeem himself by looking towards a resurrection. All this is fine and dandy till we ask ourselves what all this actually means. What would have happened had Rubek not rejected Irene? A life of happy domesticity? Once we dead awaken, we find out that we have never lived; but what does it mean to truly live? For Maja and for Ulfheim, the answer is simple enough: but could such an answer have sufficed for Rubek or for Irene? In The Ambassadors, another late masterpiece by another Henry, and published only some four years after When We Dead Awaken, the middle-aged Strether, approaching old age, tells the young people around him simply “to live”, but he never quite articulates what he means by that – most certainly because he does not know himself. All he knows, and all we can know as we get older, is that there is inside us an emptiness, and a vague sense that there is something we have missed, something we have left undone, and which we cannot rectify even if we had the chance to go back and live our lives all over again, because we wouldn’t even know how to rectify it.

And what is it that Irene and Rubek so joyfully go to at the end? They speak of Resurrection. The entire play speaks of Resurrection, and is awash with religious imagery. And yet, there is no mention of God: the play had begun with an overwhelming silence, and, once the roar of the avalanche has passed, we are left again with that vast silence. Is it really redemption these two head towards? – a redemption that may finally fill that emptiness that we have carried within us? Or is it merely annihilation? The Sister of Mercy pronounces pax on them, but it is unclear whether this is the pax that follows redemption, or merely the pax of nothingness.

Perhaps even more than Rosmersholm or The Master Builder, When We Dead Awaken remains Ibsen’s most difficult and most elusive play. Despite the pax vobiscum of the Sister of Mercy, his “dramatic epilogue” does not end in peace or in harmony: it ends instead with more questions than we could possibly answer – more, perhaps, than we could even articulate.

Inching forward with “Finnegans Wake”

Ah – the plans one makes for retirement! So many things I had wanted to do, but had told myself I would do once I was retired, when I no longer had the pressure of work to contend with, that day-to-day grind. What one doesn’t take into account when making such plans are the increasing physical tiredness that accompanies age (although, having only just turned sixty, I flatter myself I’m merely on the lower slopes of old age), and, more importantly, sheer damn laziness. Nonetheless, two ambitions have survived: the first is to learn French properly, so I could, some day, read Molière’s Le Misanthrope rather than Molière’s The Misanthrope (that project has begun, and is progressing, albeit slowly); and the other is to read Finnegans Wake. These last few months, I have been inching my way through it, and only last week, I finished the first of its four parts – which is roughly one third of he length of the book. And currently, I am taking a wee break from it, while basking in a sense of smugness and self-satisfaction.

But mention of Finnegans Wake raises eyebrows. Even when speaking to someone online, I can sense that eyebrow raised. Even more so than Ulysses, it has a reputation of being a book utterly unreadable, indeed, utterly nonsensical – a mad, meaningless joke that is not to be taken seriously, and, perhaps, best left alone. Why on earth would I want to read something like that? Something that makes no sense, and is, most likely, no more than a grotesque practical joke?

I think my answer is that I do not believe that the writer gifted enough to create Ulysses would spend seventeen years of his life just to create a meaningless practical joke. After all, had I given up in the face of difficulty, and not at least have tried to penetrate what had initially appeared impenetrable, I would never have got to know Ulysses.

Of course, I know there are some who say Ulysses isn’t difficult at all, and that they took to it right away. They may even say the same for Finnegans Wake. Well, if so, then all I can say is that their minds are very different from mine. Mine is quite slow, and I find I have to work at everything. But I like to think that what my mind lacks in agility, it compensates with a certain doggedness – in this case, a bloody-minded determination at least to understand what that mad eejit Joyce was up to. Now that I have read the first part of this volume, I ask myself if it makes sense, and the answer, I think, is “No, not really”. But, once upon a time, I did graduate in physics, and though I have forgotten much, I do remember from the lectures in quantum mechanics that certain things do not need to make sense to be nonetheless true.

So why Finnegans Wake? I blame Anthony Burgess, to be frank. In my teens and my early twenties, Mr Burgess was, in effect, my literary mentor. Not that I knew him personally, of course (although he did sign a copy of A Clockwork Orange for me after I had attended one of his lectures): but not only did I enjoy his fiction, I enjoyed also his literary non-fiction – his various books and articles and essays. I used to look forward eagerly to his articles as they appeared every Sunday in The Observer (in those days, its literary editor was Terence Kilmartin). As a science student in a university oriented towards sciences and engineering (Strathclyde), I did not personally know anyone who was interested in literature, and with whom I could share my own literary interests: Anthony Burgess, in a sense, filled that gap. It was something of a one-way conversation, of course, but it would have remained one-way even if I had known him personally: I was (and remain still, I think) more interested and enthusiastic than I was knowledgeable.

And so I followed the leads he provided. His three main literary heroes were Shakespeare, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and James Joyce. Shakespeare I was already absorbing, but the other two I knew only by reputation. And, as I read Mr Burgess’ sparkling prose about their works, I was determined to get to know them also. Of course it was difficult. One doesn’t come to “The Wreck of the Deutschland” or to Ulysses expecting plain sailing, and, lacking nimbleness of mind even then, it was a slog. But once these works did penetrate through my thick skull, they stayed there. Part of the prism through which, for better or for worse, I see the world, is constructed from these works.

And so on to Finnegans Wake. Once I had got to a stage where I could truthfully say that I have read Ulysses, and, what’s more, understood it (at least up to a point where I could love it), I obviously wanted to get on to the next one. After the magnificent Symphony of Daytime with its resplendent major key coda, what could that “next one” be but that mysterious and elusive Song of the Night, in which our unthinking and yet unsettled minds elide together all the solidities of the world, and in which all forms and shapes, and all people and all times, collide, merge, and melt into each other in a state of infinite plasticity?

I tried, I did try, but my young mind, already stretched to its limits by Ulysses (not to mention the lectures on quantum mechanics), couldn’t take it in. Not even armed with Joseph Campbell’s A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake and with Roland McHugh’s Annotations, and, of course, with Burgess’ own writings. Eventually, despite my doggedness, I admitted defeat. But only temporarily. I would come back to this once I had retired, I told myself, retirement being in those days so distant a prospect that it was not a state I could even visualise. But now that I am retired, it’s time to keep that youthful promise to myself, no matter how many eyebrows are raised in the process.

Finnegans Wake famously starts and ends mid-sentence, and the unfinished half-sentence at the end may be completed by the unstarted half-sentence at the beginning. So the structure is that of a cycle, and one can, in theory at least, read it for ever, turning back to the beginning once one has reached the end, and travelling repeatedly around the cycle. This structure is taken from Giovanni Batista Vico, who saw time itself as cyclical – first a theocratic age, then an aristocratic age, followed by democratic age, and then a ricorso, a return back to the theocratic age. Whether Joyce subscribed to all this, I do not know, but it did provide him with a structure for his myth-making: the four books of Finnegans Wake reflect the four stages described by Vico: first, corresponding to the theocratic age, there’s the Book of the Parents (consisting of eight chapters, four for the Father and four for the Mother); the next book, corresponding to the aristocratic age, is the Book of the Children, who supplant their parents; then follows, for the democratic age, the Book of the People; and finally, there is a shorter book, the Ricorso, leading back again to the opening. The parents, the creating God and the nurturing Goddess, are overthrown by a newer generation, who become the aristocracy, until they too, in turn, are replaced, this time by the people in an age of democracy; and, finally, when the democracy collapses under the strain of its plurality, the theocratic age establishes itself again. Whatever reservation we may have about such a schematic view of human history, it is holds together the massive mythopoeic contents of the book into a coherent structure.

The father is Finnegan himself, whose wake, after all, we are at. And, in a fashion that we are accustomed to from Ulysses, Joyce blends together the mythic with the everyday, thus deflating the mythic in a sense, but also, in another more important sense, elevating the everyday. For Joyce is dealing with big themes here – the nature of time, the rise and falls of generations, the history of mankind itself; but his materials remain low, and ordinary. The very title of this book, after all, is taken from a popular comic song “Finnegan’s Wake”, describing a builder, Tim Finnegan, who falls from his ladder, is thought dead, but who, at his own wake, comes back again to life when some whiskey is accidentally spilt upon him. But in the title of the book, the apostrophe is omitted: if history is indeed cyclical, there are many Finnegans, and the wake refers to their resurrections as well as to their deaths. The lowbrow comic song sets the pattern for endless human cycles of falling and rising, of deaths and resurrections.

But who is this Finnegan? He is Tim Finnegan, the builder in the song, who falls off his ladder. He is the mythical giant Finn McCool. He is the primal being, the modern man, Ibsen’s Master Builder Solness (Bygmester Solness, who fears being supplanted by a younger generation, and who falls off a ladder at the end). Finnegan can be anyone you like, really. Personal identity never stays stable here. All identities, all personages, collide and merge into each other. This book itself Joyce describes at one point as a “collideorscape”.

If all this doesn’t sound mad enough, there is the language. The language we use in our waking hours is not adequate to describe the unrestrained drifting of the sleeping mind. It’s not the syntax that is difficult: that stays quite straight-forward throughout. It’s the vocabulary. Most of the words aren’t really proper English words at all, but are composites, a colliding (or scaping) of many different words, sometimes from many different languages. So a single word here can have multiple meanings, or multiple associations, multiple references. These references can be to history, to mythology, to folklore, to popular music-hall songs, to anything and everything – there are no boundaries in a dream. Some of the words are simply nonsense words, existing for the sound alone.

At this stage, encountering a book with no fixed time or space, with no character who can keep their identity for long without being transformed into someone (or something) else, it is tempting simply to throw up one’s arms and declare the whole thing to be impossible – mere gibberish. But sometimes, one has simply to trust the author, and given my past experience with Joyce’s works, I trust Joyce. So I armed myself with Roland McHugh’s Annotations to Finnegans Wake, which, page by page, disentangles every single of these compound words, pointing out its different levels of meaning, its different references. But that didn’t really work. It slowed down my reading to an impossible pace, and whatever music, whatever momentum, whatever sense of continuity the writing had, I wasn’t getting any of it. It was merely checking each nut and each bolt, but not really understanding what the nuts and bolts are there for.

The chapters on Finnegans Wake in Anthony Burgess’ Here Comes Everybody helped in this respect, but only up to a point: if McHugh’s Annotations were at too low a level, Burgess’ writing, splendid though it is, was at too high a level. Help came eventually in the form of A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake by Joseph Campbell and by Henry Morton Robinson, and soon, I settled into a mode of reading that, at least, worked for me (I’m not suggesting this will work for everyone). I would read a passage, getting as much as I can out of it (and it is quite incredible how much can be communicated simply by the sounds and the rhythms of the prose); I’d then turn to the Skeleton Key to get a better understanding of the import of the passage; and, then, once I have a good idea of its outline, I’d return to the passage again, this time with McHugh’s Annotations, to examine at least some of the nuts and bolts. Of course, progress is excruciatingly slow, and, even with all this help, I don’t understand it all: most of it, indeed, remains mysterious and probably always will, even when I have lived with this book for a while and become more familiar with the text than I am now. But I was expecting progress to be slow; and as for understanding – how much of a dream can one reasonably expect to understand anyway?

But is it worth it? Many readers, I know, will find the very idea silly that a book can only be read with the aid of other books. Perhaps. I won’t argue with that. Each reader will have to decide this point for his or her self. Speaking for myself, I am enjoying the struggle. Once I had accustomed myself to this kind of reading, I found I could sense, sometimes even without the aid of the Skeleton Key or the Annotations, a veiled magnificence, a shadowy majesty. I could sense the presence of something behind layers of veils, something elusive that I couldn’t quite capture (dreams cannot, after all, ever be captured), but something that is, all the same, resplendent, and sublime.

Out of all this, characters, of a sort, do emerge. After the fall of Finn McCool (or Finnegan, or Bygmester Solness, or whoever), he is replaced by a foreigner, who had originally come from somewhere in Scandinavia. (There are passages referring to the influx into ancient and medieval Ireland of people from abroad.) This foreigner is, it seems, the keeper of apub in Chapelizod, and his name, it seems, is Humphrey Chimpden Earwhicker. No, don’t believe that either. But these initials, HCE, are embedded throughout the book, and refer always to various incarnations of this character. And it is he, Humphrey Chimpden Earwhicker (and I still don’t believe it) who appears throughout this book in various guises. He has his fall too: in Phoenix Park, Dublin, he had “behaved with ongentilmensky immodus opposite a pair of dainty maidservants”. We are never sure what this “ongentilmensky immodus” is, but when, later, he is asked the time by a passerby, he becomes very defensive about it all, stutters guiltily, and protests his innocence at quite considerable length. Soon, rumours start spreading, and collectively, the stories circulating about the Fall of a Man in a Park take on epic proportions. He is tried, sentenced, and is buried deep under Lough Neagh, or under “lough and neagh”. But, like the Tim Finnegan of the song, or the Finn McCool of the myth, whom he had replaced (and who, confusingly enough, is also a form of himself, HCE), he rises. You can’t keep a good Finnegan down.

His wife, known as Anna Livia Plurabelle (the initials ALP represents throughout the feminine principle as insistently as HCE represents the masculine), writes a letter in her husband’s defence, but the letter is lost, and later, it turns up in a rubbish pile, unearthed by a hen. There is much pseudo-scholarly examination of this letter, which turns out to be not unlike the Book of Kells. Anna Livia Plurabelle is also a river – the River Liffey that flows through Dublin; and, indeed, she is all the rivers of all the world, watering the land with her nurturing grace.

And there are twin sons, who, it will later turn out, are, or may be, named Kevin and Jerry, but who are, to begin with, named as Shaun and Shem – Shaun the postman and Shem the penman; or as Burrus and Caseous (Brutus and Cassius, butter and cheese); or stone and stem (the unchanging, and the developing); or space and time; or the old Irish church and the Catholic church that supplants it; or any other pair of opposites one may think of. For among the themes that emerge from the mist is that of opposites meeting, or colliding, and becoming one. This theme Joyce traces to Giordano Bruno – or Bruno the Nolan (as Bruno originated from Nola). Which is rather convenient, as there was at the time a Dublin publisher called Browne and Nolan. And these two names appear in all sorts of guises throughout the text, always signifying opposites that are essentially a single unity, and which will, eventually, merge, and be seen as such.

And there is a daughter, Izzy. Or Issy. Or maybe Isabel. Or something. One can never be too sure. Maybe she is the Iseult to whom the chapel (Chapelizod) is dedicated. Or the Isolde from Wagner’s opera (she appears at one stage as a certain Mildew Lisa – a reference to the opening line of the Liebestod in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, “mild und leise”).

There are a few minor characters as well – the elderly cleaning lady as HCE’s pub, who is, really, another version of Anna Livia herself. There’s old Joe, who also works at the pub. And there are the twelve mourners at Finnegan’s wake, who are also customers in the pub. Or maybe, they are all manifestations of HCE and ALP and their children – who knows? It’s hard to be specific about anything here.

The question remains: is it worth all this effort for this madness? For madness it is. It was madness sitting down to write it; it was madness spending seventeen years of one’s life working over it; and perhaps the greatest madness of all was expecting people to read it. I don’t know if I am yet in a position to answer this question. I do admit that there are times I have doubts – grave doubts. But the doubts are, more often than not, dispelled by the wit; by the audacity; by that glint in the eye that is, admittedly, sometimes the glint of megalomania, but is, more often, the glint of good humour; and, perhaps most importantly, by the music of the prose. In the famous recording made by Joyce himself of the concluding passage of the first book, the “Anna Livia Plurabelle” chapter, it is the musical sounds and rhythms that make their impact, even before we start looking for the meanings of the words. And this, I think, is how we should approach the book: the sound comes before the sense. Indeed, it is the sound that conveys the sense. The rest are but the nuts and bolts.

And the vague, shadowy vision that becomes apparent underneath all these layers of veils is magnificent indeed. It is nothing less than a mythologised history of the whole of mankind. And yet, as in Ulysses, the magnificence of this vision is built from often everyday materials.

In that last chapter of the first book, we have two washerwomen, standing on either side of the Liffey, washing clothes, and gossiping about Anna. As the chapter progresses, we come further downstream, and the river widens, till the two washerwomen cannot hear each other from the opposite banks. And, Ovid-like, one turns into a rock, and the other into a tree, a stem and a stone – one growing in time, the other still.

As Anthony Burgess writes in Here Comes Everybody:

The language is cosmic, yet it is the homely speech of ordinary people. We seem to see a woman who is also a river and a man who is also a city. Time dissolves; we have a glimpse of eternity. And the eternal vision is made out of muddy water, old saws, half-remembered music-hall songs, gossip, and the stain on a pair of underpants. The heart bows down.  

I shall be starting on the next part soon, but since it is thanks to the urgings of Mr Burgess that I am reading this book in the first place, I may as well let him have the last word for now. I hope to be returning here to write more of my impressions once I have read the later books.

“John Gabriel Borkman” by Henrik Ibsen

*** SPOILER WARNING: The following post inevitably reveals some of the plot details of this play, and so, if such things are important to you (they needn’t be), it is possibly best not to read this post till you’ve read or seen the play for yourself.  

All quoted passages are taken from the translation by Barbara Haveland and Anne-Marie Stanton-Ife, published by Penguin Classics

I am talking about the crime for which there is no forgiveness.

The set-up is fairly straight-forward. John Gabriel Borkman had once been an important man – a banker. But he had been caught embezzling, and, after three years in custody awaiting trial, had been found guilty, and had served another five years in prison. The action of the play takes place eight years after his release, and those eight years Borkman has spent again imprisoned, this time voluntarily: he has shut himself up in his room upstairs, endlessly pacing up and down, “like a sick wolf” as his wife puts it, never daring even to leave the house, but obsessing over how he will yet achieve the greatness he thinks he had been close to achieving those sixteen years ago.

Under the same roof, though never seeing him, lives his wife, Gunhild. Unlike Borkman, who is a miner’s son, she is from a privileged, land-owning family; and she too, like her husband, is obsessed: she is obsessed with clearing the family name, and restoring the family honour; and she is determined that it is their son, Erhart, now a young man in his early twenties, who will achieve this. It is he who will eventually redeem them by paying back all the creditors, and thus laying the matter to rest for ever. Not that she cares for the creditors: as with her husband, but for different reasons, those who have lost their livelihoods all those years ago barely enter her mind at all: what matters to her is her family name, and, more importantly (though she doesn’t openly acknowledge this), the hurt she has received from her husband.

The hurt is not merely to her family pride: it is to her personal pride also. She had loved her husband, but that love had not been returned: John Gabriel Borkman’s mind had been elsewhere. It had been obsessed, then, as now, with power – the power that, in the secular world in which they live, can come only with industry and with commerce. It is for the sake of this power that Borkman had renounced love: he had, as a young man, loved Ella, Gunhild’s twin sister, but had married Gunhild instead, for no other reason than better to pursue his dream of power. Yet, some compunction had prevented his using Ella’s money in his fraudulent schemes: she had survived the financial turmoil that Borkman’s embezzlement had occasioned, and it is her house, unaffected by the financial collapse of Borkman’s bank, in which the Borkmans now live – under the same roof, but never setting eyes on each other, year after year.

And it was Ella who, when the scandal had broken, had looked after her nephew Erhart. And now, she knows she is dying, and she wants her nephew, whom she regards as her own son, to carry on her name. But his biological mother, endlessly brooding on her hurts, and fixated on the idea of the next generation making restitution for the sins of the past, cannot allow this. So now, the twin sisters fight each other over the son, just as they had once fought over the father.

All this brings in various familiar themes – corruption in public life and betrayal in the private, the relationships between the generations, the imposition of duty upon the spontaneous joy of life, the dreams and illusions that sustain us, the renunciation of love for power, and so on. And all this promises a realistic, drawing room bourgeois drama – admittedly a turbulent one, but, nonetheless, of the kind that Ibsen is still, rather unfairly, associated with.

But this is not the play Ibsen gives us. Not by a long shot.

But what he gives us isn’t easy to describe, as not only is it unlike any other play I know of, it is also, despite certain recurrent themes, unlike any of Ibsen’s other plays either. Over these twelve plays beginning with The Pillars of Community, Ibsen had been moving way from what may be termed “realism” – that is, depictions of characters of the kind we may expect to encounter in real life, thinking and behaving in a manner that does not stretch credulity in everyday settings. In this play, he seems to take such a drastic step further away from realism, that one wonders whether, despite the realistic trappings, we should be considering it in such terms at all. The three principal characters – Gunhild, Ella, and John Gabriel – seem poised in some mysterious region between life and death: Ella knows she is dying, and, at the end, John Gabriel actually does die, but, whether they know it or not, there is no future for any of them, and the hopes they harbour about the future are, of necessity, delusional.

And these characters are much simpler, too – just as the characters in the late Shakespeare plays are simpler than their predecessors: Leontes is not as complex a character as Othello, nor Iachimo as complex as Iago, nor Miranda as complex as Ophelia; similarly, John Gabriel is not as complex as Master Builder Solness, nor Gunhild as complex as Hedda Gabler. What you see on the surface is more or less what there is: this is not a play that looks into the depths of the characters, primarily because those depths don’t really exist.

Also noticeably absent is imagery. No place here for anything like the phantom white horses of Rosmersholm, the towers of The Master Builder, or those water lilies in Little Eyolf that germinate in the depths, and then shoot suddenly to the surface. The room in which the play opens is hot and stuffy, and there is a blizzard blowing outside, and these, I suppose, could be seen as symbols, but they are quite straight-forward, and lack the resonance to be the stuff of dramatic poetry. The hot room and the snowstorm outside are introduced not to communicate those obscure matters that cannot be communicated by other means, but merely as representations of two different states of mind. Here, the characters speak directly: what they say is precisely what they mean, and we do not need to look for symbols in their words.

The handling of time is also different. Typically, an Ibsen play gives us selected scenes, as it were, with a gap of time between successive scenes (the number of these scenes determined by the number of acts in the play). Here, although there are four acts, there is no temporal gap between them – so that Act Two begins at the very point where Act One ended, Act Three at the precise point where Act Two ended, and so on. The action of the play takes up exactly the same two hours or so it takes us to watch it. This pushes the very idea of time itself into the foreground, and injects into the play a tremendous urgency: time is running out fast for all three of these characters, and, at  the edge of the grave, perhaps already in some mysterious region between life and death, there is no scope, no time, for indirectness: these characters say what they feel, what they think, without any periphrasis, any subterfuge, and with a directness that is almost brutal.

Passions are high, right from the start. The stage directions accompanying the various speeches, especially those of Gunhild, leave us in no doubt: “animated”, “tense”, “with mounting excitement”, “flares up”, and so on. Of course, acting styles have changed since then, and modern audiences probably prefer understatement, but however the actors convey this, there is clearly much passion here, and it’s not hidden.

These three characters meet for the first time after sixteen years. Gunhild and John Gabriel live in the same house, but she sits downstairs, brooding, while he paces up and down upstairs, similarly brooding (though on different matters), and never daring to leave the house. Gunhild says that sometimes she hears him come down to the hall, put on his hat and coat, but take them off and go back upstairs again. They have never spoken to each other for sixteen years – not since his embezzlement had been discovered and he was taken into custody.

Into this environment comes Gunhild’s twin sister, Ella Rentheim. Although she owns the house in which Gunhild and John Gabriel live, she herself does not live there. We discover over the course of the play why she has decided after all this time to meet her sister again: she knows she is dying, and, terrified of leaving nothing behind her, wishes her nephew to take her name. The other two, however, don’t know they’re dying: they are too wrapped in their own obsessions, and both are obsessively planning for a future that doesn’t exist.

But Ella Rentheim is right to be terrified. The death these characters face is cold and blank: there is nothing beyond it. Despite the various religious references throughout the play – not least the middle name of the titular character, that seems to speak of a power and a glory that isn’t really visible – there is no mention, nor even a hint, of a divinity. These characters may all long for something that is greater than themselves – Gunhild for her lost reputation and her pride in her self, Ella for something of her own that she may leave behind, John Gabriel for a power and a glory that was nearly his – but in each case, what they long for is of this world,  a worldfrom which they are already in the process of departing. Any hope for a future is illusory: all they have to fall back on is the past.

And they all speak of that past openly, frankly, almost as if past caring what hurt they cause in speaking of it. Neither Gunhild nor John Gabriel care about those who have lost their livelihoods. In the first act, when we hear (but don’t see) John Gabriel pacing up and down his room upstairs, “like a sick wolf”, Gunhild and Ella don’t spare each other in their recollections of the past. And in the second act, when Ella goes up to see John Gabriel, he too speaks coldly about the past, in particular about why he had sacrificed Ella whom he, as a young man, had once loved: he had his own dreams, dreams of earthly power and earthly glory, and, to achieve this, he had needed the goodwill of the lawyer Hinkel, who had also loved Ella. And so, he sacrificed his own love: he had married Ella’s sister, and had left Ella for Hinkel. And he can say all this coldly to Ella now, without the slightest pang of remorse:

ELLA RENTHEIM: But you did have what was most precious on board. Your future life –

BORKMAN: Life isn’t always what is most precious.

Borkman had been aspiring to something that was, for him, more precious even than life itself. Traditionally, that takes us into the realms of religion, but the world presented here is godless. But how can one find something even more precious than life itself in a godless world? And what does one sacrifice to achieve this? John Gabriel Borkman had sacrificed Ella, without a thought, and now, years later, He can tell her this without any remorse. Ella’s response is deeply religious:

ELLA RENTHEIM:  … at the time, I didn’t know about your great, horrific crime.

BORKMAN: What crime? What are you talking about?

ELLA RENTHEIM: I’m talking about the crime for which there is no forgiveness.

Ella goes on to explain what she means by this:

You have killed the vital capacity for love in me.

 The word used in the original, the notes of my Penguin edition tell me, is “kærlighedslivet”, a compound word joining together the words meaning “love” and “life”. Michael Meyer (Methuen) translates that line simply as “You have killed love in me”. I’d guess the Penguin translation by Haveland and Stanton-Ife possibly gets closer to what Ibsen had intended, but it is at the expense of succinctness. The meaning, I think, is fairly clear: there is no symbol or poetic imagery here to decipher. John Gabriel Borkman has destroyed in Ella the ability to love; he has compelled her to live a loveless life; and for that crime, there is no forgiveness.

The reference here is to a somewhat enigmatic verse in the Bible:

Wherefore I say unto you, All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men; but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men.

– Gospel According to Matthew 12:31

Even a charge such as this, made so directly, appears to make no impact at all upon John Gabriel. He is in grip of something that is, to him, even more powerful.

When we first see him, at the start of Act Two, a young local girl, Frida, is playing the piano to him – the Danse Macabre by Saint-Saëns. The exchange that follows – more monologue than exchange, really, since Frida does not really understand what he says, and nor does it matter to him whether she does or not – is, to put it mildly, strange:

BORKMAN: Can you guess where I hear notes like this, Miss Foldal?

FRIDA [ looks up at him]: No, Mr Borkman?

BORKMAN: It was down in the mines.

FRIDA [ does not understand]: Really? In the mines?

BORKMAN: I’m a miner’s son, as you probably know. Or perhaps you didn’t?

FRIDA: No, Mr Borkman.

BORKMAN: A miner’s son. And my father sometimes took me down the mines with him – . Down where the metal ore sings.

FRIDA: Oh, does it – sing?

BORKMAN [nods]: As it’s being loosened. The hammer strokes that loosen it are the chimes of midnight; they strike, and set it free. That’s why the ore sings – it sings with joy – in its own way.

FRIDA: why does it do that, Mr Borkman?

BORKMAN: It wants to come up to the light of day, and serve people.

Borkman’s vision of the ores under the ground longing to come up to “serve people” seems almost religious in its fervour, and, in the absence of a God, somewhat demented. But, given that absence, what can that religious fervour be directed towards? Borkman speaks of “serving the people”, and yet he never once shows any feeling or understanding of people, of their needs or their desires. The people he himself has ruined with his embezzlement he is happy to dismiss as insignificant. There is a fervour there all right, but directed towards what? The play doesn’t answer this, but it’s hard to resist the obvious answer that it is power. This is the dream that animates Borkman – the power and the glory, associated with Gabriel, but of distinctly an earthly, workmanlike variety. This is what he had sacrificed Ella to, and what he later cold-bloodedly tells Ella is more precious than life itself.

This renunciation of love for power, and this desire to master the elements of the earth with the aim of obtaining this power, bring to mind what many may regard as the single most powerful work of art of the 19th century – Wagner’s mighty Ring Cycle.  Ibsen was in nearby Munich when these operas were first performed in Bayreuth, but, despite being urged by his compatriot Edvard Grieg, he did not go to see them: he was not particularly musical, and the thought of sitting so many hours through these works put him off. No doubt he would have heard about the Ring, but it seems to me unlikely that this would have had any significant influence on him: we shouldn’t, after all, be surprised when major artists living in the same era hit upon similar themes. It is more fruitful, I think, to look for connections in Ibsen’s own earlier work.

As a young man of twenty-three, Ibsen had written a poem on precisely this theme:

Deep in the mountain’s desolate night
The rich treasure beckons me.
Diamonds and precious stones
Among the red branches of gold.

And in the darkness there is peace.
Peace and rest for eternity.
Heavy hammer, break me the way
To the heart-chamber of what lies hidden there…

[From the translation by Michael Meyer]

In The Pillars of Society, written some twenty years earlier, and the first in the series of twelve plays of what may be termed a cycle, Bernick too had dreamed of mastering the elements of the earth:


Imagine what a powerful lever [the railway will] represent for our entire community. Think of the enormous tracts of forest that’ll be made accessible; think of rich seams of ore that can be worked; think of the river with one waterfall after the other. Just imagine all the industry that can be established there.

[Translated by Deborah Dawkin and Erik Skuggevik]

And Bernick too had considered himself above the law to achieve his ends. But he lacked the quasi-mystical fervour of Borkman.

More recently, there was Master Builder Solness, who had also come from humble origins and had worked his way up, and who had also ruthlessly used those around him to gain his worldly success. He is in many ways a close match to Borkman. He too speaks of serving people (or, at least, of building houses “for people to live in”) but shows little concern for people in any other aspect of his life. Both Solness and Borkman have a self-regard that is at times blasphemous: both say of themselves, as the voice of God had said to Moses out of the burning bush, “I am what I am”.

But of course, this man who “is what he is” is also a man afraid to leave his own house. The dreams and visions that sustain him are merely rather pathetic comfort blankets. He is flattered in this by Frida’s father, a rather pathetic little man, Villem Foldal. Foldal too has his life-sustaining illusion: he is, both at home and outside, a downtrodden little man, but he had written once a tragic drama, and he is convinced that, one day, the greatness of this drama will be recognised. He had been one of those insignificant little men who had been ruined by Borkman’s fraud, but he comes to Borkman regularly, both to assure and to be assured: he assures Borkman that his dream of once again attaining power isn’t really dead; and Borkman, in turn, keeps alive Foldal’s own dream of some day being recognised as a poet. A comic pair, perhaps more suited for a play by Molière than one of Ibsen’s darkest tragedies. But their mutually supporting relationship cannot last: Foldal is injudicious enough to bring up the rather unpleasant truth that Borkman cannot have access to the financial world again given his conviction, and Borkman, stung by the ray of reality breaking in upon him, bluntly tells Foldal that he is no poet. After all, how can someone who does not recognise the poetic beauty of Borkman’s dreams be a poet? And this Molièresque scene of comedy ends, as Molière’ own scenes often do, on a surprisingly poignant note. But despite the break, both Foldal and Borkman cling on to their respective illusions.

There is one further element to the play: youth – those characters who, unlike the principal characters of this drama, do have a future. There Frida, the 15 year-old who comes over to play the piano for John Gabriel; there’s Fanny Wilton, a beautiful young lady (in her early 30s, we are told) who presents herself as widowed, but who is most likely divorced (divorce carried a huge social stigma in those days); and, of course, there’s Erhart himself, from whom so much is expected. Once again, compared to characters in Ibsen’s earlier works, these are simple characters: there is not much more to them than what one sees on the surface. What unites them – at least, the two older ones – is simply a desire, as Erhart puts it, to “live, live, live”. And there are no metaphysical complexities involved in what they mean by this: they mean the pleasure of the moment.

Fanny Wilton is an outgoing and assertive personality: it was her former husband, and not herself, who had been unfaithful, and in those days, it must have required a quite uncommonly self-assertive character in a woman to seek divorce and to accept the social stigma that went with it. It is she who decides to travel south, towards the sun (and there is an obvious symbolism here in the comparison between the sun she goes to, and the snowstorm she leaves behind). She takes with her the others of this league of youth – Erhart and Frida, in the sleigh-carriage with its tinkling bells.

The image of Youth simply walking away from the failures and unhealthy obsessions of their elders is an attractive one, but it’s not quite so straight-forward as it may seem. Fanny Wilton’s unashamed explanation for taking the 15-year-old Frida with them can, even now, or, perhaps, especially now, seem rather shocking:

Men are so fickle, Mrs Borkman. Women too. When Erhart has finished with me – and I with him – it would be good for both of us if, poor thing, he has someone to fall back on.

There is nothing moral about the rebellion of Youth. The duties and the responsibilities the older generation expect from Erhart are almost casually discarded, and the rebellion is not intellectual or philosophical in any sense. Erhart and Fanny Wilton are not even going off together because they love each other: they are going away with each other for no other reason than that they want sex – sex in the southern sun. It really is that simple.

But the departure of Youth for the southern sun is not where the play ends. We have one further act, in which are left behind not merely the dying, but, one suspects, those who are already dead. And the blizzard that has been raging outside till now comes now to the forefront: we now leave that over-heated house, and find ourselves right in the cold blankness of the snow. If we had suspected that the previous three acts weren’t quite taking place in the real world, we can have no doubts about it now. We are now in an imaginary world, a visionary world, not perhaps quite in the realms of death, but not quite in the land of the living either.

And the three protagonists in this drama go into death without any new understanding of themselves, without any conciliation with the past. Borkman finally leaves his house, and he and Ella, though as yet unreconciled, and the crime for which there is no forgiveness still unforgiven, tramp off together into the snow. But first, we are reminded of another corpse left behind: Villem Foldal, the downtrodden man who thinks himself a poet.

And in a sense, though not in the sense he had thought, he is a poet. He has been knocked down by a sleigh, has lost his spectacles, and has hurt his foot: he is more absurd and insignificant and downtrodden than ever. But when he hears that this carriage that has knocked him down had in it his own daughter, who is heading for the sun, far from being anguished, he is overjoyed. One cannot help feeling that this strange joy is the only pure ray of sunlight in the entire play: he is happy – happy that his daughter may find something of a joy that it has never been his privilege to have had. And this holy simpleton leaves the stage in a state of happiness that we fear none of the other characters in the play have ever known, or ever will know.

Certainly not the three remaining corpses. The one hope that Gunhild had nursed for some sixteen years now is shattered: her son Erhart was never the person to carry on his shoulders that great burden she had wanted to place on them, and she is in despair. Ella too now realises that, with Erhart’s departure, there will be nothing left of her; and she accepts this final defeat with grace. But as for Borkman, defeat is something he cannot even contemplate: this time, he finally plucks up the courage to come outside his house, though as deeply immersed as ever in his illusions.

Borkman and Ella together walk up through the snow, to a bench over a view of the world below: this was a place they used to come to in their younger days, but where we might expect this circumstance to awaken in Borkman’s mind the more tender feelings he once had for Ella, we see him enmired still in his dream of power. Dead men cannot develop, after all, and Borkman is already dead. And he intones what is in effect a hymn to the power and the glory he had dreamed of:

BORKMAN: Ella, can you see the mountain ranges there – far away? One behind the other. They rise. They tower up! There lies my vast, infinite, inexhaustible kingdom!

ELLA: Oh, but there’s an icy blast coming from that kingdom, John!

BORKMAN: That blast is like the breath of life to me. That blast comes over me like a greeting from my spirit subjects. I sense them, the trapped millions; I feel the veins of metal ore stretching out their arms to me, branching, beckoning, coaxing. That night when I stood in the bank vault holding the lantern in my hand, I saw them before me like shadows come to life. You all wanted to be liberated then. And I tried to do it. But I lacked the power. The treasure sank back into the depths. [with outstretched hands] But I will whisper to this in the still of the night: I love you, as you lie there in the deep of the darkness with the look of death! I love you, life-craving riches – I love you, and all your blazing retinue of power and glory! I love, love, love you!

It is in this state of religious ecstasy that Borkman dies. He gives his life to that which, to him, is more precious than life itself. At the very end, he feels a cold hand grasp his heart. Not a hand of ice, but a hand of iron. He sacrifices himself to the gods whom he had loved. And at the end, the two women, the twin sisters, themselves dead, hold hands over the dead man.

***

The late plays of Ibsen are notoriously obscure, and it is hard to know just how to interpret this. Given Borkman’s transcendent longing for power, he has been linked, naturally enough, to Nietzsche, and this play has been seen both as a Nietzschean play, and also as a play critical of Nietzschean ideas. I don’t know that either will do: these plays weren’t written, after all, to demonstrate any specific or even any general point. Rather, I see it as a bleak and ferocious and unforgiving winter landscape, a depiction – as Ibsen himself put it – of “the coldness of the heart”. It is a world balanced between life and death: often, especially in the final act, we feel as if we are already in the icy realms of Death, an icy and unforgiving region into which we carry, unrepentant, all the coldness and delusions that have lived with, all our crimes unatoned. And, especially, that crime for which there is no forgiveness, which, as Ibsen interprets it, is the murder of love within our beings.

Perhaps only a Holy Fool like Villem Foldal may escape.

The literary ferocity of Henry James

In response to an aspiring writer who, perhaps somewhat foolishly, had asked him for feedback, Henry James, after some preliminary gentleness, was rather brutally direct: “I’m not so sure that [your work] strikes me as quite so ferociously literary as my ideal.”

Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of discouraging a young writer; and leaving aside also the justice of James’ criticism, or the unexpected use of the adverb “ferociously”; James’ response is striking: the problem, for him, is not that the work he had been asked to judge was bad, as such: it was just not as ferociously literary as he might have liked. For the enemy of the good is not really the bad: it is the mediocre, which can often be mistaken for something better.

Nowadays, “mediocre” is often used as a synonym for “bad”. It isn’t, of course: far from it. Mediocrity is, indeed, something I often strive for myself in these blog posts, and feel happy if I ever I think I have attained it. And though I have long given up the idea of writing a novel myself, should I ever resurrect that ambition, I would be more than delighted to achieve something that may be deemed “mediocre”. But it is that tantalising gap between the mediocre on the one hand, and James’ literary ferocity on the other, that gives me pause.

For, sadly, I have read too many novels that are often praised by reviewers in fulsome terms, sometimes even with comparisons with Austen and Tolstoy and Flaubert and the like, where, mediocre though the novel is (and, once again, I do not use the term in a derogatory sense), it falls well short of James’ literary ferocity. There’s nothing wrong with that: I do not mean to sneer. Mediocrity, properly understood, is by no means a pejorative, since it is, virtually by definition, the norm in any field of human activity: it can even, sometimes, cover some works that are very good indeed. But those many reviewers who make so freely such comparisons seem to me to lack awareness of the gap between the book they are reviewing, and the books they are comparing it to. For the standards of the latter are exceptionally high, and only very rarely achieved.

The problem I so often have with so many of these highly praised novels is that, all too often, I really don’t care. Just as when, in a pub, some boozing crony tells me of some friend of his, whom I do not know; and he tells me of a marriage I do not know slowly drifting apart; of difficult parents whom I do not know; of rebellious offspring too, whom I also do not know; and the like; and I sit there, nodding away as sympathetically as I can, wondering all the time why I should be expected to take an interest in the lives of those strangers whom, as I say, I do not know. Not that these things are not important: it’s just that there is no reason why a stranger like myself should find these matters relating to people I do not know particularly interesting.

I feel similarly with many novels I read. For I begin any novel a mere stranger, and the characters contained therein are also strangers to me. The success or otherwise of fiction depends to a great extent on how well the author can make me feel that these characters in the fiction are more than mere strangers, and that what happens to them, what they think, how they act, how they interact with others, are all worth taking an interest in. How authors who achieve this do so isn’t easy to explain: since different authors achieve this in different ways, the means of their achievement cannot all be corralled together into any definite set of criteria; and even considering single works, determining just what the author does to render these characters as something more than mere strangers generally proves a fruitless task: in any major work of art there lies a mystery the heart of which not even the finest analysis can quite pluck out. But it’s when the author doesn’t achieve this that the failure, for me at any rate, becomes all too apparent. Or – who knows? – it may be that I just get too easily bored in my advancing years.

I spent much of last year reading James’ The Wings of the Dove. I was about to write “re-reading”, but given how little I had taken in at my first reading, such boasting didn’t seem appropriate. It took me a great many months to read. This is, firstly, because I am a slow reader at best of times; secondly, because the notoriously opaque prose style characteristic of the later works of James is not conducive to anything resembling a “quick read”; and, thirdly, since my illness a few years ago, I find it frankly difficult to maintain my concentration on anything for long, uninterrupted stretches of time. But despite all this, I got through it. Progress was painfully slow – sometimes a mere two to three page a day – but I got there, eventually. No, it wasn’t an easy read, and neither was it un-put-down-able: on the contrary, I had to put it down frequently, to think about what I’d just read. Or what I’d just re-read, since many of the sentences needed more than one reading. I realise that none of these encomia is likely to make it to the cover of the book to encourage readers to take it up, but, despite eventually finishing around October or so last year, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since. Here was literary ferocity.

As with much of James – especially in his late works – nothing is ever spelt out: James seems endlessly to be circling about his points, hinting, suggesting, indicating, but never doing anything so vulgar as to spit it out. The plot proceeds subterraneously, as it were, rendering any attempt at summary crude; but should such a summary be attempted, what would emerge would most probably be melodramatic, and, by the end, not a little sentimental (although both melodrama and sentimentality are terms that should be used carefully in criticism). What emerges, when read carefully (which is, after all, the only way possible to read a book such as this), is the most penetrating insight into the vagaries of human perceptions and of human motives, the most delicate account of the developing sensibilities, and the most harrowing account of guilt and of forgiveness – or, rather, of the inability to accept forgiveness.

I will, despite what I have said, give some indication of the plot. It centres around a dying heiress, and of the vultures who gather around her – an impoverished aristocrat, and, more significantly, a young couple who don’t quite plot as such (that would be too crude in James’ fictional world), but who reach an unspoken understanding with each other that should he convince the dying heiress of his love for her, he might then inherit her wealth, and then marry the woman whom he really loves. It all seems terribly sordid, and it is. But once the dove folds its wings (the Biblical echoes of the title can hardly be mistaken), what she leaves behind is a sorrow that is more than that due to her passing: it is her forgiveness that leaves a chasm in the souls of those she leaves behind; it is her forgiveness that cannot be accepted.

It left me in tears. Such was its literary ferocity, for a long time I found myself unable to think about anything else: any other fiction I attempted thereafter seemed to me insipid. I had initially thought to write a blog post on it, but soon realised I couldn’t. That isn’t because the work is complex: foolhardy as I am, I am not averse to writing at excessive length on works of great complexity. It is, rather, that I didn’t understand how James achieved it. Yes, I could analyse the structure to the best of my ability, I could focus in on individual details and expatiate on their significance, and all the rest of it. But nothing would take me close to the effect it had on me.

I am not really, I confess, at home with James. I do not feel I have an instinctive grasp of his aesthetics, as I do with, say, the works of Dickens. Reading something like The Wings of the Dove, I seem to find myself in an unfamiliar land, and struck to the point of being overwhelmed by unfamiliar landmarks, and yet unable to articulate why they affect me so. Analysing the art with which he achieves all this, working out how he invests his characters, their relationships with each other, and, more perhaps to the point, their relationships with their own selves, with more than merely the passing interest of a stranger, would really be well beyond me. But I wanted to register, at any rate, how this novel made me feel; and also express my growing impatience that superlatives that should only be reserved for the finest should so liberally be applied to, frankly, the less deserving. For while the distinction between the good and the bad is still apparent – no-one would think of ranking any of the shades of grey, say, alongside the achievements of an Austen or a Tolstoy – the distinction is becoming increasingly blurred between the mediocre (once again, no pejorative intended) and the finest.

Or, as James might have put it with so uncharacteristic a bluntness, between the mediocre, and that which has about it a literary ferocity.

From Monsoon to April Showers: poems from Bengali to English

It may not have escaped readers of this blog that there is a handful of writers about whom I tend to bang on interminably, and that one of these writers is Rabindranath Tagore. That is not too surprising. The propensity to bang on interminably about Rabindranath Tagore is, along with loving fish curry, a defining characteristic of a Bengali. But I have gone a step further than just bang on about Tagore: in my spare time, I have also been translating a number of his poems, mainly, I think, because working with those poems, often, indeed, wrestling with them and trying to tease out their various nuances and complexities, helped bring me closer to these glorious works. And, after a while, standing back from them as best as I could, it struck me that these translations held up rather well in their own right as poems in English.

Now, it may be, these poems will be shared with a wider audience. Nothing is certain yet: indeed, nothing can be certain in these uncertain times. Nothing has been agreed formally. But I have been speaking with Holland House Books, and – fingers crossed – a slim volume, as they say, may well be published shortly. What is currently being planned is an illustrated volume, with the illustrations tending towards abstraction, and reflecting the mood and the tone of the poems.

I am, as I need hardly emphasise, an amateur, both in the sense that translation has not been my day job, and also, more importantly I think, in the sense that the very word “amateur” is derived from the Latin word amare: I worked on these poems purely for the love of them.

Looking back – something I tend often to do, as, once again, readers of this blog will no doubt have noticed – I have actually been a translator for many years now without quite knowing it. Going to school or the first time in Britain, aged five, and not knowing a word of English, I could not at first give voice to my Bengali thoughts; but after a while, once I had picked up enough of this strange new language, all my communication outside home consisted of my Bengali thoughts translated into English. I still have a vivid memory from those days of, one day, seeing a lady walking in front of me in the street dropping a letter, and walking on without having realised; and my picking up that letter and running after her, thinking all the while how to explain in English, once I had caught up with her, that she had dropped it. Even then, I think, I was translating.

Translation became, for many years, second nature to me in that respect, until, inevitably, my second language became, effectively, my first, and, without realising it, I started even to think in English. But old habits die hard: every time I read Bengali, I couldn’t help thinking to myself how it could best be rendered into English. Not just the literal meaning, but all those other meanings that lie hidden under the literal. Perhaps my taking on the poems of Tagore was simply a natural extension of an old unforgotten habit: I was too used to translating to just stop.

But whatever the causes, we are where we are. These translations, hidden for so long on my laptop, may at long last see light of day, and readers may even, I hope, be as appreciative as that lady had been when I had handed her the letter.

There’s a long way still to go, but should this develop as we hope, there may be cause for cracking open the champagne yet some time not too distant. I’ll keep you posted.