Acquired tastes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Season’s greetings 2020

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

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

See you all next year!

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

“A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens

SPOILER WARNING: The following does not dwell upon the plot of A Tale of Two Cities, but inevitably, some elements of the plot are revealed.

It goes without saying, I know, that anyone is entitled to like whatever book they want, and for any reason they want, without having to answer to anyone for their preference; but nonetheless, I do, I admit, find it somewhat dispiriting when a writer I particularly admire is widely celebrated for a specific work that I don’t.

I last read A Tale of Two Cities in my teenage years, and, not thinking much of it at the time, hadn’t returned to it since. However, I do enjoy reading a bit of Dickens around this time of the year, and, noticing that this novel is sandwiched (chronologically, that is) between Little Dorrit and Great Expectations, two novels I love deeply, thought it might be time to give it another chance. Surely a great novelist at the height of his powers would, at the very least, produce something that is not entirely without merit. So I picked it up, and started with that celebrated opening:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way …

Yes, those repeated rhythms build up a fine head of steam (“anaphora”, I believe it’s called); but they seem to serve no discernible purpose other than to start the work with an incantatory rhythm. And then, having come this far, Dickens seems to have no idea how to finish the sentence:

—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

What’s going on? Dickens normally had a splendid ear for the rhythms of the English language, but here, right in the opening sentence, having built up a rhythmic momentum, he lets it slip at the very end into bathos. Neither what he says at the end of that sentence, nor his manner of saying it, seems a fitting conclusion to the rhetoric that had come earlier.

I gather that Dickens was, personally, going through a bit of a bad time when writing this novel, but, as a reader, I don’t know that I can admit that as a mitigating factor. And anyway, whatever bad time he was going through, he seemed to have pulled himself together for Great Expectations, which was published just one year after this. But where Great Expectations seems to me among the finest examples of the novelist’s art, this, frankly, isn’t: even his rhetoric – an area in which he normally excelled – seems tired. It seems hard to avoid the conclusion that his heart just wasn’t in this one – that he was merely going through the motions.

Dickens is popularly known as a Great Storyteller, but it has long struck me that this was one of the things he wasn’t. In Oliver Twist, for instance (which I read this time a couple of years ago, and reported on here), he not only makes use of highly unlikely plot devices to move the novel on, he actually repeats them. But Oliver Twist had many elements to relish other than the plot: here, on the other hand, Dickens has up his sleeve a splendid plot, but his prodigious invention seems to have run dry: he has nothing to offer but the plot.

That wouldn’t in itself have been a problem if he had been adept at handling the plot: one imagines someone like Dumas, say, would have made a splendid job of a storyline like this. But Dickens had an imagination which soared when he didn’t have to focus on something so mundane as a storyline. Fagin has a life of his own that exists outside the demands of the plot, and he is tremendously vivid and memorable; Monks, in the same novel, is introduced purely to move the plot forward, and he is neither vivid nor memorable. In this novel, each character exists only in terms of the mechanics of the plot: none has an independent life outside that plot; and the results seem to me distinctly pallid.

In something such as, say, The Count of Monte Cristo, which, for me, is a masterpiece of pure storytelling, Dumas gives us only as much as we need to know about any character to make the plot believable (in its own terms, at least); he never gives us more, but he never gives us less either. Here, the plot depends almost entirely on Sydney Carton’s self-loathing, and on his passion for Lucie Manette. So, to make the plot believable, Dickens needs to tell us why Sydney Carton loathes himself, and why he is so passionately in love with Lucie. Dickens tells us neither. Sydney Carton is self-loathing simply because he is; Lucie inspires a passion in him simply because she does. These are brute facts that  need to be taken for given. But in the context of the story, that really doesn’t satisfy, especially as, with Lucie Manette, Dickens had returned to old habits that, in his immediately preceding novels at least, he had appeared to have left behind: she appears throughout pure and virginal (even after years of marriage), angelically good in everything, unfailingly meek and gentle, and in the habit of swooning every now and then when things get a bit rough. On the page, it becomes difficult to believe in her as a living, breathing character. And this makes Sydney Carton’s passion for her particularly unbelievable. One might as well fall in love with a ceramic doll.

Contrary to popular opinion on this matter, it isn’t as if Dickens wasn’t capable of portraying interesting female characters, or of portraying erotic obsession: in his very next novel, he does both, with a novelistic brilliance that still takes my breath away. Of course, Pip and Estella have about them an emotional complexity that would have been out of place here, but some depth of characterisation, at least enough to make the story credible, would have been more than welcome.

Even in small matters, things go wrong. For instance, consider the scene where Madame Defarge visits Lucie accompanied by a friend, and Dickens has to tell us explicitly who this friend is:

Both the women followed; the second woman being The Vengeance.

This is clumsy. The woman known as The Vengeance had been introduced earlier, and any decent storyteller would have given her at her first appearance a distinctive characteristic, and impressed that characteristic on the reader’s mind, so that when she later re-appears, the author would need only to mention that characteristic, and the reader will be able to pick up who is being referred to. This ain’t, as they say, rocket science. But even here, Dickens fails.

Similarly with the revelation of Madame Defarge’s relationship with the murdered peasants we hear of in Dr Manette’s story. Something like this should have been a climactic point in the tribunal scene, surely, rather than a passing detail revealed in a private conversation afterwards. One need not be a Master Storyteller to figure out something so obvious.

I won’t labour the point. There are many other such examples, small perhaps in themselves, but they all pile up, and point to the inescapable surmise that Dickens’ heart wasn’t in this, that he was merely going through the motions.

So are there any redeeming points? Well, I suppose the story remains good, even though it is not too well told. There is the occasional touch or two that suggests the author is capable of better, but frankly not much. And yes, the pace does pick up a bit in the third of this three act structure, but given how badly that pace had sagged in the middle act, that’s not really much of a compliment. There’s nothing here of the incidental humour, or of the gallery of colourful eccentrics and grotesques, that livens up even lesser Dickens novels. However, for all my strictures, it cannot be denied that, for Anglophone readers at least, it is this novel more than any other book, fiction or otherwise, that has fixed in the mind the image of the French Revolution. And I guess that’s no mean achievement.

But even taking that into consideration, in this instance, I think my estimate of some forty-five or so years ago remains intact: this really isn’t Dickens at his best. Or anywhere near.

But I shouldn’t complain. When you’re a completist like me, you take the misses with the hits. And Dickens did, after all, follow this up with Great Expectations, and then with Our Mutual Friend: when your favourite uncle has given you so many wonderful presents, it’s a bit churlish to complain about the odd dud or two.

It still leaves me puzzled, admittedly, on what his admirers see in this one, but to each his own, as they say!

“The Common Breath” literary questionnaire

Glasgow-based publishing imprint The Common Breath invite the great and the good to answer a literary questionnaire every week. This week, they made an exception and invited me as well. Do please take a look.



Take heed of perjury; thou art on thy deathbed.


Ay, but not yet to die.


Yes, presently

When Othello says Desdemona is to die “presently”, he doesn’t mean “in a while” he means now – immediately. This ideally needs a gloss in printed versions of the play, to prevent misunderstanding: the meaning of the word has clearly changed considerably since Shakespeare’s day. How and why this change has come about, I do not know, but it’s a fair guess, I think, that it changed not because someone somewhere decreed the change, but because people who spoke and wrote in English began to use the word differently (possibly out of ignorance); and because this different usage soon caught on, and the older meaning of the word became obsolete. This may or may not be a loss to the English language: I would say it isn’t, but wouldn’t argue too strongly with those who claim it is. But, even if is a loss, and even if the change came about due to mass ignorance, the fact remains that any modern speaker of the English language who uses the word “presently” to mean “immediately” is likely not to be understood; and that any dictionary that defines “presently” as “immediately”, without indicating that this meaning is archaic, would be frankly worthless. For dictionaries and grammar books have to describe the language as it is currently used. Otherwise, what is the point of having them? And if usage changes (as it invariably does), the dictionaries and grammar books have to keep pace with the changes; for if they don’t, it will be the dictionaries and grammar books that will become useless, not the language.

The above represents a fairly radical change in my thoughts on the matter. I used to be – and, to be honest, still am – a bit of a stickler for correctness. But it is worth asking what correctness is. Is it adherence to a set of rules that have been decreed from on high, ex cathedra, and to which we must adhere? If so, why? Who made up these rules, and what authority do they have? Or does the concept of correctness lie, rather, in a grammar that is an accurate and systematic description of the way language is actually used? – a formal codification of the various ways in which we concatenate individual words together to make sense to the listener?

To say I opt for the latter is not to say that I now think that “anything goes”. Good heavens! – when I see the levels of illiteracy online, not from people who have been denied an education but from those who have spent many years at school at great cost to the taxpayer – I find my inner pedant returning with a vengeance. I become a furious gammon-like reactionary, even calling (when I am sure that no-one except close family is around to hear me) for these people to return to the taxpayer the money that has been wasted on attempting to educating them. “As long as you know what they’re saying” cuts no ice with me either, because, quite frequently, I can’t tell what they’re saying in their mad jumble of words, innocent as they are of any meaningful punctuation, or, indeed, quite often, of any punctuation at all. But, once I return to sanity, I find myself more liberal than pedantic in these matters: a grammar book that does not describe how the English language is currently used is pretty worthless – for what possible purpose can it serve?

And current usage is changing, as it always does. Recently, I found myself involved in a Twitter thread on the usage of the word “whom”. It is a word I have always used in my writing (though less punctiliously in my speech) when I have felt it to be correct, but a great many people, including some literary luminaries, said in this Twitter thread that the word “whom” had already become obsolete, and that to use this word is to risk appearing quaint, or even affected. Oh dear, I thought. I don’t mind appearing quaint once in a while – that’s part of my authorial persona, I like to think – but affected?  Surely not!

Of course, if a significant proportion of English users do use “who” rather than “whom”, then dictionaries and grammar books have to mark that usage as “also acceptable”. And when virtually no-one uses “whom”, then the word “whom” will have to be marked in square brackets as [archaic], or [now obsolete]. We haven’t reached that point yet, but I think we’re getting there. In the meantime, till we do get there, whether one chooses to use “whom” rather than “who” remains a matter of one’s individual stylistic preference.

Of course, when I speak about using “whom”, I refer to its correct usage. For the concept of correctness hasn’t yet gone out of the window. The word “whom” can also be (and, indeed, often is) used incorrectly. If I am to speak of, say, Joyce Cary, whom I think is a somewhat underrated writer these days, I’d be wrong – not necessarily in my literary estimation, but in my incorrect use of the word “whom”. This is not stylistic preference: it is just plain wrong. And it is an error that would display, rather comically, a desire to be correct without understanding what correctness is. (There should be, and probably is, a word to describe this, but I cannot think what that word is, and would be grateful for suggestions.)

But, while I appreciate that I cannot hold back the tide, I would personally be sorry to see the word “whom” disappear. “For who the bell tolls” doesn’t sound at all right. And when the word following “whom” is “I” or “he”, then replacing “whom” with “who” strikes me as very awkward:

“… Dickens, who I love…”

“…Mozart, who he worships…”

These successions of vowel sounds unbroken by any consonant (other than the aspirate “h”) sound very awkward to me. “Whom” should, at the very least, be a valid choice here, if only for euphony if not for correctness.

But, whether I like it or not, if usage continues in the direction it has been treading in so far, and the word “whom” really does become archaic, we have no option but to accept that. Just as we’re now happy to accept the modern meaning of the word “presently”. For what other choice do we have? But while the choice remains, “whom”, (when used correctly, that is), does remain my personal preference.

(Re)-Reading Pushkin

Every now and then, out of sheer boredom and lassitude, I guess, I look at one of those tedious “How Many of These Classics Have You Read?” quizzes you get online. Madame Bovary? Yes, been there, done that. Huckleberry Finn? Yes, that’s a tick too. To Kill a Mockingbird? Eh? Oh, of course, that’s one everyone has heard of because they’ve had to read it at school. And it’s a decent enough book too, so fair enough. The Lord of the Rings? Yes, but only if I’m lying. Atlas Shrugged? Oh, for heavens’ sake! – why am I even doing this? I’m out of here!

It’s a great temptation to tot up numbers. The number of books you have on your shelves, the number of books you’ve bought recently, the number of books you’ve read. I suppose talking about numbers saves us the immense trouble of talking about the books themselves. I used to think all this was a fairly harmless distraction, but I am increasingly unsure of this. Is not this focus on numbers – on the amount we read – distracting us from absorbing more fully what we read? When we have finished a book, shouldn’t we, perhaps, spend some time – a few days, a week perhaps – just thinking about what we’ve just read, contemplating it, letting it sink into our consciousness a bit more deeply, rather than merely ticking it off the list and rushing on to the next one?

If any of these “How Many of These Classics Have You Read” lists were to include, say, Pushkin’s The Captain’s Daughter (not that they would, of course, since, unlike something like To Kill a Mockingbird, it’s not one of the approved classics that many people will at least have heard of), I would have answered “yes”, and ticked it off, since, as a teenager, I had undoubtedly read it. But, as I reported in my last post on this blog, I had as a teenager missed just about everything that made it so remarkable a work. In short, the fact that I had actually read it didn’t really mean much: I could tick it off the list, sure, and increment my score, but really, I might as well not have read it.

This applies to many other books I have read too, especially in my younger days. Stendhal? Yes, sure, I’ve read Le Rouge et le Noir and La Chartreuse de Parme. But, truth to tell, I don’t remember them very well. I doubt I took in any more of those books at the time than I did of The Captain’s Daughter. The novels of Flaubert I have revisited several times over the years, because they fascinated me (and still do), but the novels of Stendhal I haven’t. That in itself may say something about my own sensibilities, but the fact remains that even if Le Rouge et le Noir or La Chartreuse de Parme pops up in these quizzes, I would not really be justified in ticking either of them, as even the little I took in when I read them hasn’t stayed with me. Can I, in that sense, claim honestly to have read these books at all?

In recent weeks, I have been reading quite a bit of Pushkin. I should say re-reading, but, as with The Captain’s Daughter, I had taken in so little in my first reading (and had retained so little of the little I had taken in), I think it’s best just to stick with “reading” rather than “re-reading”. Take “The Queen of Spades”. I remembered it being a straightforward ghost story: now, it didn’t seem anywhere near so straightforward (indeed, my older self finds myself a bit puzzled by what my younger self had taken in its stride), and even its claim to be a ghost story seems to me to be in some doubt. Near the start of the tale, we are led to believe that the old Countess had had some sort of diabolical visitation, and that the secret knowledge she had gained from it had saved her from financial ruin. But this is, after all, just a story that we hear at second hand. Had the Countess really had dealings with the other world? If so, the other world had not left any otherworldly marks on her. When she appears, we see someone who seems very much this-worldly – a rather petty, mean-spirited, and frankly nasty old woman, almost like one of those grotesque characters that appear in Goya’s Black Paintings – a hideous, vain creature dressing absurdly in fashionable costumes intended for younger women, and tyrannising her young ward Lisa.

Hermann, though, believes the story he hears about her other-worldly past, and ingratiates himself with Lisa to gain access to her. There is a parallel drawn – self-consciously absurd – between Hermann and Napoleon: Hermann even looks a bit like Napoleon, we are told, and he wishes to raise himself with his own will, as Napoleon had done. But the absurdity lies in the fact that whereas Napoleon had done this by commanding armies and winning battles, Hermann’s act of will is no more than threatening an old woman with a gun. There is a clear foreshadowing here of Raskolnikov in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment: he too, had compared himself to Napoleon, and had questioned whether Napoleon would have allowed the life of a worthless old woman to stand in his way; but, as with Hermann, Raskolnikov’s comparison is absurd; Napoleon had no more murdered old women with an axe than he had threatened them with a gun, demanding they reveal to him their diabolical secrets.

In Tchaikovsky’s much romanticised opera based on this story, Lisa, on discovering Hermann had merely been using her, commits suicide in despair. And Hermann himself, after being defeated in his attempt to become Napoleon, kills himself, asking for forgiveness in his final bars. But all this heavy-duty Romanticism is very far from Pushkin’s story. There, Hermann ends up in an insane asylum, and Lisa ends up marrying someone else and lives a contented life: would-be Napoleons like Hermann don’t really leave waves behind in Pushkin’s world, or even much of a ripple.

Would this rather un-Romantic world, I wonder, really accommodate dealings with the other world? What of the story about the old Countess really were but a story? In short, is it only at the end of the story that Hermann goes mad? If we pursue this tack of thought, we find that it isn’t a ghost story at all. But then, what is it? How do we characterise it? Suddenly, what had seemed a straight-forward ghost story when I read it in my teenage years seems to become something else, something quite different – though what it is remains, despite its clarity of narrative, deeply enigmatic: I cannot quite put my finger on it. “The Queen of Spades indicates some covert malice”, says the epigraph of the story (in Alan Myers’ translation); this epigraph, Pushkin tells us (not very seriously, I presume) is taken from “the latest fortune-telling manual”. But what malice? Whose malice? The more one looks at this seemingly straightforward tale – this tale that had caused me no problem over forty years ago – the more puzzling it all seems to be.

But sometimes, it’s worth spending one’s time being puzzled. Life is puzzling, and one shouldn’t expect anything that holds up a mirror to life to be any less so. It’s worth spending time contemplating the work, not to solve the puzzle, as such, but rather, getting to know the puzzle a bit better, and understanding that any resolution one might reach is but provisional, and awaiting merely one’s next encounter.

So I’m afraid that at the end of all that, I have no theory to offer on what “The Queen of Spades” is actually about. But that, I tell myself, is all right. Grappling with literature, I tell myself, is not about solving things, any more than it is about totting up scores. And more recently, I read (re-read?) Tom Beck’s translation of Eugene Onegin. But let’s leave that one for a later post.

“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 practises 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. Also, 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?