“Smoke” by Ivan Turgenev

Smoke by Ivan Turgenev, translated by Michael Pursgove, published by Alma Classics

*** SPOILER WARNING: This post inevitably reveals some details of the plot ***

I actually remember well the first time I read Turgenev’s Smoke: it was shortly before the UK release of Woody Allen’s Manhattan in 1980. I remember watching he film and being struck by how similar the storylines were. In both, there’s a male protagonist (aged around thirty in the novel, but a bit older in the film); a very young lady to whom he is attached; and a far more sophisticated lady, who is closer to his own age, with whom he falls in love, and for whose sake he turns his back on his younger love. And the storylines develop in much the same way. I suppose it is a fairly standard storyline, and I am certainly not accusing anyone of plagiarism. And it is the sort of storyline one comes to expect from Turgenev: the flowering of love, innocence betrayed, the vagaries of the heart, regret, missed opportunities, sorrow, unhappiness brought upon one’s own self by one’s foolishness and lack of moral purpose … it’s all present and correct. What matters, of course, is not the storyline as such, but what is made of it.

What Turgenev makes of it seems to me a gentle, charming love story, nostalgic and melancholy, and aching with wistfulness. Yes, we’ve all been there before. Possibly, after the greater depths broached in his previous novel Fathers and Sons, we may have been entitled to expect something a bit more thematically ambitious. But, then again, art is not to be judged on its novelty alone: there’s always room for yet another wistful love story.

But what surprises nowadays is that a novel so seemingly inoffensive as this should, at the time, have caused such a political storm. Fathers and Sons had done the same, of course, but there, many of the themes had been explicitly political. How is it, one wonders, that a book so apparently innocuous, written by a writer who insistently aligned himself with moderation in all things – moderation not out of indecisiveness or pusillanimity, but because he felt it his moral duty to avoid extremes of all sorts – should have caused such controversy? Perhaps my inability to answer that question indicates my inability to understand adequately the Russian mind of the nineteenth century, and the fury of the entrenched battle lines then drawn between West-looking liberalism, and the Slavophilism that rejected the West, and looked for salvation within the traditions of the Mother Russia. No-one seemed to deny that salvation, of some sort of other, was needed: but there was no agreement on where it was to be found. Turgenev’s gigantic contemporaries, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, went their own extreme ways: Dostoyevsky rejected the idea of a brotherhood imposed from above, and seemed to favour a brotherhood that could only spring spontaneously from below, in the traditions of the Russian Orthodox Church – although, given the multiplicity of voices to be found in his novels, no single idea seems able to keep its shape intact for very long; Tolstoy, meanwhile, seemed to turn towards a sort of Christian anarchism. Both geniuses were touched with madness. In contrast, Turgenev seems the most level-headed of them all – no mean feat given the untrammelled lunacy all around him. Perhaps this is the very reason why his works attracted such opprobrium.

But what seems particularly strange, given the intense controversy of the time, is how small a part politics seems to play in Smoke in the first place. In Fathers and Sons, the whole thing did turn on the conflict between different perspectives on the world, and, by implication, different politics: but here, even that seems to be absent. Turgenev does, it is true, introduce some reactionary aristocrats, and satirises them; but he introduces a group of radicals also, and similarly satirises them. These are not, frankly, the most memorable sections of the novel: Turgenev’s gifts for satire, certainly compared to, say, that of Gogol or Dostoyevsky, seem distinctly limited. And, indeed, so little a part do these scenes play in the novel, and so far are they from what I take to be its central themes, one can’t help wondering whether it would have been better without these scenes. For Turgenev was at his best, it seems to me, with smaller canvases – in his short stories and novellas: why expand the size of the canvas for no particular reason?

For the central themes of this novel is neither liberalism nor conservatism: indeed, it is not politics at all. It is about the mistakes one makes in life; it is about being led astray by one’s emotions, by the weakness of one’s moral purpose, by the inability to perceive matters truly, as they are. And with these themes, which I used in my Dostoyevsky-and-Tolstoy-obsessed youth to dismiss as slight, Turgenev was very much on home ground: no other author has ever conveyed with such delicacy and lyricism the sadness of it all. Of course, Turgenev had dealt with themes before, and, in his late novella, The Torrents of Spring, he addressed them again: but, despite what I may have thought in my youth, these themes are not slight, and are worth revisiting. We do not, after all, criticise Monet for painting those waterlilies so endlessly.

The action takes place in a spa town in Germany, and the drama is played out amongst expatriates. The protagonist, Litvinov, is betrothed to Tatyana, a name that to any educated Russian would instantly conjure up Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. And, like Pushkin’s Tatyana, Turgenev’s Tatyana is young and inexperienced, but also perceptive and intelligent, and possessed of a moral purpose that Litvinov clearly lacks. The third point of this triangle is Irina, whom Litvinov had loved some ten years earlier, but who had been married off to a wealthy aristocrat. (As ever, Turgenev fills us in on the past with a quite leisurely flashback.) Irina is still married, to a husband she does not care for, and, despite his feelings for Tatyana, Litivinov’s old love for Irina again wells up. Turgenev, as ever, conveys these subtleties of the heart with the most delicate of touches. He introduces another character, Potugin: he, too, is in love with Irina, but he is resigned to his passion remaining unfulfilled; and he follows round Irina and her husband wherever they go, asking for nothing, and receiving nothing. He is, I suppose, an image of what Litvinov may himself one day become: no matter how much we may extol love, there is no reason or logic in human passion, and it could, Turgenev knew, be deeply humiliating.

Once we strip away the politics from this novel – and it is easily stripped away – what remains is another sad and gentle love story. It would be easy to mistake this as slight, as I did once, but it isn’t. The vagaries of the human heart are always important, and always worth revisiting.



Why I blog

When I am asked why I write a blog, the ready answer – and, for once, an honest answer – is “pure egotism”. How can one not be thrilled by the thought that there are people whom I do not know, from, literally, all round the world, who actually read what I have written? Even if – as is more than likely – their response on having read my posts is “What a load of shite!”?

I recently submitted myself, not too unwillingly, I must admit, to a period of extended navel-gazing about this blog. It has been going for over seven years now. I have spent on it more hours than I care to think of. And, in recent months, I have been so physically tired that writing even casual posts has been proving difficult. I have even wondered whether I should stop now.

Other than egotism, I really am not sure why I do it. To share my enthusiasms? To let off steam? To come into contact with like-minded people, with whom I can talk about matters other than football? Yes, all of these, I suppose. But one motive I disclaim is the pedagogic: I do not pretend to know or to understand any of the works I write about to anywhere near an adequate level. All I think I am doing is setting out my own thoughts and reactions to what I read. These thoughts may occasionally hit the mark; at other times, they may be wildly off target. But, for better or worse, they are my thoughts at time of writing. And since every individual human is different, every individual’s reaction to a major work of literature – for only major works may be validly viewed from different perspectives – is different also.

And, I argue with myself, recording my own perspective – one perspective among many, obviously – may be worthwhile, even with works such as, say, Hamlet or Don Quixote, where it is not humanly possible even in an entire lifetime to read all that has been written about them. It is highly unlikely, to say the least, that I have anything to say about these works that hasn’t been said before, that I have thoughts about these works that haven’t been thought before. But so what? Does that mean we must stay silent?

I think there are really two main reasons why I blog. The first is that I feel the need to let off steam when I get angry about something. In this blog, what tends to rile me is the intrusion into literature – or into anything else, for that matter – of identity politics. I tend to lose my temper also when the sense of transcendence that the arts can induce is denied, or is denigrated. I realise that a quick temper is not the particularly conducive to cohesion either of thought or of expression, but, as the Earl of Kent said, anger hath a privilege. (Mind you, he was put in the stocks shortly afterwards.)

The second, and, I like to think, the more important reason is that I really do find it hard to contain my enthusiasm. I don’t really care that I have no new insights on Hamlet or on Don Quixote. I am not aiming to impart fresh new insights in the first place. I merely want to record my experience of reading – explain what I felt and what I thought while I was reading; or, sometimes, what aftertaste the book leaves behind. Of course, I try to make my writing as readable and as entertaining as I can: it is true that I write this blog primarily for myself, but I do want others to read it as well! I try also to say a bit more than “I liked it” or “I didn’t” (or, in contemporary parlance, “It was awesome!” or “It sucked!”). For, with the possible exception of supporting the Scotland football team (another of my vices), there’s nothing more boring than that.

In defiance of many modes of thought currently fashionable, I believe that there is such a thing as intrinsic quality, that everything isn’t merely “a matter of opinion”. Nowadays, “it’s just my opinion” is usually said with the intention ending a dialogue, rather than starting one. That is not to say that opinion (or personal taste) does not exist, or isn’t important: but we are not trapped inside our own minds – it is possible to take a leap of the imagination and look beyond our own personal perspective, and, in the course of doing so, broaden it.

For if there were no such thing as intrinsic quality, dialogue can get no further than a mere exchange of opinions. (And, to judge by so much I see online, dialogue usually doesn’t get further than that: it is very depressing.) But the corollary is that if there is such a thing as intrinsic quality; if Hamlet and Don Quixote are indeed great works, irrespective of how we may personally view them; then dialogue becomes not merely possible, but also important. Not just dialogue between learned academics, but also between ordinary readers like myself. For how else can we look beyond our own personal perspectives but by getting to know the perspectives of others? Now, more than ever, we need dialogue that goes a few steps beyond “It was awesome!” or “It sucked!”

And this, I think, is why I blog: I want to be part of this dialogue. I am not always very good at responding to others (especially these days, when the spirit is still willing but the flesh is even weaker than before), but I do feel it important to read and to absorb what other readers make of their reading. This kind of dialogue I don’t get, I’m afraid, from Goodreads or from Amazon “reviews”: but I do from many a blog I could name.

And so, for the moment at least, I think I shall carry on blogging. And all those readers from around the world who flatter my ego by adding to my blog stats can continue reading my posts, and saying to themselves: “What a load of shite!”

Art and morality: some reflections on a Twitter spat

As social media spats go, this one hardly registers on the Richter scale, but, largely because it refers to works rather close to my heart, it caught my attention.

It came in the wake of Royal Opera’s live cinecast of Verdi’s Otello. Both this opera, and the play by Shakespeare which sparked the imaginations of Verdi and of his librettist Boito, are very dear to me. I have spoken about these two works often enough on my blog (see note at foot of this post), so this time, I’ll give that a miss. I’ll also refrain from reviewing the performance: being entirely uneducated in musical matters, I make a rather poor music critic, I fear, although, for what it’s worth, I thought the whole thing quite magnificent. But I would like to comment on a series of exchanges that followed soon afterward on Twitter. Not having either the time, nor the energy, nor even the inclination to become involved in Twitter spats, I refrained from joining, but followed it all nonetheless with some interest.

It started with a lady putting up a series of tweets saying that this opera depicted domestic violence and honour killing (which it certainly does); that it glorifies these things (which I don’t think it does); and that, with these matters still distressingly very real, we should either not perform this work any more, or re-write the ending. Ether way, we should “move on”. She used the hashtag #haditsday.

I shall not argue against these contentions, since, I imagine, few would agree with her. (Certainly, no-one on Twitter came to her support.) And neither shall I link to these tweets, as it is not the purpose of this blog to name and shame private individuals. In any case, there were a fair number of dissenting responses to her tweets – some debating her points reasonably, others sarcastic and mocking. To her credit, she responded to her critics without resorting to the sort of personal abuse these social media tweets all too often descend into. But she stuck to her guns: whether it is Shakespeare’s Othello or Verdi’s Otello, either work has #haditsday.

While her conclusions may be wrong-headed, and her understanding of the nature of the arts, based, at least, on these tweets, questionable, her stance should not, I can’t help feeling, be dismissed out of hand. For her reaction to the work, the reaction which led to these conclusions, is authentic. She was shocked and disturbed by the opera. And that is correct: Otello is indeed shocking and disturbing, and it is quite right to be shocked and disturbed. It is those of us who have allowed years of familiarity to inure us to this sense of shock who should question our reactions.

And when she refers to Otello’s killing of Desdemona, one of the most earth-shattering scenes in all stage drama, as “domestic violence”, and an “honour killing”, she is absolutely right on both points. It’s those of us who habitually refer to Otello (or Othello) as “noble” who should be questioning ourselves. In real life, a man who does what Otello does will deserve no pity at all, no compassion, regardless of whatever back-story there may be. We would not consider any mitigating factor for a crime so horrendous, and we would be right not to do so. And yet, this is not what we feel when we experience Shakespeare’s play, or Verdi’s opera, and it is at least worthwhile asking “why?”. Why is it we endlessly debate and consider so deeply the state of Otello’s soul, or go so far as to refer to him as “noble”, when we would not even think of doing either for such a person in real life?

Some will say that art has nothing to do with morality, and that moral judgement plays no part in our appreciation of a work of art, but I don’t entirely buy that. If we see Othello or hear Otello, and fail to see Desdemona as good and Iago as evil, then we have rather missed the point. But the fact remains – and I find it a disquieting fact – that we can, up to a very significant point, suspend our moral judgement on Otello – or on the Macbeths, or on Raskolnikov, or on Humbert Humbert – when, in real life, we would have no hesitation whatever in passing moral judgement. And I am not sure why this is. I am not even sure that there exists a satisfactory answer to this.

So no, of course I do not think that either Othello or Otello has #haditsday, and that we should either stop performing them, or change the ending (although the latter option does involve some rather interesting possibilities!) But this lady’s tweets do bring to mind – well, to my mind at least – certain questions that I cannot really answer, but which strike me as rather intriguing. And, in an age when so many of us have become so blasé to art; when so many, indeed, see the arts but as a currency of lifestyle, or as an adjunct to an image of the self that one would like to project; I find it salutary to be reminded just how directly powerful and soul-shattering these works can still be.


NOTE: I have previously written about Shakespeare’s Othello here and here. I wrote a brief post here comparing Shakespeare’s play to Verdi’s opera. And I wrote a more detailed post here on what Verdi took from Shakespeare.

“Benito Cereno” by Herman Melville

*** SPOILER WARNING: Inevitably, the following gives away some details of the plot ***


As we sophisticated readers know, literature, and, indeed, the arts in general, have nothing to do with the propagation of moral values. Perhaps we should qualify that a bit: we wouldn’t want to exclude Aesop’s fables, after all. So let us say that literature does not necessarily have to propagate moral values. For, after all, given the bewildering complexity of human life, moral issues are rarely clear-cut, and any work attempting unambiguously to affirm certain codes of conduct, or to reject others, must either ignore the complexity of human affairs, or address only those affairs that are sufficiently straight-forward to allow for clarity. And, unless one is writing simple moral fables, neither of these options seems very promising.

All this we know. And yet, we continue to feel uneasy in the presence of works in which moral judgement seems required, but is withheld. This sense of unease is often deliberate. Lolita is a prime example: Nabokov does not, it is true, endorse his protagonist, who is a predatory paedophile, but in withholding explicit condemnation, and, indeed, daring the reader to empathise with his protagonist, he creates a literary experience that leaves even the most sophisticated of readers feeling uneasy. Lolita is among the finest of all novels, but it is unlikely, I think, to be anyone’s comfort read.

Melville’s short novel Benito Cereno leaves us similarly uneasy, and, I think, for similar reasons: the story Melville tells us seems to demand moral judgement, but he refuses to give us any. Worse than that: the story, though written in the third person, is filtered through the perceptions and the judgement of a Captain Delano, whose perceptions, and, as a consequence, moral judgement, are highly suspect. This is not because Captain Delano is an evil man, as such: he clearly isn’t. Indeed, within his own admittedly limited horizons, he is a good man. But his horizons are fatally limited. One may even describe him as “innocent” – in the sense that those unaware of the true nature of evil may be termed “innocent” – but to Melville, this innocence is itself the problem. As he says in his later novel Billy Budd, Sailor:

And yet a child’s utter innocence is but its blank ignorance, and innocence more or less wanes as intelligence waxes.

Captain Delano is innocent because he is unintelligent: his judgement is not to be trusted. He boards the slave ship San Dominick, and things seem to him a bit strange; but he does not enquire very deeply into the strangeness, and nor does he draw the obvious conclusion that even the first-time reader may quite easily draw – that the slaves on this ship have revolted, and are now in charge. In a sense, it is Captain Delano’s innocence that saves him: had he figured out what really should have been obvious, he would have been killed instantly. But he is incapable of perceiving either the evil of the rebellion (accompanied, as we later find out, by horrendous atrocities); and neither is he capable of perceiving the evil of what the rebel slaves are rebelling against. Slavery is something that is accepted in the society that Captain Delano inhabits, and he has neither the intelligence, nor the imagination, nor even the capacity for empathy required, to understand the nature of this monstrosity.

Melville places this utter innocent – an innocent whose innocence is far from admirable – in the midst of what can only be described as an explosion of evil. At the centre of this narrative is a long, meticulously described scene where the deposed captain of the slave ship, Don Benito Cereno, is being shaved by, seemingly, one of the slaves. Captain Cereno has to maintain the fiction that he is still in charge of the ship: any slip on his part, and both he and the hapless Captain Delano would be killed. Cereno, demoralised by the loss of his ship, and by the slaughter of so many of his crew, has a hard time maintaining the façade, but Delano is too obtuse to pick anything up. Delano is too obtuse to pick anything up.

Only on leaving the ship does Captain Delano realise what has been obvious to us, the readers, from almost the start. And then, as a good man who carries out his duty, he does what he has to do: he gives chase to the rebel ship, captures the rebels, and hands them over to “justice”. And justice is indeed carried out. With as much shocking brutality and violence as the atrocities being avenged.

All of this seems to cry out for some sort of moral guidance, but Melville refuses to provide any. Captain Delano’s perceptions, and his moral judgement, clearly do not provide any kind of moral framework that may help the reader negotiate these deep waters as these. So how is the reader to interpret this?  There seems to be a wide range of possible interpretations, each entirely justified by the text, but none, in itself, at all satisfactory. We may take the view that the rebel slaves are evil; that Captain Delano, though slow of thought, carried out his duty as an honourable man; and that the punishment meted out to the rebels, horrific though they are, are entirely justified. There is nothing in the text to invalidate such an interpretation. Or we could look below the surface, detect the various ironies, and conclude that it is the rebellion of the slaves that is morally justified; that the violence the slaves commit in the course of that rebellion, though horrific, is unavoidable; and that, further, the failure of this rebellion is the failure to defeat the greatest evil of all. The text could support such an interpretation also. But this does not seem satisfactory either. And neither does any balancing position between these two extremes. When there is so much evil on all sides, where can one turn for certainty?

Melville does not guide us. He leaves us floundering. All is so dark, so murky, we cannot even turn to innocence to shield us from it all, for in Melville’s world, innocence itself is morally weak, and is culpable. Perhaps no other author, not even Dostoyevsky or Kafka, presents us with quite so bleak and desolate a vision of our human state.

“The Age of Innocence” by Edith Wharton

*** SPOILER WARNING: Please note that although the following does not focus on the plot of the novel, some elements of the plot are inevitably revealed. ***


First of all, the title. Wikipedia tells me that the title is ironic. Perhaps. But if so, it is a rather unsubtle and heavy-handed irony, and somewhat at odds with the subtlety and lightness of touch that are apparent in the novel itself. The title of Wharton’s earlier novel, The House of Mirth, had certainly been intended ironically, but that was very caustic in tone, almost bitter and angry; this, on the other hand, is far gentler, and far more genteel in its manners. So let us, for the moment at least, take the title at face value: let us assume that Wharton is, indeed, depicting an Age of Innocence.

But whose innocence? The two principal characters, Wayland Archer and Ellen Olenska, though both relatively relatively young, are not in the first flush of youth; and neither are they sexually inexperienced. These do not preclude innocence, of course, but if Wharton intends the “innocence” of the title to apply to these two principal characters, then we must look beyond what is seen merely on the surface.

Or perhaps the “innocence” applies to May Welland, Wayland’s fiancée and subsequently his wife. This is possibly more likely, as she really is, at the start of the novel, very young, and inexperienced. However, despite being one of the major participants in the drama, she is rarely allowed to occupy centre-stage, and she plays a quite shadowy (though intriguing) role throughout. One should not rule her out, though: her role, though shadowy, proves vitally important; and throughout the novel, despite her youth and experience, she embodies all the values most prized by the society these characters inhabit: formality, decorousness, correctness. And if the innocence of the title applies to her, it applies also to the society that she and her powerful family represent. And perhaps this isn’t intended ironically either.

The society Wharton depicts is the same society she had depicted earlier in The House of Mirth – the aristocracy of East Coast America, some time late in the 19th century. In the earlier novel, Wharton’s depiction had been quite acrimonious: there’s a sense almost of anger in her portrayal of the various cruelties and hypocricies of a society that, for all its formal and decorous surfaces, heartlessly crushes and destroys the novel’s tragic heroine Lily Bart. However, that earlier novel had been published in 1905; The Age of Innocence, on the other hand, was published in 1920, on the other side of the Great War, when all the old certainties seemed precariously balanced on the edge of extinction, and all values – moral, social, aesthetic – seemed in danger of being turned upside-down. Under the circumstances, it was perhaps not unreasonable to see what had gone before, for all its manifold shortcomings, as being, indeed, an “age of innocence”.

The plot itself is fairly straight-forward: one may go so far as to call it a “standard plot”, ready-made and off-the-shelf. A man, no longer very young but not yet middle-aged, is engaged to a younger woman who is innocent and virginal; but he falls for a more experienced woman who is closer to his age, and a passion develops; and it all ends unhappily. This is the blueprint for any number of Turgenev stories. Indeed, there is more than a whiff of Turgenev to all the proceedings, right down to a nostalgic and regretful epilogue that takes place many years after the main events. And we cannot help but ask ourselves what Wharton was thinking of, at the very time when modernism was on the ascendency and the air was suffused with the excitement of the new, writing a novel of a kind that could very easily have been written some sixty or seventy years earlier. Was it a mere act of defiance, a mere extolling of the values of the past, aesthetic and moral, in the face of their likely demise?

I think that is certainly the case, but only partly. Wharton’s aesthetics and morals were, I think, by nature conservative, but not blindly so. The society she depicts here is still a society of cruelty and hypocrisy: it still values outward show and formality higher than emotional needs, and stability above individual fulfilment. And if someone’s individual needs threaten this stability, then they are crushed. Wharton is still very much aware of all this. At the centre of this novel, after all, is a profoundly sad love story: the love, which grows into a passion, is never consummated, and the two lovers end up apart from each other, living out lives that are empty and hollow. All this Wharton knows; and, what is more, she is sympathetic. And yet, the society which could do all this, the age in which all this could happen, where the turbulence of the inner life is drained to maintain the unruffled nature of the surface, are still, Wharton seems to insist without irony, an innocent society, an innocent age. Social stability may indeed come at a great cost, but at a time when everything seemed up in the air, and the world itself seemed on the verge of turning upside-down, this stability, though dearly purchased, is not something to be easily dismissed.

And if this society is itself essentially innocent, then its representative in this novel (in the sense that it is she who acts to maintain society’s values), May Welland, is also innocent. But this innocence is more complex than it may at first sight appear to the reader. It is certainly more complex than it appears to Newland, who becomes her husband: towards the end of the novel, he is taken by surprise on hearing that, shortly before her death, she had told their son that he could rely on his father, as his father had already made the greatest sacrifice for the sake of his family. In other words, she had known what her husband had felt about Ellen Olenska: she had known the extent of his passion for her, and how much his sacrifice had cost him. And if this knowledge had occasioned in her grief and pain, both had been hidden so perfectly, that not even her own husband had noticed. The external surfaces must, at all costs, remain unruffled: and if her husband has to deny his passion towards this end, May has to deny her injury.

We also cannot help wondering whether Wayland had also underestimated her earlier. During their engagement, she had suggested postponing the marriage, so as to give her fiancé the opportunity to change his mind, should he so wish. Wayland had assumed that May had been thinking of a former flame of his, and he had no worries on that score. But, given how badly he had mistaken May throughout his long marriage to her, it seems likely, in retrospect, that he had mistaken her in this also – that, in truth, May had known all along, possibly earlier than he had done himself, of the true nature of his feelings for Ellen. May, for all her innocence, plays her hand perfectly, much as Maggie Verver plays her hand in Henry James’ The Golden Bowl: May tells Ellen that she is pregnant before she is sure of the fact, and, in effect, packs Ellen off, leaving Wayland for herself. May is utterly victorious. We may ask whether she is happy, or emotionally fulfilled by her victory: perhaps not. It is hard to discern what emotional fulfilment there can be when one is married to someone who, one knows, is deeply in love with someone else. But to May, as to the powerful society family she comes from, social norms and formalities, social stability, all take precedence over mere individual fulfilment. And if Wayland has to sacrifice his inner self to this end, so does she. And all of this, Wharton insists, is indeed innocence.

May Welland is rarely in the forefront of the novel, but the more I think about this, the more important her role appears to be. Shadowy though her presence is, it is her actions in the background that determine the outcome. The novel may be read simply as a sad love story; and as such, it is as exquisite as anything by Turgenev. But while it portrays unfulfilled lives with great sympathy, it also raises, it seems to me, uncomfortable questions on whether the price to be paid for personal fulfilment is a price that is worth paying. The gentleness and, indeed, the gentility of the writing cover matters considerably more disturbing.

“All Our Children” by Stephen Unwin

All Our Children, at Jermyn Street Theatre, written and directed by Stephen Unwin.

This is not intended as a review. It’s a bit pointless anyway to review a play just a few days before its final performance. This is really no more than a record of my personal impressions, for what they’re worth. It is an attempt to make some sort of sense of the various thoughts and ideas that this play brought to the forefront of my mind. And, since the play did make a big impact on me, these personal thoughts and impressions seemed to me worth recording.

The play addresses the organised mass-murder of disabled children in Nazi Germany. It’s a problematic theme. Mass-murder of the innocent and the vulnerable is so morally nauseating that our moral indignation, though entirely justified, is likely to drown out those subtleties and nuances that generally give drama its depth. And once one has asserted how monstrous an atrocity these murders were, what more remains to be said?

In the event, this play delivered some ninety or so minutes, uninterrupted by an interval, of gripping, passionate, and sometimes explosive, drama. At the centre of the drama is Victor, a paediatrician, himself, quite obviously, severely ill. From Victor’s clinic children deemed “incurable” are transported away to special camps, in buses with windows painted out. He does not care very much to know what precisely happens in those camps, but he is assured that the extermination is painless. He himself marks out those children who are “incurable”, and, hence, to be exterminated. And, somehow, he has convinced himself that it is all for the best – best for everyone. The arguments for this are, after all, entirely rational: these children are so severely damaged that life can have no meaning for them; they are unable to contribute to society in any way, and are a constant source of pain and distress both to their families, and to themselves; they require vast expenditure just to be kept alive, and, when money is short, they are taking away resources from more deserving areas; and so on. Leaving aside sentimentality, disposing of them quietly and painlessly is really the best all round.

There is no real rational argument against any of this. The only argument is presented in the final act by Bishop von Galen (a historical figure), and his argument, far from being rational, is, as is to be expected from a bishop, overtly religious: human life, he asserts, all human life, is sacred. “Sentimental squeals of the ignorant,” as Eric, the enthusiastic young SS officer assigned as Victor’s deputy, puts it.

Victor himself is atheist, and a rationalist. And yet, he cannot quite share Eric’s enthusiasm for this brave new world. He cannot quite believe the arguments he is himself making in his own defence. He has compelled himself to accept all the rational arguments for what he is doing: leaving sentimentality aside, this is, indeed, the best for everyone – best even for those unfortunate, incurable children – the lebensunwertes Leben, lives unworthy of life, as they were known. And yet, he is not at peace with himself. And over the course of the play, a series of confrontations – with his deputy Eric, with his housekeeper Martha, with Elizabetta, the mother of one of the incurable children, and, finally, with Bishop von Galen – compels his inner self, which he had kept suppressed, to assert itself. Not that it makes much difference in the end: he has already been a major cog in the monstrous machine, and the horror will continue, with or without him. And in any case, he does not expect to live long. He is severely ill, and, if the illness doesn’t get him first, the Nazis will. “They’ll probably send me to a concentration camp,” he says at the end. “Or worse.” But it is not Victor’s conversion that is the real crux of the play: at the centre of the drama is a conflict between different value systems – one that sees human life without “sentimentality” is strictly rational terms, and the other which, in defiance of all rationality, insists on seeing human life as “sacred”.

It is all too easy for us to look at this conflict, and declare that the bishop’s view – that human life is sacred – is obviously the correct view, but there is more to this play than so obvious a conclusion. The question, it seems to me, is not so much “which side is right?”, but, rather, “why is it right?” Bishop von Galen can assert the sacred because he firmly believes in God, but can the concept of the sacred still be asserted in when, like Victor himself, we don’t believe in a God? And if we cannot assert the sacred, what answer do we give to Eric? This issue has not, I fear, disappeared with the fall of the Third Reich.

At this point, I trust the reader will forgive me if this piece takes on a more personal hue. For this is a question that I have struggled with now for some time, without being able to reach an answer that satisfies me. If we believe in God, and define the “sacred” as that which relates to God, there is no problem: we are, internally at least, consistent. But if we no longer believe in God, how do we define “sacred”? And if we cannot even define the sacred, how can we assert it? How can we declare it to be anything more than the “sentimental squeals of the ignorant” that the Nazi officer Eric takes it to be? If we cannot wholeheartedly assert our belief in God, how can we insist on the sacred?

This question plagued me insistently throughout the play. The murder of children is without doubt obscene, but how do I argue against it without appealing, as Bishop von Galen does, to religion?

The play is so passionate, so emotionally powerful, that at times it is almost unbearable. The scene where the mother of a murdered child confronts the doctor had me squirming in my seat with almost physical pain. The bishop’s assertions of morality in the last act came almost as a sort of relief – relief that such thoughts are finally expressed. But it is Martha, the housekeeper, whose words near the very end have the greatest effect:

Oh Doctor, I worry so much. About the children. Not just mine, but all of them. I know we’re meant to look down on the ones here and say they’re useless. But I don’t. I love them. I love every single one of them. I love my own children, of course, and I’m glad that they’re not – But I love the ones here too. Even the stupid ones. Even the ones who can’t do anything. Even the ones who just sit in their chairs dribbling. [Pause] I used to be so scared of them. They seemed so different to me. As if they’d infect me with their illnesses. As if I’d become like one of them. And they are different. But they don’t scare me any more. They’re just children, aren’t they? They’re just children. All our children.

No mention of religion here, or of the sacred. It is, indeed, an utterly irrational speech. Sentimental squeals of the ignorant. But sometimes, it is worth leaving our rationality behind, and worth risking sentimentality.


Jermyn Street Theatre is a small, subterranean venue, seating, I’m told, only 70, and with everyone very close to the actors. The acting space itself is very small. Being so very close to the action gave the whole thing more than a sense of intimacy: it was, quite often, as it was no doubt meant to be, oppressive and claustrophobic.

At the very opening and again at the end, we heard strains from the first song of Schubert’s Winterreise, possibly the bleakest work of art ever conceived. The evening lived up to its promise of bleak intensity, unrelieved by anything even remotely resembling “comic relief”. The performances were stunning: Colin Tierney, on stage throughout, was very believable as the tortured doctor, who shows heroism only when it is too late; the intensity of Lucy Speed’s performance, as the mother of a murdered epileptic child, was almost too intense to be bearable; Rebecca Johnson gave a touching performance as the housekeeper Martha, who had unthinkingly swallowed all the propaganda about the Fatherland, but whose underlying compassion is, ultimately, the only possible answer to the evil around her; Edward Franklin’s portrayal of the committed young Nazi is genuinely disturbing; and David Yelland, as Bishop von Galen, conveyed all the authority, moral indignation, and also, it must be said, an aristocratic disdain bordering on pomposity (Bishop von Galen was of an aristocratic background) that the part called for.

The entire production was, in short, a triumph. Quite apart from anything else, when cinema, and, in its wake, television, are moving increasingly towards visual rather than verbal means of expression, it is good to be reminded just how powerful and moving drama can be when generated primarily by the spoken word.

Stephen Unwin is best known as a theatre director, and, especially, for his productions of the plays of Ibsen and of Shakespeare. This is his first play as writer. I, for one, hope it won’t be his last.

Books we don’t read

For a long, long time now, I have been banging on to anyone who will listen (not many, admittedly) about declining literary standards. And now, here’s further evidence.

Only 4 years ago, a list was compiled (don’t ask me how) of the books we tend most to lie about having read. Topping that list were Great Expectations, Crime and Punishment, War and Peace, Nineteen Eighty Four and The Lord of the Rings – all sturdy, time-honoured classics. A similar list recently published is made up of books that, whatever merits they may have, are nowhere near so highbrow – The Hunger Games, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl, and the like. Even The Da Vinci Code.

(The only title the two lists have in common is The Lord of the Rings, and there, I do actually sympathise with the lying: I’ve lied about this one myself, as I explain here.)

One lies about books primarily, I guess, in order to impress. If I were to lie about books I have read, I’d say I’ve read The Shahnameh of Ferdowsi, Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, and the like – books that will make me appear fiercely intellectual, or, at the very least, a bit less of a shithead. I don’t really see why I would want to lie about having read The Da Vinci Code. I don’t really see why anyone would.

And here, it seems to me, is irrefutable evidence of the decline in our literary standards: we’ve stopped not reading challenging books.

O tempora! O mores!