Puzzling over “The Four Quartets”

I have spent the first few days of this new year puzzling over T. S. Eliot’s The Four Quartets.

But when have I not puzzled over these endlessly mysterious and elusive works? And will there ever be a time when I won’t be puzzling over them? As Eliot put it himself, we shall not cease from exploration. He continued:

And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Looked at logically, this does not make sense. Having declared categorically that our explorations will not end, Eliot immediately goes on to speak of the condition that will characterise the end that he has already declared will never happen.

The four poems, the “quartets”, as Eliot calls them, are full of such contradictions:

                      Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it a fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline.

And a couple of lines later:

There would be no dance, and there is only the dance

Or:

Our only health is our disease

Or:

Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.

Similes and metaphors don’t help, as they seem as obscure and as self-contradictory as that which they are ostensibly there to explicate:

                   … as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness.

Towards the end of The Dry Salvages, the third of the four quartets, we get another passage of self-contradictions, insisting that that which is impossible is also actual:

Here the impossible union
Of spheres of existence is actual,
Here, the past and future
Are conquered, and reconciled …

All those impossibilities stated elsewhere in the poem as paradoxes, as sequences of self-contradictions, nonetheless, Eliot insists, may become actual. Indeed, will become actual, here – wherever “here” is.

When I first encountered this poem, as a mere teenager, I remember thinking that whatever merits these poems had, my pitiful Euclidean mind (I was a science student) was incapable of apprehending them. The Waste Land had also struck me in the same way at first acquaintance, but that poem, while still eluding my conscious Euclidean understanding, has, over the years, become part of my mental furniture, as it were: I may not understand it, as such – not completely, at any rate – but I think I can feel it, and passages from it often come readily to mind. The Four Quartets, on the other hand, has proved a somewhat harder nut to crack. My understanding is as small as ever, but, over the last decade or so, I am beginning – only beginning, I think – to feel it.

Firstly, the title. Or titles, since it remains uncertain whether this is a single poem, or a collection of four poems. Each of these poems is titled after a place – Burnt Norton, East Coker, The Dry Salvages, Little Gidding – and it isn’t too difficult to google these names, and find out where and what they are. But what significance these places have to the poetry to which they are titles is a matter open, I think, to interpretation.

These four poems were initially published separately, but Eliot was content to gather them together under one title, implying that they formed a unity of sorts. But that one title insists that they are really four. And that each one is a quartet. What did Eliot mean by this? One analysis I have read tells me that, as in a string quartet, the themes of these poems intermingle and develop with each other; but that is true of symphonies and sonatas also, and Eliot specifically says these are quartets. I’d guess that the solution to this mystery is that in each of these poems, there are four separate voices combining with each other. Different voices combine in The Waste Land also: reading that poem can seem like turning the tuning dial of a radio, and allowing the different disembodied voices from different radio stations drift in and out of hearing. But that juxtaposition of jumbled voices in The Waste Land has about it a certain vigour, almost, at times, a kind of brashness, that imparts to the poem a tremendously powerful sense of vividness and drama. The Four Quartets, in contrast, seems much more subdued in tone, much more contemplative. And what it contemplates is couched in images of seemingly impenetrable obscurity (“Garlic and sapphires in the mud / Clog the bedded axle-tree”), or in paradoxes and self-contradictions, impossibilities that Eliot nonetheless insists may become actual.

But if these poems are indeed quartets, it follows that there are four voices. I have tried to identify these four voices, but have failed: I can tell, I think, when one voice is supplanted by, or modulates into, another, but I couldn’t identify and label four voices with any certainty: the number of different voices seemed to me much greater than four. Eventually, I think I managed to convince myself that it didn’t really matter. If the title The Four Quartets remains enigmatic, it is far from the only enigma in the work.

There doesn’t really seem much in all this for the Euclidean mind to latch on to, and yet I found, to my surprise, that, after many revisits over many years, certain passages did become lodged in my consciousness; and I found myself struck by wonder and by awe, as I marvelled at the beauty and the expressive power of Eliot’s verbal music – a beauty and an expressive power that had, I think, largely eluded me on earlier readings.

But what does all this amount to? What does it all mean? It’s not really a question to be asked: the poetry of T. S. Eliot, maybe even poetry in general, would largely be a closed book to the Euclidean mind that asks such a question, as the very essence of poetry seems to me to lie in the manipulation of language in order to communicate things that, were it not for the manipulation, language is not capable of communicating. This, of course, renders exegesis virtually impossible, for how can one explain something when the poet himself, who presumably has a greater command of language than the interpreter (well, this interpreter, certainly) has already communicated that which cannot be communicated any other way?

The difficulty in making words express what one means seems itself to become one of Eliot’s themes. On a number of occasions, he comments upon this difficulty in the poem itself. In one particular prosy and conversational section (as in The Waste Land, Eliot intersperses such prosy passages among passages of high poetic expressivity), Eliot comments, with delicious self-deprecation, on this disparity between what words say, and what they strive to say:

That was one way of putting it – not very satisfactory;
A periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion,
Leaving one still with that intolerable wrestle
With words and meanings.

Towards the end of Burnt Norton, we have this:

                               Words strain,
Crack, and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.

This “intolerable wrestle with words and meanings” – with these things which crack and sometimes break, which will not stay still – is in itself one of Eliot’s themes. And yet, words are all we have. They are all that Eliot, as a poet, has. And, it seems to me, what he gives us in not so much an expression of something, but an attempt to explain, a pointing towards that which would be expressed, if only it could. It cannot be expressed as it is beyond human experience: the human mind cannot envisage the still point where the dance is, where there is neither movement from nor toward, neither ascent nor decline. Such things, such impossibilities that Eliot insists may nonetheless become actuality, can, at best, be but vaguely glimpsed, and the best that the poet can do is to point towards it, to stimulate our minds using all the linguistic resources at his command, so we may turn in that direction where we may glimpse it, and where we may hear that profound silence that can only be signified by breaking that silence.

If all this sounds very religious, mystical even, then yes, that is precisely what it is: we must leave our Euclidean minds behind us here if we want to feel this poem. Eliot was, of course, a convert to Anglicanism, but the religious vision he points towards here seems to have a variety of sources, which I am not really qualified to identify or to catalogue. For instance, the Hindu concept of detachment from earthly ties is certainly present (Krishna’s address to Arjuna, which forms the text of The Bhagavad Gita, is mentioned explicitly in The Dry Salvages). Detachment from earthly ties may seem turning one’s back on the human, but, Eliot insists, the liberation that comes from such detachment does not mean less of love:

              – not less of love but expanding
Of love beyond desire

Not less, but expanding, transcending. For how can love without desire be possible? Is love possible at all without an object of love? And if there is an object of one’s love, how can one not desire? Even if our love is to be general and altruistic – if, say, we love all humanity – would we not desire the best for humanity? But Eliot is not speaking here of ceasing to desire, but of expanding our love beyond it, transcending it. And what this expanded, transcended love may be, we do not know, and neither can we express. Eliot himself can only point towards it, again with the use of paradox and self-contradiction:

We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation

The ending of Little Gidding, the last of the quartets, strikes a note of quiet and unassertive optimism, with the lines “And all shall be well / All manner of thing shall be well” (which, I’m told, are taken from the writings of medieval mystic Julian of Norwich) ringing gently through the verse:

And all shall be well
All manner of things shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

When asked my religion in official forms, I state (accurately, I think) “none”. But I cannot explain why I find these obviously religious lines so profoundly moving. I do not know what it is this poem, or these four poems, are pointing towards, and I cannot account for the effect they have on me.

I have, as I said, spent the last few days puzzling over these poems. Indeed, looking back, I think I have spent the greater part of my life puzzling over these poems. And I think I shall continue do so. We shall not cease from exploration. We can not!

A very Happy Christmas and New Year

I see that time of year has crept up on us again.

I know I have been neglecting this blog of late, but I’ll try to make it a New Year resolution to renew attention to it, come January. After all, I haven’t finished by series of yet on the Ibsen plays.

So may I wish you all a very Happy Christmas and New Year, and I’ll see you next year.“Adoration of the Magi” by Leonardo da Vinci, courtesy Uffizi Gallery, Florence

“Adoration of the Magi” by Leonardo da Vinci, courtesy Uffizi Gallery, Florence

#Beethoven250 #Wordsworth250

There’s a lovely Peanuts cartoon strip by Charles M Schulz that I won’t reproduce here for fear of breaching copyright laws. I think I can describe it, though, without incurring the wrath of the courts. Schroeder is playing away at his little piano, his head bent towards the keyboard, lost to everything but the music he is making. And Lucy, who has a crush on Schroeder, sits by the piano, and tries to make conversation. She is looking, she says, for the answer to life. What is the answer, Schroeder?

Suddenly, without warning, Schroeder stops playing, and erupts. “Beethoven!” he bellows at her. “Beethoven is it, clear and simple!! Do you understand?” Such is his ferocity, that Lucy literally flips back into the air. When she lands again on the ground, Schroeder is back playing his music again, head down towards the keyboard, oblivious once more to all save the music.

I suppose this can be read as a joke at Schroeder’s expense – of a man who, immersed in his private passion, has no time for, or interest in, the human relationships he might be cultivating. But actually, I am on Schroeder’s side in this. For what is the answer to life if not Beethoven?

I suppose those on Lucy’s side (“Good grief!” she ends up saying to herself) will insist that cultivating human relationships, and thereby acknowledging our commonality and our shared humanity, overrides all else, and renders private obsessions at best trivial. But I can’t say I am entirely happy to go along with that. I don’t think it is to devalue the importance of these aspects of life to assert, or to re-assert, that aesthetics are also vitally important. Nietzsche famously asserted that life could only be justified as an aesthetic phenomenon, and, while I don’t know that I’d entirely go along with this either, I don’t think I have the temerity to disagree with old Freddie on this matter: for, really, if the answer to life isn’t Beethoven, then what is?

Or Shakespeare. Or Michelangelo. Of course, when we list the names of artists, we are referring to their works; and those works that strike us with awe and with wonder, that give us glimpses into the fullness of life, and impart a sense of something far more deeply interfused, are more, much more, I’d submit, than of merely peripheral importance, something merely to be indulged in when one has nothing better to do.

Next year is the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. Now, some may argue that it’s pointless to celebrate the birthday of someone who is no longer around to accept birthday felicitations, but, since the only really objective test we know of for artistic greatness is the Test of Time, passing this almighty test does seems to me well worth celebrating. I knew nothing of Beethoven till my late teens: he had been, to me, just a name. When, aged seventeen or so, I started to take an interest in this classical music lark – purely out of curiosity – I went first of all to those composers I knew to be the “heavyweights” – Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. Bach took a bit of time, I must admit, and even now I’m not sure I have come close to absorbing his music adequately; but the other two won me over right away. I have particularly fond memories of the summer of 1978. I was 18 years old, and, earlier that year, with the cheque my parents had sent me for my 18th birthday, I had bought a box of long-playing records of the nine symphonies of Beethoven. (For those interested in these matters, the performances were by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Karl Böhm.) What an era of discovery that was! I remember listening to those works, and pacing up and down the room in excited agitation, my fists clenched, my head whirling, unable quite to believe that mere music could affect me so powerfully.

Years have passed since then. Indeed, decades have passed since then. And that sense of discovery is, inevitably, no more, since one cannot discover afresh what one has already discovered. So, although I no longer pace up and down the room like some inebriated arse, these symphonies have now, as it were, entered my system, in much the same way that the plays of Shakespeare have: they are permanent fixtures inside my mind,  things that I am aware of even when I am not consciously thinking about them.

Soon, other works by Beethoven followed – concertos, string quartets, piano sonatas, the titanic Missa Solemnis, that flawed-but-who-cares opera Fidelio … all works that have taken possession of my mind, that are now part of me. And if this isn’t worth celebrating, then what is? If this cannot give life some semblance of that meaning that Lucy was asking about, then what can?

There is another important 250th anniversary next year of another great artist: William Wordsworth. Wordsworth didn’t enter my mind so dramatically as Beethoven had done. Perhaps appropriately, given his quieter voice, he entered my mind more insidiously. Indeed – and it pains me greatly to think what I prat I must have been in my younger days – for many years, I thought his reputation overblown; I thought of him as somewhat effete, blabbering on childishly about how lovely the daffs were beside the lake and beneath the trees. It took several years, and what I like to think of as a greater maturity, to realise that this very well-known poem wasn’t talking about how lovely the daffs were this year: he was describing how our minds may find significance – meaning, if you will – in earthly things, in seemingly minor things, and how it is possible for memory to re-create this significance in our minds. And that he can talk about matters so profound in a language that even a child could understand is a testament not to childishness, but, quite the contrary, to an extremely high degree of sophistication. Over the years, I can think of no poet whose work has come to mean more than me. So much so, indeed, that, as perspicacious readers of this post will no doubt have noticed, I find it hard to express my thoughts without borrowing a line or two from him.

Different though these two figures were in temperament, there are points where their minds do seem to touch. Both were initially enthused by what was happening in France, only to recoil afterwards. And both found in Nature a sense of divinity – not a Divinity that, as Creator, stands outside and above Nature, but one whose presence is immanent within it.  The “still, sad music of humanity” that Wordsworth heard in Nature is also the music Beethoven often composed. And in the final movement of Beethoven’s 6th symphony, the “Pastoral” – still possibly my favourite of the nine – Beethoven inspires a sense of reverence and of awe – not in contemplation of some other world beyond this one, but in this world, right here, in the here-and-now.

If all this sounds very facile, I can only plead that it is pointless my trying to express in my own inadequate words what Wordsworth expressed in his. This is why I find it so damn difficult to write about poetry. To express adequately what Wordsworth’s poetry makes me feel, I really need to have Wordsworth’s own genius with language. And of music, I am even less qualified to write. But such considerations haven’t, frankly, inhibited me yet. And since I am, after all, a blogger who blogs specifically to talk about all the things I love; and since it is only right that Wordsworth and Beethoven should both be celebrated next year; I suppose I should risk the reader’s ridicule and at least have a go.

Watch this space, as they say.

Cinematic hat-tricks

Here’s an interesting one:

Before I get on to it, I’d like to acknowledge that the idea for this, such as it is, came from a Facebook post I saw recently from a friend. He knows who he is. I won’t embarrass him by naming him here – unless, of course, he specifically asks me to. I think he comes on to this blog from time to time. However, if this idea turns out to be a bad one, I take full responsibility for this upon myself.

Now that’s over with, let’s move on.

Can you name an instance of a film director who has made three great films in succession?

Of course, much depends on what you consider “great”. The example my friend gives is Carol Reed, who made, in succession, Odd Man Out, The Fallen Idol, and The Third Man – and I reckon all three deserve to be called great. But what other examples are there?

There are surprisingly few. Usually, looking through even the most distinguished of filmographies, great films – or, rather, films I would consider great – are interspersed with minor works. For instance, I know Satyajit Ray started his career with the justly renowned “Apu Trilogy”, and that between the second and third of these films, he made Jalsaghar (The Music Room), which is also a masterpiece. So that’s four great films in succession. But looking at the full filmography, I see that in between those films he also made Paras Pathar (The Philosopher’s Stone), which, to my mind, is a rather lacklustre comedy, so that spoils that one. I suppose one could go for Jalsaghar, Apur Sansar (the final instalment of the Apu Trilogy) and Devi, but the last of these, fine though it is, isn’t, perhaps, quite in the class of the others. (Ray continued to make great films right up to and including Ghare Baire (The Home and the World, 1984), but they are all interspersed with lesser works.

So, presumably having nothing better to do, I started looking up filmographies of some of my favourite directors, and I was surprised how rare these hat-tricks were. The directors of classic Hollywood are generally a bad bet: they often regarded themselves primarily as craftsmen rather than as artists – even when they were artists – and made whatever the studios asked them to make (John Ford, say, is a prime example of this). Even with the very individual Billy Wilder, it’s difficult to find three consecutive works of comparably high standard.

I suppose it must be difficult, in any art form, and especially in cinema where so much depends upon collaboration and upon budgeting and finances, to maintain high levels of creativity over a concentrated period. And I suppose many film-makers may quite deliberately make a lighter film in between the heavyweights. But this makes all the more impressive the various instances where film-makers have indeed made great films in close succession.

Take Ingmar Bergman, for instance. In the late 50s, he made Smiles of a Summer Night, The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries in close succession. And he repeated the trick between 1961 and 1963, he made the three films known as the “Faith Trilogy” (don’t ask me why: that’s what it says on the cover of my DVDs!) – Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Night, and The Silence. And Luis Buñuel finished his distinguished career with three of his finest films – Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie, Le fantôme de la liberté, and Cet obscur objet du désir.

And going back to my own favourite era of film-making – the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood – despite all the strictures imposed by the studio system, Preston Sturges, between 1941 and 1944, made  not three, but five consecutive films that I, for one, would place in the  top bracket – The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels, The Palm Beach Story, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, and Hail the  Conquering Hero.

But perhaps the most impressive uninterrupted sequence of masterpieces came from Robert Bresson, when, in succession, he made Les dames du bois de Boulogne, Journal d’un curé de campagne, Un condamné à mort s’est échappé, Pickpocket, Procès de Jeanne d’Arc, As hasard Balthazar, and Mouchette. I guess the only sequence of films to match that would be the seven films made by Andrei Tarkovsky.

I suppose Bresson went into the doldrums a bit after those seven films (in my opinion, at any rate), but, again in my opinion, he came back to form again with his last film, L’Argent: here, he took his spare, detached style about as far as it could possibly go, and came up with a film that haunts my mind. It is a film that does, I know, split opinions, but I doubt anyone can take serious issue with that extraordinary sequence of films he had made earlier in his career.

I’m sure there are many other sequences of uninterrupted creativity in film-making. So now it’s time to throw this open: what is your favourite cinematic hat-trick?

We’re nearly there!

Say not the struggle naught availeth…

Yay!

All those diatribes against “elitism” and ”cultural imperialism”, all that sneering at “dead white men”, all those passionate arguments for ditching Mozart in the classroom in favour of the latest flavour of the month – at long last, all that effort finally bearing fruit! Already, 75% of young Brits have never heard of Mozart. Just a bit more effort, ladies and gentlemen, and I’m sure we can push it up to 100% in no time, and the products of human civilisation can be consigned to the dustbin where they belong.

Reading “Dracula”

There is still something about the name “Borgo Pass” that causes an involuntary shudder to run down my spine. I gather it is a real place: Wikipedia informs me that it is actually called “Tihuța Pass”, and that it is situated “in the Romanian Bârgău Mountains”, and the pictures I find in Google images show a landscape that is disappointingly pleasant and welcoming. But in my imagination, it is the dark, sinister mountain pass through which Jonathan Harker is driven towards Castle Dracula, the driver of his coach being, as he discovers later, no other than the Count himself.

Stoker had never been anywhere near Transylvania: he had merely picked up the names from an atlas. The picture in most peoples’ minds when these place names are mentioned comes not so much from Stoker’s novel, but from the various film adaptations – especially (for my generation, at least) the films made by Hammer, featuring Christopher Lee. And if you have ever wondered why Transylvania is so flat in those films, it’s because much of the location shooting was done in a place called Black Park, near Slough. But no matter: the substitution of south Buckinghamshire for the Carpathians is a relatively small disbelief to suspend given how much is suspended already.

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I have expressed my enthusiasm for those Hammer films elsewhere on this blog, so I’ll leave them to one side for now. It’s the book I am interested in here. It is my current bedtime reading – when all is dark, with only a bedside reading lamp throwing eerie shadows about the room, and with a deathly stillness reigning outside – and I had frankly forgotten just how good it is. It is holding me spellbound, and I find myself looking forward to bedtimes. It is genuinely frightening. The Hammer Dracula films with Christopher Lee, despite being of far more recent vintage than Stoker’s novel, are unlikely to scare too many modern viewers, but it is a testament to the power of Stoker’s writing how well the novel has retained its power to frighten, and, indeed, how much more frightening it is than any of the screen adaptations. The first four chapters especially, where Jonathan Harker travels to castle Dracula, and, once there, finds himself effectively a prisoner, trapped with unimaginable horrors, still terrify. The 1977 BBC dramatization, which featured Louis Jourdan as the Count (and which is still the filmed version that is most faithful to Stoker’s novel) horrified many viewers with a scene in which Dracula brings back in a bag a live baby for his brides to eat: Hammer, for all their alleged luridness, never went anywhere near so far. And yet, this scene was not an addition by the scriptwriters to excite a jaded modern audience: it is there in the novel, dating right back to 1897. All the various Dracula films– from Murnau’s silent Nosferatu to Werner Herzog’s remake from 1979, the Bela Lugosi version from 1931, and the Christopher Lee versions with Hammer, stretching from 1958 to 1973 – all had to tone down rather than otherwise the contents of Stoker’s novel. And even then, many of these films were considered unnecessarily lurid and sensational at time of release.

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Stoker’s novel has been interpreted in all sorts of ways. It has been seen as a political statement, as a religious statement, as an encyclopedia of sexual neuroses, and so on. I can’t say I’m very convinced by any of these. Dracula is indeed a foreigner importing a nasty foreign plague into good old Blighty, but, then again, the man who leads the fight against him (van Helsing) is also a foreigner. (Yes, admittedly, van helsing’s homeland, Holland, is closer to Britain than Translvania, but if Stoker really had intended this novel as a broadside against foreigners, he could easily have made Dracula’s protagonist a sturdy Englishman.) And yes, holy water and sacred wafers and the like are used in the fight against Dracula, but that in itself hardly counts as promotion of Catholicism: the Magic of Evil had to be countered by Magic of Good, and it’s the Catholic Church rather than the Protestant that provides these items that magically represent the Power of Good: Stoker (himself an Irish Protestant) didn’t really have much of a choice in the matter.

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And then, of course, there’s sex. Dracula is, in admittedly rather perverse ways, a very erotic novel. The similarities between Dracula’s bite and the act of sex are rather obvious, and has certainly not gone unnoticed by the various film adaptations. (After all, when busty ladies in low-cut dresses wear a crucifix to ward off the vampire, it’s not necessarily the crucifix that the camera is focussing on.) But this is hardly a devastating critical insight: the sexual element is so obvious that it’s hard to see how even the most casual reader could miss it. Take, for instance, that famous scene in the third chapter where Jonathan Harker, having fallen asleep, finds himself, in a state of half dreaming, surrounded by three beautiful but terrifying female vampires:

Two were dark, and had high, aquiline noses … The other was fair, as fair as can be, with great wavy masses of golden hair and eyes like pale sapphires. I seemed somehow to know her face, and to know it in connection with some dreamy fear, but I could not recollect at that moment how or where. All three had brilliant white teeth, that shone like pearls against the ruby of their voluptuous lips. There was something about them that made me uneasy, some longing and at the same time, some deadly fear. I felt in my heart a wicked, burning desire that they would kiss me with those red lips.

I find this terrifying, and it is surely the erotic element that determines the nature of this fear. Had these vampires been withered old women, the effect might have been equally frightening, but the fear would have been of a different nature: here, much of the sense of terror comes from Harker actually desiring these creatures, and finding them sexually attractive. He seems to know one of the faces, but can’t quite place it: he knows it only in connection with some “dreamy fear”. This fear, it seems to me, is not merely of the vampires around him, but also of the sexual desire within, that desire he has glimpsed only in dreams: it is the “burning desire” that he feels in his own heart that he characterises as “wicked”.

Of course, this can be read as a depiction of an English Victorian gentleman’s inhibitions relating to sexuality; but this is so clearly intended by Stoker, and made so explicit, that it hardly requires any great act of interpretation to tease it out. Of course it’s about sexual inhibitions. But to see this as the principal thrust of this passage (if I may use the word “thrust” in this context) is, it seems to me, to miss the point, which is nothing more, but nothing less either, than to evoke in the reader a sense of terror. And the greatest terror is not so much the terror of what’s out there, but of what lies latent inside us. Stoker, in this passage, mingles together these two fears – the vampires out there, and the sexual desire within – and, in doing so, intensifies the terror. Which, after all, is the whole point of the novel.

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Yet, to read the endless piles of criticism, it is easy to get the impression that the novel is about all sorts of things – politics, religion, sexuality – anything, indeed, other than what it clearly is on the surface – a horror story designed to send shivers up the spine. It is almost as if commentators feel that a mere horror story, intended purely to frighten the reader, is beneath their consideration unless they can find deeper meanings in it. And hence all the stuff about the novel’s politics, the novel’s religious subtext, and, most of all, about sexuality: it has been seen variously as an expression of revulsion from sex, about anal sex, about bestiality, and Lord knows what.

Fair enough, I suppose, if that’s what some readers see in it. Personally, I see a damn fine horror story, expertly paced and narrated, and full of all kinds of ghastly terrors. And that’s good enough for me.

It’s six in the evening now as I write, and it’s very dark outside. Soon, I’ll e pouring myself a whisky, settling into my armchair, and reading a few more pages of this shabby little shocker that has already outlasted many a book hailed in its time as unassailable masterpieces.

 

The pictures illustrating these posts are pictures taken by myself of my copy of “Dracula”, published by the Folio Society 2008, and with  the splendid illustrations by Abigail Rorer.

A November prospectus

In traditional Indian music, each raga is associated with a time of day, or season of year, and I wonder sometimes whether the same can apply to books. A Blandings Castle story by Wodehouse, say, or Fielding’s Tom Jones, really needs to be read on a lazy summer afternoon, whereas creepy ghost stories or the turbulent novels of Dostoyevsky need ideally to be read on long, dark winter nights, preferably with the wind howling outside. Similarly, when the month of December comes round – seemingly more quickly with each passing year – I find myself, with dreary predictability, reaching for my Dickens. It’s not just the Christmas stories, or the seasonal celebration at Dingley Dell: even in his other works, even in his gloomiest writings, there is something about the human warmth he provides in the midst of enveloping darkness – a warmth perceptible even in the rich plum-pudding texture of his prose – that makes it ideal for this time of year.

But be that as it may, I rather fancy revisiting Little Dorrit soon. It is certainly one of his very finest novels, but, like so much of his later work, it is decidedly gloomy. That is not intended as a criticism:  I must admit I never did understand those who turn away from darker works because they find them “too depressing”. Art does not need to look at darkness if it doesn’t want to – Wodehouse never did, for instance – but when it does, and when it gives form to that darkness, then even the most depressing of content becomes transformed into something that can exhilarate. But let us keep that paradox for a later post. (Or I may have addressed it already: after so many years, it’s difficult to keep track with all I’ve spouted on here.) Let us, for now, concede that Little Dorrit is indeed a gloomy novel, with little in it (other than the richness of its prose) that may be considered conducive to Christmas cheer. But it provides cheer of a different sort – the cheer felt by those who love literature when they encounter and recognise literary value. And I want to read this now, while the season is right, so all my other reading plans can go hang.

Not that I am planning to give up on Dante – far from it. I recently read Prue Shaw’s excellent and illuminating book Reading Dante, and am reading through the Penguin collection Dante in English, edited by Eric Griffiths and Matthew Reynolds, which traces the presence and influence of Dante in English verse from Geoffrey Chaucer right down to Seamus Heaney. The introduction, some 14 pages long, is a book in itself, and is alone worth the admission fee. Of course, I have long been aware of Dante presence in just about all European literature that followed: that in itself is hardly an eye-opener. What I want to know is what all those subsequent poets found in Dante that clearly fascinated them so, and why they chose to make themselves Dante’s heirs. And in conjunction with this, I am continuing reading through Robin Kirkpatrick’s translation, and looking into two other translations I recently purchased – one by Peter Dale, in rhyming terza rima, and the more recent translation, in rhyming quatrains rather than in tercets, by Clive James. Different translators obviously have different ideas, and so, from my own position of relative ignorance,  it makes sense to try out a variety. Both Dale and James agree that rhyme is important, but James feels that terza rima simply doesn’t work in English, whereas quatrains do. (The  only  example  I can  think of where terza rima has been successfully used in English is Shelley’s The Triumph of Life.) Dale’s rendition in rhymed terza rima does seem a tour de force, but to what extent he (and James too, for that matter) has had to compromise in order to get those rhymes I’m not really in a position to say. Kirkpatrck preserves the tercets, but not the rhymes that both Dale and James consider vital. And his edition is a dual-language edition, so I can glance over to the original, and get a feel of how it sounds. (And there are a surprising number of Italian words that I can actually understand!)

So do I like Dante now? I am asked. I am postponing answering that question. Any opinion formed without judgement to support it is, quite literally, pre judice, prejudice; and judgement requires at least a modicum of understanding. So my aim for now is, quite simply, to gain that modicum of understanding, and not worry about opinions till I have done so. There are, after all, worse things than not having an opinion.

After dividing the next few weeks between Dante and Dickens, I think I’ll focus a bit more on poetry. Like, I imagine, most readers of my generation, I have focussed far more on prose than I have on verse, and I feel I am at a stage where I have read a fair range of prose works, but nowhere near enough of poetry. Which will probably mean a slowing down, at best, of my rate of blogging: I have a reasonable idea now of how I want to write about novels and such, but have never really got my head around how I should be writing about poetry. Well, one can but try, I suppose. There will no doubt be a few bad posts to begin with, but maybe,  after a while, I could find a way of writing about poetry that may not be entirely worthless.  Maybe a change of direction is just what this blog needs.

I doubt I’ll be posting too much between now and the New Year. ’Tis the season to get drunk, after all: what with alcohol, and with Dickens and Dante, I expect to have a fine end to the decade, despite the various bits of political madness that appear to have so much of the world (the country I live in included) in its fearsome grip.

Between now and the end of the year, I’d like to progress a bit on the series of posts I have embarked upon on the plays of Ibsen (they don’t get too many readers, but as I keep saying,  I am writing these primarily for myself); and I may treat myself to an occasional rant (there haven’t been too many of those lately).

But for the moment, let us progress with Dante and Dickens: an unlikely pair, perhaps, but they should keep me  going for a bit.