On subjectivity

A great many years ago now, I used to love the symphonies of Bruckner. I saved up what little money I had back then to buy recordings of them. I was entranced by the magical opening of the 4th, transported by the sheer beauty of the 7th, awe-struck by the terrors of the 9th. On moving down to London some thirty years ago, and hence being close to more concert halls than I could shake a stick at (if that’s your idea of a good time), I was particularly drawn to concert performances of these symphonies. And I used to come out of the concert halls floating on a cloud of ecstasy.

But it struck me recently that it has been many years since I last listened to a Bruckner symphony. Several years in fact. I couldn’t quite figure out when I stopped listening. I don’t think it was a sudden thing: it just, somehow, happened. So I dusted off the CDs I still had of them – conducted by such great luminaries of this repertoire as Eugen Jochum, Herbert von Karajan, Gunter Wand, Carlo Maria Giulini, and the like – and tried listening again. I started with the 5th. And after some twenty or so minutes, I found myself thinking “Gawd, what a bore!” I tried some of the ones I used to love even more – the 7th, the 8th, and the 9th, the last three. Yes, I got on with them a bit better than I had done with the 5th, but I still frequently found my attention wandering. Eventually I decided that I am not the man I had been thirty or forty years ago. Bruckner, I decided, was, most definitely, a bore.

And yet, there is nothing to say that my current tastes are any better than what they had been thirty years or so ago. “Gawd, what a bore!” is a comment not on the symphonies themselves – which remain as they always have been – but on my receptivity to those symphonies. Also, there are many whose understanding of music, whose discernment and refinement of taste, are beyond dispute, who revere these works. And they have done so over many decades: custom has not staled for them their love of these pieces. Very well, I say to myself, it’s all subjective. So let’s all agree to like different things.

It’s an easy way out. All of us, as individuals, have different perceptions, different receptivities, different tastes. And after all, what is this blog but a record of my own subjective impressions? There’s nothing I could think or write about the likes of, say, Hamlet or of Don Quixote, that hasn’t been thought or written about before. The only justification for my writing about such books – other than gratifying my vanity – is that I, as a unique individual (as we all are), must have unique perspectives on these works, and that records of these unique perspectives may, perhaps, be of interest to others. And no-one can really take issue with what I say because, well, you know, it’s all subjective, isn’t it?

But it isn’t though. The self-published novel of my friend (who fancies himself a novelist) is not as good as The Portrait of a Lady; my casual doodles are not as good as Rembrandt’s drawings; and anyone who thinks otherwise is, quite simply, wrong. How many times, back in the days when I used to contribute to online book boards, have I found myself gritting my teeth on being informed that Dickens was a poor novelist (“sentimental!”), or that Shakespeare was “overrated”, or that Anna Karenina was “boring”? There was no arguing against such declarations. “It’s my opinion and I am entitled to it.” As, indeed, they are. And these opinions, further, are not open to scrutiny, or to debate: if everything is indeed subjective, then there can be no room for debate. We simply declare our subjective opinions, and there’s an end to it.

And yet, in what way is my reaction to Bruckner’s 5th symphony – “Gawd, what a bore!” – any different from the dismissals of Anna Karenina as “boring” on online book boards? The answer, of course, is that it isn’t. To insist that all is subjective is to deny that there can exist any objective standards whereby The Portrait of a Lady may be deemed better than my friend’s self-published novel, or Rembrandt’s drawings deemed better than my doodles; it is to deny the very concept of excellence itself. I cannot argue against those who insist that such is indeed the case, but everything in me rebels against such a conclusion.

Much of this blog, I realise, is a fruitless attempt to square this circle. It is full of subjective perspectives, and yet I find myself insisting that no, all is not subjective. This is why I cannot join with the invective often dished out to various writers, artists, musicians: at the most, I could express my subjective reaction, making clear that it is subjective; but what possible value can there be in my declaring that “Bruckner is a tedious old bore”?

In the meantime, no, I am not giving away my Bruckner CDs. True, I have fallen out of love with Bruckner. But, given how much we change over time, what’s to say that, in a few years, I may not  fall back in love again?


(Postscript: the friend I mentioned earlier who fancied himself a novelist is not so close a friend any more. He asked me for my honest opinion – indeed, insisted that honest feedback was precisely what he wanted – and I was foolish enough to give him what he had asked for. I really can be quite socially inept at times.)


The Tragedy of Ophelia

Given that Hamlet is quite clearly of exceptional intelligence, and has an unsurpassed mastery of language, why is it that the love letters he sends Ophelia are so crap? This is a question that has long bothered me. When Polonius presents to Claudius and Gertude the private love letters Hamlet had written to Ophelia – concept such as privacy or intimacy mean little to so unfeeling a wretch – we get stuff like this:

Doubt thou the stars are fire;
Doubt that the sun doth move;
Doubt truth to be a liar;
But never doubt I love.

To the celestial and my soul’s idol, the most beautified Ophelia

O dear Ophelia, I am ill at these numbers; I have not art to reckon my groans: but that I love thee best, O most best, believe it. Adieu.

Is it at all credible that the character whom Shakespeare had endowed with something of his own intelligence and mastery of language would come out with guff as embarrassing as this? Shakespeare could have given Hamlet the kind of soaring love poetry that we see in Romeo and Juliet; or the more measured but equally potent expressions of love we see in so many other plays. But no – he seems almost to go out of his way to make Hamlet’s love letters as trite as they are clumsy.

That these lines are Hamlet’s there cannot be any question: Polonius may be foolish with other things, but he didn’t get to be the King’s most trusted right hand man without being a shrewd politician and intriguer, and he would certainly have been able to distinguish Hamlet’s handwriting from forgeries. No, Hamlet wrote these all right, and, unless we are to believe that Shakespeare had slipped up on so obvious a point, it is up to us to figure out why.

One point to notice, I think, is that, in the rest of the play, Hamlet is much given to mockery; and that when he mocks, he easily adopts the patterns of speech of those whom he is mocking. Here, for instance, he is mocking Osric:

… Put your bonnet to his right use; ’tis for the head.
I thank your lordship, it is very hot.
No, believe me, ’tis very cold; the wind is northerly.
It is indifferent cold, my lord, indeed.
But yet methinks it is very sultry and hot for my complexion.

Here he is mocking Rosencrantz and Guildenstern:

But let me conjure you, by the rights of our fellowship, by the consonancy of our youth, by the obligation of our ever-preserved love, and by what more dear a better proposer could charge you withal, be even and direct with me, whether you were sent for, or no?

Here he is mocking Laertes’ overdone rhetoric (and pointing out his own mockery in the last line):

Why I will fight with him upon this theme
Until my eyelids will no longer wag.

I loved Ophelia: forty thousand brothers
Could not, with all their quantity of love,
Make up my sum. What wilt thou do for her?

‘Swounds, show me what thou’lt do:
Woo’t weep? woo’t fight? woo’t fast? woo’t tear thyself?
Woo’t drink up eisel? eat a crocodile?
I’ll do’t. Dost thou come here to whine?
To outface me with leaping in her grave?
Be buried quick with her, and so will I:
And, if thou prate of mountains, let them throw
Millions of acres on us, till our ground,
Singeing his pate against the burning zone,
Make Ossa like a wart! Nay, an thou’lt mouth,
I’ll rant as well as thou.

Of course, we don’t have the instructions Shakespeare gave to his actors: we have only his texts, and even these require learned critical scrutiny. But since a number of Hamlet’s lines are quite clearly spoken in the spirit of mockery, and with ironic imitation of certain types of speech, we may, I think, justly wonder which other of Hamlet’s lines are similarly intended. My own feeling is that there is much more mockery in Hamlet’s part than is usually reckoned. Take, for instance, this rhapsody of words Hamlet directs at his mother in the big court scene in the first act:

Seems, madam! nay it is; I know not ‘seems.’
‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected ‘havior of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly: these indeed seem,
For they are actions that a man might play:
But I have that within which passeth show;
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.

All too often this passage is delivered straight, but it seems to me that he is here mocking insincere expressions of grief. When delivered straight, it becomes very difficult to make much sense of that trite rhyming couplet at the end; but if this passage is indeed mockery, that couplet fits perfectly.

There are, I think, a few other passages, even some revered ones, that would benefit from being delivered in a mocking tone. For Hamlet is a master of parody and of pastiche, and he employs them liberally.

Given this is the case, is it at all possible that his letters to Ophelia were similarly written in a spirit of mockery? Not that he was mocking Ophelia: not only is there no reason for him to mock her when he was wooing her, such mockery would indicate a cruel and heartless brute; and whatever else Hamlet may have been, he wasn’t that. No – he may have adopted this mocking tone in his letters because Ophelia was in on the joke. Once again, I do realise this is conjecture on my part, but let’s hold with that conjecture for now and see if it leads us anywhere sensible. For imagining that Hamlet wrote those awful lines in all seriousness really takes us nowhere sensible at all.

Polonius, of course, does not sense any irony in these letters, but the subtleties of Hamlet’s mind are entirely lost upon him anyway: we wouldn’t expect Polonius to take these letters at anything other than face value. Gertrude, who, despite not being perhaps the most intelligent of characters, knows her son well enough to be suspicious: “Came this from Hamlet to her?” she asks – not because she does not think Hamlet cannot love Ophelia, but because she knows this is not Hamlet’s style at all. But if, indeed, Ophelia was in on the joke, if Ophelia could laugh at the worn-out conceit of lovers’ “groans” – of lovers pining away helplessly with pangs of dispriz’d love – then the picture we usually have of Ophelia as the docile and obedient and somewhat pallid young lady disappears, and is replaced by someone who is quick-witted, and intelligent; indeed, she becomes the kind of person whom one can imagine Hamlet being attracted to.

For Ophelia (like Hamlet himself, for that matter) is in the wrong play. In a comedy, she could have been a Rosaline, or a Rosalind, or a Beatrice, or a Viola: Shakespeare’s comedies are full of bright-witted and intelligent and immensely attractive young ladies. Even the very young Juliet has wit and wisdom beyond her tender years. And the men fall for them: Berowne falls for Rosaline, Orlando for Rosalind, Romeo for Juliet. Even Benedick, despite his apparent enmity with Beatrice in the earlier acts, is clearly besotted with her: his discovery of his love for her is not the realisation of something that is new, but an uncovering of what already is, but had been hidden.

Observe, for instance, Ophelia’s reply to her brother, who tries to put on a “big brother” act and give her moral instruction:

But, good my brother,
Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven;
Whiles, like a puff’d and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads,
And recks not his own rede.

This is a young woman who understands full well her brother’s sanctimony, his hypocrisy; she knows full well what he gets up to when he is seemingly “studying” at university. Her instinctive understanding, and her turning the tables on him in so shrewd and so articulate a manner, are worthy of Rosalind.

And Hamlet had, I think, been attracted to Ophelia for these very qualities. In a comedy, this would have worked out fine, but they are here in a very different play: here, Ophelia’s natural wit and intelligence are crushed by the overbearing nature of the power her father exerts upon her. She is utterly isolated, and has not even a Nurse to turn to. When she is distressed – as she is by Hamlet’s inexplicable behaviour – she has no-one to turn to except her father; and neither does she have any option but to obey her father’s instructions, even if it means handing over to him the personal love letters she has received. For all her natural intelligence, she is nonetheless a woman in a very patriarchal environment; and she is very young, and utterly dependent. Her spirit, though brilliant, is also fragile, and it is easily crushed.

It is in the third scene of the play, immediately after the big court scene (in which we had first seen Hamlet), that we see Ophelia for the first time. In too many productions of this play, the tension drops here, and it is largely a matter of “wake me up when the ghost appears”. But it shouldn’t be like that. We see Ophelia as intelligent and quick-witted, as she responds aptly, though not unkindly, to her brother, who has, rather patronisingly, been giving her moral instruction. But then her father enters, and he, in turn, gives moral instruction to his son. And the son takes it all. One suspects it is merely a matter of form on both sides, and that it is neither intended seriously on one side, nor taken seriously on the other. (The next time we see Polonius, he is setting spies on his own son: he certainly does not expect his moral instructions to be observed, and appears to have very few moral scruples himself.) And then he turns to his daughter, and she is in no position to reply to her father as she had to her brother. Both Polonius and Laertes judge Hamlet by their own somewhat debased standards: he merely wants his bit of fun with her, they think, and nothing more. Ophelia is sure she knows Hamlet better, but she is powerless: her last helpless words in this scene are “I shall obey, my lord”. And here, Ophelia’s tragedy, no less in magnitude than Hamlet’s, is set in motion – the crushing an intelligent, quick-spirited woman.

The two meet in III,i – the so-called “nunnery” scene. It has long seemed to me a key scene in the drama, although I don’t think I understood why. I am still not sure I entirely understand this scene – there is far too much happening here – but it still seems to me a key scene in the drama, and deserves close inspection.

Here, Ophelia has been instructed by her father to return to Hamlet all his gifts. And furthermore, she is to be the “bait”: she is given the morally dubious task of provoking Hamlet, so that her father and the King may, from their hiding place, observe how he reacts. Indeed, she finds herself in a situation similar to that of Hamlet himself: both have been enjoined by their respective fathers to do what does not come to them naturally – to do what they cannot.

She has been instructed to “read on this book”. If this is intended to camouflage her, as it were – to make her presence seem innocuous – it must be because Ophelia reading on a book is not a conspicuous sight: one can but conclude that she is often seen with a book. Hamlet enters, and delivers his famous soliloquy without at first noticing her. But it would be surprising indeed were she not to hear him; and what she hears is hardly cheerful stuff. Hamlet ponders why we choose to live when living is merely a series of the most intolerable vicissitudes, and concludes that we carry on living merely because we are to cowardly to face the alternative. And only when he has delivered himself of this that he notices her, reading on her book, and immediately adopts the familiar tone of mocking parody:

Soft you now!
The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remember’d.

If my conjecture is right, Ophelia is accustomed to this sort of banter, and, uneasy as she is in the task allotted her, takes up gratefully a similarly bantering tone:

Good my lord,
How does your honour for this many a day?

“My lord”, “Your honour” … is this the way a wooed woman addresses her wooer? Even if he is a prince? Their wooing had not, after all, been merely in its early stages: she had already, by her own admission, “suck’d the honey of his music vows”.

“Good my lord”, “my lord”, “my honoured lord”, “your lordship” … by my count, there are eight instances of “my lord” (or variations thereof) in the very few lines that Ophelia has at this point, and it seems to me plausible that she is continuing the tone of banter that they were both accustomed to, and which, in this scene, Hamlet himself had introduced. Take, for instance, Ophelia’s next lines:

My lord, I have remembrances of yours,
That I have longed long to re-deliver

“Longed long” seems to me a rather contrived piece of poetic artifice, like someone who is not naturally a poet trying to speak poetically. Unless, of course, we take this also as a piece of parodic mockery. She even throws in a trite little rhyming couplet:

Take these again; for to the noble mind
Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind.

We may remember that when Hamlet had mocked Gertrude, he too had thrown in a trite little rhyming couplet:

But I have that within which passeth show;
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.

But Hamlet’s reaction is not very appreciative. (One would hardly expect it to be given that she is returning his gifts.) He laughs – it could be a sardonic laugh – and then proposes a paradox. Once again, this was an aspect of courtly wit – we had seen Hamlet exchange paradoxes earlier with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – but this particular paradox has a rather nasty edge to it. The paradox is that beauty is more powerful than honesty; and this is because beauty has the power to transform honest people into being dishonest, but honesty does not have the comparable power to transform beautiful people into being ugly. A pretty enough paradox, but a bit too close to the bone given what Ophelia is doing (i.e. using her own beauty to entrap Hamlet); and the way Hamlet explains this paradox, bringing into it the imagery of prostitution, is particularly nasty:

… the power of beauty will sooner transform honesty from what it is to a bawd than the force of honesty can translate beauty into his likeness

Ophelia understands the insult. She is using her beauty to trap him, and she is no better than a prostitute. She now drops the bantering tone – it is no longer appropriate – and the rest of her lines are merely brief replies, as short and as to the point as possible, to Hamlet’s questions. Her entire world is now on the point of collapsing.

And then, on top of it all, she is forced into a lie. “Where’s your father?” Hamlet asks, all of a sudden. “At home, my lord,” she replies, and this time, there is no bantering quality to “my lord”. It is a bare-faced lie, she knows it; and Hamlet knows she knows it. And this lie seems to confirm to Hamlet everything he had suspected. Previously, Hamlet had ranted at himself (“I am myself indifferent honest; but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me…”), but now, he turns his fury upon her. Nothing Ophelia says from here onwards is addressed to Hamlet: he is now not someone who may be spoken with. But this is not the person she has known, and all she wants is for the Hamlet she had previously known to be restored to her:

O, help him, you sweet heavens!

O heavenly powers, restore him!

But Hamlet is past restoring now. Polonius had thought Hamlet mad because – well, because he had been acting a bit funny. But with Ophelia, it is different: this is not the Hamlet she once had known.

When Hamlet leaves, Ophelia is given some of the most heartbreaking lines in all dramatic literature. However, since, in most productions I have seen, the focus of the preceding scene had been primarily on Hamlet, with Ophelia playing effectively the “straight man”, these lines often fall a bit flat. Really, they shouldn’t:

O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!
The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s, eye, tongue, sword;
The expectancy and rose of the fair state,
The glass of fashion and the mould of form,
The observed of all observers, quite, quite down!
And I, of ladies most deject and wretched,
That suck’d the honey of his music vows,
Now see that noble and most sovereign reason,
Like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh;
That unmatch’d form and feature of blown youth
Blasted with ecstasy: O, woe is me,
To have seen what I have seen, see what I see!

And this time, there is no hint of parody here in that final rhyming couplet.

Hamlet and Ophelia meet again, for one last time, in the next scene, and this time they are in full gaze of all the court. And I find this scene excruciating: it is among the most distasteful and cruel scenes in all literature. Previously, Hamlet had accused Ophelia of behaving like a prostitute; here, he publicly – and quite deliberately, with pre-meditation – treats her as one. Polonius sees his daughter’s public humiliation, and does nothing. In this, at least, he is not being a hypocrite: he is merely following the advice he had given his son. He acts like an unfeeling bastard, and that’s because he is an unfeeling bastard: to his own self he is indeed true.

But what can one say of Hamlet’s behaviour? How could he have sunk so low from what he once had been? That is his tragedy.

The next time we see Ophelia, her mind has collapsed. It shouldn’t surprise us. Perhaps no-one had ever really loved Ophelia. Laertes protests in very exaggerated terms that he had, but one suspects that he was neither sufficiently intelligent nor sufficiently sensitive to appreciate her worth. Hamlet had truly loved her once – and indeed, he had made her believe so – but even when he finds she is dead, he seems more concerned with mocking Laertes than grieving for her. The only person who had, perhaps, really loved her, was Gertrude, herself another tragic character. She may not herself be the most intelligent or perceptive of characters, but it is she who delivers that rightly famous and very beautiful passage describing Ophelia being dragged down to her death in the waters while singing. And her brief and simple lines at Ophelia’s funeral I find almost unbearably moving:

Sweets to the sweet: farewell!
I hoped thou shouldst have been my Hamlet’s wife;
I thought thy bride-bed to have deck’d, sweet maid,
And not have strew’d thy grave.

In another play, a comedy perhaps, she could indeed have been Hamlet’s wife, and it could have been a marriage of true minds. But here, the sweet spirit of hers, as intelligent and as bright as Rosalind’s or Viola’s, is crushed: it has no chance. This does not often register in productions: because she appears in only a few scenes, she often emerges no more than merely peripheral; and, although we see her fall, we do not really feel the full impact of her tragedy because we see little of the height that she falls from. But Shakespeare has, I think, given her enough. Hamlet Prince of Denmark does not present Hamlet’s tragedy alone.

Meanwhile, when Hamlet was not writing letters to Ophelia with their deliberately pisspoor verses, what else was he doing? My guess is he was writing: Hamlet needed to write things down (“meet it is I set it down”). And, given his passion for theatre, I’d guess further that he was writing a play. I’d guess he was writing Troilus and Cressida, that brutally cynical and dyspeptic play in which one of the two titular characters, Troilus, finds himself shocked that other humans do not possess the sense of honour that he does, and comes to hate them all. But Hamlet, in whose guise I like to think Shakespeare was writing this play, gives us Cressida as well, and she is presented as someone who realises – to her own shock – that Troilus loves not so much herself as a person, but Love and Honour as abstract ideals.

Troilus and Cressida was probably written soon after Hamlet, and there is no record of this brilliant but curious play ever being performed in Shakespeare’s lifetime. I suppose we can make of that what we will.


“Catriona” by Robert Louis Stevenson

I’m really not sure why it has taken me so long to get round to Catriona. Kidnapped I have loved since I was about ten or so, and have revisited it often enough since: its characters, its setting, its plot, have all entered by consciousness the way a book can only when first encountered at so impressionable a stage; and one would have thought that seeking out is sequel would be an obvious next step. But there you go – there’s no explanation for some things.

I found reading this a rather poignant experience. Meeting up with very old friends is always a bit poignant, and that is what David Balfour and Alan Breck Stewart are like for me. But equally, I could not help but picture Stevenson, in the South Seas, far from his native Scotland, writing nostalgically about the land he had left behind. Although many of his stories written in these years were indeed set in the South Sea Islands, equally, many others indicated a mind turned nostalgically homewards: these were the years that produced The Master of Ballantrae, Catriona, and the unfinished Weir of Hermiston, and, while it is not really advisable to try to guess at the author’s frame of mind from the works, it is not hard to imagine Stevenson longing for the home he had left behind. But perhaps he could see also the absurdity of such longing, such nostalgia – literally, the “ache for home”: in Catriona, Stevenson allows the rascally James More, exiled from his native Scotland, shed drunken, maudlin tears for the Land of the Heather and the Deer. I wonder how much conscious self-parody there is in this: quite a bit, I’d guess.

Catriona does not enjoy a reputation anything like that of Kidnapped, and it’s not hard to see why. Kidnapped is essentially a boys’ own adventure story, with the tense political situation – that of Jacobite Scotland in the immediate aftermath of the Jacobite rebellion – forming little more than a background. But in Catriona, the politics are very much in the forefront. Those seeking the thrills of an adventure story are bound to be a bit disappointed; and those who are prepared to forgo the adventure may well find it hard to follow the plot if they haven’t read the earlier novel.

It picks up where Kidnapped had left off. David, now a respectable laird, honest Whig and supporter of King George, wishes nonetheless to prevent what he knows will be a miscarriage of justice: James of the Glens, chieftain of the Stewart clan, will soon be on trial for the murder of Colin Campbell, the “Red Fox”, and David knows James to be innocent. So David, throwing all caution to the wind, and not even realising just how much there is to be cautious about, walks straight into the house of the Lord Advocate (Lord Prestongrange, a historic figure) to tell him what he knows.

Lord Prestongrange is presented in a very sympathetic light. He takes a liking to David, and admires his zeal for justice, his determination not to let an innocent man hang. But the country is still unstable in the wake of the failed rebellion; many clan chieftains have switched allegiances, but the Campbells must still be appeased; the danger of the country being plunged into another bloody civil war is still a very real one. Lord Prestongrange protects David from those many who feel it convenient simply to have him killed, or have him framed and hanged; and he goes so far as endangering his own self in order to ensure David’s safety. But he also ensures David is not present to testify at the trial. He allows James of the Glens, whom he knows to be innocent, to hang. The political ins and outs are very intricate, and Stevenson negotiates it all beautifully – telling us enough to let us know just how very complex and dangerous it all is, but never allowing the narrative to become bogged down with all the various details of the politics. This is a novel, after all, not a history lesson.

As drama, it is quite splendid. But Stevenson was a bit hamstrung, it seemed to me, by history itself: James of the Glens was indeed hanged – that is a known historic fact – and Stevenson couldn’t change that. So the end of this part of the novel proves slightly anti-climactic. David fails in his mission, as we all knew he would; but he finds himself grateful to the very man who has helped foil him, for, without this man’s interventions, David too would have been dead.

There are a couple of splendid chapters of adventure in the midst of all this when David briefly meets up with Alan Breck again, but this episode really doesn’t last long enough: soon, Alan is safely off to France, and we fall back again on all the political shenanigans. All very finely done, but that little taste of adventure did leave me wishing for a bit more.

The second of the novel’s two parts takes us in a very different direction. Here, we see David with Catriona, daughter of the clansman James MacGregor Drummond, also known as James More. (James More was Rob Roy’s son, and a historic figure; Catriona was Stevenson’s invention.) It’s essentially a love story, always a dangerous area for a writer of adventure stories to venture into: the brave and honest hero and the fair and spotless maid are all too often recipes for insipidity and blandness. But Stevenson manages surprisingly well, endowing both figures with character, and with minds of their own, and resisting all temptation to present Catriona merely as a helpless damsel in distress – even when she clearly is a helpless damsel in distress. There is a fire in her, and a corresponding gentleness in David, that move both the young lovers far from traditional stereotypes. I found this part of the novel rather charming, I must admit, but it is nonetheless a bit of a comedown from the high tension and drama of the earlier part of the novel. However, the temperature goes up again for the finale with the welcome reappearance of Alan Breck Stewart, and with a bit more of the kind of adventure story that we all know and love. (Well, that I, at least, know and love: I don’t mean to speak for everyone.)

I don’t think I’d recommend this book to anyone who hasn’t yet read Kidnapped; or to those who have read it, but didn’t care for it. But those who love Kidnapped really shouldn’t hesitate. No, it’s not really an adventure story; and yes, it’s really two very different novels spliced together rather uncomfortably. But it’s such a joy for fans of Kidnapped to return to this environment, and meet up again with David and Alan. I felt like a ten-year-old all over again!

[EDIT: I should have mentioned that <em>Catriona</em> was, and still is, published under the title <em>David Balfour</em> in US.]

Presenting oneself

Tell me, good Brutus, can you see your face?

No, Cassius; for the eye sees not itself,
But by reflection, by some other things.

There appear to be increasing numbers who insist that authors write about themselves. And about no-one but themselves. That writing about people of different races, from different cultural backgrounds, different sexualities, and so on, is oppressive. “Cultural appropriation”, a term concocted fairly recently to reflect a cultural ideology also concocted fairly recently, is now bandied about with reckless abandon, while the argument that it is the fiction writer’s job to imagine themselves into the minds and hearts of other people, often very different from their own selves, seems to fall on deaf ears. Issues specifically affecting a certain group of people must not, it is insisted, be addressed by writers who do not belong to this group. And should they do so, they may well find themselves facing a generally inarticulate but nonetheless potent rage. This rage should not be underestimated, for it may hold hostage even our literary judgement: recently, the influential literary magazine Kirkus, faced with such rage, withdrew its approval from a fiction that it had initially reviewed favourably. Authors beware.

The logical end of the arguments against “cultural appropriation” – fulminations rather than arguments, perhaps, for I do not find them well argued – is that we must write only about ourselves, or, at best, about people very much like ourselves, sharing our racial origin, our gender, our sexuality, and all the rest of it; and that we must concede that those who may enter our fictions who are unlike ourselves fall outside the range not only of our experience, but also of our imagination. There seems, however, to be an underlying assumption here I find questionable, and that is that our own selves we do understand. But do we? As Brutus rightly observes, the eye sees not itself.

I’m not a reader of autobiographies. I don’t think I’ve read a single one, although I suppose I should try out some of the more notable examples of the genre – the autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, say, or the Confessions of St Augustine, or of Rousseau. However, despite my not having read even the finest examples of the form, I find the form itself troubling. Could I write my own story? I have joked in the past that if I were to try my hand at autobiography, then, given how much I have absorbed of Western culture throughout my life (or “appropriated”, some may say); and given further that, as a newly arrived five-year-old immigrant from India (or, rather, émigré, a term far more distinguished-sounding than mere immigrant), I had found myself typecast as the Second King in school nativity plays; I should perhaps call my autobiography Westward Leading, Still Proceeding. But that joke is a bit tired now, and the “if” itself is highly problematic: I could never, I think, sit down to write an autobiography. For there is no point writing an autobiography if one is not to be honest, and to be honest about people whom I have known and liked, or even loved, and lay bare to public gaze their inevitable faults and shortcomings, would be on my part a gross betrayal. And to be similarly honest about myself would be simply embarrassing. In any case I don’t know that I can be honest with myself: however I may see myself, my perspective is inevitably distorted. The eye sees not itself. So either I would end up flattering my ego in self-admiration, or flagellating my character in self-hatred; and neither, I fear, would be a spectacle likely to edify. Except, perhaps, as a cautionary example of that which should, for reasons of good taste, be avoided.

But without going as far as autobiography, a great many writers have introduced themselves into their novels in fictional form. And here, too, I think there are difficulties. It is no surprise, for instance, that the only character in David Copperfield who lacks colour and vitality is the adult David himself, the central character in an avowedly autobiographical novel: Dickens would not, or, more likely perhaps, could not, endow David with his own vitality or genius. We never believe that the David we see in this novel would himself be capable of writing David Copperfield. Levin, in Anna Karenina, is a much finer piece of characterisation, but even here, Tolstoy cannot invest this autobiographical character with his own genius: however much Levin may have resembled Tolstoy in other matters, it is impossible to imagine him writing Anna Karenina. This perhaps confirms what lesser mortals such as myself have often felt about genius – that it is so mysterious a quality, it eludes the understanding even of those who are possessed of it. Or, perhaps, especially of those who are possessed of it.

There are other writers who present, quite deliberately, a certain carefully calculated version of themselves in their novels. Fielding, for instance, frequently speaks to the reader in his own voice, thus making himself, in effect, one of the characters in his own novel. The voice he speaks in is companionable – wise, witty, magnanimous, tolerant, admiring of virtues, and generally tolerant and forgiving of vices. Whether Fielding was really like this matters little: what matters is how well the characterisation works in the context of the novel. For once one puts oneself into fiction, one becomes a fictional character, and it is in the context of the fiction that the success or otherwise of the character must be judged.

Nabokov went in the opposite direction from Fielding: the narrator of Pnin turns out to be Nabokov himself, except that he isn’t quite Nabokov himself: he is a version of Nabokov with all warmth and compassion expunged, and with the cruelty and heartlessness accentuated. An unpleasant parody of Nabokov, in other words. For the real Nabokov, the real author of Pnin, leaves the attentive reader in no doubt that the title character is a gentle and dignified man, indeed, a saintly man; and such a man, one suspects, would have been beyond the scope of the parody Nabokov, the fictional author of Pnin. The real Nabokov demands we read between the lines; the parody Nabokov is seemingly unaware that there exists anything at all between the lines worth reading.

Nabokov could pull this off because he was well aware of the impossibility of putting one’s self into one’s work; he was aware that when one tries to do so, all one puts in is a parody of one’s self. And being aware of this, he deliberately shaped the parody to serve his artistic ends. As, no doubt, did Fielding, although Fielding went in the opposite direction by presenting the best rather than the worst of himself. But both Fielding in Tom Jones and Nabokov in Pnin are fictional characters; and both writers – the real writers, that is – know it.

This is why I think I find myself suspicious of autobiography as a form. If one puts oneself into a fiction, one immediately becomes a fictional character; and when one puts oneself into what purports to be fact, the factual nature of the self-representation is, at the very least, questionable.

And similarly, I think, with those things one writes about because they are close to one’s self, because writing manuals have told us to write about what we know: the closer a subject is to the author’s own life, the less I find myself trusting it. One’s own experiences are the very things that are most difficult to write about with any great degree of objectivity. And where objectivity is questionable, so too, I think, is authenticity.

Since I am not myself a writer of fiction, I feel I am well qualified to dispense advice to aspiring fiction-writers. I’d say – don’t write about what you know. Forget your own self: imagine yourself into the minds of people very different from yourself. For, if you cannot imagine that, you really have no business even trying to write fiction. Best to write some trifling blog instead, as I do.

“Virgin Soil” by Ivan Turgenev

What is to be done?

This is always a pressing question regardless of which time or place we may happen to live in, but it seemed a particularly pressing question in pre-revolutionary Russia. Chernyshevsky wrote a hugely influential polemical novel with that question as title. (Tom of the Amateur Reader blog kindly read it for us so we don’t have to*, and recorded his impressions in a series of posts starting with this one. Scott Bailey, of the Six Words for a Hat blog, also wrote about it here.)

Chernyshevsky’s perspective was that of a utopian socialist. Tolstoy wrote an essay with the same title in 1886, and his perspective was … well, Tolstoyan, I suppose: the very idiosyncratic views he developed later in his life resist categorisation with any kind of “-ism”. And in the early years of the twentieth century, Lenin too wrote a pamphlet with that title: although I haven’t read it, I think I’m on safe ground in thinking Lenin’s perspective to be Communist. And even those writers who did not use this title addressed nonetheless this vital question. However they may have disagreed with each other on the answer, on this one point they seemed to be united: something had to be done.

Russia then – and, many would argue, now too – was, up to a significant point, part of Europe, and also, up to a similarly significant point, not part of Europe. Peter the Great had forced westernisation on to the country, but had used the most barbaric of means to achieve it, and, throughout the 19th century, the intelligentsia seemed very much split on whether to look to the West for enlightenment, or to find spiritual transformation in the soul of Mother Russia itself. The social iniquities were horrendous: serfdom – essentially “slavery” by another name – was abolished only in 1861, but that act alone did little to improve the peasants’ lot. There were all sorts of social and political unrest, and the crackdowns were vicious: the sound of the lash was never too distant. Whatever one’s political stance, there seemed no two ways about it: something had to be done.

Extreme views were very common, and I suppose it may be said that Turgenev was an extreme moderate. By which I mean that he espoused moderation not out of indecisiveness or out of pusillanimity, but out of a firmly held conviction that extremism in any direction was inherently dangerous. This made him, I suppose, something of an anomaly in the intellectual climate of Russia at the time – indeed, he was severely criticised by all sides – and it is hardly surprising that he spent much of his life in Europe. And it is towards Europe he looked. As a consequence, he made himself hugely unpopular amongst the Slavophiles: Dostoyevsky, especially, took against him, although he had personal reasons as well as ideological ones. Demons, which Dostoyevsky wrote in the early 1870s, contains a particularly nasty and unfair (though, it must be admitted, very funny) caricature of Turgenev.

Demons, too, is a novel that addresses the question “What is to be done?” Dostoyevsky had long disliked the idea of turning towards Western Enlightenment: given the history and traditions of Russia, he felt, foreign ideas wouldn’t work so well. It is easy to dismiss Dostoyevsky’s hostility to western ideas as mere nationalistic pride – though no doubt there is much of that there – but what Dostoyevsky saw in Europe did not seem to him a Utopia worth striving for. In Demons, he depicted the revolutionaries either as amoral nihilists and psychopaths, or as duped followers. Once again, it is easy to dismiss all this, and say his depictions are mere reactionary hysteria, but, given the uncanny accuracy of his prediction in the same novel of the Communist totalitarianism that gripped Russia only a few decades later, perhaps we shouldn’t. Dostoyevsky’s answer to the question “What is to be done?” isn’t simple: it involved turning back to the roots of Russian spirituality, which, he felt, could save not merely Russia, but the rest of the world too. (This is, inevitably, an oversimplification of complex ideas that, I must admit, I do not claim to adequately grasp, even after several re-readings.) On what we shouldn’t do, he was clearer: we shouldn’t accept the agenda of those who sought revolution. His vision of where these agenda would lead us was remarkably far-sighted.

Turgenev wrote Virgin Soil, his final novel in the late 1870s, only a few years after the appearance of Demons, and, although he does not refer directly to that novel, it would have been surprising indeed if he had not had it in mind, especially given that he, too, was writing about revolutionaries. However, his view of revolutionaries was very different.

Not that he approved of their aims, or, indeed, of their methods: he was too committed to the path of moderation to do that. But he approved of their moral seriousness. In On the Eve, written some twenty-five years earlier, he had similarly admired the moral seriousness of the Bulgarian revolutionary Insarov, and had juxtaposed it with the moral complacency and laxity of the older generation. However, moral seriousness and good intentions are clearly not enough, and in Virgin Soil, he digs a bit deeper into these issues. In the earlier novel, Turgenev had not actually delved into what it meant to be a revolutionary, but here he does: how does one foment a revolution? What does it involve? Where does it all lead? And the conclusions he seemed to reach, while not apocalyptic as is the unforgettable closing section of Demons, are nonetheless rather pessimistic. For reasons rather different from Dostoyevsky’s, Turgenev too could not support the revolutionaries’ cause.

While a novel based on such themes is inevitably political in nature, Turgenev’s interest was primarily in the human aspect. All ideologies stand or fall by how humans implement them, how humans respond to them, how humans, with all their manifold strengths and equally manifold shortcomings, affect them, and are affected by them. And this is where Turgenev’s interest primarily lies – not so much in the ideologies themselves, but in what we may call (to anticipate the title of a rather fine Graham Greene novel from about a century later) “the human factor”.

The principal character here is Nezhdanov, an illegitimate (and disinherited) son of an aristocrat, who is drawn to the revolutionary cause. He is employed by Sipyagin to be tutor to his son, and soon finds himself in a country estate – a standard setting in Turgenev’s work. We are introduced here to the lady of the house, the beautiful but self-centred and manipulative Valentine Mikhailovna; to Sipyagin himself, who affects liberalism, but knows, as they say, which side his bread is buttered; and to a neighbouring landowner Kallomeitsev, a brutish and unthinking reactionary. We are introduced also to Sipyagin’s ward, the young but self-assured Marianna, whose independence of thought and of action mark her out as very different from the gentle submissive ingenues of many of Turgenev’s earlier works. All are characterised expertly, with a few deft but unobtrusive strokes.

The scope here is wider than usual: Nezhdanov’s revolutionary comrades are also making the journey from town to country, in an attempt to bring the revolution to the peasantry, who seem to be little better off than they had been before the Emancipation of 1861.

Nezhdanov is serious and conscientious about his revolutionary mission, but there seems to be, quite disastrously, something missing: Nezhdanov himself realises, to his immense shame, that he lacks commitment to the cause. Why, he does not know: it is a mystery even to himself. This is a theme Turgenev had long explored – the “superfluous man”, the man who may be, and, indeed, often is, intelligent and talented and capable, but who is, nonetheless, curiously ineffective. And yes, even here, amongst people consciously dedicated to action, we find this “superfluous man”.

Nezhdanov is also a poet, and on a number of occasions, he attributes his lack of effectiveness, his lack of true commitment, to his aesthetic nature. This seems highly dubious: why should an aesthetic nature inhibit commitment? Does not sensitivity to beauty render even more ugly the brute suffering visited so iniquitously on so many humans?

Nezhdanov himself does not know the answer to this, but the thought of a connection of sorts between his lack of commitment on the one hand, and his aestheticism on the other, does, nonetheless, haunt his mind. Perhaps we need to go to a novel written after the revolution, Doctor Zhivago, to find a further exploration of this. There, Pasternak’s protagonist, Zhivago, is also a poet, an aesthete. When the revolution had come, he had cautiously welcomed it: it was the cleaning of the Augean Stables that was very much needed. But as the novel progresses, Zhivago’s aestheticism seems to become, in itself, and by itself, a statement against the totalitarian nature of the revolution: a sensitivity to the beauty of life cannot reconcile itself to an ideology that sees humans as but terms in a mathematical equation. If I may be so self-centred as to quote from my earlier post on Pasternak’s novel:

Pasternak was writing in a time where even the description of the beauty of a tree was a political statement, a statement against totalitarianism.

[D]octor Zhivago is a celebration, or, if not a celebration as such, at least an affirmation, of everything that totalitarianism attempts to suppress – human feelings, human emotions, the human sense of beauty, human individuality, the apprehension of love, the need for companionship, for affection … indeed, the novel is an affirmation of everything that is human.

(I think I should add at this point that there is also much in that earlier post that I now find myself disagreeing with.)

Possibly, Turgenev was aware of all this; but Nezhdanov certainly isn’t. As he increasingly becomes aware of his lack of commitment, the more he sees himself as a “superfluous man”, a failure. As with Bazarov in Fathers and Sons, he cannot force himself into becoming what he is convinced he should, but knows he cannot.

The pages where Turgenev describes how these would-be revolutionaries attempt to bring the revolution to the peasants introduce a most uncharacteristic strain of humour (Turgenev, for all his many gifts, was not really the funniest of writers): these people may mean well, but they do not have the first clue, as they distribute pamphlets to largely illiterate and mainly indifferent (and sometimes hostile) peasants. Eventually, in one case, the peasants themselves turn the revolutionaries in to the authorities; and the authorities are merciless.

So what should be done? It is of course not the novelist’s duty to give answers, but an answer of sorts is suggested by the character Solomin, whose name sounds too close to that of the wise king Solomon to be ignored. Solomin is also part of the revolutionary movement, but, apart from providing the odd bit of assistance, he doesn’t seem too heavily involved in revolutionary activity. He is the manager of a factory, and has a reputation of running the factory well: as a consequence, he is much respected by factory owners in the region, and is much in demand. However, we hear disappointingly little of what Solomin thinks is the answer to the question “What is to be done?” Perhaps he does not have much of an answer. We do hear towards the end of the novel that he goes on to run his own factory on a co-operative basis, but we do not see any of that: what we do see of him, he is running a factory as, effectively, his own kingdom. He may refer to the other workers as “brothers”, but he is in charge, and everyone, including both the workers and the grateful factory owners, knows it. He seems, to be frank, an unlikely revolutionary.

But if we do not get much of an answer to the question “What is to be done?”, this is not really Turgenev’s focus of interest: he was interested in how humans feel, and how they behave, when faced with this question, and when they try to propound answers, and then live up to them.

Reading through Turgenev’s work (and with this, I think I have now read all of Turgenev’s major work – all that has been translated into English, at least) I often get the impression that he was writing on political matters much against his will; that he was writing on such themes because, as an intelligent man living in deeply troubled times, and as a man who believed passionately in a moderate liberalism, he had no choice but to address such matters; but that, if he had his way, he would turn his back on all the politics and write melancholy love stories instead – the sort of thing that had my younger self dismissing his work as “soppy”. (Turgenev did sometimes do just this, even late in his career, as in that exquisite novella The Torrents of Spring.) In Virgin Soil, he has much scope for “soppiness”: there’s the country setting for a start, and few writers if any could match Turgenev when it came to lyrical descriptions of nature; and there’s also a love story. But, despite this novel being by some distance considerably longer than his other works, he shuns all these temptations: the focus here is neither on the beauties of nature, nor on the lyricism of romantic love; there’s a sort of single-mindedness in his determination here not to be deflected from his principal themes. This refusal to indulge his lyrical inclinations results in what is, by his standards, almost an austere novel: there is a single-mindedness of purpose that presents with the utmost clarity and starkness the tragic course of the “superfluous man” – of a man who, though not lacking either in intelligence or in ability, becomes aware of how utterly dispensible he is in the wider scheme of things.

So whose depiction of revolutionaries, I wonder, was closer to the mark – Dostoyevsky’s in Demons, or Turgenev’s in Virgin Soil? I’d hazard a guess that both types of revolutionaries existed, and that, after the revolution, the kind of revolutionaries Turgenev depicts were liquidated by the kind Dostoyevsky depicts. Until they, too, were liquidated in turn. Possibly Turgenev did not foresee the liquidations; but Dostoyevsky did. It’s a paradoxical case of the writer who appears hysterical piercing deeper than the writer who seems more balanced and clear-sighted. But Turgenev’s depiction remains important for all that: there were revolutionaries who went in there with serious moral purpose, and with the best of intentions. They may have been misguided, they may have been wrong; they may not have consciously realised that what they were aiming for was nothing less that totalitarianism itself. They may, in the final analysis, have been superfluous. But Turgenev’s vision was humane and gentle, and for this alone, if nothing else, I find him among the most companionable of writers.


[The translation of “Virgin Soil” I read was by Michael Pursglove, published by Alma Classics.]

* Please Note: the gag about Tom reading Chernyshevsky so the rest of us don’t have to is shamelessly nicked from this post in Di Nguyen’s blog “The Little White Attic”.


Grappling with Ibsen

It was in the late ’80s, when I was in my 20s, that I developed a fascination with Ibsen. I think (although, with the passage of time, I cannot be certain on this point) it was a couple of BBC broadcasts that set off my passion – Little Eyolf, with Diana Rigg and Antony Hopkins, and The Master Builder, with Leo McKern and Miranda Richardson. The plays puzzled me. I could sense a lot going on under the surface; I could sense powerful undercurrents, of the presence of mysterious, irresistible forces; but the precise nature of these undercurrents, of these forces, eluded me. Possibly they elude me still, even after all these years of reading and re-reading, of seeing various productions. For all Ibsen’s reputation as a depicter of the bourgeois and creator of firm solidities; as one who had his finger firmly on the pulse of society and who pointed out and excoriated its various hypocrisies; Ibsen seemed to me, and seems to me still, to be looking beyond all that: he seemed to me to be plumbing mysterious depths, and exploring hidden recesses, of the human mind. Not that the social themes did not exist, of course, but these were not what fascinated me so. But what did fascinate me I found hard to articulate. I think I still do.

It is perhaps for this reason that I have generally kept away from Ibsen on my blog, but if the point of my writing this blog is for me to talk about what interests me most, and what I love best, then I really have to tackle Ibsen here some time. If only so that I can say, as Hilary famously said after conquering Everest, that I’ve “knocked the bastard off”.

I doubt whether here is any other writer of comparable stature whose literary career had so slow a start. Ibsen’s first play, Catiline, was written in 1850, and nine more plays followed in the next fifteen or so years; but had he written nothing other than these plays, it is doubtful whether he would have been remembered at all. Not that some of them do not show flashes of what was to come: The Vikings at Helgeland, especially, clearly foreshadows the later Hedda Gabler. But it’s fair to say that stodgy historical melodramas, with such creaking plot devices as overheard conversations and intercepted letters and so on, are not really to modern taste.

Ibsen himself seemed to tire of all this. Love’s Comedy, written in 1862, seemed a very conscious departure: forsaking historic romance and melodrama, Ibsen set this play in contemporary times, and wrote the whole thing in rhymed verse, rich in poetic imagery; and its principal theme – which, predictably, scandalised contemporary audiences – was the barriers set in the way of human love when institutionalised as marriage. It’s a fascinating work in many respects, but, I must admit, not one I find particularly dramatic: how much I should blame translations for this I am not entirely sure, but I do get the feeling that Ibsen was branching out into new and unexplored territory, and it shouldn’t really be too surprising if there are some shortcomings.

Ibsen turned back to historic drama again with his next play, The Pretenders, an epic work that seems to me quite clearly a great advance on his earlier historic plays. Although, even here, it must be admitted that, compared to something such as, say, Danton’s Death, written by Georg Büchner some thirty years earlier, it can seem a bit leaden.

It was at this time something remarkable happened. A government grant, for which he had applied a year earlier, freed him from the responsibility of having to write specifically for the theatre; and Ibsen left Norway for Italy (he remained an exile from Norway for the next 27 years). And here, in the southern Mediterranean climes, he wrote a verse play set in the mountains and the fjords of the home country he had turned his back on. This play – the first of his two plays written specifically to be read rather than to be performed – was Brand, and I don’t think even the finest of his earlier works could have prepared anyone for the immense stature of this: it was as if the freedom not to write for the stage had freed his imagination also.

However, the verse, even in translation, is vividly dramatic. The whole work is far too long for a single evening’s performance, but the dramatic seemed to be such an inexorable feature of Ibsen’s imagination that, even when cut down for performance, and even in translation, it holds the stage triumphantly. Here, with bold dramatic strokes, Ibsen depicts a dramatic world that is perhaps best described as “mythic” – scenes, situations, and characters of immense power, resonating in our minds as insistently as the most potent of ancient myths.

Its title character, Brand, is a preacher whose stern, unbending search for truth, the absolute truth, and his refusal to accept compromise, inflicts cruelties not only upon his flock, but also upon those he loves most, and even upon himself. It is a theme that haunts Ibsen’s work: the truth. We may all acknowledge its importance: we always have done. Tell the truth and let all else go hang. But all else can’t go hang: Ibsen was fascinated by the extent to which humans can accept the truth – the extent to which they can acknowledge it, or even, perhaps, recognise it. In the magnificent final scene of Brand, Brand, rejected by his flock, is led into a mountain crevice covered above by ice – the “ice church”. The truth is indeed holy, but it is also cold. Can humans inhabit such an ice church?

Peer Gynt appeared the very next year, 1867. As far as I have read, this, and Brand, are – for me at any rate – the last great plays in verse (although, I suppose, a case can be made for the verse plays of T. S. Eliot). In many ways, Peer Gynt is the antithesis of Brand: if Brand is unbending, Peer is only too happy to bend in whichever direction the wind blows, evading his responsibilities, compromising his morals (which he possibly never had much of to begin with), until, by the end, he is no more than an onion – layer upon accumulated layer, with no real core. If in Brand Ibsen had invented his own mythology, here, in a troll-haunted world, he invents his own folklore; and such is the reach of this astounding work – again, not written specifically for the theatre, but which works splendidly on stage even in cut-down versions – that he seems to me to anticipate virtually all the dramatic innovations of twentieth century theatre: I once saw a production of Peer Gynt by the Berliner Ensemble, directed by Peter Zadek, and, true to their Brechtian roots, they presented it in the mould of Brechtian Epic Theatre: it worked beautifully. There are also elements in this play that seem to me also to anticipate Strindberg’s dream plays, or the Theatre of the Absurd. It is an audacious achievement.

After scaling these heights of poetic drama, Ibsen seemed to turn his back on poetry. But first came a curious anomaly – Emperor and Galilean, a two-part epic drama, filled with the bizarre and the opulent and the exotic. I have read this a few times, but have failed to make sense of it, and to see where exactly in Ibsen’s work it fits. It seems like nothing Ibsen had written before or after, either stylistically or thematically. It is tempting to think that Ibsen took a wrong turn with this one, but it shouldn’t really be dismissed so glibly: he collected material for this play for over four years, and spent another two years writing it; and what’s more, he averred it to be his finest work. It is all very mysterious. I sometimes think this is Ibsen’s equivalent of Flaubert’s Salammbôsomething he had to get out of his system as an outlet before he could focus on more everyday matters. But I may well be wrong. I re-read this recently, and I was, once again, very puzzled.

There was also a comedy – yes, Ibsen did write comedies – The League of Youth, which is, to be frank, an enjoyable but comparatively slight affair. And then followed the twelve prose plays that critic Brian Johnston refers to as “The Ibsen Cycle”- plays set not in the world of the mythic, or of folklore, but in the everyday world, with characters from ordinary walks of life, speaking, naturalistically, in prose. But appearances can be deceptive. While the earlier plays in this cycle certainly seem to focus on social issues, even here, it seems to me, the undercurrents run deep. And these undercurrents become more apparent on the surface as the cycle progresses, the poetic imagery becomes ever denser and ever more resonant, until, in the last play, When We Dead Reawaken, though written in prose, we seem to be back again in the poetic world of Brand and of Peer Gynt. The adjective “visionary” does not seem misapplied.


Perhaps it’s the literature of the mid- to late- 19th century that attracts me most. Not exclusively: I love my Shakespeare, of course, and the Romantic poets; I have a keen interest in Greek tragedies, am entranced by Don Quixote, and so on; and I love also a great many of the achievements of modernism – Ulysses, The Four Quartets, etc. And inevitably, given my Bengali background, Tagore is important to me – I don’t have a choice on that one. But it’s perhaps the mid- to late- 19th century that I keep going back to most, for reasons I haven’t frankly bothered to analyse. And the literary figures of that era who are most important to me, who are, as it were, permanent residents of my mind (such as it is), are, I think, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Hopkins, and, most certainly, Ibsen. But I have never really understood why Ibsen exerts so powerful a hold on my imagination. So I am planning, over the course of this year, to read Ibsen’s major works – by which I mean Brand and Peer Gynt, and the twelve prose plays beginning with The Pillars of Society and ending with When We Dead Awaken – and to write here some unstructured personal musings. (I’ll give Emperor and Galilean a miss: it may well be a major work, but if I try to write about something I really don’t understand, I’m afraid I’ll end up just making an arse of myself.)

As ever, these posts will not be analyses, and certainly not “reviews”, but merely some reflections on what these works mean to me. I shall, in short, be talking to myself. But I’ll be talking out loud, so do please drop in to listen, if you feel like it; and, as ever, feel free to add your own thoughts, and let me know if you disagree. It’ll all help me sort out my own thoughts on this most fascinating of writers.

Goya and Dr Arrieta

It is hardly indicative of any great insight or perspicacity to describe Goya’s paintings as “disturbing”. It is hard to think of any other artist with a darker, more harrowing vision.

Sadly, I have not yet visited Madrid, and have yet to see most of Goya’s output, but what I have seen in reproduction is striking enough. And, about two years ago, I saw an exhibition in the National Gallery, London, of Goya’s portraits. And in that exhibition there was this quite extraordinary self-portrait, loaned from the Minneapolis Institute of Art where it normally hangs.


Self-portrait with Dr Arrieta by Francisco Goya, courtesy of Minneapolis Institute of Art

Goya presents himself here as severely ill, somewhere close to that vague borderline between this world and the next, his head rolled back, clutching on to his bedsheets as if for his very life. By his side is Dr Arietta, to whom Goya presented this painting in gratitude. Dr Arrieta is shown here as a reassuring presence, holding up his patient gently but firmly, and urging him to drink from his glass of medicine – urging him, indeed, to return, as it were, to life itself.

It is a striking image, but what fascinates me most are the other faces on the canvas – shadowy faces, as if vaguely glimpsed, behind the dominating figures of the doctor and his patient. Who are they? The Wikipedia article on this painting suggests they are “perhaps [Goya’s] servants and a priest”. Well, yes: perhaps. The article goes on to further suggest, I think plausibly, that they may be “portents of doom”. I remember standing in front of this canvas, looking at those faces looming menacingly in the murk, and experiencing a certain frisson, a vague sense of something fearful. These figures, lurking in the dark, the level of their heads considerably lower than that either of the doctor or of Goya, may indeed be real people – servants and a priest, as the Wikipedia article suggests. But – and maybe this reflects only on my own cast of mind, and nothing else – I could not help sensing something demonic about them. Like some horrific spirits glimpsed in the throes of a vivid nightmare – or, perhaps, sensed in the delirious wanderings of a sick mind dangerously close to death.

If we do indeed accept these faces as demons, we could certainly interpret them as but demons of the mind, of Goya’s sick mind, false creations proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain; and that Dr Arrieta, a man of science, as the representative of Enlightenment rationality, banishing these creatures of the dark.

But there is, it seems to me, another possible explanation: it could be that though our rationality refuses to admit their reality, these demons are real enough, and that not all our science and reason could ever drive these monsters out from our minds.