Back to Shakespeare: my latest readings of “As You Like It” and “Richard II”

It’s pointless even trying to speculate what went on in that very strange mind of Shakespeare’s: he writes As You Like It, the sunniest and most lyrical of pastoral romantic comedies – a play that, one might think, would thrive on flights of fancy – mainly in prose; while Richard II, a historical and political drama unremitting in its seriousness, he writes entirely in verse, liberally throwing in large numbers of rhyming couplets for good measure. I know that in these posts on Shakespeare I pretend to have a modicum ofunderstanding of his plays – an author, even of blog posts, should, after all, have a claim to some degree of authority – but there are times when it is best to admit that I don’t really get what he was up to.

Yes, I’ve been reading Shakespeare again. And it’s been a surprisingly long time since I had last read one of his plays. Oh, I have dipped into them often enough, and browsed passages, but, apart from his two narrative poems, his verse is dramatic verse, and demands to be seen in the context of the drama. (Even the sonnets seem to me best regarded as dramatic monologues, with the speaker and the dramatic context left to the reader’s imagination.) I know there are some who think otherwise: I have even encountered those who claim not to care at all about the drama (which, apparently, is “stolen” anyway); and who, further, tell me quite seriously that the language is all that matters. But that really won’t do: literature is the least abstract of all the arts: its basic building blocks are words, and each word has a meaning (and often more than just a single meaning) beyond itself – that is, it has a significance beyond how it sounds, and how it looks when written. Language without context is nothing. And in Shakespeare, the context is dramatic. Those who look merely for “the language” may find it hard to account for the effects produced in King Lear by such lines as “World, world, O world!”, or “Never, never, never, never, never” – effects that are well beyond my powers of articulation to describe.

So it’s back to the plays. It’s Project Back-to-Shakespeare. Why have I left it so long? Because I have taken them for granted, I think. I know they’re there. And many of these plays, I know, reside permanently in my mind anyway. But that’s really not good enough: if I am to live with these plays, I have to re-read them regularly, and re-read them with as fresh a mind as is possible. So I have decided to be a bit more disciplined: once a month, whatever else I may be reading at the time (and I am still reading Clive James’ translation of Dante), I have promised myself to re-read a play by Shakespeare at least once every month. For familiarity all too often breeds indifference, and it would be sad if I were ever to become indifferent to these works which, I think, have meant to me more than any other work of literature I know of.

So, we’re now nearly two months into this year, and I have read two plays – which isn’t bad given how bad I am at keeping promises to myself: As You Like It, and Richard II – the comedy written mainly in prose and the tragic drama written entirely in verse.

As You Like It has always struck me as a strange play. Oh, it’s clearly a great masterpiece, no doubt about that – but a play I don’t feel I’ve quite got to grips with – at least, not to my own satisfaction. Sometimes I think this is because it lacks drama, but that’s not the reason: Love’s Labour’s Lost similarly lacks drama, and I have always loved that. I think what puzzles me is that various dramas are set up in the first act, only to dissipate as we move into the second. Of course, this is clearly what Shakespeare had intended: the Forest of Arden is a magical forest – not like the forest of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where real magic is involved, but a magical place all the same, where all who enter are cleansed of their evil intent, and are reconciled.

For there is much evil that needs cleansing. There’s a Duke who usurps his place, having unlawfully deposed his brother, the rightful Duke; there’s an elder brother who hates and mistreats his younger, and plots to have him killed; and so on. Indeed, the conflicts are laid out with such clear distinction between Good and Bad, we seem to be more in the realms of folktale rather than of anything claiming to be realistic drama. Even the rightful Duke, we are explicitly told, is living in the forest with a band of loyal followers “like the Old Robin Hood”.

I think I had previously underestimated just how important folklore is in Shakespeare’s dramatic output. It’s very apparent in those three late plays that it’s very tempting to describe as a trilogy (Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest): these, indeed, are fairy stories (albeit with Shakespeare’s own individual stamp on them). But I think Shakespeare’s fascination with folklore can be traced to many of his earlier plays too, where, even within an otherwise realistic context, he is happy to introduce plot devices that seem straight out of fairy tales. I don’t know, for instance, that one could make much sense of All’s Well That Ends Well (written during a period when Shakespeare was occupied mainly with tragic drama) without considering it as a sort of fairy tale. Both this play and Measure for Measure (also written during this period) feature the much-criticised “bed trick” – that is, a plot device whereby a man has sex with a woman thinking her to be someone else. Such a contrivance is, of course, more than a bit silly, but I think it becomes less so if we can consider it in the context of folklore, or of the fairy tale – that is, in the context of a semi-magical world where the unlikely becomes the everyday. In the late play Cymbeline, Shakespeare pushed this element of folklore to its utmost limit, thus ending up with a plot which, if considered in a strictly realistic mode, fully lives up (or down) to Johnson’s famous dismissal: “unresisting imbecility”. But the mistake isn’t Shakespeare’s, it is ours: it lies in considering the work in a strictly realistic mode, when really, it is Shakespeare’s variation on the story we now know as “Snow White”. Even the mainspring of King Lear, the most unbearably terror-stricken of all his tragedies, belongs to the world of fairy tales.

And so in As You Like It. The Robin Hood like existence of a merry band of outlaws living in the forest we have had before, in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and it is pure folklore. The various conflicts laid out in the first act are all the stuff of fairy tales, the stuff of dreams, and, as Prospero is later to say, they vanish into thin air. As in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the forest here is a magical place where human wrongs are put right (albeit without the explicitly supernatural agents); but Shakespeare seems to insist here that it is the forest that is real, and the outside world with all its conflicts that is the dream. Reconciliation here is real: dissension isn’t.

The Forest of Arden is both Ovid’s Golden Age from Book 1 of the Metamorphoses, and also the Garden of Eden. But not quite. The forest harbours snakes and lions, there’s hardship, there are brambles and cold winds, there’s unrequited love, and the shepherd Corin speaks of masters of “churlish disposition”. And, further, there are question marks about the deposed Duke’s right – effectively – to set up in this forest his own surrogate dukedom.

Looking forward in Shakespeare’s career, there are clear parallels between this play and the much darker later play The Tempest. In both, a rightful duke, deposed by his brother, comes to an untamed land and effectively establishes his second dukedom there. And in both cases, people from his earlier dukedom come into his later one. Prospero’s right to his new dukedom is questioned in The Tempest, and the right of the deposed Duke in As You Like It doesn’t pass with question either, despite the benign and benevolent nature of this second dukedom. And this questioning comes from Jaques, who insists that it is the humans in the forest, including the deposed Duke, who are the usurpers of nature’s realm:

Thus most invectively he pierceth through
The body of the country, city, court,
Yea, and of this our life, swearing that we
Are mere usurpers, tyrants and what’s worse,
To fright the animals and to kill them up
In their assign’d and native dwelling-place.

Even the good-natured Duke loses patience with Jaques, and at one point, has a quite surprising outburst:

For thou thyself hast been a libertine,
As sensual as the brutish sting itself;
And all the embossed sores and headed evils,
That thou with licence of free foot hast caught,
Wouldst thou disgorge into the general world.

Despite these lines, I have never seen Jaques played as a sort of monster with “embossed sores and headed evils”: I’d like to, as that would align him to Caliban (and also, intriguingly, to Thersites in Troilus and Cressida). Tony Tanner, in his Prefaces to Shakespeare, tells us that A. D. Nuttall says “it is not a waste of the imagination to consider Jaques as a Caliban who has been civilised”, although, since this otherwise excellent book lacks a bibliography, he doesn’t tell us where Nuttall says this. (It certainly isn’t in that quite superb volume Shakespeare the Thinker, the only work of Nuttall’s I have read, and I’m not enough of a Shakespeare scholar to know Nuttall’s other books.) But relating Jaques to Caliban strikes me as astute and illuminating, as they are both constant reminders of the deep flaws in our civilised states, and of how ripeness may shade into rottenness without our even noticing.

But neither the brambles and cold winds, nor the masters of churlish disposition, nor even Jaques’ latent Calibanism, can detract from this being the happiest, the sunniest of Shakespeare plays. Despite Jaques’ refusal to be part of the harmony that reigns at the end, the harmony does indeed exist: it is real, as is the reconciliation upon which it is based. A good friend of mine, and a lifelong Shakespeare lover, tells me that he imagines Heaven to be a bit like the Forest of Arden. I think he has hit it. Given our fallen human state, the Forest of Arden is indeed about as close to Heaven as it is possible to imagine. Human differences cannot be wished away, but, who knows, maybe there can be a reconciliation. True, by the time Shakespeare came round to writing The Tempest, even this hope for meaningful reconciliation had been dashed, but here it is still very much alive. I have, I admit, failed in the past to come to terms with this play, but the longer I spend immersed in its world, the more I find myself falling in love with it. At one point, Marlowe’s famous line “Whoever loved that loved not at first sight?” is approvingly quoted. Well, Marlowe was wrong, and Shakespeare was wrong in approving of it: I did not love this play at first sight, but I think I can honestly say that I love it now.

And then, last week, my second stop in my Back to Shakespeare project: Richard II, a play I have long admired, but have always found a bit difficult to love. And the problem, I think, is the central character. The flaw, I hasten to add, is not in the characterisation (which is brilliant), but in the character himself: Richard does not seem to have the stature to be at the centre of so immense a tragic drama. In As You Like It, Jaques had said that all the world is a stage, but he had meant that metaphorically: Richard appears to take it literally. All the world is a stage, and he, the king, is the star player, the actor constantly in the spotlight. Never does any protagonist in any Shakespeare play speak so much, and to so little purpose. Hamlet talks a lot, both to others and to himself, but that’s because he has much to say:  his speech is often very concentrated, because so many ideas are packed into it; and often, his mind moves so quickly from one idea to another, it is difficult keeping up. That is never the case with Richard: his is never an active mind: all too often, especially in the latter part of the play, when he seems content reflecting on what’s happening rather than directing it. Throughout, he has very little dialogue, but a great many speeches. If he is indeed an actor on a stage, he seems to be more of a Chorus than a protagonist.

There are effectively two Richards – one before going off to the wars against the Irish rebels (in what we would nowadays think of as a “colonial war”), and another when he returns. Historically, his Irish war was a success, but Shakespeare keeps quiet about that, presumably because he does not wish to show Richard in too active or too heroic a light. Before he goes, he is corrupt, venal, callous, in every way unfit to be king; and once he returns, and finds his kingdom invaded by the cousin Bolingbroke he had once banished, he is self-dramatising, self-pitying, and still in every way unfit to be king. It is hardly a surprise that he is deposed, but he speaks of deposition even before Bolingbroke has made clear his intention in that respect – even, indeed, as Bolingbroke is showing him the respect due to a reigning monarch. Of course, we may say Bolingbroke is dissembling, and that his intentions are very obvious; we may agree that the deposition is inevitable. But the truth is, I think, that Bolingbroke isn’t yet sure of his own intentions, or even of his own motivations. And there is, one might have thought, scope for resistance on Richard’s part. But Richard doesn’t show any. To begin with, his mood swings wildly from one speech to the next, but with a strange inevitability, he keeps returning to, and after a while settles upon, a melancholy contemplation of his own wretchedness. He moves from playing a reigning king to playing a deposed one. But is there any reality behind all this play-acting?

This, it seems to me, is what’s at the centre of this play. Of course, there are a great many other themes too: it’s a historical play about politics, about the divine right of kings, about loyalty and rebellion, about the conflict between keeping one’s oath (upon which one’s very souls depends) and doing what is right for one’s country. But the focal point of the drama is on the king’s identity. In the earlier acts, he had been King: a bad king, it is true, but King. That was his identity. He was God’s own anointed, God’s own minister, and whatever he did must, by definition, be God’s own wish. But once he is no longer king; even before that – once his status as King is questioned; then what is he? If his very identity is predicated entirely upon the fact of his kingship, then what is his identity once that kingship is no longer there?

Lear, in a later play, found himself facing the same question, but there, even as his own mind was falling apart, he started thinking, or trying to think at least, these question anew. Richard does not have the capacity to do this: all he can do is to pity himself. During the deposition scene in Act 4, Richard, solipsistic as ever, asks for a mirror; and, after examining his face – the face of one who is no longer a king – he dashes the mirror to the ground, shattering it in an overtly theatrical gesture. Bolingbroke, a man of fewer words, has a pointed rejoinder:

The shadow of your sorrow hath destroy’d
The shadow or your face.

The shadow of the face is obviously the reflection of the face, but what is the shadow of the sorrow? Bolingbroke had meant, I think, the dramatisation of the sorrow. As a man of few words but to the purpose, he has little time for his cousin Richard’s endless play-acting. But Richard seizes on this expression, and comes up with a quite different expression. Shadow of his sorrow? Yes, of course, it is! How can it be otherwise? What is inside us cannot find adequate expression in anything we can say or do, and so, whatever we say or do much be a shadow of the substance that is in us.

‘Tis very true, my grief lies all within;
And these external manners of laments
Are merely shadows to the unseen grief
That swells with silence in the tortured soul

Bolingbroke, a pragmatic man living in a pragmatic world, has no time for that which cannot be expressed or perceived. And he may be right. However, it raises for us an important question: if something can neither be expressed nor perceived, how can we know what it is? How can we know if it exists at all? Is there a substance behind the shadow?

I imagine that Shakespeare, as a dramatist, must have pondered this point. In the earlier play Love’s Labour’s Lost, Shakespeare had pondered the question of language – the question of whether mastery of language (of which, he must have known, he was extravagantly possessed) depicts reality, or, whether it loses itself in its own virtuosity and becomes merely a game that hides reality from us. Here, Shakespeare ponders the question of shadow and substance: if there exists inside us a substance that cannot be adequately expressed by anything we may say or do, then how can he, a dramatist, depict that substance when what we say or do is all that can be depicted? If all the world’s a stage, it must follow that there can be nothing n that world beyond what can be shown on stage. Richard insists there is more, but is it not possible that his extended self-pity really is all there is? And that beyond it, there is nothing? Right to the end, Richard is haunted by the possibility of his own nothingness:

… and by and by
Think that I am unking’d by Bolingbroke,
And straight am nothing: but whate’er I be,
Nor I nor any man that but man is
With nothing shall be pleased, till he be eased
With being nothing. 

It is a wonderful play, but I doubt it will be too many people’s favourite, as As You Like It certainly is. Despite the various recurrent themes that one may find across the entire range of plays (A. B. Nuttall’s Shakespeare the Thinker is particularly good at teasing these out) these two plays are as different in themes and in treatment as is possible to imagine. It is hard to imagine them proceeding from the same mind. But then again, it was a very strange mind, and there is probably not much point trying to guess what went on inside. Maybe the plays and the poems that overwhelm us so is but the shadow of his genius, and the substance of that genius (should it exist of course) will always remain for us inaccessible.

With apologies to Cole Porter

This is what happens when you have hours of insomnia to while away:

You’re the top,
You’re a Bach partita,
You’re the top,
You’re Cinecitta,
You’re the pleasing quails in the ghostly tales of James,
You’re Messi’s verve, you’re Federer’s serve, you’re Hunger Games!

You’re the Wiz,
You’re the vaccine Pfizer,
You’re the fizz
Of a can of Tizer,
You’re the zest and zing when Beatles sing “Get Back”,
You’re Billy Bones, you’re Indy Jones, you’re Armagnac!

You’re the best,
You’re the flower bed border,
You’re the rest
That the doctors order,
I’m out of rhymes, and so, betimes, must stop,
But if baby, I’m the bottom, you’re the top!

Marks out of 10

No matter how you look at it, no matter what criteria of literary excellence you apply, it has to be conceded that King Lear is a play with severe shortcomings.

Let us consider a few of these criteria. The construction, say. Shakespeare welds together a plot and a subplot that are so similar in nature, that the climactic point of the subplot (Edgar revealing himself to his father) has to take place offstage to avoid repetition. Or what about the characterisation? Once again, it seems lacking. Edgar’s motivation in keeping his identity from his blind father for so long is never explained. (Edgar is given a somewhat clumsy aside at one point to say “Why I do trifle thus with his despair is done to cure it”, but it isn’t at all clear how his trifling with his father’s despair will help cure it.) Cordelia’s sullen behaviour in the first scene is also unexplained: clearly, she finds Lear’s game distasteful, but since she has been in court long enough to know of the dire consequences of crossing the king in front of others, and since, further, she has been with her father long enough to know his volatile character, her lack of the most basic tact seems frankly weird. The character development isn’t always too coherent either: in Act 1, we see Goneril expressing entirely legitimate concerns about her father and his retinue; next thing we know, she is a raving monster, with no intermediate step. None of the characters here may be analysed to the depths to which we may analyse Hamlet and Claudius, Othello and Iago, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra: in comparison to such characters, those in King Lear are rather straight-forward.

And there’s little sense of time or of place. There is a lot of travelling in the play, and yet, we have no idea how far Goneril’s castle is from Gloucester’s (or how long it takes or Lear to make the journey between the two); how far Gloucester’s castle is from the cliffs of Dover (and how long it takes Edgar to lead his father there); and so on. We do not know exactly at which point in the temporal scheme of the drama the French armies invade England, or how much time passes between the invasion and the battle.

Or let us consider the influence the play has had, and how powerfully it has entered our collective consciousness. Even here, I think, King Lear may be lacking. Hamlet is notoriously a play made almost entirely of well-known quotations; everyone has heard of the “green-eyed monster” of Othello; we all know that age cannot wither Cleopatra, nor custom stale her infinite variety. Is there anything in King Lear that has entered the public consciousness to such an extent? Even if there is, we may safely say, I think, that it does not surpass all those elements of those other plays that have also entered the public consciousness. And given that King Lear is sorely lacking in all those other respects discussed above, once we tot up the scores, the conclusion seems inescapable that King Lear is a lesser work of art.

And so on. Take all of these criteria of excellence into consideration, add a few more that I haven’t thought about, and it must be admitted that, compared to the other major tragedies of Shakespeare – Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, Antony and CleopatraKing Lear is an inferior work: whatever criterion one applies, it is found wanting. We may even wonder why it is classed among his major plays in the first place.

But here’s the twist: not only is King Lear almost universally acclaimed as a towering masterpiece – one of the greatest manifestations of human genius and worthy to take its place alongside the best – if one were to take a poll of Shakespeare scholars and Shakespeare lovers, it is likely to be the Shakespeare play that is most highly regarded. Somehow, all those criteria of excellence, which we may like to think of as objective, go for nothing. So the play has grave shortcomings: who cares?

This seems to me to cast doubt on the validity of what we may consider to be objective criteria, or, indeed, on the very concept of objectivity itself. And yet, if we are to reject objectivity in these matters, what are we left with? I used, many years ago now, to contribute to a public board on books – any book, of any height of brow – and there were many on that board, I remember, who used to insist that, in the words of Hamlet, there is nothing good or bad but thinking that makes it so; that there isn’t, nor could there ever be, any objective standards in these matters, and all that matters is one’s subjective opinion, and that’s it. I used to try to reduce this to absurdity and ask whether my causal doodles could be deemed better art than Rembrandt’s drawings if I thought them so, and the answer I received was “yes, if they seem better to you, then they’re better, and there’s no more to be said”. It was a difficult proposition to argue against, but I found myself dissatisfied with it; for if it were indeed so, then the very concept, not merely of artistic greatness but even of artistic merit, becomes irrelevant. For how is one to judge that merit when there is no objective measure?

So one could, perhaps, analyse a novel or a play, say, in all sorts of ways – in terms of structure, of characterisation, of the use made of language, of the thematic development, and all the rest of it. And maybe, one could give each of these constituent elements marks out of ten. To make it more objective, we could ask several knowledgeable and perceptive readers to give their marks out of ten, and take the mean of these scores for each identified category. And then we could sum these marks up to give us an objective a score as it’s possible to devise.

But these additive utility functions can be very awkward. Even if we try to apply such a model to something so simple as rating a meal, we run into difficulties. For instance, I may enjoy a pizza, and award it 8 out of 10. And when the waiter offers to sprinkle parmesan cheese on it, I agree, for a pizza is even better with parmesan cheese. So I give the parmesan cheese 1 point, and hence, judge pizza with the parmesan (8+1 = 9 points) to be even better than pizza without the parmesan (8 points). But then, for afters, I ask for an ice cream, which too I love (I’ll give that 7 points, since I don’t love it quite as much as the pizza). According to the model of the additive utility function, ice cream with parmesan cheese (7+1=8) should be even better than the ice cream on its own. Which is nonsense, obviously: the whole thing is a crap idea. And if such a model doesn’t work with something so relatively simple as a meal, how can we hope to introduce something like this into literary criticism?

Of course, utility functions do not need to be additive. One could devise all sorts of complications – if X, theN A*log(B); if not X, then exp(A) +B, etc. – but I think we may agree that the sheer level of silliness is quite overpowering by this stage. No, we might as well face it: if we break up a work into its various different aspects (including that of the influence it has exerted on subsequent writing), and either try to combine them into a utility function or place them into a checklist, we’re unlikely to reach any kind of meaningful measure. We’ll certainly not find anything that will rank King Lear alongside the likes of better constructed works such as Hamlet or Othello, even though the overwhelming consensus of critical opinion seems rather to insist on this point.

So I find myself in a bind. I cannot accept that there is no objective criterion whereby Rembrandt’s drawing may be rated higher than my doodles; and yet, at the same time, there seems no means of objectively rating a work of art.

But it’s not, perhaps, one extreme or another. There is a middle ground, I think, between pure objectivity and pure subjectivity, but a middle ground so very messy and so full of ifs and buts that it is hard to describe. The purely subjective approach fails because of its inability to distinguish my doodles and Rembrandt’s drawings; and the purely objective approach fails because no objective measure can be devised to measure artistic merit as we feel it. For art has to be felt: it must produce what Nabokov described as a “tingle in the spine”. But every major work of art has at its core a great mystery, which resists measurement; and sometimes, as in the case of King Lear, this mystery can be so profound that all other considerations, all perceived shortcomings, seem irrelevant.

It seems to me that the only realistic measure of artistic merit is what I call the consensus of the cognoscenti. For such a consensus does exist. If all were purely subjective, and if our individual subjective responses were unrelated to each other, then such a consensus would simply not be possible. The very fact that a consensus exists – that King Lear is considered a great play, Middlemarch a great novel, The Waste Land a great poem – indicates that our various individual subjective responses have a curious tendency to converge.

(I add “of the cognoscenti” to my formulation, because, quite clearly, the opinions of someone unused to reading classic literature, but who fancies trying some out for a change, and who reads – and gets bored by – Anna Karenina, and gives it a dismissive two-star “review” on Amazon or on Goodreads, is neither here nor there. I personally know nothing about Ming vases, say, and I appreciate that my opinions on the quality of Ming vases is fairly irrelevant to everyone except me – and even, perhaps, to me.)

Of course, the consensus will never be unanimous: even among the cognoscenti, there will be those who may dislike Anna Karenina, say, and have good reasons to do so. But a consensus is rarely unanimous: it exists all the same.

And neither will the consensus be stable over time. Some things, however, are: Homer and Sophocles, Virgil and Horace, Dante and Shakespeare, have all been admired by a very large consensus for quite a few centuries now, and it’s hard to envisage a time when they won’t. But one may easily point to other writers and works that have drifted in and out of the consensus across the ages. But, at any given time, a consensus – of the cognoscenti: let’s not forget the good old cognoscenti – most certainly does exist, and the very fact of its existence argues strongly against the view that everything is purely subjective.

And such a consensus can apply with comparisons as well, I think. For those who take an interest in the novel as literary form, there is a strong consensus concerning the greatness of Anna Karenina. There is a further consensus that Oblomov, say, by Ivan Goncharov, is also a very fine novel, perhaps even a great one; and a third consensus also exists, I think, that no matter how great Oblomov may be as a novel, Anna Karenina is even greater (although, accompanying that view, there will be entirely reasonable objections that such a comparison is ludicrous, since novel-writing is not a competitive sport). Of course, one may legitimately prefer Oblomov to Anna Karenina – even if one is part of that cognoscenti I spoke of – but that preference will generally be seen as a bit eccentric.

Like it or not, it is in our nature to compare. And most of the time, it is a pretty harmless parlour game. Who is the greater writer – Homer or Shakespeare? Shakespeare or Tolstoy? Tolstoy or Proust? One may protest that such comparisons are meaningless, and that they devalue literature itself: I wouldn’t argue with that. But at the same time, unless one subscribes to pure subjectivism in these matters – that the quality of any work is determined purely by one’s subjective reactions and by nothing else – then comparison becomes important: if we cannot state with some confidence that Henry James was a greater novelist than E. L. James, we might as well forget about the very concept of literary excellence.

So, as I say, it’s all very messy. Just about everything one may say on this matter is beset by ifs and buts, with reservations and objections. We are still torn between, on the one hand, our desire to measure, and, on the other, our awareness that certain things resist measurement; and further, our conviction that the unmeasurable can still be of the greatest importance. I could – and indeed, have done, right here on this blog – write page after tedious page explaining why King Lear means the world to me, and why I would rank it among the very greatest works of literary art, despite all its flaws and shortcomings. But could I demonstrate it beyond doubt to a sceptic? No. There is no way to quantify the great mystery at the heart of it.

Flaubert on Balzac

“What a man Balzac would have been, had he known how to write!” wrote Flaubert to Louise Colet (in a letter dated December 16th 1852). And then he added, rather intriguingly, “but that was the only thing he lacked”.

This may seem rather strange coming from Flaubert, for whom, if the popular image is to be believed, good writing was the only thing worth striving for. If the ability to write was the only thing Balzac lacked, it surely follows that he had other qualities which too were worthwhile. And since Flaubert only knew Balzac through his books, those other qualities must have been apparent in his books,despite (as Flaubert saw it) his inability to write. And this leads us to a somewhat un-Flaubertian conclusion: there exist qualities in literature distinct from the ability to write well.

Flaubert does not clarify what precisely he means here. He certainly wouldn’t have allowed such imprecision in his novels, but this was, after all, only a private letter. And we may, I think, take a guess that his implied distinction was between, on the one hand, writing prose well, and, on the other, those various other qualities that may conduce to the quality of a novel, even if the prose itself is unremarkable.

But what qualities are these? If we define “good writing” to cover everything it takes to produce a good book, then, by definition, there cannot be anything else. But if we restrict the definition, and consider “good writing” to refer specifically to the ability to construct sentences elegantly; to select those words and images that express with absolute precision what the author wants to communicate, and no more and no less; to arrange those words to produce euphony of rhythm and of sonority, or to produce a dissonance if that is the intended effect; and so on and so forth; then, in a novel, it isn’t difficult to identify various other qualities that may also enhance its literary merits. The construction, say – the pacing over long stretches, and the ability to tighten and to loosen tension appropriately, in order to create a coherent shape across the span of the work; the ability to communicate a sense of place, and of atmosphere; the ability to invent plot, and to ensure that the reader remains interested in the affairs of entirely fictional characters; the ability to create characters – and make them appear to think and to feel and to behave in a manner that is credible given their innate natures, and given the circumstances in which they find themselves; the ability to depict these characters developing through experience; and so on. And, on top of all that, I’d argue – at least, in those novels we think of as being novels of quality – a certain vision of life. By which I mean a certain way of looking at life, individual to the author, which appears to the reader as being in some way striking, and memorable. And if the ability to write was, for Flaubert, the only thing Balzac lacked, then, presumably, these other qualities he must have possessed.

And here I must make a confession: Balzac’s reputation puzzles me. Flaubert obviously thought highly of him, despite his alleged inability to write (a flaw which, one might have thought, would have damned him irretrievably given Flaubert’s aesthetics); Henry James, who seems in many ways the antithesis of Balzac, admired him immensely; and Somerset Maugham – a novelist whose star has now fallen but who was often astute in his criticism – once said that Balzac was the only novelist whom he would unhesitatingly describe as a “genius”.  Now, I really don’t want to say too much here about my own reactions to Balzac: I have read only four of his novels (though they are among his most highly rated), and a few short stories; and three of those four I read over 40 years ago. The last Balzac novel I read was Illusions Perdues, and even that was nearly 30 years ago. So my memory of those works, frankly, isn’t particularly strong. Also, these novels made so little impression on me that, despite my mania for re-reading, I have never felt the urge to return to them. And, since one tends not to be too perceptive about books one does not like, my own opinions on Balzac really do not seem worth communicating. There must have been something about Balzac to have impressed such fastidious tastes as Flaubert and James: the loss, I’m sure, is entirely mine.

But the impressions I retain of Balzac, such as they are, are those of a novelist who took a keen interest in the structure of society, of how society worked, and who understood money: I got the impression that he knew exactly how much each of his characters earned, and how; how much they spent, how much they invested, how much disposable income they had. These things fascinated him, and, it may be argued, given the importance of these matters in our lives, other novelists, especially those claiming to be “realist”, should take a little more interest in them. But, at the same time, his characters seem to me to have little or no inner lives; their aspirations rarely, if ever, rise above accumulating wealth, acquiring social position, and having sex. I frankly thought Balzac vulgar, and his fictional world limited merely to what is coarse. D. H. Lawrence once described Balzac as a “gigantic dwarf”: I’m not at all sure what he meant by that, but whatever he may have meant, I’m with him.

I am not, of course, insisting on any of this: if Flaubert and James admired Balzac (despite his inability to write, that is), then who am I to stand against them? But I frankly do not feel the urge to return to Balzac, as I often have done with many other writers I didn’t “get” the first time round. If I don’t “get” Balzac, I’m content to remain in that state.

But what about Flaubert’s own writings? Can it not be argued that his characters, too, inhabit a world that is irredeemably coarse and vulgar? That they are bereft of anything we may describe as a “spirituality”? That they too have nothing worthwhile to aspire towards? Flaubert’s prose was, of course, exquisite – no-one could accuse him of not writing well – but does that fact alone raise his work above the vulgarity of what he depicts? – the vulgarity that is, in effect, the central theme of his novels?

For many readers, I know, the answer is “yes, it does”. Flaubert saw life as entirely pointless and futile, and the only thing that mattered was his act of recording that pointlessness and futility. It is, in short, the quality of his writing, that purely aesthetic quality of his prose, that raises it above all the vulgarity he depicts. Now, I have never been entirely satisfied with this view. I think this comes down to a difference in how we, as individual readers, read things, but, if this is how we are to read Flaubert, his works would be, it seems to me, lacking in one of those qualities I had mentioned earlier that great novels ideally should have – a certain vision of life, “a certain way of looking at life, individual to the author, which appears to the reader as being in some way striking, and memorable”. For an empty eggshell cracked open merely to reveal its emptiness does not seem to me the stuff of great art, no matter how exquisite the act of cracking.

I think Flaubert offered more, but what more I think he offered isn’t, however, easy to explain. But perhaps we may get some idea of it if we consider the ending of Madame Bovary. (And here, I suppose I should issue one of those tiresome “spoiler alerts” for those who haven’t read it.)

At the end of the novel, after Emma’s death, her deceived husband, Charles Bovary, dies of grief. In a sense, this is another cynical touch: Emma had despised Charles, and had been unfaithful to him. Nonetheless, he was clearly devoted to her, to such an extent that he could not go on living without her. No matter how one views this, it is difficult to be cynical about what is clearly a great depth of feeling. Somerset Maugham, whose astuteness in these matters I was praising earlier in this post, felt that Flaubert could have conveyed the futility more powerfully if Charles’ mother had arranged another marriage for him, but Flaubert, I think, knew what he was doing: if he depicts Charles’ depth of feeling here, it is because he wanted to; that depth of feeling is the very point. Of course it is absurd that such a nincompoop as Charles should be able to feel so deeply, but the messy and uncomfortable fact is that he does. And yes, that depth of feeling is futile, but it is also, for me at any rate, unbearably sad – all the sadder precisely because it is so futile, so utterly pointless.

And this is what I get in so much of Flaubert: indeed, this is what seems to me at the very core of Flaubert – a sense of futility and absurdity, true, but also a profound awareness of the immense sadness that things should be so.

Earlier in the novel, in one of its most celebrated passages, he had written:

 … la parole humaine est comme un chaudron fêlé où nous battons des mélodies à faire danser les ours, quand on voudrait attendrir les étoiles.

This has proved difficult to translate into English, as there is no direct equivalent of the word “attendrir”, which means, as I understand it, to soften – to soften emotionally rather than physically, that is – to make one more amenable to gentler emotions. Lydia Davis translates this as follows:

… human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when we long to move the stars to pity.

Other translations I have consulted (including the old Penguin translation by Alan Russell – the first translation of this novel I read, and one I am still much attached to) also go for “move the stars with pity”, and I can’t frankly see how it can be translated otherwise. But however one translates it, “attendrir” indicates a softening of our emotions, and acquiring of certain feelings that are, at least, not too distant from “pity”. And pity is what I feel at the end of Madame Bovary. And I feel this pity in other works by Flaubert too – L’Education Sentimentale, Un Coeur Simple, Bouvard et Pécuchet: no matter how cynical the guffaw, no matter how implacable Flaubert’s insistence on the pointlessness of it all, our human inadequacy in the face of what life throws at us is, at heart, pitiful. How else can I explain the fact – for fact it is – that Frédéric Moreau’s last meeting with Madame Arnoux, towards the end of L’Education Sentimentale, has me in tears, even on repeated readings?

But once again, I do not insist on any of this, any more than I insist on my reading of Balzac. I know there are readers whose discernment I respect who feel otherwise. But I can only record my own reaction here.

But obviously, this Flaubert whom I love so dearly himself loved dearly Balzac, a writer whose works mean so little to me. When Balzac died, Flaubert wrote in a letter (to Louis Bouilhet, dated November 14th 1850):

Why has Balzac’s death “affected me strongly”? One is always saddened by the death of a man one admires. I had hoped to know him later, hoped he would have liked me.

No doubt I am just a sentimental old fool, but I find this rather touching too. I do get the feeling that Flaubert regarded himself as following in Balzac’s footsteps, and would have liked Balzac to have approved of him, and to have approved of his work. That he had a great regard for Balzac is clearly beyond doubt. But if only he had known how to write!

[The excerpts quoted here from Flaubert’s letters are taken from The Letters of Gustave Flaubert, selected, edited and translated by Francis Steegmuller.]

Acquired tastes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Season’s greetings 2020

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

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

See you all next year!

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

“A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Common Breath” literary questionnaire

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

Who/whom

OTHELLO

Take heed of perjury; thou art on thy deathbed.

DESDEMONA

Ay, but not yet to die.

OTHELLO

Yes, presently

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“… Dickens, who I love…”

“…Mozart, who he worships…”

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

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

(Re)-Reading Pushkin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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