Ten years on: a new chapter

It was ten years and nine days ago, exactly, that I started this blog with my first tentative post. It was just a couple of days after I had turned 50, and was feeling rather down, as I remember. I’ll leave it to the arithmeticians to work out my age now, and to armchair psychologists to figure out how I’m feeling about it. Certainly, much has happened in those ten years.

In the first place, this blog took off in a way I had not really expected. I had started with some vague ideas of recording my thoughts on the books I read, and, while I still do that, I also write a great many other things that don’t really belong to a book blog. Which, I suppose, is why I stopped calling it a book blog. I like to have this platform to spout my views on various matters (trying as best I can to steer clear of politics); and, lately, much has appeared on here of an autobiographical nature. I suppose that is inevitable, given how very nostalgic I feel for my childhood years, and, further, given how fascinating I find the topic of the mind’s development (at least, my mind’s development, as my mind is the only mind I feel I can comment upon with any confidence). And if nattering on about myself sounds tedious and narcissistic, I can only plead in my defence that I do try, at least, not to be too dull.

But do not fear: I shall not be using either the 10th anniversary of my blog or the 60th anniversary of myself to churn out here yet more nostalgic reminiscences, or self-regarding retrospects of this blog. Rather, let me bring you up to date with an exciting new development which may, in part, explain my neglect of this blog in recent weeks.

The fact is, I am now retired. I have been a retired man for this last week. Approaching 60, and aware of my dodgy ticker, this seemed a good time to call it a day. So I checked my finances, went through the pensions and all that stuff, and, just two days after officially becoming an old man, I became also a retired man. All of this needed a bit of running around, reading official documents, signing forms, and the like; and that didn’t really leave me much time to write here. Also, given how little I have been reading, neither has there been much to write about.

But now, all is changed. Now, as I write, it is Sunday evening, but I am not going into work tomorrow. My brain has not quite adjusted to that yet. When I choose my shirt in the morning, I do not need to pick a work-shirt for an office day, and a casual shirt for a casual day: it’s all the same now, whatever I wear, whatever the day.

That first Monday, I got out of bed at the usual time. I dressed as usual, and left home as usual, but, on the way to the station as usual to catch the usual commuter train, I went into coffee shop instead, and spent all morning with a coffee and a book. It felt so good!

The book I am reading, by the way, is the second volume of Ramachandra Guha’s biography of Gandhi – Gandhi, The Years that Changed the World, 1914-1948. The first volume, Gandhi Before India, had focused on Gandhi’s earlier life, and on his campaigns in South Africa; the second, which I am assured may be read independently of the first, focuses on the Indian independence movement. I particularly want to read this, as I would like to be as knowledgeable about this period of history as I pretend to be. And also because Gandhi was such a fascinating man. A very strange man, certainly: Einstein had said about him: “Generations to come, it may be, will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon the earth.” Guha, despite his obvious admiration for his subject, does not write a hagiography; neither, thankfully, does he write a hatchet job, which, given some of the less pleasant aspects of Gandhi’s personality, would have been all too easy. Gandhi remains a controversial figure for many reasons, but I would like to understand something of his life and times, and of his person, before passing judgement. It is too easy to pass judgement.

But regardless of subject, starting on a thousand page book is quite an adventure for me these days. Since my rather serious illness a few years ago, the effects of which are still with me, my reading, which was never prolific to begin with, has declined significantly: I was getting too physically exhausted to read anything more than a few pages a day of anything that taxed the ageing cerebellum. I am determined now to bring my reading back to a level similar to what it had been.

The other thing I am determined to do is to learn French properly. Of course, there are many courses available, but I am not so much interested in conversational French: I know how to ask for a baguette at the boulangerie, or directions to the bureau de poste. No – I want to read some of the fabulous literature that country has produced. This time next year, I want to be reading Molière in the original French. I mentioned this on my Twitter account, and in no time I was inundated with various suggestions on what to read – all very good suggestions, and all very helpful (except for the joker who suggested I start with Proust! – he knows who he is!), but I have to take it a step at a time. Currently, with the aid of a French-English dictionary, I am working my way through a drastically abridged and extremely simplified version of Le Comte de Monte-Cristo. The full text of Le Misanthrope is still some distance away, but I think it is achievable.

I am also reading more poetry, as I had promised myself I would. (I am still pursuing Clive James’ translation of Dante, and enjoying it greatly.) And, of course, I want to spend some of this extra time I now have, unexhausted by the pressure of office work, to revive this sadly flagging blog. Will it change after the first ten years? Well, I hope so! I want no more of those routine posts I used to put up every time I read a book: the only thing more boring than reading a post about a book where the writer has nothing of any great interest to say about it is actually to write such a post. But even without such posts, I will have, I trust, things to say. Mainly, though not exclusively, on literary matters.

So, in short, I now declare this hiatus over. A new chapter in life is opening for me. And, hopefully, a new chapter in the blog as well.

Now, before I get any further, I think I should respond to the various comments I have received on this blog in the last few weeks and haven’t yet responded to. This blogging lark ain’t easy, y’know!

David Copperfield and me

The new film directed by Armando Ianucci, The Personal History of David Copperfield, seems to have made quite a splash. Most of the comments from those who have seen the film have been very positive, but some eyebrows have been raised by the casting: in particular, by the fact that David Copperfield is played by an Indian actor, Dev Patel.

I’ve had quite a long relationship with the novel. When I first came to Britain, aged five, my parents, I remember, rented a television set because they thought it would help me learn English, and I remember one of the programmes back then being a Sunday afternoon serialisation of David Copperfield. Of course, I didn’t understand a word of English at the time, and, at that age, most probably wouldn’t have been able to follow it even if I did, but I remember my parents telling me it was a famous book by someone called Charles Dickens.

(Doing a bit of online research, I find that David was played in that series by a young Ian McKellen. Which seems like good casting, though, sadly, Mr McKellen isn’t of course Indian.)

And then, once my English had improved sufficiently, I used to buy, or, rather, I used to have bought for me, a weekly comic for children. Sparky, it was called. And, amidst the various comic characters it featured – Hungry Horace (who was always hungry, naturally), Pansy Potter the Strongman’s Daughter (who was very, very strong), and a rather inspired character called Keyhole Kate (who was forever looking through keyholes) – they did a comic strip serialisation of David Copperfield. (And no, as can be seen here, this isn’t a figment of my imagination: even children’s comics those days aimed both to entertain and to educate: it was a different age.) And this time, I did manage to follow the plot somewhat. But I think I was about 11 or 12 by the time I came to the novel proper – the original novel, with the original words as written by the original Charles Dickens.

And I loved it. Or, rather, I loved the first half of the novel – the chapters dealing with David’s childhood. Once David grew up, I found it boring, and after a couple of chapters, I decided to turn back and read the first half over again. And so it continued. The first half of David Copperfield I read over and over again. Those childhood chapters of David Copperfield became etched in my mind, but once I had cheered Aunt Betsey Trotwood telling the Murdstones to piss off (well, not in so many words, you understand…) there just didn’t seem much point reading on, to be honest.

I think I was about 18 or so when I read the entire novel for the first time, and, while there are certainly many things in the latter part of the novel that I wouldn’t have wanted to have missed, I couldn’t help feeling then – and feeling still – that it didn’t quite measure up to the childhood chapters. And while I know I have had occasion to fulminate elsewhere on this blog against that most deplorable habit of judging the literary quality of a work by how closely or otherwise one could “identify” with characters, I must confess that when I read (and re-read) those early chapters of David Copperfield, I find myself still identifying with David entirely. So powerfully have I identified with David over so many years, that, as far as I am concerned, David Copperfield is Indian, goddammit!

(For similar reasons, Jane Eyre is Indian too.)

I am very much looking forward to this film. It is so good to see some authentic casting at last.

The blogger’s block

It has perhaps not escaped the notice of regular readers that my output on this blog has slowed down considerably these last two months or so. I am hoping it will pick up again after a while, and am, in the meantime, flattering my ego by picturing to myself whole armies of disappointed and disconsolate readers sighing stoically to themselves as yet another week passes without a new blog post.

Is there such a thing as a blogger’s block? If there is, I guess I’ve got it. It all started when someone asked me about Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, a book I re-read last year, and I searched out the blog post I had writtenabout it. I read over that post, and thought to myself: “Oh my God – how utterly dreary!” I don’t mean the novel, of course: that’s a masterpiece. I mean the 2,000 word piece I dutifully wrote about it. Why did I do it? It’s not that I disagree with what I had written, but, rather, what I had written struck me as so utterly dull and unengaging: I really had nothing of any particular interest to say about the novel – nothing that any averagely perceptive reader could not easily have figured out for themselves. And frankly, it was tedious.

It is true that I have said often enough that I write this blog principally for myself, but, even so, I do make the effort to engage the reader: by making my writings public, I am effectively saying to the reader: “Despite all the many things online or off that you may like to spend your time reading, I am asking you to take a few minutes out to read this instead.” It is quite a presumptuous request to make, and the very least I could do to readers who accede to so unreasonable a request is to try not to bore them.

I think it was this experience of reading my old post that brought on my blogger’s block. When I started this blog, it was simply a case of “read a novel, write a post about it, move on to the next one”. But, after the shock of discovering how boring the resultant posts can turn out to be, I have now decided to ditch that: from now on, I decided, I was only going to write about books where I have some specific personal perspective to impart. I don’t mean scholarly insights: I do not have an academic background in literature, not having studied it formally since I left school, and I do not pretend to be in competition with accredited literary scholars. But, since each person is unique, each reader too must be unique too, and hence, I argued to myself, each reader must take in and process whatever they read in a unique manner. So if I could communicate my own unique taking-in and processing of what I read, that may be, at least, of some interest, if only for its uniqueness.

But re-reading my post on The Scarlet Letter, I found myself asking: “What if my unique perceptions aren’t particularly interesting?” Uniqueness in itself is not, after all, sufficient to engage the reader. So I decided there and then: if my thoughts on a novel are a bit … well, a bit boring, then it’s best not to write anything about it. This is why I wrote nothing about The Wings of the Dove and Madame Bovary, both of which I read in the latter part of last year: it’s not that I don’t think they are great masterpieces – they clearly are; and neither is it the case that I wasn’t affected by them. It’s just that my personal perspective on them didn’t strike me as particularly engaging.

And in any case, I plan to read fewer novels this year, and more poetry. It struck me recently that while I am reasonably well-read in the English novel, what I have read of English poetry is quite often no more than the Greatest Hits, as it were. I have, for instance, a fairly slim volume of the poems of Keats on my shelves. I have read the odes, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, that famous last sonnet, etc., but don’t claim to know them well (except “Ode to a Nightingale”, which I think I know by heart). I know I’ve read The Eve of St Agnes, and The Pot of Basil, but damned if I remember them. Works such as Hyperion, say, or Endymion, I haven’t read at all. In short, I can’t claim to know the works of Keats at all well. And we’re talking here of one of the towering figures of English literature.

So that’s it, I decided: in 2020, I shall read less fiction, and more poetry. And since this blog still claims to be mainly (though not wholly) a literary blog, I guess I should write about it as well. I don’t really know how to write about poetry, but I’m hoping I’ll learn with practice. For my first post of the year, I threw myself into the deep end, and tried to write something about Eliot’s The Four Quartets, but that turned out more a record of personal impressions than anything that could be mistaken for analysis. Maybe that’s the level I should keep it at. To start with, at least.

In the meantime, I would request readers please to bear with me for a while. I am hoping this block won’t last too long. And I am hoping also that, fairly shortly, I’ll be able to write about poetry without boring the reader.

(And, of course, to have occasional rants about things that annoy me: where would this blog be without a few good rants, after all?)

All the best for now, and see you soon!

Puzzling over “The Four Quartets”

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

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

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

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

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

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

And a couple of lines later:

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


Our only health is our disease


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Towards the end of Burnt Norton, we have this:

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

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

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

              – not less of love but expanding
Of love beyond desire

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

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

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

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

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

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

A very Happy Christmas and New Year

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

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

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

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

#Beethoven250 #Wordsworth250

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watch this space, as they say.

Cinematic hat-tricks

Here’s an interesting one:

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

Now that’s over with, let’s move on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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