“‘Twere best not know myself”: Some new thoughts on Macbeth

I remember hearing Orson Welles saying in an interview once that, having written Hamlet, Shakespeare realised how difficult it was to write a tragedy with an intelligent person as protagonist; and, thereafter, his tragic protagonists – Othello, Lear, Macbeth, Antony, Cleopatra, Coriolanus – were all fools.

It’s an attractive idea. The journey undertaken by a Shakespearean tragic protagonist is, typically, a journey towards greater self-understanding, towards a higher level of self-awareness; and, for such a journey to be possible, the protagonist must display at the start some level at least of self-unawareness. And it is difficult convincing the audience, or the reader, that a character who starts with some level of self-unawareness can also be intelligent. To get around this problem in Hamlet, Shakespeare made his tragic prince a character of almost infinite complexity: his intelligence at the start of the play is marked not by his failure fully to understand himself, but by his awareness of the fact: Hamlet is even to himself an enigma. And he remains so to the end: his progress through the course of the play is not towards finding an answer to all the questions that had so mystified him, but towards a state where he can be content to live with those questions remaining unanswered.

Going by Welles’ conjecture, one can understand why Shakespeare never tried anything like that again. We may sometimes be guilty of thinking that one of the attributes of genius is effortlessness – that a Shakespeare, a Rembrandt, or a Mozart, needed simply to turn up at work in the morning to knock off a masterpiece or two. I’m sure it wasn’t so: Hamlet especially seems to me to bear the mark of a tremendous effort, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if, after having finished the damn thing – not once, but twice – Shakespeare had said to himself “That’s the last time I try something like that!”

But I’d guess also (and I’m only guessing, for who knows how a mind such as Shakespeare’s worked) that genius would be drawn to new challenges – that they just would not be able to help themselves. And one of the challenges Shakespeare was drawn to, I think, was to depict a tragic protagonist who is self-aware from the very beginning, who knows exactly what he is doing and where his actions will lead him. And such a protagonist, I think, is Macbeth. Here, I depart somewhat from Welles’ theory: Macbeth is no fool. At times, indeed, I think he is the most intelligent character Shakespeare ever created.

For, uniquely amongst Shakespeare’s tragic protagonists, Macbeth knows precisely what he is doing. He knows precisely what the significance is of his actions, and what they will cost him. And the peculiar terror that play invokes comes from his inability, even with this knowledge, to do otherwise. In the first two acts of the play, both he and his wife present two different and contradictory fronts: she is the one determined to commit the murder, but incapable of doing the deed herself; he, on the other hand, is the one who knows the true significance of what he is about to do, and shirks at it, but is, nonetheless, able to do the deed.

What he fears is not eternal hellfire: “We’d jump the life to come,” he says. What he fears is his earthly punishment:

But in these cases
We still have judgment here

It is not that he fears being caught and executed: should that happen, Macbeth, that bravest of soldiers, would have faced execution with the same courage and equanimity as the previous Earl of Cawdor had done.No, what he fears is more subtle:

that we but teach
Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return
To plague the inventor: this even-handed justice
Commends the ingredients of our poison’d chalice
To our own lips.

The blood he is about to shed will return to plague him; the poison he is about to administer will, in turn, poison him. Why fear hell in the life to come when hell can be equally potent in the here-and-now, upon this bank and shoal of time?

At the very start of the play, we had heard that Macbeth, the fearless warrior, had faced a traitor in battle and had “unseam’d him from the nave to the chaps”. This is not a squeamish man, not a man feared of bloodshed. It is not the physical act of killing Duncan that so terrifies him. What terrifies him is his knowledge of what he will then have to live with. Lady Macbeth does not have the imagination to foresee this: she thinks that “a little water will clear us of this deed”. So when the bloody instructions do come to plague the inventor, her unprepared mind cannot take it: it collapses under the weight.

But Macbeth knows what he must do to live with this:

Had I but died an hour before this chance,
I had lived a blessed time; for, from this instant,
There ‘s nothing serious in mortality:
All is but toys

Had he but died an hour earlier, he would indeed have lived a blessed time: he knows that to be all too true. But from now onwards, he has to live as if there were nothing serious in all mortality, that all is but toys; he has to live as if life itself didn’t matter, that it all “signifies nothing”.

Macbeth is aware at every step of what he is doing. And he is aware even of his awareness, and wishes he knew and understood less:

To know my deed, ’twere best not know myself.

But he does know himself, and there, it seems to me, is his tragedy.

Shakespeare continued to try out new things in his subsequent plays. In his next tragedy, Cleopatra is a creature of “infinite variety”, and she does not so much progress from one state to another as allow what is already inside her, what is best in her, to come to the fore at the end; and Antony’s best self-awareness is the knowledge that he never did understand himself, even when he thought he did. And in his final tragedy, we have that brute unthinking hunk Coriolanus, incapable of self-awareness, or of any progress towards it.

But of all Shakespeare’s tragic heroes, I think it is Macbeth and Lady Macbeth whose journey through the course of the play fills me with the greatest terror. Lady Macbeth simply had not foreseen the damnation of her soul even while she was here upon this bank and shoal of time; while Macbeth can see all too clearly each step of the way, and yet is unable to act otherwise.

Ceci n’est pas une rant

This is not a rant. Really, it isn’t. One can get rant-fatigue as well as one can any other kind of fatigue. And when, within just twenty-four hours, I find at least three things I would like to rant about, fatigue well and truly sets in. So I would like to make it clear that, despite the label I have attached to this post, this is not a rant.


“The Treachery of Images” by rene Magritte, cortesy of LA County Museum of Art

Yesterday morning, I woke to the news that the Digital Cinema Media has blocked the showing in cinemas of a 60 second advert for a Christian website, made by the Church of England and featuring various people reciting the Lord’s Prayer. The very idea of banning anything does, I admit, spark in me a sort of Pavlovian reaction, but actually, considered calmly once the initial outrage has passed, there are good reasons not to show this in cinemas. There are, after all, many religious groups, or, if you prefer, quasi-religious groups, who are extreme, and whose stance on various matters, to put it delicately, may well put a bit of a damper on a night out at the cinema. Would we really want to see a message from the Westboro Baptist Church when all we want is a pleasant evening out? I am not, of course, suggesting that the Westboro Baptist Church is in any way comparable to the Church of England, whose very inoffensiveness seems to border on the offensive. But allowing one religious message to pass while blocking others can, I can see, lead to so various legal issues, that it’s wise, if at all possible, to avoid. It’s the Pandora’s Box Argument: once you allow something out of the box – no matter how inoffensive, or even laudable – who knows what may follow. I can sympathise with this: if the Digital Cinema Media have a policy in place not to show any advert of a religious or political nature, then, not only are they within their rights to do so, it’s a policy that makes perfect sense, however unfair it may be to the eminently inoffensive advert that has fallen foul of it. But, from the reports I have read on this, this is not what the Digital Cinema Media is saying in its statement: its statement speaks of not “causing offence”. And this does trouble me. If a sixty second film of people reciting the Lord’s Prayer is pulled for fear of “causing offence”, we really are in a pretty bad state.

Let us, however, subscribe to the Christian virtue of charity, and assume that Digital Cinema Media’s statement was merely badly worded – that it is the phrasing rather than the intent that is at fault. I can live with that.

(My atheist friends, incidentally, tell me that the Christian faith, like all other faiths, is simply made-up fantasy anyway, so what does it matter? Indeed! After all, we wouldn’t want to see sixty second of some made-up fantasy while we’re waiting for the latest Star Wars film to start, would we?)

Well, that was the first point that made me want to have a bit of a rant. The second is this tweet by eminent author Joyce Carol Oates, in which she muses whether a group that systematically rapes women and children, chops people’s heads off, burns people alive, pushes gay people from tops of high buildings, and the like, could have anything about them that is “celebratory & joyous”. Maybe, Ms Oates, maybe. Who knows?

The third thing that made me want to rant is this news story that appeared in the Washington Post, about the University of Ottowa banning yoga classes because … well, because oppression, cultural genocide, or something. Heaven only knows. It’s our old friend “cultural appropriation”, I believe. I know that in a democratic society one should engage in argument and debate with those with whom one disagrees, but much of the time I can’t really feel arsed. And in any case, I’ve had a good rant about cultural appropriation only quite recently, and I really wouldn’t want to bore my readers.

So there it is. Three things that make me feel there’s a good rant coming on, but in each case, I find I can’t really be arsed.

“Fathers and Sons” by Ivan Turgenev

“Fathers and Sons” by Ivan Turgenev, translated by Richard Freeborn, Oxford World Classics. All quotes in this post are taken from this translation.
[Please note: for anyone who cares about such things, this post contains “spoilers”.]

“What’s important is that twice two is four and all the rest’s nonsense.”
– Bazarov in Chapter 9 of Fathers and Sons, translated by Richard Freeborn

Readers not closely acquainted with the social and political background of mid-19th century Russia may find it surprising that this, of all novels, should have been so controversial, with both the Left and the Right lining up to attack the author. For, from our modern perspective, what strikes one most about Turgenev’s stance is his moderation, his level-headedness – his realisation that social and political change should and must occur, but also his revulsion from radicalism, from fanaticism, and, indeed, from any form of extremism. Many modern readers may even find him too lukewarm – too objective and detached, too lacking in passion. That we may take such a view of him is an indicator of how far we are from the times in which this book was written, and of the effort required of imagination to see in this novel something, at least, of what contemporary readers might have seen.

At the centre of the novel is Bazarov, the self-proclaimed “nihilist” – a man who, as he proudly proclaims, believes in “nothing”. This is not, of course, entirely true: he believes that twice two is four, for a start – the very contention that Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man finds such an intolerable imposition, and a challenge to the essential irrationality of the human mind. But to Bazarov, all else is, indeed, nonsense. Or so he believes. Or so he believes he believes. It is dangerous to state categorically what exactly Bazarov does or does not believe, since his mind is more subtle and more complex than he himself seems aware of. Or maybe, at some level, he is aware: it is hard to tell, since Turgenev tells much of the story through dialogue, and, as in a play, we have to decipher from this dialogue what precisely is going on in the characters’ minds, and to what extent the characters themselves are aware of what is going on.

We learn quite early to mistrust Bazarov’s pronouncements – or, at least, we learn not to take all his pronouncements at face value. He says at one point, for instance, that he does not believe even in medicine, but we can see quite clearly for ourselves that he is knowledgeable in the subject – far more so than the local quacks – and that, in practice, he is a good doctor: a man who doesn’t believe in medicine could hardly be either. So we must ask ourselves why he says something so clearly untrue, and the most obvious reason is that he is trying to wind up his friend Arkady’s father and uncle, landowners and members of the lower echelons of the aristocracy – that is, of a type Bazarov particularly despises. Similarly with his behaviour: at the Kirsanovs’, his behaviour is almost studied in its rudeness and bumptiousness. But this is not because he does not know how to behave in a polite manner, and neither is it because he thinks manners are unimportant and irrelevant: when he is later at Odintsova’s house, he behaves with perfect polish and refinement. His bumptiousness at the Kirsanovs’, like his contention that he didn’t believe in medicine, is, at least in part, a front, intended to create a certain effect. But this is only at least in part: that he feels the need to put up such a front to the very people who are offering him hospitality tells us much about him.

Turgenev’s critics from the Left took Bazarov to be a caricature of themselves, and they were partly right. Turgenev, as one would expect from a man who took art and literature seriously, took grave exception to various ideas that he ascribes to Bazarov, which were then current in radical circles, and which seem, if anything, to be enjoying a revival even now – that only that which is of practical use can be of any value; that anything incapable of being materially perceived is meaningless; that, in short, twice two is four and all the rest’s nonsense. But even here, Turgenev allows the ideas to be expressed without explicitly attacking them: these ideas are important in characterising the person who holds them. And Bazarov, as a person, is an individual: he is not representative of any group of people because Turgenev did not see humanity in terms of pre-defined groups that may be represented by single characters.

If Bazarov is not a representative of a group, neither is he a caricature. No matter how distasteful Turgenev may have found his views, he takes Bazarov sufficiently seriously to transform him, by the end, into a tragic protagonist. Indeed, given the complexity and intricacy of Turgenev’s portrayal, it is hard, at least from our modern perspective, even to imagine how any reader could have seen Bazarov as a caricature.

Conversely, Turgenev’s critics from the Right objected to his presentation of the Kirsanovs as caricatures of Russian aristocracy. And once again, this is hard to square with what Turgenev presents. Sure, the two Kirsanov brothers can appear absurd at times, and, indeed, are absurd at times: there’s Nikolay Petrovich, a widower, muddle-headed, and rather endearingly embarrassed about the peasant girl with whom he lives in sin, and for whom he genuinely cares; and there’s his brother, Pavel Petrovich, himself in love with the peasant girl his brother has taken up with, but sufficiently respectful both of his brother and of this girl not to act upon his desires; and who, living though he does in the middle of nowhere, still dresses and grooms himself as if he were in fashionable Paris or Dresden. These indeed are absurd figures. But at no point did I detect Turgenev looking down upon them. There is something about them that we would nowadays think of as Chekhovian: they would have been perfectly at home in The Cherry Orchard. These are people who are feckless and ineffectual, lacking in energy or in purpose, and not particularly gifted or remarkable in any way; but they are also decent, charming, well-meaning types, capable of genuine and sincere feelings, and, indeed, of that old-fashioned concept of honour. They are certainly not deserving of the contempt and the disdain that Bazarov displays so openly.

It is at the Kirsanovs’ estate that we first meet Bazarov. The Kirsanovs have been eagerly awaiting the arrival from university of Nikolai’s son, Arkady, an impressionable youth who appears with his friend Bazarov. Arkady is clearly enthralled by and somewhat in awe of his charismatic friend, who, though a guest, behaves rudely: indeed, that the Kirsanovs don’t turn him out says much for their manners and for their sense of hospitality. But they don’t understand him. What is he? Why does he behave in this manner? It is left to Arkady to explain to his astonished father and uncle that his friend is, indeed, a “nihilist”:

“A nihilist is a man who doesn’t acknowledge any authorities, who doesn’t accept a single principle on faith, no matter how much that principle may be surrounded by respect.”

“And that’s a good thing, is it?” interjected Pavel Petrovich.

After the initial sojourn at the Kirsanovs’ estate, the scene changes: we go into the town, and the town appears to be the same one in which Gogol’s Government Inspector and Dead Souls had been set – that dull, dirty, soulless pit in which all human aspirations and nobility appear to have been crushed by an unyielding and monotonous greyness. There’s a touch of Gogol as well in the two people they meet there – the foolish and conceited Sitnikov, and the equally foolish Kukshina, who likes to imagine herself an “emancipated woman”. Bazarov has little time for either, and is even more openly rude to them than he had been to the Kirsanovs, but they are too unintelligent even to notice. Gogol, one suspects, could have taken these characters to further grotesque extremes, but this would have been well outside Turgenev’s horizons: after introducing us to Sitnikov and to Kukshina, he steers the narrative towards the area he knows better – to affairs of the heart, and the unending intricacies and subtleties of human love. For Bazarov and Arkady also meet in this town Odintsova, a young widow of independent means, both attractive and intelligent. Till now, Bazarov had been putting up fronts, but now, all the fronts collapse: that man who had proclaimed so proudly that twice two was four and all else is nonsense now has to face the irrationality within his own self. He has, indeed, to discover what that self is, and it is not an easy discovery to make. Bazarov had understood his own identity purely in terms of the ideas he had held; but when those ideas collapse, when the fact of twice two equalling four is no longer sufficient, his concept of his own self also collapses. He has to find out anew what he really is, and this he cannot do.

The scenes between Bazarov and Odintsova are, for me, at the heart of the novel: it is in these scenes that Bazarov’s sense of his own identity is threatened, and soon reaches a crisis. Odintsova, for her own part, finds Bazarov fascinating, and is quite happy to flirt with him; but when the flirting takes a serious turn, she backs off, and Bazarov, who had presented himself, and, indeed, had thought of himself, as superior to all around him, can no longer tell with any certainty what precisely he now is.

The scene now changes again: we now accompany Arkady and Bazarov to Bazarov’s home, and meet his parents. His father is a retired army doctor and a small-time landowner; his mother is a deeply pious woman; both are devoted to their clever son, but seem in awe of him: they feel constrained even in displaying their love for him for fear of earning his disapproval. Bazarov, after his experience with Odintsova, is restless, and ill at ease: he feels alienated even in his own home, and, much to his parents’ dismay, he does not stay long. Before leaving, Arkady, now no longer in awe of Bazarov as he had previously been, takes exception to Bazarov’s referring to his uncle as an “idiot”, and is surprised by Bazarov’s reaction:

“In any case, it wasn’t family feeling, but a simple sense of justice,” Arkady retorted. “But because you don’t understand that sense, because you haven’t got that feeling, you can’t pass judgement on it.”

“In other words, Arkady Kirsanov is too elevated for my understanding, so I bow down before you and hold my tongue.”

“That’s enough, please, Evgeny. We’ll end up quarrelling.”

“Ah, Arkady, do me a favour! Let’s quarrel once and for all – to the death, to the bitter end!”

“But if we do we’ll surely end by … “

“By having a fight?” butted in Bazarov. “So what? Here, in the hay, in such idyllic surroundings, far from the world and human eyes, it won’t mean a thing! But you’d never get the better of me. I’d get you by the throat straight off…”

Bazarov extended his long, hard fingers, while Arkady turned and prepared to defend himself, if only in fun. But so full of hatred was his friend’s face, so very unfunny the threat he perceived in his twisted grin and burning eyes, that Arkady felt a momentary timidity regardless…

Bazarov’s self-hatred is by this stage so intense that it has overflowed into hatred of the young man who had hero-worshipped him.

But Arkady is changing also: he has matured and developed, is less in thrall to Bazarov than he had been, and, far from being in awe of his friend, is now capable of standing up for his beloved uncle in the face of his friend’s insult. As Bazarov seems increasingly unable to trust his own perspective, Arkady is growing in self-confidence. After this climactic scene, we rarely see the two together.

In the rest of the novel, there is a recapitulation of the places and characters we had previously encountered – Odintsova on her estate (she receives Bazarov coldly); the Gogolian town and its Gogolian inhabitants; and, again, the Kirsanov’s estate, where we are even treated to a duel. But where, in Eugene Onegin and in A Hero of Our Times, the duels had been dramatic and with far-reaching consequences, here, it is pure farce, and utterly inconsequential. This duel seems almost a parody of the duels in Pushkin and in Lermontov: tragedy here has turned into pure meaninglessness, and futility. And finally, after this tragedy-turned-to-farce, we return, for the final act of the drama, to Bazarov’s parents’ house. And this time, the tragedy is for real.

From my earlier readings I had been certain that Bazarov kills himself at the end, and I was frankly a bit surprised to find that there is not a single mention of suicide in the narrative. But it is easy, I think, to see how I got that impression. Here, after all, is a man whose entire sense of his self, of his own identity, has collapsed, and he cannot find a new one. He infects himself accidentally, we are told; neither Bazarov, nor anyone around him, nor Turgenev himself, says or hints at anything to the contrary. Yet, for me, the doubt remains. There is, after all, much in the inner workings of Bazarov’s mind that we cannot be sure of. This is not because Turgenev had failed to give us a complete picture, but because the picture is necessarily incomplete: Bazarov, like Hamlet, is a mystery even to himself. The man who, at the start of the novel, thought he knew himself perfectly, thought he understood the nature of the world in which he lived – in which twice two is four and all the rest nonsense – comes to understand that he never has understood anything, least of all himself. And he does not have the strength to build himself anew. Possibly, he does not even know himself whether his infection was accidental or deliberately self-inflicted: human motivations, as he has come to discover, and endlessly obscure – even one’s own. He asks to see Odinstsova before he dies, and she comes: but at no point does he express any grief, any rage, or even any regret, at his parting from the world. A world in which even twice two equalling four cannot be taken for granted cannot be, after all, a world worth living in. Parting from it seems a consummation devoutly to be wished. About this, if nothing else, Bazarov can be devout.


There is much in this novel that is unlikely to appeal to modern taste. Turgenev still has the habit of giving us giving us a full history of his characters immediately after introducing them, rather than allowing us to infer what we need to know from the way they act; he likes also to drive his narrative through dialogue, as in a play, and, while some of the dialogue is indeed very fine (most notably in the scenes between Bazarov and Odintsova), not all of it frankly is: the lad-and-lass love scenes between Arkady and Katya, for instance, are likely to strike the modern reader as a trifle insipid. However, most of the time, it works beautifully: it is, quite often, in the discrepancy between what Bazarov says and what he does that we come to appreciate his complexities.

Turgenev’s contemporaries appeared to see the novel as a comment on the politics of the time, and – as the title implies – on the gap between generations in ways of perceiving the world. I personally find it difficult to see the novel from such a perspective. To me, it is a fascinating study of the human sense of identity, and of how we cope, or, as in this case, fail to cope, when our idea we have of who we are is no longer consistent with what we perceive. And in Bazarov, we have, I think, one of the finest creations of all fiction – a character of endless complexity and contradictions, who nonetheless possesses a unity despite the diversity, and who is, by the end, one of the most striking and memorable of tragic protagonists.

How I came round to liking the novels of Jane Austen

For my posts on individual novels of Austen, see here.

Not that long ago, I used to find myself frankly puzzled by the high regard, indeed, by the reverence, in which Jane Austen was held. And this reverence was discernible not merely in the casual reader, or in those who, influenced no doubt by various lightweight adaptations, saw her novels as essentially chick-lit in fancy costume: those whom I admired for their taste and for their critical judgement seemed also unanimous in their regard for Austen.

So I had a choice of three options: I could claim that those who enjoyed Austen were fools unable to see through the hype, and that I, possessing superior discernment, knew better (this is the default position on the internet in such matters); or I could shrug my shoulders, and accept that we all have different perceptions, and that not everyone can take in everything; or, thirdly, I could have another go, and see if, this time round, I could at least see something of what her admirers clearly see. Now, there are many things about my former self that I find myself disliking, but I am glad this former self of mine eschewed the first option, found himself dissatisfied with the second, and went for the third. For now, having re-read all six of her complete and full length novels (the shorter and unfinished works are still waiting in the wings), I can not only see why her admirers admire her so, I have come to share much of that admiration myself. I won’t claim to be a fully paid-up Austenite: our individual temperaments inevitably lead us in different directions, after all; but now, when Austen is praised as a novelist of the foremost rank, I find myself inclined to agree, and to join in the praise. Is not our capacity to change over time quite wonderful?

Of course, this is all very inconsistent in me, but consistency is not really, I think, something to be praised: a mind and a soul impervious to change bespeak a spiritual dullness and an inability to look beyond our immediate horizons – as if these horizons of ours encompass all that need be encompassed. Change is not merely to be welcomed, but to be actively sought – change in our thinking, our tastes, our critical judgement; change in our moral and aesthetic values.

Towards the end of Antony and Cleopatra, Antony, who had thought that he knew himself, discovers to his surprise that he doesn’t. He looks at a cloud, and its shape seems to him constantly to change:

That which is now a horse, even with a thought
The rack dislimns, and makes it indistinct,
As water is in water.

He wonders at this, and finds his own self just such an amorphous body:

… here I am Antony:
Yet cannot hold this visible shape …

This is the self-knowledge he acquires in the course of the drama: he comes to know that he doesn’t really know himself at all; there is nothing solid that he can grasp, and all is as water is in water.

Antony is overstating, of course: we need not take this as Shakespeare’s own view. It is a mistake to take the thoughts of a character at the edge of human experience as representative of authorial wisdom. For, whatever Antony may think at this point, there is clearly a continuity between what we are now, and what we used to be; the human personality, for all its multiple facets that so puzzle Antony, retains a unity amidst the diversity. But it’s this diversity that makes humans so endlessly fascinating – a diversity the nature of which is so mysterious, even to ourselves, that it becomes impossible to say whether any change we undergo over time is the acquiring of new characteristics and the discarding of old, or whether it is, rather, the emergence to the fore of existing but previously unobserved elements.

If any reader who has stuck with me so far into this post is worried that I am now about to launch into intimate autobiography, and detail how I have changed over the years, please rest assured that nothing could be further from my intention: this blog is not, thankfully, a confessional. However, it has long struck me that the books that I value or have valued highly in different periods of my life, and my reasons for valuing them, do constitute an autobiography of sorts. And my progress, within a mere few years, from a dislike for Austen, or, at best, a grudging respect, to an unfeigned and unalloyed admiration, very possibly marks out in me new ways of looking at things, new perspectives. Which would give me cause for introspection were I given to navel-gazing.

Perhaps I hadn’t paying sufficient attention in my previous readings. I tried to interrogate my old self: what was it about these novels that I disliked? I don’t think I ever bought the view of Austen as a purveyor of chick-lit in fancy dress, even though legions of her fans did: she was quite clearly a far more serious writer than that. But I did, I think, find her very formal and decorous, and, as a consequence, distant; I formed the impression of her as detached, as lacking in passion; I saw her as looking down censoriously on her own creations from a moral high-ground; I found her too severe, too cold, too unwilling to sympathise with the common flaws and weaknesses of our shared humanity; I found a lack of warmth; and it seemed to me frankly worrying that her laughs were always at the expense of others: never was there an open and generous laugh – what I’d describe as a Dickensian laugh – in which we may all join.

All this seems damning. In some of them, I had been simply mistaken: for instance, Austen is certainly not short of passion – as is surely obvious from even the most cursory reading of Mansfield Park or of Persuasion (and how that insensitive oaf that was my former self could have missed this I really cannot imagine). As for my other criticisms, there is more than an element of truth to them, but they are not the whole truth. What I failed so dismally to see, I think, was that major works of art are not restricted to a single tonality; that what they present merely on the surface can be deceptive. Why, I had asked myself in my previous reading, is Emma Woodhouse to be taken to task for being unkind to Miss Bates when the author herself had presented Miss Bates in precisely the terms in which Emma had seen her – as no more than a tiresome old bat? I think I can now answer that question: Miss Bates is a tiresome old bat, and Austen sees no reason to present her otherwise; but she was wise enough and compassionate enough to know that even tiresome old bats have feelings, and that these feelings are sacrosanct. To have presented Miss Bates as anything other than the tiresome creature she is would have been merely pious and sentimental; Austen does better – much better: she allows us to think of Miss Bates in the same way that Emma does, so that when Miss Bates’ feelings are hurt, we find ourselves every bit as mortified as does Emma. And as a consequence, if we had looked down on Miss Bates before, we feel ashamed for having done so; and if we had looked down on Emma before, we no longer can; for how can we consider ourselves to be above that in which we find our own selves implicated? Far from looking down from remote heights on the flaws of humanity, Austen involves us in them.

The key to my greater understanding – for such, I hope, it is – came when a friend referred to Austen’s novels as “Mozartian”. Now, as a fully paid-up member of the Mozart fan club, I am constantly surprised when people pronounce his music to be twee, lacking in passion, shallow, and all the rest of it; for, underneath the elegant perfection of his surfaces, there seem to me to lie inexhaustible depths of passion. Was I being similarly obtuse, I wondered, in failing to look beyond the formal and decorous surfaces of Austen? Having now re-read these six novels, I can only conclude that such was precisely the case. Not that Austen is now an author close to my heart: she isn’t. Nonetheless, I did find myself charmed by Pride and Prejudice; I found myself utterly absorbed in the sombre drama that is Mansfield Park; I found myself quite swept along by the passion – yes, passion – and the eroticism of Persuasion. Emma, I confess, I found hard work, but its artistry and its seriousness of purpose are in no doubt. Even the two earlier works, Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility, though novels of somewhat lesser substance than the masterpieces that followed, remain remarkable works.

So, while our substance may not be of infinite plasticity, while we may not quite be, as Antony had thought, as water is in water, we do have the ability, I think, to look beyond our own individual horizons, and see what we had not previously been capable of seeing. Not that we’ll give ourselves the opportunity to do so if we keep on simple-mindedly rating works in terms of “Like” or “Dislike” as we do Facebook posts; nor if we do as Goodreads urges us, and fix works produced by minds greater than our own on some insipid scale from one to ten. And it may sometimes be the case that one’s temperament is so far removed from that of the author, that not even the greatest willingness, open-mindedness and flexibility on the part of the reader can quite reconcile one to the author’s artistic vision. But it sure is worth a try!

Strauss on my mind

I’ve had Strauss on the mind lately. Richard Strauss, that is, not Johann the Waltz King – although, to judge from the waltz in Der Rosenkavalier, Richard could have gone in that direction had he so wanted.

It all started a few weeks ago, when I found out that I would be working for a couple of weeks in offices in central London. So, naturally, I looked to see what was on in London in the evenings during those two weeks. And I found, to my delight, that the renowned Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, under their Principal Conductor Riccardo Chailly, was giving over a few days a series of three concerts of Strauss and Mozart. So I booked myself for all three of them. I mean, it would have been churlish not to.

Strauss has a bit of an odd reputation. The general consensus of opinion seems to be that it was Mahler, Strauss’ contemporary, who was the true genius, pouring out his tortured soul in works of emotional profundity and spiritual intensity, while Strauss was merely a showman, who cared more for effect rather than for substance, who often strayed into the crude and the vulgar – a sort of musical Barnum and Bailey. While I have no doubt at all about the stature of Mahler, I have never been at all happy with such an appraisal of Strauss. Yes, he was a showman, he could be crude and vulgar, and, yes, there are many works of his in which showmanship takes precedence over substance. But this is by no means the whole story. In the first place, showmanship need not preclude depth, or even artistic integrity; and in the second place, the composer of Elektra and of Metamorphosen deserves to be taken seriously – every bit as seriously, to my mind, as the unremittingly serious Mahler.

The three concerts included what Chailly has described as Strauss’ “core” tone poems, plus the late work Metamorphosen. Interestingly, Chailly does not include Don Quixote among this “core”, insisting that it was conceived as a set of orchestral variations rather than as a tone poem. And neither does he include the Alpine Symphony, a work which probably does lend credence to Strauss’ reputation of being a showman rather than a serious artist. Even some of the “core” works don’t quite, perhaps, dispel that notion – but the boundary between artistry and craftsmanship seems to me a very blurred one at best. And anyone who says something such as Ein Heldenleben is not a supremely beautiful and moving piece of music is a bounder and a cad, and can meet me afterwards in the car park outside.

Ein HeldenlebenA Hero’s Life – formed the second half of the first of the three concerts. In the first half, we had one of Strauss’ earliest masterpieces – the gloriously ardent and swaggering Don Juan. The orchestra played superbly: the sound was mellow, but deceptively so, as, at the dramatic climaxes, it packed a tremendous punch; but even at its most dramatic, the sound never lost its refinement, never became harsh. And no matter how thick the orchestral texture may be, the sound was never congested: there was always a sense of space around the various strands of the music.

Sibelius had once commented that Strauss provided his listeners with rich and exotic cocktails, whereas he gave the listener pure spring water. We need spring water as well, of course: going straight from one rich and exotic cocktail to another can become a bit too much. Here, the spring water was provided not by Sibelius, but by Mozart, a composer who was very close to Strauss’ heart. Between Don Juan and Ein Heldenleben, the Gewandhaus Orchestra accompanied Maria João Pires in a performance of Mozart’s 27th piano concerto. It is a work often described as being a late Mozart work, and indeed it is – although we should keep in mind that Mozart was only 35 when he composed it, and that the works Strauss had composed at that age are regarded as his early works. It is a work of ethereal beauty: there seems something quite other-worldly about it. Gone is the exuberance and the drama of Mozart’s earlier piano concertos: where, previously, the second group of themes had contrasted dramatically with the first, here, they seem to complement each other. The music does indeed dance along gracefully, but the brilliance of Mozart’s dancing in his earlier works seems to have vanished, leaving behind a ghost of its former self. Huxley had once commented that Mozart’s music is saddest when it seems to be happy, but never has the happy surface been quite so transparent as it is here, revealing the depths below. It is a work that smiles, and yet breaks the heart, and I don’t think I could hope to hear it performed better than I did here. There is a passage in the first movement development section that is particularly close to my heart: the key changes come so frequently and so quickly, that it seems to give an impression of drifting between keys: I know of no other music quite like this.

After the interval, we were in a different world entirely: Ein HeldelbenA Hero’s Life. In many respects, it’s a work of utter megalomania: in the section labelled “The Hero’s Works of Peace”, Strauss gives us a collage of themes from his own earlier pieces, leaving us in no doubt as to who the hero of the title is. But I think that to criticise the work on this ground is to miss the humour: whenever I hear this piece, I seem to see a twinkle in Strauss’ eye, a wink and a nudge. Similarly in the second section of the work, which depicts the hero’s enemies: it’s a glorious cacophony of winds, suggesting to absolute perfection a band of snivelling idiots. One may ask what is so very heroic about defeating such a miserable bunch, but once again, this is to miss the humour of the thing. Speaking for myself, I can’t help but break into a broad grin when I hear this.
And then, there is the love scene. The hero’s companion is depicted by a solo violin, and the hero, in the form of the orchestra, woos her ardently; but she is no doormat merely to do the hero’s bidding. Time after time, the violin solo seems to be responding to the hero’s amorous overtures, merely to go off into intricate cadenzas and arabesques: this is a companion who is very much her own person, and with her own mind, who will respond to the hero as and when she wants to, in her own time, and in her own way. And when she finally does, we have a love scene like no other in music: Strauss gives us sounds so gorgeous, and so opulent and sensual, that it’s almost indecent.

Then comes the battle scene, in which the hero defeats his enemies. This is a section that could come over as overblown – but in this performance, it was genuinely thrilling. The orchestra of about a hundred or so players, including five percussionists (yes, five – I counted ‘em!) went at it hammer and tongs, and yet, somehow, they never compromised the beauty of tone. It was magnificent. And afterwards, the enemies vanquished, we move into the hero’s works of peace – a glorious collage of themes of Strauss’ earlier works. In Don Juan, there had been a thrilling moment when a swaggering horn fanfare had sounded over the massed orchestra: we had heard this only earlier that evening; well, since that moment was so wonderful, Strauss thought he would repeat it again in Ein Heldenleben: and no, it doesn’t suffer from the repetition – it remained just as thrilling.

How does one finish a work such as this? Strauss decided not to pile Pelion on Ossa (or is that the other way round?) – after all the thrills and spills, he opts for a quiet ending, as the hero, having achieved all that could be achieved, renounces worldly things. The music is extraordinarily moving and beautiful. Showmanship? Perhaps. Who cares?

The second concert was not really in the class of the first: this was nothing to do with the playing or the conducting, but because the programme wasn’t as good. It started with Strauss’ early tone poem Macbeth, and interesting though it was to hear this played live, it isn’t a patch on Don Juan, the opening piece in the first concert. The Mozart piece was the 3rd violin concerto, and, lovely though it is, and beautifully played as it was by Christian Tetzlaff, it is not in the same league as Mozart’s last piano concerto. After the interval, we had Also Sprach Zarathustra, and again, I couldn’t help wondering just how seriously we are supposed to take this: isn’t the very idea of setting Nietzsche’s philosophy to music a bit of a joke? Once again, I couldn’t help seeing a twinkle in Strauss’ eye. And similarly with the section in which the Übermensch dances: what sort of music would an Übermensch dance to? Strauss makes him dance to a Viennese waltz, and, although the rest of the audience didn’t seem to find this particularly funny, I thought it was hilarious. The piece also has the very famous opening, of course; and the ending too is very beautiful. But for all this, it seems to me somewhat incoherent: despite all the lovely moments and beautiful passages, there is much that seemed to me a bit dull and uninspired. It was all great fun, I suppose, but whereas Ein Heldenleben had been more than just fun, this, I don’t think, was. Once again, this is not a comment on the performance, but on the music itself: there is no doubt in my mind that Strauss was a very great composer … but it’s fair to say, I think, that he was not always great.

For the third and last concert, there can be no doubt at all: it was, from beginning to end, utterly magnificent. It started with the magnificent Tod und VerklärungDeath and Transfiguration; the final section of this work, representing the transfiguration of the soul after death (or some such), is a gloriously opulent passage even by Strauss’ standards; my expectations were high, and the orchestra did not disappoint. After that came another of Mozart’s late masterpieces – the clarinet concerto. I must admit that, immediately after the ending of Tod und Verklärung, my ears took a bit of time to adjust to Mozart’s very different sound world, but once they did, it was utterly irresistible. The soloist, Martin Fröst, shaped and coloured each phrase exquisitely, and as we moved into the interval we were left wondering how anything could possibly come after this and not seem an anti-climax.

What came afterwards was Metamorphosen, one of my personal favourite works by any composer. It is a piece for 23 strings, an unbroken span of some half hour or so; it was composed by Strauss in his eighties in the years after the end of the Second World War, and it is a lament for the depths into which the culture had sunk in which Strauss had been steeped. Now, Strauss’ relationship with Nazism remains controversial: from what I can work out, he was, personally, a very decent and generous man, without any hint at all of racism or of anti-Semitism; but the unfortunate fact remains that, in his admittedly old age, Strauss did allow himself to be wheeled on by the Nazis as the great representative of the German Musical Culture. It was naïveté on Strauss’ part rather than anything else, and while such naïveté cannot be anything other than reprehensible, to label Strauss a Nazi, as some have done, does seem grossly unfair. But, be that as it may, Metamoprphosen is a great masterpiece. I went through a phase in my early twenties – not, for various reasons, the most cheerful years of my life – when I used to listen almost obsessively to Mozart’s D minor piano concerto, and to this: its deep gloom and desolation, rising to uninhibited passion before subsiding once again, has long resonated with me, and listening to it live, and played and shaped so beautifully, was for me a particularly fulfilling experience.

The concert could have ended here, but they obviously wanted to end with a bang: so, to finish off, we had the hugely witty and exuberant Till Eulenspiegel, Strauss’ musical depiction of the prankster from Germanic folklore. It is a tremendous orchestral scherzo, and it was played with great verve and gusto: it brought the house down.

So, after all that … was Strauss a great musical genius, or just a showman? I incline towards the first option – how could the composer of Metamorphosen be anything but a genius? – but frankly, I don’t know that I care much. Genius or showman, this is music that I love, and I wouldn’t be without it. And that’s all that really matters.

“The Tempest”: a production for children on the autistic spectrum

Earlier today, I spent a fascinating afternoon at the Bloomsbury Studio London, watching a production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. But this production, devised and directed by Kelly Hunter (whom I saw only last year playing Mrs Alving in a quite superb production of Ibsen’s Ghosts), was not an ordinary production: it was aimed specifically for children and for young adults on the autistic spectrum.

Bloomsbury Studio is a small, in-the-round theatre. For this event, parents and carers sat on chairs arranged in an outer circle, while, in an inner circle, surrounding a space representing Prospero’s island, sat six actors, each looking after a small group of children. They went through the story, selecting specific scenes and specific lines, inviting and encouraging the children to join them in action and in mime, in sounds and movements.

Now, anyone who has experience with children on the autistic spectrum will know how difficult this is – how difficult it is, in many cases, to get some children on the autistic spectrum even to acknowledge the presence of others. And to begin with, many of the children seemed reluctant. But, to my immense surprise, they started joining in – some with evident gusto. It was a sight I thought I’d never see – a group of children (and, in one case, a young adult) on the autistic spectrum taking delight in a group event.

And at no point was there anything resembling coercion. No child was ever urged to do anything they did not wish to: nothing was ever forced. The entire cast was sympathetic and supportive, and stayed on afterwards to speak to the children, parents, and carers. As an observer sitting on the sidelines, it was a quite wonderful experience.

This event was a co-production between the Royal Shakespeare Company, and the Ohio State University. I do not know when and where they will be doing this again, but if any reader is a parent or carer of an autistic child, or know someone who is, I do urge you to keep an eye on their website.

A trip back to childhood: “Smith” by Leon Garfield

Given how prone I am to bouts of misty-eyed nostalgia, I tend not to revisit favourite books from childhood. That’s because, I think, much of the stuff I used to read as a child was pretty poor material, and that for every Treasure Island or The Hound of the Baskervilles there were reams and reams of unmitigated rubbish that not even the cosy glow of nostalgia could dignify. However, there were a few exceptions, and when I saw in the bookshop recently a copy of Leon Garfield’s Smith, I couldn’t help myself. It was a school reader: we read it in the English class when we were about 12 or so, and although one is not supposed to enjoy what one read at school, and certainly not supposed to admit to enjoying it even if one did, I remember thinking even at the time that it was terrific stuff. Reading it again over 40 years later, it struck me that maybe my childhood taste wasn’t perhaps quite so bad after all – that amidst all the trashy mystery stories and Enid Blyton romps I used to gobble down in preference to those worthier books my parents thought I should be reading, I could, even then, take in and enjoy a bit of quality.


I didn’t remember the plot very well, but I did remember the atmosphere, and the tension, and the sense of excitement. What I didn’t remember at all – presumably because it passed me by at that age – was the sheer delight the author took in the language. It is, after all, hard to imagine a book aimed for children nowadays starting like this:

He was called Smith and was twelve years old. Which, in itself, was a marvel; for it seemed as if the smallpox, the consumption, brain-fever, gaol-fever and even the hangman’s rope had given him a wide berth for fear of catching something. Or else they weren’t quick enough.

It continues:

Smith had a turn of speed that was remarkable, and a neatness in nipping down an alley or vanishing down a court that had to be seen to be believed. Not that it was often seen, for Smith was a rather sooty spirit of the violent and ramshackle Town, and inhabited the tumbledown mazes about fat St Paul’s like the subtle air itself. A rat was like a snail beside Smith, and the most his thousand victims ever got of him was the powerful whiff of his passing and a cold draught in their dexterously emptied pockets.

This is the writing of an author who loves words, and who relishes putting them together in ways that they delight for their own sake. This is, of course, a children’s book, and there is a strong narrative, but Garfield has no thought of patronising his young readers: language for him is more than a mere means to an end, children’s book or not.

Of course, no-one writing for children would write like this now, and no publisher, one suspects, would publish it. Yet, this book was published only in 1967, and was aimed for the children’s market. How quickly things change!

The setting is London in the 18th century, and Smith, the child pickpocket, resides in the underworld. Inevitably, there are echoes of Dickens – although the protagonist Smith is more Artful Dodger than innocent Oliver Twist – and there are echoes as well of the picture of the London underworld that Defoe depicts in Moll Flanders, or Fielding in Jonathan Wild. The sense of place – of the streets and the alleyways, the inns, Newgate prison – is always strongly projected. And the story too is splendid. Smith has picked a man’s pocket, but all he has for his troubles is a document; soon afterwards, he sees this man killed for the very document that he has stolen; but unfortunately, Smith cannot read, and has no way of finding out what it is about this piece of paper that has cost a man his life.

As an adventure story, it can’t be faulted. It is superbly paced, with expert tightenings and loosenings of tension; the plot is full of twists and turns; and, despite the dark milieu, its heart is warm – as I think it should be in a children’s story. (Or am I too old-fashioned in thinking that?) Smith forms an unlikely companionship with a blind retired magistrate, who later comes to think – wrongly, as it happens – that Smith is a murderer; however, when Smith is faced with a choice between leaving this helpless blind man to fend for himself in the cold and snow, with murderous villains circling close at hand, or revealing himself, and taking the risk that the magistrate may later turn him in to the authorities, Smith makes the correct moral choice: even if it costs him a hanging at Newgate, he cannot leave this man to his fate. There’s certainly more than a touch of the Huckleberryfinns here, and the book is none the worse for it.

I suppose it could be said that the story is derivative, but perhaps we place too great a weight on the concept of originality: so intent are we on searching out novelty, and praising that which is new for no better reason than it is new, we sometimes forget to ask ourselves whether what we are praising is any good. There’s much to be said, I think, for doing established things well, and Garfield more than does that. And throughout, the language is a delight – although, rather predictably I suppose, one of the Amazon reviews complains about this book, aimed specifically at children, being too hard to read. O tempora! O mores!

Reading this book for me was a surprisingly poignant trip back into my childhood, and I found it quite delightful. I thrilled again to the adventure, puzzled again to the mystery, and enjoyed again the journey – both literal and moral – that Smith takes through the course of the story. The blind magistrate too makes a journey, as Garfield tells us at one point: he makes a journey from justice to compassion. For the author to point it out explicitly in an adult novel would certainly have been heavy-handed, but in a children’s book it seemed just fine. There are a few other children’s books by Leon Garfield that I don’t think I read as a child: I think I may enjoy reading them now.

And I discovered also that Garfield had also written a completion of Dickens’ Mystery of Edwin Drood. I can’t imagine any writer better equipped to complete this work, and I’d be very keen to get hold of a copy.


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