Archive for May, 2010

Dickens and his detractors



I have been blogging on books for quite a few years now on various messageboards, and I have found that when I mention my literary enthusiasms, none raises more eyebrows than my mention of Dickens. “Dickens? Surely you can’t like Dickens! Wasn’t he merely a writer of pap for the masses – a sort of Jeffrey Archer of his time? Didn’t he keep killing off children to give his readership a good cry? Wasn’t he just a purveyor of cheap sentimentality? Wasn’t he verbose and long-winded? (He must have been paid by the word!) He couldn’t really characterise though, could he? – he merely created caricatures. And – of course – he couldn’t create women. Social conscience, yes – he pointed out some of the social iniquities of his time, but that’s not really of much relevance these days, is it?”

The sort of writer one would imagine from these criticisms would be a very poor writer indeed; and yet, for all that, Dickens’ place in the pantheon of literature has never been in serious dispute, and his admirers have included such notable figures as Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Franz Kafka, Thomas Hardy, George Orwell, Jorge Luis Borges, Vladimir Nabokov, etc. etc. It’s hard to square this discrepancy: if Dickens really is as bad a writer as is alleged, why has he been so admired by so many people with such fastidious literary tastes? Indeed, when I try to talk about Dickens, I can’t help wondering which Dickens I am talking about.

The problem is that most of the criticisms made are justified – up to a point. But only, I think, up to a point. So yes, there is a great deal of sentimentality, especially in his earlier works; but no, Dickens isn’t always killing off Little Nells in order to evoke pathos. Indeed, given how high child mortality rates were in Dickens’ times, there are actually not that many dying children. And yes, Dickens does create caricatures, but he could create rounded characters as well; and what’s more, his caricatures are brilliant. And so on.

Let us first consider the issue of caricatures. The implication of this criticism that he “created caricatures” seems to be that his caricatures are merely crude substitutes for the more well-rounded figures that are indicative of a higher level of artistry, and which he was incapable of creating. To investigate this issue properly, we must first, I think, define what it is we mean by “well-rounded characters”. To me, “well-rounded characters” are those who have in them elements that are apparently contradictory, but which nonetheless cohere to give an impression of unity; who are credible in being who they are given their past experiences; and who continue to develop with experience. By this reckoning, it seems to me that Pip, Arthur Clennan, Esther Summerson (whether one likes her as a person or not), Bella Wilfer, etc. etc. are all well-rounded characters: the contention that Dickens was incapable of creating well-rounded characters does not, I think, bear up to much scrutiny. But what of his caricatures? It needs to be emphasised, I think, that a caricature is not a failed attempt at portraiture. Authors of the stature of Fielding, Austen, Gogol, Dostoyevsky, etc. have all created caricatures. And yet, Fielding is never criticised for Squire Western; Austen is never criticised for Aunt Norris. Creating good, memorable caricatures requires skill, and I don’t think anyone was more skilful in this art than was Dickens. Vincent Crummles, Daniel Quilp, Sarah Gamp, Uriah Heep, Mr Chadband – far from indicating artistic failure, these are amongst the greatest triumphs of literary art.

It is true, though, that Dickens had problems with the traditional hero and heroine. Dickens’ earlier novels had followed a traditional pattern, which, allowing for Victorian sensibilities, resembled the novels of Fielding and Smollett. In this pattern, the hero had to end up marrying the heroine, and the heroine had to be spotlessly pure. And, in Dickens’ time, the hero too had to remain unsullied: Fielding could create a less than virginal Tom Jones, but Martin Chuzzlewit or Nicholas Nickleby had to remain spotless. But perfect, spotless characters, whether male or female, are dull. As a result, Dickens ended up with pallid and uninteresting heroes and heroines right up to David Copperfield. Characters such as Nicholas Nickleby, Martin Chuzzlewit, the adult David Copperfield, etc. are intolerably dull, as are their female counterparts – Madeleine Bray, Agnes Wickfield, etc. This has led to some people claiming that Dickens was weak with women characters, but this is not true: the creator of Betsey Trotwood, Sarah Gamp, Miss Havisham, Louisa Harthouse, Esther Summerson, Bella Wilfer, Miss Wade, Harriet Beadle, etc. really cannot be accused of failing to create female characters. Dickens’ weakness was with the spotlessly virtuous characters – male or female – that were demanded by the convention in which he was writing.

So, yes, it must be admitted, even by admirers such as myself, that Dickens’ work is uneven: it varies widely in terms not only of quality, but also in terms of artistic ambition. At his worst, he could be very bad indeed – he could be every bit as bad as – possibly even worse than – his detractors claim. But I feel it unfair to judge him at his worst; at his best (and he was often at his best) he produced some of the works of fiction that I value most highly.

He started as a popular writer, without, I think, much thought of artistry. This is not, however, to denigrate his earlier work: his first novel, Pickwick Papers, seems to me one of the great comic masterpieces of the language. Admittedly, it does take a bit of time to get going; and I appreciate also that, laughter being so subjective a matter, not everyone will respond to Dickens’ idiosyncratic and rather eccentric sense of humour. But, as with the works of Wodehouse, it presents a marvellous and welcoming fictional world that I, for one, never tire of revisiting.

After the huge success of Pickwick Papers, the world was at his feet. His next novel was Oliver Twist. Those who look for depth in great literature might be disappointed with this, as Dickens shows no inclination to explore “the human condition”, or even the inner lives of any of his characters. But it is entirely characteristic of him that, after the comedy of Pickwick Papers, he wanted to try his hand at something quite different. Oliver Twist is, admittedly, highly melodramatic, and teeters at times on the edge of sentimentality. But nonetheless, it projects a very real sense of menace. And I cannot really think of any other novel so crammed full of iconic scenes and images.

For a while Dickens was content being a popular writer, and giving the public what they wanted. There is plenty of melodrama (and this requires, of course, a clear dividing line between good and evil, both of which are easily identified); there are also large dollops of sentimentality, which his public lapped up. And verbosity – yes, Dickens was guilty of that as well. And, as convention required, his heroes and heroines are spotless and pure, and, as a consequence, pallid and dull. Indeed, for the next few novels, Dickens was everything his detractors allege.

But for all that, I wouldn’t dismiss these early novels: as well as all those aspects that are no longer to our taste, these novels also display a great vigour and vitality; they display his wonderful ability to create wildly eccentric figures and memorable caricatures; and throughout, there are flashes of his very idiosyncratic humour. The heroes and heroines may remain dull, but the characters around them are some of the finest  of comic creations: Wackford Squeers, Vincent Crummles, Sarah Gamp, Daniel Quilp, Sampson Brass & Sally Brass, etc. etc. These are not the creations of a mere hack writer. However, while I don’t by any means dismiss the novels Dickens wrote during this period, I don’t think I’d even consider Dickens as a major novelist had he written nothing beyond, say, Martin Chuzzlewit.

But, some time after Martin Chuzzlewit, Dickens matured as an artist. I get the feeling that he had become tired of the hole he had dug himself into: he certainly seems desperately bored for long stretches in Martin Chuzzlewit. The formula by this stage seemed trite and hackneyed, and was clearly not firing his imagination. But it seems to me that, after this novel, he completely re-thought his art, and managed to renew himself artistically. No longer was he content with laying the various diverse strands of his novel next to each other any old how: from now on, he sought to juxtapose these strands to maximum effect. No longer was he content with bland, romantic heroes and heroines; from now on, his heroes and heroines tended to be more flawed, and, hence, more interesting. From now on, he also concerned himself more with the overall shape of the novel, its structure, its artistic unity, and, to this end, made innovative use of imagery and symbolism. He made innovative use also of language – a feature particularly commented on by Nabokov, himself a startlingly original innovator in this area. And Dickens concerned himself also with artistic expression – far more so than he had previously done.

But in moving away from the more freewheeling works of his earlier years, he encountered problems. His protagonists now are (on the whole) more rounded, but, beyond these protagonists, we still have many flat characters. Although “flat” does not necessarily imply “dull” – especially with Dickens who, to this day, remains unsurpassed as a literary caricaturist – the problem remained: how are these caricatures to be incorporated into a novel? After all, a novel, given its length, demands development of some sort or other, and a caricature, almost by definition, is incapable of development.

Dickens solved this by incorporating his caricatures into a complex network of symbolism and imagery, so that, as a consequence, the caricatures not only become integrated into the larger structure, but contribute to the curiously hallucinatory nature of the fictional world. For Dickens, unlike, say, Flaubert or Zola, was not interested in creating a fictional world that approximates to the real world as we recognise it: he wanted instead to create a distorted world, a world in which the solidities of everyday are replaced with reflections of his characters’ often turbulent or unbalanced states of mind; a world in which a character’s death by spontaneous combustion may be real as well as symbolic. To create such a fictional world, Dickens made use of his brilliant gifts as a caricaturist; but to ensure structural coherence, these caricatures were integrated into an intricate pattern of symbolism and imagery.

A good example of this sort of thing is the character of Skimpole in Bleak House. On the surface, he is similar to Mantalini in Nicholas Nickleby – a colourful and flamboyant personality who does no work, and is happy to sponge off others. But Skimpole is from the beginning associated with one of the major themes of the novel – childhood: he presents himself as a child incapable of coming to terms with the complexities of the world. When we first see him, he expresses himself very elegantly, and it is hard not to be charmed by him – as Esther, Richard and Ada obviously are. But the image of childhood is then developed elsewhere in the novel, and we are soon bombarded with images of childhood betrayed. As a consequence, every time we return to Skimpole, we see him in a different context: this adult who lays claim to childlike innocence and helplessness contrasts increasingly sharply with what we see elsewhere of real children forced to assume adult roles. So although the character of Skimpole does not develop, our perspective of him does: while remaining the same character, he develops in our minds from a charming picture of childlike innocence to an obscenity: he becomes yet another aspect of the moral rottenness that we see spreading through this fictional world like a malignant cancer.

Then, later in the novel, we are introduced to Skimpole’s own children, and at this point, Skimpole refers to them as his “birds”.  This is significant, because, in another strand of imagery in the novel, caged birds have featured prominently, and, as the novel has progressed, acquired all sorts of different levels of meaning. We had first encountered this motif in the scene where the half-crazed Miss Flite shows Esther, Ada and Richard her large aviary. Later, the birds are named in a monstrous Gargantuan list: “Hope, Joy, Youth, Peace, Rest, Life, Dust, Ashes, Waste, Want, Ruin, Despair, Madness, Death, Cunning, Folly, Words, Wigs, Rags, Sheepskin, Plunder, Precedent, Jargon, Gammon and Spinach.” In short, everything – all of life, all its desires and fears and trivialities and absurdities, life with its inscrutable laws and its incomprehensible justice – all of it kept caged, as if in suspended animation, awaiting a judgement day when they can all be set free, a promised Judgement Day that never comes. This image gathers force as the novel progresses, and acquires all sorts of resonance. And its juxtaposition at a strategic point in the novel with another strand of imagery opens up a new set of associations, a new set of possibilities. There is a far greater sophistication in all this than was even dreamt of in, say, The Old Curiosity Shop, or in Barnaby Rudge.

Dickens most certainly renewed himself as an artist, but this process was not immediate: Dombey and Son is the earliest novel in which I seem to detect a greater artistic ambition, but as a novel, it is patchy. And then came David Copperfield. Once again, there are still many of the flaws that had marked his earlier novels: the hero and heroine (the adult David, and Agnes Wickfield) are still deadly dull; and the various strands of the novel are still merely placed next to each other more or less at random, with little thought of the effective juxtaposition. But there is nonetheless an artistry of a quality that one would not have thought possible from the author of, say, Nicholas Nickleby. Perhaps most remarkable of all are the early chapters, covering David’s childhood. I don’t think any other novelist has depicted with such utter conviction a child’s mind. In these chapters, Dickens narrates a fascinating adult drama, but narrates it from the perspective of a child who does not really understand the significance of what he is narrating. It is utterly compelling, and I don’t think there’s anything quite like this elsewhere in literature. Admittedly, once David grows up, the novel becomes patchier, but given the riches still in there, I find it churlish to complain. How many other novels are there with so wonderful a gallery of comic grotesques? Mr Micawber, Betsey Trotwood, Mr Dick, Uriah Heep… Once you read this book, all these wonderful characters become permanently embedded in your consciousness.

David Copperfield was a sort of watershed. Afterwards, there followed at least four novels that seem to me masterpieces of the highest order. Before considering these, I should perhaps mention the few works that I personally consider lesser. One of these is Hard Times, which is rated highly by many, but which I find relatively disappointing: there are fine things in it, of course, but I get the sense that Dickens did not feel entirely at home in the industrial north of England. And then, there is A Tale of Two Cities, which, regarded as a historic romance, is perfectly executed: but I for one find it disappointing that a major novelist at the height of his powers should tackle a subject as important as the French Revolution, and make no more out of it than a mere historic romance. And of course, there was Dickens’ last work – the unfinished Edwin Drood: this was shaping up to be a fine thriller in the mould of the novels of Dickens’ friend Wilkie Collins, and had Dickens lived to finish it, I’m sure we’d be rating it alongside such works as The Woman in White or The Moonstone. As it is, it’s just a fragment. But even leaving these works out of consideration (and there are many who rate them more highly as works of art than I do), that leaves the four novels that seem to me the great peaks of Dickens’ artistic career: Bleak House, Little Dorrit, Our Mutual Friend, and Great Expectations.

The first three of these – Bleak House, Little Dorrit, Our Mutual Friend – I sometimes think of as a sort of unofficial trilogy. They are all three huge multi-stranded novels, but the multiple strands aren’t merely laid next to each other, as in his earlier work: they counterpoint each other, to create the most intricate and fascinating of patterns. We have still the wonderful comic grotesques and eccentrics, but now, they don’t exist merely for their own sake: they are integral parts of the overall narrative and thematic structures. The setting – mainly London – does far more than merely set a background for the plot. Since these novels first appeared, many other authors have written works in which the urban setting plays an active part in the novel – Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Bely’s Petersburg, Joyce’s Ulysses, etc – but it was Dickens who did it first. And while subsequent novelists may occasionally equal Dickens in this respect, they have never surpassed him.

Although 19th century fiction is often regarded as essentially realist, Dickens, unlike, say, Zola, had no great interest in reproducing reality. Rather, he set his imagination to work: he took aspects of the real world, and distorted them to produce a fictional world that really is quite unique. It’s like seeing the real world in a distorting mirror, and Dickens’ distortions are fascinating. And the fictional world he presents points towards what we now recognise as “modernism”: without Dickens’ fictional world, I doubt we’d have had, say, Kafka, whose own fictional world seems to grow directly from the one presented by Dickens. There is, I’m sure, a fascinating book to be written on Dickens’ foreshadowings of modernism; and I think it no accident that Eliot’s original title for “The Waste Land”, one of the key texts of the modernist movement, is taken from Dickens: “He Do the Police in Different Voices” is a quote from Our Mutual Friend.

Another aspect of his art that Dickens developed was his use of imagery, and symbolism. By symbol, I don’t mean anything so basic as “A represents B”:  I mean instead the presentation of images that acquire different levels of meaning as the work progresses, and become, in the process, far greater than the sum of its possible interpretations. We have, for instance, the fog and the birds in Bleak House, the prisons in Little Dorrit, the dust-heaps and the dark river in Our Mutual Friend – haunting images that resonate in the mind. These are novels of great poetic power.

Dickens’ experiments with narrative style are also fascinating. Take, for instance, Bleak House, where the highly subjective first person narrative of Esther alternates with a very impersonal third person narrative written in present tense. The juxtaposition of the two narrative voices creates wonderful effects: even as Esther congratulates herself on imposing order in her own environment, the third person narrative shows us a wider world in which no order can ever be imposed. The effect is quite unlike that encountered in any other novel I’ve come across.

And where previously Dickens tended to go merely for crowd-pleasing sentimentality, we now have real emotion. Dickens wasn’t afraid of emotions: he presented them directly – often disconcertingly so. I think this is what worries me when Dickens is accused of sentimentality: yes, Dickens often could be sentimental (especially in his earlier works), but when he writes of Lady Dedlock’s feelings when she realises that the daughter she had thought had died at birth is still alive; when he writes of Pip’s feelings for Estella; when he writes of Arthur Clennan’s feelings of life having passed him by; we are not speaking of sentimentality here, but of genuine, profound emotions that only the greatest of authors are capable of depicting.

Great Expectations is a bit different from these other three. Unlike these other three novels, Great Expectations consists of a single narrative strand; and instead of a wide, panoramic viewpoint, here, we have a personal narrative of almost unbearable poignancy. I cannot think of any other novel that has communicated so poignantly the pains of unrequited love: there is a sense of delicacy here which we don’t normally associate with Dickens. And its theme, I think, is that of finding moral values that one can live by in a world in which human worth is judged purely on the basis of wealth and of social status. As in his other later works, Good and Bad are not obviously signposted: although Dickens continues to believe in the possibility of human goodness (as exemplified in Joe Gargery), here he presents moral ambiguities that are beyond the comprehension of someone so basically good and decent as Joe. We are a long way here from the moral certainties of, say, Oliver Twist or Nicholas Nickleby.

I may have given the impression that Dickens, in the latter half of his career, became a completely different writer. In some ways, he did. But the author of Our Mutual Friend is still recognisable as the author of, say, The Old Curiosity Shop: there is that same vigour and gusto, the same quirky sense of humour, that same love of the grotesque, that same ability to paint on a wide canvas. Dickens never forgot his roots as a popular writer. But he transformed the elements of his popular art into something very rich and strange. There is far, far more to be said about his novels than I could possibly cram even into a post even as long as this: but I hope I have said enough here to counter sat least some of the more usual criticisms – especially the idea (that I have heard expressed more than once) that he was essentially a crowd-pleasing, populist hack, a sort of Jeffrey Archer of his day.  Quite apart from anything else, I doubt that the real Jeffrey Archer will be inspiring the Kafkas and the Nabokovs of future generations.

Some Reflections on Rabindranath Tagore

Suppose that, in a book of translated poems, one comes across this:

Oh, how I would love a glass of wine 
That has been chilled for a long time in a deep cellar.
 Its taste would be redolent of flowers, and of the countryside,
It would have associations of dancing and of merrymaking in the sun,
And of songs from the South of France. 

This doesn’t read like poetry. It doesn’t even give any indication that the original could have had any poetic qualities. And yet, the original reads like this:

 O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
 Dance, and Provencal song, and sunburnt mirth!

Now suppose that Keats’ reputation through most of the world is based upon translations such as the one above. Imagine how deeply embarrassed any lover of Keats’ poetry would feel.

This hypothetical situation describes precisely how any lover of Tagore’s poetry feels about Tagore’s international reputation. When he is spoken of in admiring terms, we wonder what anyone could possibly see in the translations (including his own) to elicit any admiration at all; and when he is spoken of in dismissive terms, we despair that the work of so major a poet could be judged on this basis.

(Edit made on12th July 2011: please see later retraction of comment above.) 

Indeed, many will say that all translations into English are bound to be inadequate. English and Bengali are such different languages, with such different sonorities, syntax, and rhythms, with such different grammars, that finding the English equivalent of a Bengali poem is, perhaps, doomed to failure from the very beginning. For how can one convey even a small fraction of the qualities of the originals? How can one convey Rabindranath’s haunting verbal music, that subtlety and intricacy of rhythm, that absolute mastery of language that can communicate to perfection any possible shade and nuance of any possible emotion?  

Some time ago, I was asked by someone who recognised my Bengali origins from my name whether I liked Tagore. I replied that as an educated Bengali, I didn’t really a have a choice in the matter. The stature of Tagore in Bengal’s cultural landscape cannot be overstated, and is not easy to explain, since there is no real equivalent in the West: neither Cervantes in Spain nor Goethe in Germany, nor even Shakespeare in England, occupies the position that Tagore does in Bengal.  

Albert Einstein & Rabindranath Tagore

He was a prolific poet for over 60 years. And yet, he never repeated himself: each new collection broke new ground, both stylistically and thematically. The sheer variety of his poetic output is breathtaking, and makes nonsense of any attempt to comment in general terms on the nature of his work. On top of this, he was also a novelist, an essayist, a dramatist, and a writer of short stories. (These short stories do, it must be admitted, vary in quality, but at their best, they are as fine as any I’ve come across.) He founded a university. He even exhibited paintings. The man was an entire culture in himself.

And, perhaps most importantly of all, he wrote songs. Literally thousands of songs. He composed the melodies, and wrote the most exquisitely beautiful lyrics. These songs are effectively the national music of Bengal, and there is possibly no Bengali who would not be able to recognise at least a few dozen of these. They are part of a Bengali’s mental furniture.  

My family left India to settle in Britain when I was five years old, but even by then, the image of that man with a long white beard was as familiar to me as the images of various Hindu gods and goddesses, or, for that matter, images even of members of my own family. Even by the age of five, I knew some of his simpler poems (and, as I remember, a few not-so-simple poems) by heart. And while I was becoming acquainted with my new, adopted culture in Britain, Tagore was always present at home: it did not matter that I was no longer receiving Bengali lessons – the culture of Tagore entered my consciousness by some mysterious process of osmosis, and is now firmly lodged in there. In one’s teenage years, one revolts against such gross cultural imposition; but, like those lapsed Catholics still in thrall to the church they thought they had left behind, one cannot really escape. A strain of a melody remembered from childhood, a few words expressing the most heartfelt of emotions, and, rebel or no rebel, I find myself once again under that spell.

Othello and Otello

For some, Verdi’s opera is an even greater work of art than Shakespeare’s play. I certainly wouldn’t go so far, if only because Shakespeare’s Othello seems, to me, an unsurpassable masterpiece; but it may be maintained, I think, that Verdi’s Otello (or, rather, the Otello of Verdi and Boito, since the librettist in this instance is no mere adjunct to the creative process) is as great an opera as Othello is a play.

The background to the composition of the opera is intriguing. Verdi revered Shakespeare, and – like Britten after him – had harboured unfulfilled ambitions to compose an opera based on King Lear. Verdi had, some decades earlier, composed an opera based on Macbeth, but although there are some very fine things in it, it doesn’t, as a work of art, stand much comparison with Shakespeare’s masterpiece. For various reasons – mainly, one suspects, because Verdi never came across a librettist who he thought could do justice to such a project – his Shakespearean ambitions had remained unfulfilled. But in the early 1880s, all that changed. Verdi was now approaching 70, and was officially retired: Aida had been intended as his farewell to the opera. It is true that after Aida, he had composed the magnificent Requiem Mass – a work of elemental cosmic power – but he appeared to have little interest in composing another work for the stage. At this point, it was suggested that Arrigo Boito collaborate with Verdi in creating a new opera. Verdi was initially somewhat dubious about the proposal: Boito was what is known nowadays as a “Young Turk” – an extravagantly talented but brash young man who had been openly scathing of the Italian arts establishment; and, since Verdi was far and away the most established of all establishment figures in Italy’s artistic landscape, he had taken this criticism personally. Boito, on his part, jumped at the chance of working with Verdi: for all his criticism, he knew genius when he encountered it. But he had to be diplomatic: Verdi was sensitive to the point of being touchy. Indeed, even when their work on their joint project was well under way, Verdi took offence at an interview given by Boito in which he seemed to imply that he would have liked to compose the opera himself (Boito was a gifted composer as well as a gifted poet): Verdi threatened to pull out, and Boito had to employ all his tact to placate his elder colleague.

But for all that, the opera was completed by the end of 1876 (when Verdi was seventy three years old), and the opening performance was a triumph. Perhaps it was the case that, given Verdi’s public stature, whatever he composed would have been enthusiastically received, but the very obvious qualities of this work left no room for doubt: it was clearly a masterpiece. However, its relationship with Shakespeare’s play remains problematic to this day. For many, Verdi and Boito had simply translated the play into an operatic form. I can’t say I agree. The two works are very different, as indeed, they must be: a play and an opera are very different forms, and what is suitable for one is not necessarily suitable for the other. And in any case, it seems to me that Verdi’s and Boito’s conception of the drama was very different in nature from Shakespeare’s. Indeed, Verdi and Boito did with Shakespeare’s material what Shakespeare himself had done with Cinthio’s: they took what they needed from their source to create something that was new, that was their own. The opera is no mere translation.

The very opening of the opera places us in a world somewhat different from that of Shakespeare’s play: we find ourselves immediately in the midst of a storm. Shakespeare’s Othello featured a storm also at this point of the story – although Shakespeare’ storm appears at the start of Act 2, rather than at the opening of the work: Boito and Verdi had dispensed with Shakespeare’s first act, although certain materials from that act are found scattered throughout the opera. But Shakespeare’s storm does not have the sheer violence and elemental quality of the musical storm Verdi unleashes: we seem to be back in the Dies Irae of his Requiem Mass. The orchestra seethes and churns, lashes and pounds us with the most brutal and terrifying power, and the chorus seems suitably struck with awe.

This storm scene sets the emotional temperature of the work. An apocryphal story tells of film producer Sam Goldwyn asking for a film that starts with an earthquake and then builds up to a climax, but this is effectively what Verdi gives us: it starts with a storm of preternatural power and intensity, and builds from there. The passions unleashed in this work are so terrifying, so violent, that there are times it seems as if the music will not be able to contain them: they erupt with volcanic power, and sweep all before them.

Otello emerges from this maelstrom of warring elements with the most heroic and commanding of musical lines. This is a man in control even of the elements. But by the time this act finishes, we begin to see cracks. Some half way through this act, Otello emerges to break up a drunken brawl that has broken out: the principal offender is Cassio, whom Iago (Jago in the opera) had deliberately plied with alcohol. This scene occurs in Shakespeare’s play as well. In the play, Othello, purely on the basis of the gravity of Cassio’s transgression, demotes him. And it is only after this demotion that  Desdemona appears, also disturbed from her slumbers by the brawl. But Boito & Verdi shift the order of events to cast the incident in a somewhat different light: Desdemona appears before the demotion, and Otello, seeing her disturbed by the clamour, is furious on her behalf; and he demotes Cassio on the spot. It is a decision arrived at not by weighing up dispassionately the rights and wrongs of the situation, but made on the spur of the moment – an angry reaction to witnessing the disturbance caused to Desdemona. This is not the Otello we had seen emerging so confidently from the tempest: this Otello may be in perfect control while leading men into battle, even when battling storms at sea, but in his personal life, he appears dangerously volatile and unstable.

The first act ends with a long love duet between Otello and Desdemona – amongst the most beautiful music Verdi has written. Boito had initially wanted this to be a trio: he had wanted Jago observing Otello and Desdemona – the serpent in the garden – and commenting upon them. But Verdi had overruled that. However, all is not well even in this Eden: towards the end of the duet, Otello, once again, loses control over himself:

Ah! La gioia msi fieramente’innonda
Che ansante mi giacio…

(Ah! Joy floods my breast so piercingly
That I must lay me down and pant for breath…
     – Translation by Avril Bardoni)

And later, in Act Two, before Jago has begun to apply his poison, we witness once again in Otello a volatility, a dangerous lack of control. At this point of the drama, in Shakespeare, Othello is given these lines:

For she had eyes, and chose me. No, Iago,
I’ll see before I doubt; when I doubt, prove;
And on the proof, there is no more but this,–
Away at once with love or jealousy!

This is a man confident in himself, and in control. But in Boito’s libretto, that confident assertion (“For she had eyes, and chose me”) is removed; and, while the rest is close enough to Shakespeare’s original, Verdi gives it a musical line bespeaking a passion that, one might have thought, is unwarranted given the immediate dramatic situation: it more than hints at the horrors to come. This Otello is already on edge, and is in danger of tipping over even without Jago’s push. And by no stretch of the imagination is this Shakespeare’s Othello.

Jago, too, is different from Iago. The most striking departure comes in a monologue given to Jago at the start of the second act, the “Credo”:

Credo in un Dio crudel
Che m’ha creato simile a sè,
e che nell’ira io nomo

(I believe in a cruel God
who created me in his image
and whom in fury I name
–         translated by Avril Bardoni)

This passage has been much discussed, and much debated. There is no equivalent passage in Shakespeare’s play; and, more than that, Shakespeare’s Iago never came close to thinking along such lines. The Iago of Shakespeare’s play has very limited horizons: he never bothers himself with metaphysical matters. But this Jago is very different. His evil has a very definite source: he is convinced that humanity, by its very nature, is evil, and those who think or act otherwise are merely fooling themselves, merely living a lie; and that he, Jago, by accepting this terrible truth and living according to it, is, ironically, being honest. He was created in vileness, with vileness, and within himself he feels “il fango originario” (“the primeval slime”). The image of the slime may have been suggested by the line Shakespeare gives Othello towards the end of the play, where he describes Iago as one who “hates the slime that sticks on filthy deeds”, but the Jago that emerges from this monologue is far from anything that can be found in Shakespeare: he seems less a real, living figure, and more an incarnation of the very principle of Evil itself.

For a long time, I used to be uneasy with this passage for being so un-Shakespearean, but I don’t think I realised that, for all their reverence of Shakespeare, Verdi and Boito had no intention of slavishly copying their idol: the drama they had set out to create was different in nature. And in the music Verdi gives to this section, he rises to the challenge of depicting pure, unadulterated evil: not since Pizarro’s aria in the first act of Beethoven’s Fidelio has evil been depicted in opera with such terrifying immediacy.

Inevitably, the characters lack some of the intricacy and subtlety that Shakespeare brought to them, but to look for such qualities is, I think, to misunderstand the artistic aim of Verdi and of Boito: in an opera one cannot, in general, apply such fine brush-strokes as one can in a play, but what one can do is to intensify the sheer weight and intensity of the passion. And this is what Verdi does. In scene after unremitting scene, Verdi presents in the music the very extremes of mental agony and of suffering.

Only before the final catastrophe does Verdi offer us some respite, with the beautiful solo Desdemona has with the Willow Song, and her prayer. But even such ethereal beauty, we are all too well aware, is in the shadow of death. The ending, both in play and in opera, seems inevitable. And when it comes, we feel emotionally drained.

Verdi may have wanted to rest on his well-earned laurels after creating this masterpiece: he was, after all, approaching 80. But Boito had other ideas. Verdi had never, after all, succeeded in comedy, had he? His very first opera, Un Giorno di Regno, was a comic opera, but it had flopped and was now virtually forgotten. So how about another Shakespearean opera – this time, a comic one, based on The Merry Wives of Windsor? Boito produced a sparkling libretto, incorporating some passages from the Henry IV plays. And once again, Verdi couldn’t resist. So, aged nearly 80, we went on to produce perhaps his most miraculous score, Falstaff. But that, as they say, is another story.

“The Man on the Bridge” by Stephen Benatar

Around November last year, I was in a Waterstones bookshop near Holborn, on my way to the London rooms of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society for a good boozing session. In the bookshop, I was approached by a very courteous and affable gentleman who introduced himself as Stephen Benatar, and asked me if I’d be interested in reading one of his novels. I ended up having a chat with him. Eventually, I decided to buy one of his novels, and, not being able to decide which one to go for, I asked him to choose for me, and he chose his first – published back in 1981 –  The Man on the Bridge.

I have Googled him, and found that, as a novelist, he is very well regarded by the few who know him, but that, not having had the luck to draw winning tickets in the lottery that is the publishing industry, he takes somewhat unusual steps to publicise his work. It appears also that he has set up a small publishing house specifically for the purpose of keeping his works in print; and it is good to report that since my meeting Mr Benatar that November evening, one of his novels, Wish Her Safe At Home, has been reprinted by the prestigious NYRB Classics.

After handing the book to me, Mr Benatar stepped away so as not to pressurize me into buying. But all the same, I must confess that I felt somewhat uneasy. On the one hand, I had no doubts that the publishing industry is not so structured that the cream always rises to the top: much that has risen to the top strikes me as meretricious, and I have no doubt that there is much of value that passes by barely noticed. But on the other hand, my to-be-read list was already so infeasibly large, that a book I have never heard of by an author I had similarly never heard of seemed an unlikely candidate for an addition. However, the passages I sampled at random seemed intriguing, and, since I was running a bit late for my appointment at the Whisky Society, I decided quite quickly to try out one of his books. So The Man on the Bridge it was. I didn’t read the novel immediately: I had a few other things lined up first. But recently, some five or so months since that November night, I gave it a try; and I am glad that I did. 

It would be rather lazy to describe The Man on the Bridge as a gay novel. Certainly, at the centre of it is a gay relationship, but the novel is not specifically about being gay as such: it is about people who happen to be gay. Its themes are love, betrayal, disillusion, loss, grief, redemption, and so on – in other words, themes that have been around for as long as the novel has been around, or, indeed, as long as humanity has been around. Some would say that all this is old hat – that these themes have all been dealt with before. I wouldn’t go along with that. Yes, these themes have been dealt with before, but each time they manifest themselves, they do so in a different way; and this is because everyone experiences these things differently: no two human beings are identical. When so many novelists of today are addressing the big issues of our times (not necessarily because they have anything of importance to say about these issues, but simply because they are of our times); or are writing self-referential “texts” exploring the unreliability of “texts”, or whatever; it is refreshing to find a work – and so intelligent and so sensitive a work at that – focussing on what, I’d guess, will continue to be the perennial theme in literature: the endless intricacies of humans, and of how they relate to each other. I doubt these intricacies will ever become old hat.

The story is told in the first person, and I think it’s generally a good rule to treat all first person narratives as essentially unreliable. As we read the opening chapters, we don’t need to read too closely between the lines to see how limited the narrator’s viewpoint is. His name is John Wilmot; he is a young man – still a teenager – in London in the late 1950s, and, like many a protagonist of 19th century French novels (Eugène Rastignac, Julien Sorel, Frédéric Moreau, even D’Artagnan), he is a provincial who has come to the capital determined to become a social success. He is good-looking and, like most good-looking people, he knows it. He is picked up by middle-aged, successful artist Oliver Cambourne, and, despite imagining that he is not himself homosexual (the word “gay” is never used in this novel, presumably because it did not have in the 50s the meaning it has now), he appears happy to go along with this, as being Oliver’s lover opens for him doors to a world that he longs to enter. Remarkably, despite the rather obvious fact that it is Oliver who is picking him up, he presents it as if it were he, and not Oliver, who was the principal actor in this episode.

The developing relationship between John and Oliver is depicted with the surest and subtlest of brush-strokes. It soon becomes obvious (although the narrator does not appear to see this) that Oliver is besotted with him. I did wonder at times what precisely Oliver saw in John, but one should not underestimate the power of physical beauty. However, Oliver’s passion is not quite reciprocated: John is, admittedly, also besotted, but only with himself.

The writing is very subtle indeed. For instance, although Oliver is a successful artist, at no time during this part of the novel does John mention Oliver’s paintings. So we have no idea what sort of artist Oliver is – whether he is a talented artist, maybe even a genius; or whether he is merely a purveyor of knick-knacks for the rich. We are not told this because John himself is not interested in what Oliver does: his primary interest – indeed, his sole interest – is himself. Naturally, despite his lack of interest in Oliver’s work, he expects Oliver to take an interest in his novel. (For, of course, he is writing a novel: a novel is “self-expression”, after all, and how can so wonderful a self as his own not be worth expressing?) Now, it is obvious that John is not capable of writing a good novel, since he lacks that most essential quality that any novelist should have – the ability to empathise with others, to see the world through others’ eyes. John seems to take it for granted that his first novel – he has no doubt that this first will be followed by others – is a masterpiece, and the scene where Oliver tries to be polite about it so as not to hurt his feelings is hilarious. Needless to say, John’s reaction even to polite criticism is to go into a huff.

Such a relationship is bound to end in tears, and it is no surprise when it does. But it would be unfair of me to go into the details of the plot, as it takes certain turns and twists that are intended to take the first-time reader by surprise. But nothing in the plot is forced: although certain incidents may surprise us, these incidents are, in retrospect, entirely logical outcomes of what has gone before, and entirely consistent with the characters as presented. John, of course, develops through experience, and here we see the benefits of the first person narration: although we are invited to read between the lines in John’s narration, the direction in which John’s perceptions and consciousness develop come as much a surprise to us as they do to John himself. This probably wouldn’t have been possible with omniscient third person narration.

The organisation of the novel is superb. Elements that had seemed merely incidental detail in the early parts of the novel reveal their true significance much later: the novel is very economically structured, and nothing seems wasted. The incidental characters come vividly to life – especially the eccentric writer Marnie Stark, who appears very tellingly in two important scenes; and the pacing of the whole thing is masterly. In short, given how very assured the writing is, it’s hard to believe that this is Benatar’s debut novel: throughout, he seems to have a firm grip on technique, and makes difficult things seem easy.

The only aspect I had some doubts about was the religious dimension. Once again, Benatar is careful to lay the foundations of this unobtrusively in the early chapters of the novel, but for all that, this was perhaps the one aspect of the work that left me less than convinced. In our secular and disbelieving age, it’s difficult to represent religious experience without appearing mawkish: the usual method is to have the story narrated by a non-believer who witnesses the power of faith, and who is left struggling with his or her disbelief. This is what happens in, say, Brideshead Revisited or in The End of the Affair. And this is also, more or less, what happens here. But here, the workings of religious faith aren’t really witnessed at first hand; and the religious vision, related at second hand, seems to me less than convincing. However, I do appreciate that this is very difficult to bring off, and one shouldn’t, perhaps, expect too much in a first novel.

But despite this criticism, I found myself very involved in what I read, and, at certain moments, emotionally gripped – far more so than in many a novel I have read by  heavyweights of contemporary literature. Benatar writes very clearly and lucidly: there is no linguistic flamboyance, no verbal firework: but the very precision of his prose I found expressive, and, indeed, affecting. I like the fact also that he writes about those age-old themes that will always, I think, be of importance to us: amongst other things, The Man on the Bridge reminds us that there’s life yet in the traditional novel.

I certainly want to read more of Benatar’s works: the one recently reprinted by NYRB Classics – Wish Her Safe at Home – seems particularly highly regarded, and I think is likely to be another addition to my to-be-read list. Indeed, if I had known that November night how accomplished a writer Stephen Benatar was, I’d have invited him to join me for a few drams at the Malt Whisky Society! (Whether he’d have accepted is, of course, another matter…)