Archive for January, 2011

“Everyone’s a critic now…”

There’s an interesting article here by Neal Gabler on, amongst other things, the authority of the critic, and of the shifting battle-lines between high culture and popular culture. There are far too many points there to be addressed in a single post of reasonable length, but two in particular seem to me to be worthy of comment. 

The first one is that due to the democratic nature of the internet, everyone’s opinion can now become equally valid, or, at least, equally prominent; and that, as a consequence, the opinion of the professional critic now carries less weight. 

If such is indeed the case, then, it seems to me, professional critics must carry at least some of the responsibility. For if criticism is to be worth anything at all, it must be more than mere opinion. The critic must present an argument. They must be able to argue, coherently and articulately, on the basis of the content of whatever it is they are criticising. Most criticisms I read by professional critics, whether of books or of films or of theatrical productions or of anything else, are innocent of argument: unargued statements of opinion are usually all they have to offer. (Those who have ever watched The Late Review – or The Review Show, or whatever name it goes under now – on Friday nights on BBC will know what I mean.) This being the case, there is no reason why the amateur opinion should be any less valid than the professional. The dividing line between what should carry weight and what shouldn’t is not the line between professional and amateur: the line is, rather, dependent upon whether or not what is passed off as criticism is well argued, or, indeed, argued at all. In most cases, professional and amateur, it isn’t. 

The second point from Mr Gabler’s article that strikes me as worthy of comment is this:

One might imagine there would be an enormous diversity among critics, tough-minded souls each expressing his or her own unique sensibility. And, as mentioned, there once was. But among American critics in the traditional media today, there is surprisingly little diversity. The “best” film lists or “best” television lists or “best” album lists or “best” book lists usually have the same titles, regardless of critic or publication. In short, critics continue to attempt to assert their control, only they do so by uniformity, coincidental or not.

There is, indeed, a wide consensus of what constitutes the best in any form; but that does not, it seems to me, indicate so much an attempt amongst critics to “assert control”, but rather that, contrary to fashionable and now seemingly unquestioned ideas regarding cultural relativity, objective standards of aesthetic merit do exist. That people of intelligence, taste and discernment have applauded and continue to applaud much the same works across generations, and often across centuries and across cultures, can but indicate that there exist objective standards of beauty that are not merely dependent upon the eye of the beholder. There are two alternatives to this: first, that those who claim to like that which is almost universally acclaimed are merely pretending to do so in response to social pressures; or second, as Mr Gabler asserts above without evidence, the consensus is a consequence of a vast conspiracy to assert or maintain control or power. The first option seems to me remarkably insulting, and the second remarkably paranoid; both are vague and ill-focussed. Neither option, it seems to me, is worth taking at all seriously.

Palindromes

Everyone has their favourites, of course. My favourites are:

Tulsa night life: filth, gin, a slut

And, simply because it makes no sense at all:

Satan, oscillate my metallic sonatas

I have been told that there is a book full of palindromes entitled I Love Me, Vol I.

And I thought that was the first instalment of Stephen Fry’s memoirs…

The mysterious appeal of Holmes & Watson

Even to a fellow aficionado of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s work, it is difficult to explain the attraction of the Sherlock Holmes stories. To others, it is virtually impossible. Just what is the attraction? It’s clearly not the plotting: if it were, there is no reason why readers should return to these stores repeatedly, even when they know what happens next. And neither do these stories explore the intricacies of human relationships, or profundities of human existence. The characters are certainly memorable, but why? They have neither the complexity of the creations of Tolstoy, nor the archetypal resonances of a Don Quixote or a Sancho Panza. They are clearly not real characters; and yet, Abbey National, the building society whose offices used to be located on the very spot where Doyle’s Holmes and Watson were supposed to have lived, received every year hundreds of letters addressed to Holmes. Some of the correspondents even appeared to believe that Holmes and Watson were not only real, but were alive. Indeed, such was the quantity of mail received by Abbey National; Sherlock Holmes may well be the only fictional character to have had his own private secretary.

It defies analysis. So it is best, perhaps, not even to attempt to analyse. So let us transport ourselves back to Victorian London, with its hansom cabs and its dark, gas lit streets and its swirling fogs. This is not, of course, the London that any modern resident of that city will recognize, but since myth is more potent than reality, let us stick with it.

It is early morning in mid-winter. Watson, still in bed, is woken by Holmes. “Come Watson,” he says in urgent tones, “the game’s afoot”. It would take a reader of uncompromisingly austere tastes to resist reading on.

Holmes and Watson made their first appearance in the novel A Study in Scarlet, published in 1887. Neither character was properly developed. Holmes, especially, is given certain characteristics that Doyle, in his later stories, had to alter. He is made out to be an eccentric who keeps in his mind only that which is of use to him in his vocation: anything else – even the rudimentary knowledge that the earth revolves around the sun – he neither knows, nor cares to know. This is a far cry from the Holmes who appears in later stories who can quote from the Persian poet Hafiz off the top of his head; who takes Watson to a violin recital given by Sarasate; and who has written a monograph on the motets of the composer Lassus.

But the principal characteristics are established. We already have, for instance, the machine-like logic of the mind, which allows Holmes to make the most extraordinary deductions from detailed observations. When Holmes first sets eyes on Watson, for instance, he knows immediately that he had served in Afghanistan. Later, Holmes explains how he had deduced this. Watson is impressed, but remains sceptical. But then, he witnesses Holmes apply his methods to a particularly intriguing murder case.

To be frank, Holmes’ deductions are not always so logical, nor always so brilliant. In “The Blue Carbuncle”, Holmes makes a number of deductions by observing a hat – most of them brilliant, but also the very dodgy one that, since the hat is large, the owner must have a big brain, and hence, must be intelligent. Hmmm. There are other deductions scattered through the stories that are, perhaps, less than watertight. But it doesn’t really matter: these stories were, after all, written as entertainments, and not as demonstrations of scientific theory. Each unfolds a drama of some type. Often, as in A Study in Scarlet, the murder is a consequence of a character’s past misdeeds catching up on them. And sometimes, the perpetrator can even appear a sympathetic figure. At other times, as in the second novel – The Sign of Four – it is an innocent who is caught up in the consequences of past misdeeds.

The Sign of Four is the second Sherlock Holmes novel, and is generally agreed to be an improvement on the first. It is influenced greatly by Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone: here, too, we follow through the foggy London streets a trail of treasure looted from India, and involving greed and murder. All fine stuff, but I think most aficionados will claim that it is in the short stories that we see the best of Holmes and Watson. The first short story appeared in the Strand Magazine, in June 1891: “A Scandal in Bohemia”. Over the next months, eleven more short stories were published: these were then published together as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – possibly the most significant publication in the entire history of the detective fiction genre.

And what stories they are! The very first story actually tells of a failure on Holmes’ part: he is charged by the King of Bohemia, no less, to recover incriminating pictures from a former lover of his – Irene Adler. And although Holmes does everything correctly, she outwits him. But in the process, Holmes falls in love. Not that he would admit this to anyone, not even to Watson, but, as that famous opening line tells us, for Sherlock Holmes, Irene Adler was always the woman.

The other stories in the collection are a varied lot in terms of mood and content. “The Red-Headed League” is comic and grotesque, and Holmes’ client is a somewhat down-market and seedy pawnbroker; while the extremely sinister “The Five Orange Pips” features a young landowner, who is convinced that both his uncle and his father had been murdered by some secret organization, and that his own life is now similarly threatened. The clients range from the rather pathetic lower-middle class typist in “A Case of Identity” to the pompous and stuffy – and, perhaps, equally pathetic – aristocrat in “The Noble Bachelor”. Holmes pops up unexpectedly in an opium den in “The Man With the Twisted Lip” (he is following up a case, and is posing here as an opium addict); and “The Blue Carbuncle” is a Christmas story: a precious, stolen jewel pops up in the neck of a Christmas goose, and Holmes has to find out how it got there. In “The Speckled Band”, Holmes solves, in extremely spectacular fashion, a particularly nasty murder committed in a locked room; and the last story in the collection, “The Copper Beeches”, takes us into Jane Eyre territory, as a young governess finds herself in a mysterious mansion with a shuttered tower into which she is forbidden to set foot. God only knows how frequently I have read these stories since I first encountered them some forty or so years ago. And I read them still, and I wish I knew why.

And there was one very significant contribution to the Adventures: these stories were illustrated in the Strand magazine by a Sidney Paget. In “The Boscombe Valley Mystery”, Doyle described Holmes as wearing a long coat, and a flat cloth cap. Paget drew the long coat, but instead of the cloth cap, he drew a deerstalker hat. Paget later drew Holmes wearing different hats, but the deerstalker – which Doyle had nothing to do with – stuck; and so did the curly pipe. When we try to picture Holmes, it is Sidney Paget’s visualization that comes most readily to mind.

The next year, twelve more stories appeared, of which eleven were printed in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes: the twelfth, which Doyle appeared to have some doubts about, was “The Cardboard Box”, and was published in book form only years later. In this story, a retiring landlady receives a parcel containing two severed human ears. Holmes then unravels a very dark story of lust, betrayal, adultery and murder, and, having done so, muses on what the point can be of so grotesque a sequence of events. It’s one of the best of the Sherlock Holmes stories, but perhaps Doyle had felt at the time that the tone had become a bit too serious.

The other stories in the collection are a sheer delight. Among the more memorable ones is “Silver Blaze”, where Holmes investigates the theft of a racehorse, and the killing of its trainer. It is this story that features the superb exchange with the local police inspector, whom Holmes alerts to the “curious incident of the dog in the night-time”. And when the inspector protests that the dog did nothing in the night-time, Holmes responds: “that was the curious incident.”

There’s also “The Musgrave Ritual”, where Holmes tells Watson of a case he had solved in his younger days; and there’s “The Naval Treaty”, where Holmes recovers a stolen secret document upon which the very security of the country depends. But the greatest surprise came in “The Final Problem”: at the end of this story, Holmes, in deadly struggle with his enemy Professor Moriarty over the Reichenbach Falls, is killed. The public was shocked and outraged. How could Doyle bring himself to do this?

But Holmes was dead, and for some nine years, remained that way. Then, in 1902, Doyle partly appeased his disappointed fans with the novel The Hound of the Baskervilles. This is, perhaps, the most famous of the Holmes & Watson stories, though not among the most characteristic. Holmes himself is absent for much of the time, and when he does appear, he doesn’t seem to have much to do. The atmosphere of the Devon moors is thrilling, and the hound itself is a terrific creation; but the plot is a bit on the thin side and the villain distinctly unmemorable. Indeed, I get the distinct impression, blasphemous though it may be even to think so, that this novel would have been better without Holmes. The splendid image of the ghostly hound terrorizing the bleak moors called for a supernatural story, but Holmes and the supernatural didn’t really mix, and the rational explanation provided at the end seems not merely too prosaic given the Legend of the Hound, but also, to modern readers, unfortunately reminiscent of the endings of Scooby Doo cartoons. Nonetheless, the novel remains, rightly, a legend, and a new Holmes story was more than welcome after the shock of “The Final Problem”.

But there was an even greater delight awaiting Holmesians the following year: in October of 1903, the Strand magazine published “The Empty House”, which ingeniously explains how Holmes had actually escaped death at the hands of Moriarty, but had been in hiding to wipe out the remnants of Moriarty’s gang. But now Holmes was back in 221B Baker Street; Watson, his marriage now conveniently forgotten (although it is more than hinted that he has become a widower), was back at his friend’s side. God was in His Heaven, and all was well with the world. Except for the bits that weren’t, of course, but Holmes was, at long last, at hand to investigate.

In the stories that followed – collected in The Return of Sherlock Holmes – Doyle appeared to have lost none of his touch. Once again, the cases and the characters range far and wide. There are such intriguing cases as “The Six Napoleons”, where some maniac appears to be breaking into houses merely to smash busts of Napoleon; there’s “Black Peter”, in which a tyrannical retired sea captain is found harpooned to his own wall; there’s “The Golden Pince-Nez”, involving betrayal amongst Russian revolutionaries; “The Priory School”, which finds Holmes in the North of England investigating the kidnapping of an aristocratic child from a school, and the murder of one of the masters; and so on. At long last, here was vintage Holmes & Watson stuff, and it was almost as if they’d never been away.

The stories still continued to appear, but not so thick and fast. In 1917, Doyle published in book form His Last Bow, containing seven stories that had appeared at irregular intervals over the last eight or so years, as well as the earlier masterpiece “The Cardboard Box”. Other stories in this collection include “Wisteria Lodge”, about the attempted killing of a former Latin American dictator, now living in the English countryside off the proceeds of his terrible crimes; and “The Bruce-Partington Plans” – one of the very best of the Holmes & Watson stories, where the body of a junior official of a government department is found next to an underground train line, with a brief-case containing top secret government papers.

And in the 1920s, there appeared twelve more stories, collected together in a collection published in 1927 entitled The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes. In the midst of this, in 1916, there appeared the final novel, The Valley of Fear: this was an ingenious story with an unexpected denouement, but, as with A Study in Scarlet , Holmes and Watson appears only in the first part: the second part is given over to an account of the events leading up to the murder. This second part seems to me remarkably successful, and is, in many ways, an early forerunner of the more hard-boiled detective stories written later by the likes of Chandler and Hammett. The Valley of Fear may well be a novel of two halves that don’t quite fit, but each half is so exquisite in itself, that it’s tempting to see this a sthe finest of thefour Holmes & Watson novels.

The series came to a stop with The Case-Book , and perhaps that was for the best: Doyle seemed to be getting bored with it all by this stage. There are still a few good stories in the final collection: “Thor Bridge” is among the best, and “The Retired Colourman” or the rather gruesome “Shoscombe Old Place” are fine works. But most of the rest was, it must be admitted, inferior stuff.

Perhaps it’s best not to dwell on the later failures: there is enough among the many successes to keep fans engrossed for an entire lifetime. No other fictional detective has become such a legend, and has commanded so devoted or diverse a following. So this brings us back to the original question: just what is it about these stories that generate such veneration? Sure, there is a wide range of stories and of characters; the ease of the storytelling is frequently an object lesson in the art; there is that atmosphere of Victorian Britain, with its swirling fogs and its gas lit streets – elements that always seem to enhance any detective story. And, as well as the stories we have, there are various ones just mentioned in passing, merely hinted at: there’s the case that Holmes apparently solved by measuring the depth to which the parsley had sunk into the butter on a hot summer’s day; or the is the case of the Giant Rat of Sumatra – a story, Watson informs us, for which “the world is not yet prepared”; or, perhaps most tantalizing of all, the tale of the politician, the lighthouse, and the trained cormorant.

And there are the characters of Holmes and Watson which, though clearly artificial, seem more vivid and more real than many real people.

Holmes’ range of tastes and interests is wide, and often takes one by surprise. He has written a monograph on identification of types of cigars and tobacco from examination of the ashes; and as noted before, another on the motets of Lassus, which, Watson informs us, is the last word on the matter. He is a first-rate swordsman and pugilist, and a master of disguise who can convincingly melt unobtrusively into any social background. He treats each problem on its own merits, without any prejudice: you never hear him speak of such matters as “the criminal gene”, even though such pseudo-science was very popular at the time; he is careless of social distinctions, never standing in awe of – and, indeed, sometimes taking sides against – the aristocrat; and he appears to have about him little of the xenophobia which allowed Victorian gentlemen to consider themselves superior to a mere foreigner.

Watson, as Orwell once observed, is possibly the subtler piece of characterization. He is certainly no fool, despite certain cinematic depictions: Holmes trusts him, and takes him along on dangerous or on sensitive cases. Watson is the soul of discretion – always knowing better than to ask Holmes anything that his friend does not feel ready to reveal. There is also a general sense of decency about Watson: he recognizes the importance of utter detachment when working on a case, but his heart is always in the right place. One thinks, in particular, of the ending to “The Yellow Face” : this is a case where Holmes is wrong, and the denouement, far from being sinister, is unexpectedly touching. And Holmes’ client resolves matters by behaving in a morally admirable and kind-hearted manner. Watson, describing this, tells us simply that it is something that he still likes to think about. It is a fine complement to Holmes’ agonized questionings at the end of “The Cardboard Box” on the meaning of all this endless wickedness and misery.

Perhaps one of the greatest attractions of these stories is its believable and unsentimental depiction of a not entirely untroubled, yet nonetheless deep, friendship. Holmes is one who feels that the world can be viewed and interpreted in strictly logical and empirical terms, although, perhaps he is not quite the completely detached thinking machine he likes to imagine himself; Watson, while acknowledging in theory the accuracy of the principle that once the impossible is eliminated, whatever remains, however improbable must be the truth, is nonetheless prepared to acknowledge those aspects of humanity that don’t conform to such clockwork precision. While Holmes, towards the end of “The Cardboard Box”, confesses himself puzzled by destructive human passions, Watson, at the end of “The Yellow Face”, is happy simply to observe what he can of human goodness and decency. Somehow, these two very different characters complement each other perfectly.

But we are not, admittedly, on any such quest here as seeking the meaning of life; many writers have done that sort of thing, but there isn’t anyone else who has created so evergreen a source of delight as the Holmes and Watson stories. So let us leave behind for the moment more the moment the metaphysical and psychological probings of a Dostoyevsky, the sober contemplation of life of a Flaubert, the epic panoramic vision of a Tolstoy or the existentialist nightmares of a Kafka, and return to Holmes awakening Watson on a cold, winter’s dawn with the words “Come Watson – the game’s afoot”. The story is “The Abbey Grange“, and may be found in the collection The Return of Sherlock Holmes. I’m off now to read it again.

The sternness of Swift and the swiftness of Sterne

It was Joyce who suggested that Swift and Sterne should have exchanged names. Certainly, it’s difficult to imagine two authors more different in temperament and in outlook, and reading Gulliver’s Travels and Tristram Shandy back to back – as I did not so long ago – is quite an eye-opening experience.

Gulliver’s Travels is a most troublesome work. It is very funny, certainly, but it cannot be taken at face value: were one to do so, the book would be insupportable. In that final part especially, the earth really does open at our feet. If we are to take Gulliver’s voice as the authorial voice, then this final part would emerge as nothing less than an incitement to genocide.

The problem is that there are so many different levels of irony, we never know where exactly the author stands. This book is often regarded, quite absurdly, as a children’s book; it clearly isn’t, but neither is it adequate to class this merely as “satire”. Of course, there are elements of children’s fantasy; and one cannot deny that it is, indeed, satirical. But more than either, it is a most sobering and disquieting examination of the human condition.

I think it safe to say that Gulliver becomes mad by the end, but what is more problematic is the extent to which Swift shared Gulliver’s madness. What is unmistakable is the sheer blind rage in the writing: even granted that the rage is in Gulliver’s voice, and not necessarily Swift’s, it is hard to imagine anyone writing something so powerful without sharing, at least up to a point, his character’s perspective. We often praise a work for the author’s humanity, but there’s little humanity here: here, human beings are mere yahoos, fit only for extermination. I have read nothing that so powerfully and unremittingly conveys so intense a sense of disgust: it’s a bit too much to take at times.

Of course, there are many levels of irony. In the last part, it’s the Houyhnhnmns (horses) who are civilised and endowed with reason, while humans (yahoos) are debased and bestial. Gulliver soon comes to love this hippocracy, and is heartbroken at having to return to the land where mere humans, yahoos, held the reins of power. And when he does return, he feels so strong a sense of disgust at the very thought of humanity, that he recoils at the very idea of putting on a shirt that had been worn by another human (yahoo). Yet, he is at the same time wearing clothes made of yahoo-skin (human skin). The stench of burning flesh and the spectre of extermination camps never seem far away here. Indeed, this is the one point upon which the Houyhnhnmns, for all their reason, seem undecided: should the yahoos be exterminated?.

Gulliver (though not necessarily Swift) views Houyhnhnmns as perfect beings. All their thoughts and actions are governed by “reason”. And yet, perhaps inevitably given this, they show no particular affection for their offspring; and neither does death or bereavement occasion anxiety or grief. Is this what it means to be perfect? And, since they are all governed by the same “reason”, there is never any dissent, never any disagreement or controversy (except for the vexed question of whether yahoos should be exterminated). This is surely the most advanced form of totalitarianism: everyone polices their own thought to such an extent, that a thought police isn’t even required to enforce conformity. Yet the only alternative Swift gives us to this is the vile bestiality of the yahoos. And all this is couched in terms of the most violent rage and fury. Could it be that Swift gives us an overplus of disgust in order to, as it were, inoculate us? – to show where disgust with fellow human beings inevitably leads us? Or did Swift share in this disgust himself? The trouble is, I don’t think that the two are mutually exclusive.

In the midst of all this, it might seem a bit perverse to mention Swift’s humour. But one must – for Gulliver’s Travels is frequently laugh-out-loud funny. And this in itself adds to the disquiet, for even as we are laughing, we ask ourselves how we could possibly be laughing at this. Of course, it may be said that the entire book isn’t dark – that it becomes progressively darker, until, by the last of its four sections, it’s almost unbearable. But there are elements of this darkness even near the beginning. For instance, when Gulliver first discerns Lilliputians walking over him, he feels a curious urge to pick up as many of them as he could and dash them to the ground. He controls himself at this point, but even here, there are elements of him that are at best questionable. Nonetheless, one cannot but laugh at the passage where Gulliver in Laputa sees scientists engaged upon extracting sunbeams from cucumbers, and putting these beams into hermetically sealed jars to be released on sunless days. Immediately afterwards, Swift tells us of scientists who analyse human excrement to discover the thoughts of whoever had produced it. After all, it is well-known that at no time are humans more thoughtful than when expelling waste; and these scientists have discovered how to read the thoughts of people by chemically examining this waste. On the evidence provided by this analysis, people may be tried for treason, imprisoned, or even executed. Oh – if only Stalin had thought of that one!

Gulliver’s Travels is without doubt one of the most extraordinary books I have come across, but I did find it unnerving. After that, it was with some relief that I turned to the warmth and geniality of Tristram Shandy.

Tristram Shandy is known as a bag of tricks. Indeed it is, and a very funny one at that. It starts, famously, not with the birth of the hero, but with his conception. (At the moment of conception, his mother asks his father if he had remembered to wind up the clock, and, not surprisingly, this puts him right off!) The only real incident happens when the infant Tristram, pissing out of the window, is accidentally circumcised by a falling window-sash. There is a missing chapter, with the next chapter telling us why the last one had to be taken out, and relating what had been related in therein; there are blank pages so we may write in for ourselves a description of Widow Wadman (the reader is told that he may make it “as like your mistress and as unlike your wife as your conscience will permit”); there is a black page to mark the death of a character; there are chapters on noses, on buttonholes, on the significance of names; there are digressions within digressions within digressions – indeed, one of the digressions is actually on the subject of digressions; and so on. There are the silliest gags – made all the funnier by the very elaborate set-ups. And there are gags and double-entendres so smutty that even the Carry On team might have been embarrassed. All in all, it’s tremendous fun – still the greatest and the funniest and the most outrageous of all avant-garde novels. But it’s also more than that, I think.

It’s a very humane work. The characters may behave in an absurd manner, but, unlike Swift, Sterne likes people, and he allows us, the reader, also to like them. Uncle Toby and his manservant, Corporal Trim – two of the greatest comic creations – spend all their time recreating past battles in their back garden, and are yet the gentlest of people imaginable: Uncle Toby, quite literally, wouldn’t hurt a fly. And beneath all the clowning is an awareness of the passage of time, and of the transience of it all. In this sense, we may even think of this as a sort of forerunner of Waiting for Godot: there, too, we have the mad and frantic clowning against a backdrop where absolutely nothing happens – not even an occasional accidental circumcision. But instead of the bleakness of Beckett’s play, we have here a warmth and geniality. There is no cry of despair behind the humour, and a somewhat sad acceptance rather than despair at the sense of time passing. This sense of time passing is perhaps best exemplified in a marvellous passage where Sterne (as his alter-ego Tristram) muses that since it has taken him some five years to chronicle but two years of his life, he finds that the longer he writes and the further he gets into his narrative, the more there is for him to write, since the pace of the narrative can never catch up with the pace of life itself. In effect, his narrative is going backwards in time, and will never catch up with the time of writing. But before we are allowed to reflect on the sadness of this, Sterne is off again on one of his mad jokes: there is no time for reflection in what – as Sterne tells us at the very end – is the biggest cock and bull story ever devised.

This is one of those rare books that I felt rather sad at finishing, mainly because I enjoyed Sterne’s company so much. And I really did need this after Gulliver’s Travels, which, great book though it certainly is, isn’t one that I expect to be returning to shortly. I can understand, though, why Orwell chose it among the half dozen or so of books that meant most to him. On balance, though, it is Sterne rather than Swift I think I tend to turn to.

Bartleby the Scrivener, and Billy Budd, Sailor

Please note: The following contains “spoilers” for both “Bartleby the Scrivener” and Billy Budd, Sailor. But since the actual plotlines of these works seem to me among their less interesting aspects, knowing them beforehand is unlikely to detract from the experience of reading these works. 

Before tackling that monster Moby-Dick, I thought it best to ease myself into Melville’s fictional world with two shorter works – the short story “Bartleby the Scrivener”, written in the early 50s shortly after Moby-Dick; and Melville’s late novella, Billy Budd, Sailor, found amongst his papers in an incomplete state after his death in 1891. Both are works of a startling vision and originality, and, for all the solidity of the prose, seem more elusive the more deeply one peers into them.

The setting of “Bartleby the Scrivener” could not be further removed than the open seas of Moby-Dick: we are in Wall Street, then, as now, the financial centre of America. The narrator seems an affable and kindly gentleman – a lawyer, who deals in deeds, bonds, mortgages, and such-like. This fictional world seems bricked in by walls, and by the minutiae of documents and of articles. Into this world enters Bartleby, the scrivener, whose job it is to copy faithfully these documents which, to any but the most dedicated professional (and even, one suspects, to them) are dreary and dry-as-dust. Bartleby is quiet and undemonstrative, and does his copying diligently, but when he is asked, as is usual, to carry out tasks beyond mere copying, his answer, though quiet, is firm: “I would prefer not to.” And this simple little formula – “I would prefer not to” – seems to become a sort of motto for Bartleby; whatever is asked of him is met with this response – “I would prefer not to”.

As time passes, Bartleby refuses even to carry out his copying: his refusal, once again, is not demonstrative in any way, but it is firm for all its quietness – he would prefer not to. When even the narrator – a far more gentle employer than he might have been – dismisses Bartleby from his post, Bartleby refuses to leave the office: he would prefer not to. It becomes clear that he has made his office his home, sleeping there at nights, taking there his frugal meals, such as they are. The deadening world of brick walls and dead documents is also Bartleby’s world: it has ground him down, and he wants to take no further part in it: to every question, the answer remains the same – he would prefer not to.

Rather than evict Bartleby by force, the lawyer finally moves his office to different premises, but Bartleby remains fixed where he had been. Finally, the new occupiers do evict him by force, and Bartleby, in prison, effectively starves himself to death. Even his suicide – for such it undoubtedly is – is passive: he does not so much rush to his death, as allow death to come to him. He would prefer not even to live.

What are we to make of this peculiar story? As with the stories of Kafka, it invites interpretation, but as soon as one tries to interpret, one feels one is reducing the story. Is Bartleby merely suffering from what we would nowadays call “clinical depression”? Is there something more to his insistent rejection?

He certainly reminds one at times of Akaky Akakievich Basmatchkin, the downtrodden clerk in Gogol’s story “The Overcoat”, but perhaps a more interesting literary forebear is the legal copyist in Bleak House, which was published is serial form shortly before the writing of “Bartleby”. Dickens’ clerk, whose job, like Bartleby’s, was to copy out mind-numbingly dull legal documents, dies in great poverty and distress; and he had called himself “Nemo” – Nobody. A human being reduced to being Nobody, who takes leave of life without leaving behind even a trace of his existence … Could this, I wonder, have been the starting point for Melville’s imagination? Whether or not such is the case, the imagination that produced this remarkable story seems a long way off from that which conceived the infinitely vast fictional world of Moby-Dick.

With Billy Budd, Sailor, we are back at sea. This novella was found amongst Melville’s papers shortly after his death, still in, one suspects, an incomplete form, and wasn’t published till 1924, by which stage Ulysses, “The Waste Land”, and A la Recherche du Temps Perdu had already defined what we can now recognise as the high-water mark of modernism; and the posthumous publications of The Trial and The Castle were just round the corner. These were exciting times for literature, and I do not know how much of an impact was made by the publication of a newly discovered work of a writer associated with what must have seemed by then a long bygone age. And yet, Billy Budd, Sailor, seems as startling in its vision as those products of the heady days of modernism.

There is, once again, a precision, a solidity, to the prose, resonant as it is with Biblical phraseology and images; and yet, as with Kafka, the more solid the representation, the more elusive seems that which is represented. The action, which takes place on a British battleship at the time of the Napoleonic Wars, is very simple: Billy Budd, the innocent, is victimised by John Claggart, and when Billy unintentionally kills his tormentor, the ship’s captain, Captain Vere, insists that Billy be hanged, even though he knows Billy to be innocent. Once again, this story invites and at the same time rejects interpretation.

What is the cause of Claggart’s evil? Melville, who comments on the action throughout, suggests that Claggart had been born with it. Not for Melville the Wordsworthian view of humans born in innocence, and of Evil as a force that enters our being only as we become older:

…in [Claggart] was the mania of an evil nature, not engendered by vicious training or corrupting books or licentious living, but born with him and innate, in short “a depravity according to nature”.

Neither is Billy’s innocence entirely admirable: innocence is merely the absence of the awareness of evil, and in this world, such naiveté is not an admirable quality.

And yet a child’s utter innocence is but its blank ignorance, and innocence more or less wanes as intelligence waxes.

But not in Billy case. He has remained a child, but the innocence which characterises the child is not an admirable trait: it is a consequence merely of a lack of intelligence, and, in Billy’s case, intelligence has not waxed. His innocence is, indeed, a danger.

And it is Vere who has to bear the responsibility of it all. Vere sees himself almost as a father to Billy, but it is his sworn duty to maintain order on the ship. And, at a time like this, in the wake of naval mutinies and at war with a dangerous enemy, Vere feels he has no choice but to sacrifice Billy, whom he loves. Billy seems to accept his fate with equanimity: such innocence as his, indeed, such ignorance as his, has nothing to fear. But it is the more knowing Vere who has to take upon himself the burden of the tragedy. Shortly after Billy’s execution, Vere himself dies after being mortally wounded in a conflict: his last words are “Billy Budd”. The physical agony may have been Billy’s, but the mental agony is Vere’s.

The above is a gross simplification of a deeply complex story – a story complex not in its outline, but in its implications. It is not, it seems to me, about the problem of Evil: rather, it is about the problem of Innocence. That Melville sees Innocence as a problem is in itself startling, but the conclusion seems inescapable: Vere could have dealt with the Evil that was Claggart, but dealing with the Innocence that is Billy is another matter. If we are to live together in this world, and prevent it sinking into anarchy, Innocence itself is a danger, and must be suppressed. Such, it seems to me, is the deeply pessimistic final testament of Melville.

And yet, such an interpretation leaves open many questions. Why is Vere in such a haste to convene a drumhead court in which to condemn Billy? Why could he not have deferred the case to the higher authorities? Presumably, Vere does not wish to abjure the responsibility he has voluntarily undertaken, but the fact of Vere’s haste is one of the many knots in the wood that refuse to be planed away. And what is one to make of the miraculous absence in Billy, after the execution, of rigor mortis, or of the erection that accompanies a hanging? If this is to be regarded as Nature’s vindication of Billy’s innocence, should it also be regarded as Nature’s condemnation of Vere’s justice? I think, at this stage, we find ourselves in deeper waters than I, for one, am capable of navigating. Perhaps there are some questions which we are not intended to solve.

Billy Budd, Sailor seems to me one of the finest masterpieces of fiction. The simplicity of the story it presents on the surface is at odds with the dizzying depths that lie below.

Right, now I am ready – or as ready as ever I can be – for Moby-Dick.

Robert Browning on difficulty

“I can have little doubt that my writing has been in the main too hard for many I should have been pleased to communicate with; but I never designedly tried to puzzle people, as some of my critics have supposed. On the other hand, I never pretended to offer such literature as should be a substitute for a cigar or a game at dominoes to an idle man. So, perhaps, on the whole I get my deserts, and something over — not a crowd, but a few I value more.”

Indeed. And yet, books are regularly denigrated – both on the internet and elsewhere – for being too difficult, for being “hard going”, for not being a substitute for a cigar or a game of dominoes.

I can’t help thinking there are times when responses such as “It went over my head” or “I need to work harder at it” are actually indicative of intelligence, rather than otherwise.

A reflection on public music libraries

There is a fascinating interview here with pianist Paul Lewis.

Paul Lewis was, I gather from this interview, a teenager in Huyton, just outside Liverpool, in the mid-80s. At exactly the same time, I was working in Liverpool. It was my first job, and I was living in Rainhill, just a couple of train stops down from Huyton. Paul Lewis, it appears, grew up in a working-class environment in what was at the time (as I remember well) an industrial wasteland of deprivation and of high unemployment. Mr Lewis’ own father was among the many who were laid off. And, Mr Lewis tells us, it was the public music libraries that opened up to him the riches of that musical tradition that is all too often labelled as “classical” and then sidelined from the mainstream, usually with such insulting epithets as “stuffy” and “elitist”.

I too, I remember, discovered these riches thanks to the public music libraries. (I wonder if I ever ran into the teenage Mr Lewis as I was checking out records from the public music library in Liverpool.) Sadly, this is where my resemblance to Mr Lewis stops. But reading this article, I cannot help but reflect that a teenager nowadays would have very little opportunity to get to know these riches from the local public music libraries, since most local public music libraries no longer stock music of the classical traditions: this is presumably because it is far too elitist to make the best easily available to everyone. And that is as it should be, because, heaven forbid, we don’t want to be elitist, do we?