Archive for March, 2011

“The Prince and the Pauper” by Mark Twain

Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper is a wonderful children’s book, and I can’t imagine why I hadn’t read it as a child. I think most people know the rough outline of the story, although few, I think, have actually read it. It’s an archetypal role-reversal story, and has cropped up frequently in various forms: two people from sharply contrasting backgrounds change places, and, through the comic confusion, each brings elements of their familiar world into the new one. In this instance, Prince Edward VI exchanges identities with a pauper. The result is a fine story, full of adventure and humour; but it also contains more than a few hints, I think, of some of the more serious issues that find fuller expression in Huckleberry Finn and in Pudd’nhead Wilson.

Twain hated historical romances that glamorise the past. He states this quite clearly in Life on the Mississippi, where he was openly censorious of the concept of a glorious past that allows us to wallow in a fantasy, and which poisons the present. The Tudor England Twain presents is something of a hell-hole – rife with religious intolerance, superstition, the most soul-destroying poverty and the most barbaric cruelty. Early in the novel, he gives us an extremely colourful depiction of the bustle and the hubbub on London Bridge, but he ends this descriptive passage by reminding us of the severed heads impaled on spikes looking down on this delightful scene. (Later in the novel, back on London Bridge, one of these heads topples to the ground, and various people, much to their annoyance, stumble over it.) We are shown the horrors that were administered daily in courts as punishment, and the notes in my edition confirm that Twain wasn’t making these up: those found guilty of poisoning actually were boiled alive; there was a case in Huntingdon where a woman and her nine-year-old daughter were hanged for having sold their souls to the devil; and so on. We are taken into the hell-holes that were prisons, and even to a town square in which two women are burnt alive at the stake in full view of their screaming children. Not quite the kind of material one normally expects in a children’s story.

All this looks forward quite clearly to Huckleberry Finn, where, once again, we are shown the cruelty and brutality of a wicked society through the eyes of a teenager on the threshold of adulthood. But in the later novel, Twain addresses a further issue which is barely hinted at here: how do people react to these horrors when they have grown up with them – when they regard them as perfectly normal, and as part of their everyday lives? In Huckleberry Finn, Huck accepts the twisted moral standards of his society: these standards are all he has ever known, and he doesn’t question them. Even when, as a consequence of his innate goodness, he transcends this twisted morality, he believes it is he who is doing wrong: he never questions the morality of a slave-owning society. Twain does not really touch upon this issue here. When Tom Canty, as prince, hears of various barbaric punishments, he is shocked and outraged: but, given that this cruel society is the only one he would have known, it is very unlikely that Tom would have been so shocked. However, this is, when all’s said and done, a children’s novel in which the narrative takes precedence over psychological realism.

Twain refuses to romanticise. When he introduces the gang of outlaws, for instance, it would have been all too easy to have presented them as Robin Hood figures, but he doesn’t: they are vicious cut-throats, every bit as barbaric as the law from which they are on the run. And yet, even amongst all this, Twain presents pictures of individual human goodness. There’s Tom’s mother, self-sacrificing to the point of sainthood; there’s the magistrate who manages somehow to retain human compassion; there’s the poor woman who would rather lose what must, for her, be a fortune rather than press a case for theft which would result in a young lad being hanged. Such characters, when they appear, do not seem sentimental: Twain was pessimistic when viewing humanity en masse, but on an individual level, he believed very firmly, as Dickens did, in human goodness. He was to explore this paradox in greater depth in his later work. One remembers, for instance, the scene in Huckleberry Finn where Huck is given dinner by a poor woman, and we can guess that she goes hungry herself for the night in order to feed him; and yet, later in the scene, this same kind woman mentions approvingly that her husband had gone out to hunt down runaway slaves.

The theme of exchanged identities naturally raises that age-old issue of nature versus nurture. Twain returned to this in his last and most pessimistic novel, Pudd’nhead Wilson. There, a woman slave who could pass for white, is terrified that her newborn son (born to a white father) would end up being sold down the river, and secretly exchanges him with a baby boy born in the master’s family. And the boy that was born a slave grows up with all the arrogance and all the vices that come with a life of unthinking privilege, while the boy that was born master grows up servile, and frightened of the cruel world around him. The later novel is unsatisfactory for a variety of reasons, but nonetheless, I find it more fascinating than any number of works more perfectly conceived and executed. And I think many of the themes of Pudd’nhead Wilson are prefigured here: what makes Prince Edward act in so imperious a manner even when cast out into poverty? His royal genes, or his royal upbringing?

Looking back on what I’ve written so far, I think I have given the impression of this book being sombre and serious and heavy: it isn’t. Despite all the many serious issues Twain touches upon (and which he was to expand upon in his later work), The Prince and the Pauper remains a children’s adventure story. It moves at a brisk tempo, and has a marvellous narrative momentum. And the story itself is one that makes you turn the pages. Of course, we know that the prince will be restored once again to his rightful place, and that Tom will not return to being a pauper, but we still want to know how all this will come about. Twain gives us also a nicely plotted subplot, which owes something, I think, to The Count of Monte Cristo: a man, while imprisoned unjustly, is robbed of all he had, including the woman with whom he had been in love. This, I suppose, could have been a novel in itself, but here, it’s neatly and unobtrusively slotted into the whole.

Above all, there’s Twain’s narrative voice, which is never less than delightful. Even in a story such as this, he manages to inject some of his customary humour. The scenes where Tom sits in judgement owe something, I suppose, to the scenes in Don Quixote where Sancho becomes governor (another role reversal plot!) but it’s very funny all the same. And the scene between Tom and the “whipping boy” (the boy employed to take the beatings due to the prince as a prince of royal blood may not be struck, even by his tutors) had me laughing out loud. I also like the bit where, after an extended descriptive passage in present tense, Twain takes us back to the narrative with the simple line “Let us now change tense for convenience”. Most impressive of all, perhaps, is the dialogue. Of course, we know how people of that age wrote, but can at best guess at how they spoke, so Twain has to create here a spoken language incorporating elements of written Tudor prose, but which is both fluent and credible as everyday speech. And he manages, furthermore, to vary the rhythms and the tone depending on the social status of the speaker. It is obvious from Huckleberry Finn that he had a superb ear for spoken dialogue of different types, and his achievement on this front in The Prince and the Pauper strikes me as equally remarkable.

Having read this novel, I am now keen to read that other children’s book he wrote but which I haven’t yet read – A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. If it’s anywhere near as good as this, I should be in for a treat.

What should children read?

Education secretary Michael Gove thinks children should read 50 books a year. What a strange thing to say!

The obvious points have mostly all been made. Alan Garner, quite rightly, questions the advisability of “turning books into numbers”. Also, many can’t help wondering why this minister who wants children to read more is part of a government that is closing down public libraries. True, I personally have grave doubts about the current state of our public libraries, but if one’s aim is to promote literacy amongst children, restoring them rather than closing them down might have seemed more reasonable. (Although, to equivocate somewhat on the point, I can’t help wondering why it is that all those kids I see flaunting expensive mobile phones should plead poverty only when it comes to buying books.)

But at least we have an education secretary who recognises the importance of reading whole books, from cover to cover: in a time when children can apparently gain GCSEs in English by reading merely a few excerpts recommended by the National Curriculum, and without having read a single book from cover to cover, the recognition of reading entire books is welcome. But, as Philip Pullman asks, where are they going to get all these books from? Buying 50 books a year does add up in terms of cost.

Philip Pullman believes – I think rightly – that children should be encouraged to read all kinds of books, including “rubbish”; but he adds the vital condition that this “can only happen when there are plenty of good books as well”. Yes, quality does matter. For, if we are serious about teaching literature to children, we have to teach them of the heights that literature can achieve – indeed, the heights that literature already has achieved. Otherwise, what’s the point? Of course I wouldn’t want to deprive any child of the Beano annual. (Although, given my own regard for the Beano, I certainly wouldn’t class the Beano annual as “rubbish” – quite the contrary: given the choice between the Beano annual and some piece of classic tweeness such as the Beatrix Potter tales, or such execrable tomes as The Secret Garden or Little Lord Fauntleroy, I certainly know not merely where my own preferences lie, but also where one may find the greater aesthetic satisfaction.) But I digress. To return: I wouldn’t dream of depriving any child of the Beano annual; and neither would I want to deprive any child of real rubbish, such as those awful teen vampire novels that seem to be flooding the children’s shelves these days. By all means, let the children read whatever they want, short of pornography. But unless children also come into contact with the best that literature has to offer, it is hard to see how they can ever come to know its true value. And what is the point of teaching literature if children never come to know that?

Some time ago, when various worthies were asked what books they feel children should read at school, the then Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, selected a list of ten titles representing some of the very highest peaks of Western literature. (Or, rather, he picked nine such titles, plus Jane Eyre, which, enjoyable though it is, and even rather fine at certain points, does seem to me to sit rather uneasily in such company.) Motion was much ridiculed for this at the time, I remember. Does he really expect children to read such books? Does he have any idea of what it is like in the classroom, with teachers struggling to impart basic literacy to children? And we got also the usual unthinking penny-in-the-slot criticism: “Motion is merely showing off.” Of course, for a Poet Laureate and biographer of Keats to show off his literary erudition is a bit like a brain surgeon showing off his expertise in brain surgery: it is somewhat superfluous at best. And why Motion, or anyone else, should want to show off erudition in a society in which erudition is generally derided rather than admired remains uncertain. But one cannot these days so much as mention one’s love of serious literature without at least someone somewhere reckoning that one is merely “showing off”, so I suppose one has to live with it.

But Motion’s intent in making this choice seems clear. Being a chap who is rather good with words, he explains himself better than I possibly could:

“Of course it’s a high ambition,” he said. “But I see no intrinsic reason why children shouldn’t read these works. They are wonderful, profoundly democratic works of art, but because some of them have a reputation as difficult they are put in a box and called elitist.

“The minute you do that, the backbone of culture is removed. We admit there is a problem at the moment with knowledge and I feel absolutely no embarrassment about naming these as sine qua nons. I find it maddening that these books should be dismissed as elitist. That way cultural vandalism lies.”

Indeed, that way cultural vandalism lies, and in the five years since he first propounded that list, we have gone even further down this road to cultural vandalism, without anyone appearing to notice or to care much even if they did. Of course, one takes Nick Hornby’s point that not all children are capable of reading such books, but to conclude from this that such books should be taught to no child seems to me a grotesque non sequitur. If one thinks that it is important to teach literature to children (and I appreciate that not everyone does), then I cannot see what possible objection there can be to teaching the best, at least to the more able pupils.

In this context, there is a rather interesting feature on The Book Show on the Sky Arts channel in which various literary guests are asked to choose a book they feel everyone under 21 ought to read. The question as posed is a poor one: there is no book everyone should read, even if everyone were to have the same high ability in literary matters. But most people making this choice seem to assume that we are talking not about “everyone”, but about the ablest. And, seen in this light, it is an interesting question, as it effectively asks the guests which of their own literary values they think most worth passing on to the next generation. So it is not surprising to see here the sort of title that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Andrew Motion’s much derided list – Middlemarch, War and Peace, The Odyssey, etc.

What would be my choice for something such as this, I wonder? I think I may choose something like Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. It’s not necessarily because it’s my personal favourite novel – Bleak House, War and Peace and Ulysses are still fighting it out for that one – but because it is one of those books that demonstrate how vitally important literature can be: The Brothers Karamazov addresses directly some of the most vital issues concerning human existence – issues which, until I first read this book as a teenager myself, had never so much as occurred to me; and suddenly, I found new intellectual horizons coming into view. And it was exciting. Dostoyevsky has a wonderful ability to make ideas appear dramatic and exciting, and I realised on reading this book that intellectual enquiry need not be dull or dry. Quite the opposite.

The Brothers Karamazov also demonstrated to me that works of literature can transcend differences of time and of culture, and that, with a little expenditure of imagination on the part of the reader, the past need not be a foreign country. (And indeed, foreign countries need not be foreign countries either, for that matter.)

Finally, I think I’d like to recommend The Brothers Karamazov to bright youngsters for the perhaps rather curious reason that it is difficult. At a time when English classes seem to be fobbing off even the brightest kids with books that are easy to read, and, hence, easy to teach (that is, when pupils are compelled to read a book in its entirety in the classroom, which is not often the case), this book provides evidence that there is a profound enjoyment to be had from grappling with difficulty rather than from avoiding it. Once a bright teenager has thrilled to The Brothers Karamazov, she or he will be unlikely to be put off other books merely on the grounds that they are “heavy going”. They may even find themselves attracted to some of the titles in Andrew Motion’s list!

But sadly, we are a long way from that right now: the teaching of literature in schools remains a problematic area, mainly, I suspect, because we no longer believe that literature embodies values that are worth propagating to future generations. But if we do believe this, then we must seriously re-think how we teach literature, and why, and also, I think, what we teach. For we have come a long way down that path of cultural vandalism that Andrew Motion talked about, and if we are to find the right path again, the whole area needs seriously to be rethought. And prescribing the number of books to be read while simultaneously closing down public libraries does not strike me as indicative of any serious thinking. Or, indeed, of any thought at all.

Film versions of Chandler’s novels

The novels of Raymond Chandler have, not surprisingly, been frequently adapted for the big screen. In some ways, these stylish thrillers seem made for cinema: but in some other ways, they prove surprisingly resistant to screen adaptations. For one thing a film of reasonable length cannot handle is the extreme complexity of Chandler’s plotting: almost inevitably, the plot of the novel is thinned out. Of course, the plot is hardly of primary importance in a Chandler novel: famously, Chandler himself didn’t know who killed the chauffeur in The Big Sleep, and it doesn’t really matter. I doubt anyone can keep track of all the elements of the plot in a Chandler novel: I certainly can’t, and it has never interfered with my enjoyment. But the extreme complexity of plot does create a certain narrative texture, for want of a better word: it conveys an impression of a world that Marlowe has to face that is so intricate and complex that its mysteries can never be entirely untangled. None of the seven Philip Marlowe novels (excluding perhaps the last, Playback, which is nowhere near the standard of the previous ones) ends with everything neatly tied up: at the end of each, Marlowe is aware of an evil world out there that cannot be redeemed, or purified. The best he can do is to cling on to his own integrity. 

The best adaptations are those that convey this sense of dogged integrity despite the odds. The essence of Chandler novels is, it seems to me, that of a world-weary cynicism. But this cynicism relates not to one’s personal values, but, rather, to the values of the world: the former can be controlled, albeit with difficulty; the latter, however, are beyond any form of control at all. Marlowe’s cynicism is the cynicism of a Romantic who can clearly see reality for what it is, but who, for all that, insists on clinging on to Romantic values. He knows full well that the cost of clinging on to Romantic values in a realistic world is immense, but it is a cost he is prepared to pay. He is possibly the nearest modern literature has to Don Quixote. 

Very few adaptations of Chandler’s novels convey this sense of world-weary integrity in the face of the world’s corruptions. The actor who managed it best was probably Robert Mitchum, in a rather flatly directed remake of Farewell My Lovely in the 1960s, and, much later, when he was far too old for the role anyway, in a very badly directed remake of The Big Sleep. While the quality of Mitchum’s performance is in no doubt, Chandler’s stylish writing does ideally require a commensurate sense of style in direction. 

There’s certainly no shortage of style in Howard Hawks’ earlier version of The Big Sleep, but the result, though undoubtedly entertaining, does not quite seem Chandleresque to me. Of course, the sleaze of the milieu that Chandler explores (Geiger’s bookshop, for instance, is a front for a pornography racket) could not be depicted directly in a film of the early 40s; but it could have been indicated indirectly. Howard Hawks was a skilful enough director to have done that had he wanted to, but he presumably did not want to: instead, he glamorised the story. In the novel, Marlowe is motivated primarily by his hatred of Eddie Mars, and for all that Eddie Mars stands for; in the film, Eddie Mars barely registers as a presence at all, and Marlowe’s main motivation appears to be his love for the Lauren Bacall character (Mrs Routledge, as she is called in the film). In Chandler’s novel, this character is yet another aspect of the corruption that finds its way into everyone’s lives; in the film, in order to make her a suitable love interest, she is cleansed of any hint of such corruption. The consequence of this cleansing act is that the film, for all its merits, is a very sanitised version of Chandler’s world. And once you sanitise Chandler’s world, the result can hardly be described as Chandleresque.  Instead of the sleaze of the novel, Hawks gives us glamour: even the ladies who have walk-on parts (the bookseller across the road, the attendants at Eddie Mars’ gambling joint, even the female taxi-driver) are extremely glamorous. It’s a far cry from the nasty, corrupt world that Chandler presents.

(Of course, this film does benefit from the charismatic presence of Humphrey Bogart as Marlowe, but, in keeping with the general tone of the film, Bogart’s Marlowe seems to be enjoying himself far too much. There are no more than occasional hints of the sense of disgust that was so salient a feature of Marlowe in the novel.)

Edward Dmytryk’s version of Farewell My Lovely (renamed Murder My Sweet because the studio executives thought that a film called Farewell My Lovely and starring song-and-dance man Dick Powell could be mistaken for a musical) fares somewhat better in its depiction of a nasty and corrupt world, and of Marlowe’s sense of disgust. True, Marlowe is once again saddled with a love interest, but it doesn’t unduly affect the tone of the film, which seems closer to the world of Chandler’s novels than did The Big Sleep. In addition, Claire Trevor proves a superb femme fatale, and Dick Powell is surprisingly effective as Marlowe. All in all, this is possibly the finest screen adaptation of a Chandler novel.

 The other adaptations – the ones I’ve seen, at least – are hardly in this class. There’s an interesting adaptation of The Lady in the Lake in which the camera takes the place of Marlowe, and everything we see is seen through, as it were, Marlowe’s eyes (the only time we see Marlowe – played by Robert Montgomery – is when he looks into the mirror). The experiment is interesting, though not, perhaps, entirely convincing. Then, there was a 60s adaptation of The Little Sister that was titled simply Marlowe. One imagines that with a better script and a director less flat-footed, this may have been quite good, as James Garner seems fits the part just about perfectly. Sadly, the whole thing is a bore. And then there is Robert Altman’s adaptation of The Long Goodbye, with Elliot Gould. Perhaps Altman knew what he was doing in this one, but I certainly didn’t. He changes the plot, so that which had been subtle in Chandler’s novel becomes here merely crude and ham-fisted; and, worse, he manages to purge from the story any sense of tension or of suspense. 

So all in all, Chandler’s novels have not been as successful on the screen as perhaps they might have been. The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks’ version) is enjoyable as long as one doesn’t expect anything resembling Chandler’s novel; Edward Dmytryk’s version of Farewell My Lovely is excellent; and the remake is worth watching because of Robert Mitchum. And that’s about it, I’m afraid.


The situation is straight out of farce. The Count is chasing after a maidservant who is engaged to another and wants none of him; and this maidservant gets together with the Countess to set the Count up as the fall guy in an elaborate scheme. The maidservant is to pretend to agree to meet the Count for an assignation that night, and … well, it’s all too complicated. I’ve been listening to Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro now for well over thirty or so years, and have even read the play by Beaumarchais on which this opera is based, but damned if I can remember the details of this over-elaborate farcical plot. So, to cut to the chase, here we have the Countess, dictating to the maidservant the letter she should write to the Count setting up this phoney assignation. Any composer would have given us a duet full of mischief and high jinks. But Mozart gives us this:

Kiri te Kanawa as the Countess and Ileana Cotrubas as Susanna, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir John Pritchard, from the DVD of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro released by Arthaus Musik

This duet achieved some measure of popularity after it was featured in the film The Shawshank Redemption. There, we had heard Morgan Freeman’s sonorous tones speaking the words:  “I’d like to think [they] were singing about something so beautiful it can’t be expressed in words, and it makes your heart ache because of it.” The irony of this has been pointed out often enough: they were not singing of anything beautiful at all – they were singing about their plans to entrap a somewhat unpleasant man who is neglecting his wife and sexually harassing another young woman who, given the social structure in which this drama is set, is in no poition to resist him openly. Far from being beautiful, it is all most unpleasant, and unsavoury.

But if there is irony here, it is because Mozart has consciously introduced it.  Why does he give us at this point something so beatiful that it makes your heart ache?

In opera, one should always trust the music, for, as has been pointed out (not least in response to one of my earlier posts), it is the music that creates the drama in opera. And if Mozart has chosen to create here a drama not of high spirits nor even of unpleasantness, but of heartache, we must ask ourselves why. And it is surely because, despite the unsavoury nature of the situation, despite the farcical aspects of the plot, it is heartbreaking. The maidservant Susanna is looking forward to a happiness she fears she might not have; and the Countess is looking back to a happiness she fears is now for ever lost.

                  We look before and after,
                       And pine for what is not:
                  Our sincerest laughter
                       With some pain is fraught;
            Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.
                          – From “To a Skylark” by Percy Bysshe Shelley
And so, Mozart gives us the sweetest of songs, and tells the saddest of thoughts. And it is a song of such unearthly beauty, that it does indeed make your heart ache.

On received wisdom

One may think that people who have acquired fame and wealth, who seem so ubiquitous on our television screens and our radio stations, who are sycophantically interviewed in glossy magazines and festooned endlessly with awards and decorations, are establishment figures. Not so. As soon as they get a chance to tell us, they put us right immediately on that score: they are actually outsiders. Not part of the establishment at all, oh no, far from it: they always have been, and still are, outside the establishment – anti-establishment, even. They are rebels. 

What a romantic word that is: rebel. Who does not want to be seen as a rebel? Even the strongest pillar of the establishment, it seems, is really a rebel at heart. It appears to be one of the many elements of Romanticism that have remained with us, despite all the various other –isms that have come our way since. One must be a rebel, one must be someone who has never accepted given codes, who has always challenged received wisdom. Even if one’s background is Eton and Cambridge and Sandhurst and the Tory Party, one must, for all that, be a rebel

I knew many rebels in my university years. (I’d guess they are all accountants or civil servants now, though, no doubt, no less rebellious for all that.) I knew they were rebels because they all dressed and thought and spoke in much the same way, and listened to much the same kind of music. And I wanted to be a rebel as well, of course, so I copied them. And I too intoned in all sincerity – for I was nothing if not sincere – that received wisdom must always be challenged. 

But what if this dictum that received wisdom must always be challenged itself becomes a piece of received wisdom? It leads us to one of those logical conundrums, doesn’t it? If it is now received wisdom that received wisdom must always be challenged, then should we, or shouldn’t we, challenge this particular piece of received wisdom? Either way, we seem to be heading towards a contradiction. For if one challenges received wisdom, then one is merely following received wisdom in challenging it; and if one doesn’t challenge it, then … well, you see what I mean. This is threatening to become far too complex: let’s not go there. But let us consider all the same – and even challenge, if needs be – the contention that “received wisdom” must always be challenged.

 Always? Should we challenge, for instance, the received wisdom that the institution of slavery is a bad thing? Admittedly, this is even now not universally accepted around the world, and, in those cultures where it is accepted, it has gained acceptance only relatively recently: even as great a thinker as Aristotle thought the institution of slavery perfectly natural and acceptable. That view of slavery has been successfully challenged, and the current received wisdom, in our culture at least, is that slavery is an abomination. And thank heavens for that, we may say. But should we now, in turn, challenge this current received wisdom? Is it worth considering seriously the proposition that Aristotle had taken quite seriously – that slavery is perfectly natural and acceptable? Of course, one could re-consider the question of slavery, and still conclude that slavery is, indeed, a Bad Thing, but saying “received wisdom must always be challenged” is not quite the same as saying “received wisdom must always be challenged as long as we end up accepting it once we’ve finished challenging it”.

Of course, thought is free – or, at least, it should be – and one cannot take advantage of freedom of thought unless one exercises it. So, yes, even the current received wisdom on the institution of slavery should be challenged and questioned, despite the obvious danger that we may arrive at conclusions that are cruel and inhumane. But in reality, most of us don’t have the leisure – nor, I suspect, the inclination –  to consider every single issue from its initial premises. If we were to start ab initio on every single thing, each generation will be revisiting the same set of issues over and over again, and advance in thought across generations would become problematic at best. And this is why, it seems to me, we should not turn up our noses at received wisdom, however much it may please us to be seen as rebels.

That does not mean that the rich bank of thought and wisdom of past generations should not be questioned or challenged: indeed, we can hardly build on the wisdom of the past unless we scrutinise it carefully; but it does mean that it shouldn’t be ignored: one cannot, after all, challenge received wisdom unless one has a good idea of what that received wisdom is. This applies to all areas of intellectual activity – even science, which, being essentially a collection of ideas that have not yet been proved wrong, really only advances when received wisdom is successfully challenged. But Einstein could not have challenged Newtonian mechanics without having had a very good understanding of Newtonian mechanics in the first place.

Although literature is somewhat different from science for a number of reasons, the same principle applies here also: one must think for oneself, sure, but there is no earthly reason why the absorption of wisdom, received or otherwise, should be seen as an obstacle rather than as an aid to independent thought. If received wisdom on matters literary were to be jettisoned altogether, then we would place no greater weight on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, say, than we would on Marston’s The Malcontent, or Tourneur’s Revenger’s Tragedy, or, indeed, any play ever written by anyone. We should then read everything available, and then exercise our own judgement. Once again, I doubt that too many of us have the leisure or the inclination to do this: we are generally happy to trust received wisdom up to the point of accepting that Hamlet is, at the very least, an important play, and is more worthy of consideration than most others. Even if we personally decide in the end that, contrary to received wisdom, The Revenger’s Tragedy is the greatest tragic masterpiece in English literature, we must nonetheless, before we arrive at such a conclusion, tip our hats sufficiently to received wisdom to have measured it against the likes of Hamlet or Othello. And only then, only when we have exercised our independence of thought in awareness of received wisdom rather than in ignorance of it, can we really be the rebels that we so long to be.

“Nazarin” by Benito Pérez Galdós

I first heard of Benito Pérez Galdós many years ago when he was mentioned in an interview with the distinguished Spanish film director Luis Buñuel. Buñuel, who had thrice adapted Pérez Galdós’ work (Tristana and Nazarin, and Viridiana, which was based on the novel Halma), expressed surprise that his novels weren’t better known outside the Spanish speaking world, and claimed that at his best, he could be as intensely powerful as Dostoyevsky. Since then, I have become acquainted with some of Pérez Galdós’ novels in translation, and I, too, can but express my surprise that he is not better known. His novels are not easy to find in English: even his most famous, Fortunata and Jacinta, appears to go in and out of print. But they’re well worth hunting out. I have, so far, read Fortunata and Jacinta, Misericordia, the tetralogy of novels Torquemada, and, most recently, Nazarin; and they seem clearly to be the works of a master novelist. 

Nazarin, written in the mid 1890s, was one of Pérez Galdós’ later works, and, as with Misericordia, written shortly afterwards, the author seems fascinated by the idea of sainthood – of what it is that makes a human being a saint. In Misericordia, the character who eventually emerges as a saint may seem a most unlikely candidate for the part: she is an uneducated, superstitious, and very un-other-worldly serving woman, who had not been above nicking from her mistress in better times, but who, now that her mistress is impoverished, is prepared to go begging on the streets herself to protect her beloved mistress from the sort of life to which she has not been accustomed. It is a sort of secular sainthood in a sense, but, as the title implies, Pérez Galdós sees it in quasi-religious terms. Here, the religious aspect is more apparent: Nazarin is a priest, but he is a priest who is determined to take Christ’s gospel at his word. He abjures not merely wealth, but even possessions; he abjures pride, anger, hatred. He seeks out poverty, and keeps to the truth at all costs, regardless of consequence. He looks forward to a sort of paradise on this earth, in the here-and-now, that can be attained once humans have banished all material possessions and desires – once humans disdain to wield power over their fellow humans. And the best way to this spiritual, communist paradise is to lead through example. And so he leads through example: he lives the life preached by the gospels, the life of meekness, poverty and non-resistance to evil that Tolstoy was advocating at much the same time as this novel was written. (It is no surprise to find that Pérez Galdós had read Tolstoy’s polemical works with keen interest.) 

Such a man as Nazarin is, of course, an admirable man; but he is also a fool. As he sets out from Madrid to live out his unyielding principles, two parallels become obvious – one with Christ himself, and the other, somewhat disconcertingly, with Don Quixote. Like Cervantes’ hero, Nazarin is both remarkably sane – even remarkably intelligent – and yet, at the same time, a madman. Don Quixote had set out to seek the ideals of chivalry, and, leading by example, to practise these ideals himself, regardless of consequence; Nazarin, on the other hand, sets out to seek the ideals of Christianity, and, also regardless of consequence, leads by example. The results are doomed to failure from the very beginning, but, for Nazarin, even failure in pursuit of these ideals is preferable to any other course. The intense suffering that is entailed is accepted willingly. 

Pérez Galdós was himself not a religious man in any conventional sense: he was a modern liberal, and was strongly secular and anti-clerical. And yet, on the basis of this novel and of  Misericordia, his imagination was, in the widest sense of the word, religious. Like Cervantes, he is constantly aware of the sheer foolishness of his hero’s enterprise; and yet, he cannot help but admire, and even sympathise. As the novel approaches its end, some of the parallels to the story of Christ’s passion do seem a bit schematic at times, but nothing quite prepared me for the final pages. Here, Nazarin, feverish with typhoid, undergoes what can only be described as a religious vision. Now, Pérez Galdós knows well that this vision is no more than the product of a feverish mind; and he knows also that the fever is self-inflicted – that it has been brought on by Nazarin’s insistence on a life of poverty; yet I cannot think of anything I have read outside Dostoyevsky that conveys so powerful and so intense a sense of religious fervour. I can understand now why Buñuel had evoked Dostoyevsky in describing the work of Pérez Galdós. And yet, there is something very surprising about Peréz Galdós, a secularist and realist, writing something so imbued with what can only be described as religious mysticism; and it is perhaps, even more surprising that Buñuel, a militant atheist and surrealist, could respond to this so keenly. 

Translations of Pérez Galdós’ novels are hard to come by, so any copy of any out-of-print translation found in second-hand shops is to be snapped up immediately, and treasured. He is clearly one of the major European novelists of the 19th century, and every work of his I read but increases my admiration.

Why teach literature in schools?

I was trying hard to think of a snappy title for this one, but eventually I decided this one will do. Why study literature in schools? That more or less sums up what I would like to discuss here. What use is literature to anyone? How does it help anyone in anything? What’s the point? 

Even if we were to accept that the teaching of literature in schools is important (and not everyone does accept this), a few more questions come to mind: 

To what extent should we prescribe books to children at school? Should we, indeed, prescribe books at all? In determining a literature curriculum, to what extent, if any, should we consider the children’s own preferences? What relevance to all this, if any, is the consideration that children may be put off literature by being made to study books they do not like?

Before we address any of these issues, I think we should consider a question more basic: what is the point of education at all? There are, of course, a number of answers to this, which are complementary rather than exclusive. An obvious answer is that the purpose of education is to prepare us for life, but that doesn’t get us very far: it leads us on merely to the next question, which is “what is required to ‘prepare us for life’?”

Up to a point, the purpose of education is to ensure that we can survive in society, and function in it. So the teaching of basic numeracy ensures that we can count up our change in the supermarket, the teaching of basic literacy ensures that we can read and understand letters from the council relating to bin collections, etc. However, I think most would agree that “preparation for life” should imply a bit more than this. Many would, I think, say that education should prepare us for a job that will earn us a living, and contribute to the society in which we live. In conjunction with this, many would say that education should also instil in us sufficient discipline to allow us to function within a structured society, without unduly compromising our individuality. The balance is, admittedly, a delicate one, but some balance has to be sought if society is to function at all; and, many would say, it is the purpose of education to provide us with just such a balance. I certainly wouldn’t dissent from any of this.

But is this all? For if it were, there is little point in teaching mathematics beyond basic numeracy. Oh, of course, those who want to take on accountancy or engineering or scientific research, or whatever, need to have more than merely basic skills in numeracy: but the vast majority don’t. The vast majority don’t need to know about trigonometrical functions, or about polynomials or differentials, or, indeed, about anything beyond basic arithmetic.

Similarly with other subjects. The vast majority of us don’t need to know what sort of chemical reaction occurs when acid comes into contact with alkali; we don’t need to know about the economic and social transformations that came with the Industrial Revolution; we don’t need to know Newton’s laws of motion, or about the formation of igneous rocks, or about the structure of human cells … and so on and so forth. Indeed, possibly the greater part of what is still in school curricula we don’t need to know: we can all function perfectly well without knowing them. So – why teach them? If education is simply about teaching the basics that we require to function in society, why not merely teach the children simply the basics, and, once they have finished primary school, let them out into the big bad world to do something useful, like sweep chimneys or something?

I think the answer to this is that education is more – or, at least, it should be more – than merely preparing children to function. Education seems to me to be about nothing less than propagating the values of our civilisation. It has taken us a great many centuries to arrive at our current point in civilisation. And yes, I know, the various civilisations of humankind are still greatly flawed; but nonetheless, we have come a long way from being tribes of hunter-gatherers, and, along the way, we have acquired an immense amount of knowledge, of thought, of wisdom. We have also an immense treasure-house of achievements – from Darwin’s theory of evolution to Beethoven’s symphonies, from the thought of Enlightenment philosophers to quantum physics, from the Taj Mahal to the development of the internet … the list is almost endless. I’d argue very strongly that one of the purposes of education must be to propagate the values that are embodied in what our civilisation has achieved, so the next generation can build on past achievements rather than start at Year Zero.

Of course, put this way, our education is never finished, as there is far more to take in than can be possible within one lifetime. This is indeed true: a proper education does last a whole lifetime, and even then is incomplete: it is a journey doomed to remain unfinished. But it must be the purpose of our schools at least to  start our children on this journey. And this is why it is correct for schools to teach about such matters as polynomials or the Industrial Revolution: it’s because, to be truly civilised, we should know more, much more, than merely the basics we need to be able to function.

In this context, let us consider the teaching of literature. The only reason to teach literature in schools at all is because we, as a society, believe that literature is an important aspect of our civilisation, and that, therefore, there needs to be, at the very least, a general awareness of it within our society if we are to consider ourselves truly civilised. If we do not believe this, there is no point teaching literature at all. But if we do believe this, then the question of whether or not the children enjoy being taught takes on less importance. We do not make decisions on the teaching of mathematics or of physics or of history based on the criterion of whether children are likely to enjoy it: we teach these subjects at school because, whether they enjoy it or not, we feel it’s good for them. Yes, I know this is authoritarian, but I don’t think you can entirely get away from authoritarianism when it comes to education: if it were merely a matter of the child’s own preferences, most children would prefer not to be at school at all.

But what, some may ask, what if the children don’t enjoy it? What if the poor little darlings don’t enjoy learning about Shakespeare and Austen and all the rest of them? It seems a curious question. When we are setting the curriculum for mathematics, do we really ask ourselves: “Will the children enjoy learning trigonometry?” We put it into the curriculum because we think it important that they learn about it, whether they enjoy it or not. Similarly with any other subject. We hope, of course, that at least some of them will find it enjoyable, but enjoyment is not (not yet, at any rate) amongst the criteria used to determine the curriculum in mathematics, or in geography, or in chemistry, or in whatever. And I think English literature should be considered as important as these other subjects: there are some things we need to learn regardless of whether or not we find them enjoyable – simply because it is good for us to learn them; simply because these things should be part of the mental furniture of a civilised human being.

Of course, one size doesn’t fit all. In an ideal world, every child should have special one-to-one tuition on all subjects. But in the real world, that is not possible, and the best we can do – and, indeed, should do – is to stream children according to their perceived abilities, while allowing for movement between streams for children who achieve more or less than had initially been expected. (And, furthermore, we should also provide special provision for children with learning difficulties.) And once such streams are established, the curriculum within each stream should be tailored towards the ability of the children within that stream. So, obviously, it is unreasonable to try to teach Shakespeare to a stream that is struggling with basic literacy. But, similarly, it is unreasonable, and, I’d argue, criminal, not to teach Shakespeare to the stream of the most able pupils. This is because Shakespeare is perceived to be central to the English-speaking literary canon, and one cannot consider oneself at all knowledgeable in English literature without at least some acquaintance with his works. Whether or not the children find this boring is as irrelevant a consideration as whether or not children find trigonometry boring. If children enjoy their education, that’s great; but if they don’t, that’s just tough. A civilised society has to educate its children in the values that define its civilisation. If we don’t do that, we lose something that is immensely valuable, and which, once lost, cannot be recovered.

And then, there’s the argument that being forced to study literature puts people off literature. But that argument could apply to any other subject as well, could it not? Doesn’t being forced to learn about logarithms put people off mathematics? Doesn’t being forced to learn about the Reformation put people off history? Are these arguments not to teach logarithms, or not to teach about the Reformation, in the classroom? If so, we’d end up not teaching anything at all, as it’s a rare schoolchild who actually enjoys lessons. I’m not even sure that such a schoolchild exists.

I think if someone has an inclination towards literature, they’ll come back to it, regardless of classroom experience. And if they don’t come back to it, they probably don’t have an inclination towards literature at all – and that’s fair enough: we can’t all be interested in everything. Speaking for myself, I used to say for a long time that I didn’t take part in sports because I’d been put off by PE lessons at school. But after a while, I realised this wasn’t true. Yes, I used to hate PE at school, but the truth is I wouldn’t have taken part in sport even if I had never had a PE lesson in my life, simply because I am not a sporty person. The excuse that I had been put off by the lessons was just that – an excuse, and a rather lame one at that. There are, after all, many who had suffered PE lessons with me, but who, in their adult lives, are quite happy to go for regular swims, or to play badminton, or whatever. And similarly, I think, with literature: there are a great many who have suffered English literature lessons at school, but who nonetheless have been drawn back to literature in later life, and, being older and more mature, find themselves even enjoying books that had once been a chore. And they may even find, to their surprise, that some of the things that the teacher had said in class all those years ago have stayed in the mind. At the very least, studying a Shakespeare play (or whatever) in the classroom has given them an awareness of the thing: it has become a part of their “mental furniture”. As for those who don’t return to literature – well, I suspect it’s a bit like my not returning to sports: I’m just not inclined in that direction, and there’s little point my blaming PE lessons in school for what is essentially my personal inclination.

My argument really is that we should treat literature as seriously as we do any other discipline. It’s not just a bit of “fun” to relieve the seriousness of maths or science or language lessons: it’s a serious subject, and should be taken seriously. Choosing which books to study in class based on the children’s own preference is to diminish the importance of literature as a subject, and to present it as a lighter alternative to, say, the sciences. This appears to be the path we are currently going down, and few seem to care. And why are we going down this path? Perhaps for the same reason that we are destroying our public libraries, for the same reason that arts broadcasting on television has declined so dramatically in quality: we no longer seem to have sufficient confidence in the value of our culture to think it worth propagating. 

Well, that’s how it looks from where I stand. Maybe I’m wrong. I hope I am. And even if I’m not, there’s little I can do about it. Except, perhaps, to stand up where I can for the teaching in our schools of the best that our literary traditions have to offer. To all children of sufficient ability – whether they like it or not.