Archive for July, 2011

What’s so great about “Ulysses”?

For a novel that is jokey, playful and irreverent, that exalts the everyday, and is about as much fun as any book I can think of, Ulysses has a formidable reputation. It is, indeed, often seen as the ultimate in literary elitism, and claims to have read it – and, further, to have enjoyed reading it, and coming back for more – are sometimes regarded with scepticism at best, and, at worst, with downright incredulity, or even with open accusations of lying. For Ulysses is unreadable, isn’t it? Or, at least, excessively difficult. And can anyone really enjoy something that is at such a level of difficulty? Far from being an enjoyable reading experience, is it not rather the case that reading this novel – or, rather claiming to have read this novel – is a sort of admission ticket to an exclusive and highly elitist literary club, membership of which allows one to look down one’s nose at the plebs? And can there really be any reason for reading it other than to get oneself entry into this dubious and pretentious highbrow society?

It would be easy to laugh off such silliness were these claims not frequently made. But the worst thing about this kind of silliness is that one often ends up on the defensive when speaking about this novel. And one shouldn’t.

As everyone knows, Ulysses is set in Dublin on one single day – 16th June, 1904, known nowadays as Bloomsday – and it presents quite ordinary people going about their quite ordinary business. Modernism is often regarded as a radical break from what had come before it, but now, more or less a century after the beginnings of that movement, we should be able to see not merely its radical nature, but also the continuities with what had gone before. Joyce was, after all, by no means the first writer to attempt to find the extraordinary within the ordinary: throughout the 19th century, all sorts of writers have done just that – from Jane Austen to George Eliot, Gustave Flaubert to Anton Chekhov. Long before Joyce, the novel had staked out its ground: its focus was now no longer on kings and queens, princes and princesses, nobles and bishops – but on ordinary people, in ordinary walks of life. Even drama, for long a conservative bastion of kings and queens and high-flown rhetoric and verse, had come down the social ladder to report on middle-class drawing rooms. This meant that the epic form was, on the whole, eschewed. There are many notable exceptions to this, of course, as there are to any broad-brush observation on literary trends: it’s hard not to use the term “epic” to describe such works as, say, War and Peace or Nostromo; and writers such as Tolstoy or Henry James weren’t exactly averse to depicting nobility. But it was characters such as Anne Elliot, Emma Bovary, Arthur Clennan, Dr Lydgate, Gervaise Coupeau, Isabel Archer, Lily Bart, etc., who now occupied the centre stage rather than merely the fringes, and none of their their humdrum lives suggests the epic. It was up to the creators of these characters to discover the extraordinary within the ordinary – and this discovery seems to me to be among the finest achievements of nineteenth century literature. But the extraordinary – or the sublime, the grand, the magnificent – had to be found within the everyday: writers could no longer turn their backs on the quotidian in search of loftier matters.

Joyce followed in this pattern: like the nineteenth century novelists, he had no wish to turn his back on the everyday. And he sought, again like his nineteenth century predecessors, to find something within the daily grind of trivia that would invest the everyday with some sort of meaning, some sort of significance. He had achieved this at times in his short story collection Dubliners – but generally, despite moments of revelation (“epiphanies”, as Joyce called them, his Catholic upbringing never too far away), and despite even occasional moments of transcendence (such as in those unforgettable final pages of “The Dead”), the depiction is of little people leading little lives: one of the main images linking these stories is that of paralysis. Instead of depicting transcendence, these stories, in general, report on the failure to achieve it.

But then came Ulysses. Here, without turning away from the quotidian, the mundane, he invested the depiction of very ordinary people during the course of a very ordinary day with an epic grandeur, and a Homeric magnificence. It is an achievement that still takes the breath away.

And yet, this entire majestic edifice is built out of considerably less-than-majestic building material: it is endlessly playful and mischievous, and is full of silly gags, jokes, and irrepressible high spirits; there is even room for a bit of old-fashioned schoolboy smut. This is what makes all the more amusing the novel’s reputation for highbrow elitism: material less highbrow or elitist cannot be imagined. Yes – it is difficult: let us admit that right away. But the difficulties are to be encountered with a good-natured laugh rather than with a serious and furrowed professorial brow: Brendan Behan may have not have been entirely serious when he suggested that the best way to approach this novel is to treat it as a sort of joke-book, but he wasn’t, I think, too far off the mark.

And then, of course, there are all those Homeric correspondences. Each chapter – with a single, notable exception – recalls an episode from Homer’s Odyssey. (The exception is the Wandering Rocks chapter, which is taken from the myth of Jason and the Argonauts rather than from the myth of Odysseus: but then again, it is the whole point of wandering rocks to emerge unexpectedly, taking us by surprise.) The parody of Homer isn’t new either: the mock-heroic had been done before – Rabelais, Cervantes, Pope, Fielding – and while relating the everyday to the heroic has the comic effect of deflation, of bringing down the heroic, in Joyce’s hands it also served a more important purpose – that of elevating the everyday. Leopold Bloom may seem an unlikely Odysseus: he is an undistinguished middle-aged man, an advertising canvasser by profession; he is widely derided on account of his Jewish origins; and he is married, not to a faithful Penelope, but to a woman who is serially unfaithful to him. It almost seems as if Joyce had gone out of his way to find as unlikely a candidate as may be imagined for the role of Ulysses. But of course, as Cervantes knew well, the greater the discrepancy between the ideal and the real, the funnier it is. And also, and equally importantly, the more striking it is when this apparently pathetic parody of the heroic ideal does display what may be termed heroism. As, for instance, in the twelfth chapter, set in the pub. Here, Odysseus encounters the Cyclops Polyphemus – or, more prosaically, Bloom encounters the nationalist Citizen, holding boozy court with his cronies.

The chapter is narrated by one of these cronies who remains anonymous. Bloom, we gather, doesn’t particularly want to be in the pub: he is only there because he has promised to meet with his friend Martin, to help raise funds for the widow and family of the recently deceased Paddy Dignam. A charitable mission – the sort that perhaps wouldn’t have occurred to a real hero, such as Odysseus, the Sacker of Cities. But Bloom’s friend isn’t there yet, and he finds himself amidst unfriendly faces. Bloom, after all, is a Jew – he’s not “one of us”. And it is believed – wrongly, as it happens – that Bloom has won on the horses that day, and is too tight-fisted to say so and buy everyone a drink. As the evening progresses, the comments directed at Bloom become increasingly pointed: there is something not very pleasant in the air. Whatever Free Nation of Ireland the Citizen envisages, Bloom is not part of it. Eventually, Bloom speaks out:

– And I belong to a race too, says Bloom, that is hated and persecuted. Also now. This very moment. This very instant.

Gob, he near burnt his fingers with the butt of his old cigar.

– Robbed, says he. Plundered. Insulted. Persecuted. Taking what belongs to us by right. At this very moment, says he, putting up his fist, sold by auction in Morocco like slaves or cattle.

– Are you talking about the new Jerusalem? says the citizen.

– I’m talking about injustice, says Bloom.

– Right, says John Wyse. Stand up to it then with force like men.

But this is not what Bloom meant:

– But it’s no use, says he. Force, hatred, history, all that. That’s not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it’s the very opposite of that that is really life.

– What? says Alf.

– Love, says Bloom. I mean the opposite of hatred. I must go now, says he to John Wyse. Just round the court a moment to see if Martin is there.

So, having declared the Gospel of Love, he announces his own departure. In his absence, he is made fun of. Love, indeed! “A new apostle to the gentiles”, mocks the citizen, his sarcasm coming closer to the truth than he realises. The unnamed narrator goes off on a riff about love:

Love loves to love love. Nurse loves the new chemist. Constable 14A loves Mary Kelly. Gerty MacDowell loves the boy that has the bicycle. M. B. loves a fair gentlema. Li Chi Han lovey up kissy Cha Pu Chow. Jumbo, the elephant, loves Alice, the elephant. Old Mr Verschole with the ear trumpet loves old Mrs Verschoyle with the turnedin eye. The man in the brown macintosh loves a lady who is dead. His Majesty the King loves Her Majesty the Queen. Mrs Norman W. Tupper loves officer Taylor. You love a certain person. And this person loves that other person because everybody loves somebody but God loves everybody.

And at the end of this chapter, as Bloom is leaving the pub and the anti-Semitic taunts become ever more overt, Bloom stands up to the Cyclops:

– Mendelssohn was a jew and Karl Marx and Mecadante and Spinoza. And the Saviour was a jew and his father was a jew. Your God.

His friend Martin, eager to avoid a scene that’s threatening to turn violent, tries to bundle Bloom away, but Bloom is adamant.

– Whose God? asks the citizen.

Bloom replies:

– Your God was a jew. Christ was a jew like me.

The Citizen is incensed. In The Odyssey, Polyphemus threw a rock at the departing Odysseus: here, the citizen throws after Bloom a biscuit tin. But this is a chapter about politics and about rhetoric, and so everything is inflated to monstrous proportions. The impact of the biscuit-tin is immense:

The catastrophe was terrific and instantaneous in its effect. The observatory of Dunsink registered in all eleven shocks, all of the fifth grade of Mercalli’s scale, and there is no record extant of a similar seismic disturbance in our island since the earthquake of 1534, the year of the rebellion of Silken Thomas. The epicentre appears to have been that part of the metropolis which constitutes the Inn’s Quay ward and parish of Saint Michan covering a surface of fortyone acres, two roods and one square pole or perch. All the lordly residences in the vicinity of the palace of justice were demolished and that noble edifice itself, in which at the time of the catastrophe important legal debates were in progress, is literally a mass of ruins beneath which it is to be feared all the occupants have been buried alive. From the reports of eyewitnesses it transpires that the seismic waves were accompanied by a violent atmospheric perturbation of cyclonic character….

And so on, and so forth, the self-important journalese piling on with ever more outrageous comic absurdity. But through all this absurdity, we can discern heroism: not perhaps the sort of heroism of Odysseus, but a heroism that is perhaps even more remarkable – that of a man standing up for the values of simple human decency in the face of disdain and ridicule. Bloom may not have been capable of the heroisms of Odysseus, but then again, we wonder, would Odysseus have been capable of the heroism of Bloom?

But if, as I think, it is this simple human decency that is at the centre of the work, then the huge, unwieldy baroque structure Joyce constructed around it does tend to obscure it somewhat. I think this is intentional: Joyce was no minimalist. Indeed, he was quite the opposite – he was a “maximalist”. Like Dickens, he loved an overcrowded canvas bursting with vitality and with life, with clutter, with all sorts of little details and features and curlicues and arabesques that seem to exist merely for their own sake, thickening the narrative texture. And perhaps there has been no other author since Dickens who has so successfully conjured into teeming life an entire city in all its bewilderingly chaotic forms and sounds and smells and movements. Those seeking the elegance of a clear narrative line, or unity and purity of style, should look elsewhere: this novel is full of voices, sometimes competing against and jarring against each other in a mad cacophony. Different narrative voices weave in and out without warning, and we are never entirely sure to whom the narrative voice belongs at any given time. (Dostoyevsky did something similar in his major novels, but, as ever, Joyce stretches thing further than they have ever been stretched before.) The Cyclops chapter, for instance, is narrated by an unnamed character: he had not appeared earlier in the novel, and he promptly disappears once the chapter finishes. Immediately afterwards, in the next chapter, we find ourselves in the relative calm of a beach as evening is descending, and the narrative voice now is that of a dreadfully cloying and sentimental reader of cheap romantic novels:

The summer evening had begun to fold the world in its mysterious embrace. Far away in the west the sun was setting and the last glow of the all too fleeting day lingered lovingly on the sea and strand… etc. etc.

Or, later in the novel, we have the voice of a bad writer, penning the most atrociously constructed sentences. For instance:

Preparatory to anything else Mr Bloom brushed off the greater bulk of the shavings and handed Stephen the hat and ashplant and bucked him up generally in orthodox Samaritan fashion which he very badly needed.

I’ll resist the temptation to quote more such gems from this chapter, but the very idea of possibly the greatest master of the English language since Shakespeare deliberately writing prose so toe-curlingly awful does, I admit, have me chuckling.

Or there’s that famous chapter set in a maternity ward, where the narrative voices come and go, each voice speaking in the style of a particular period, beginning the alliterative style of medieval poetry (“Before born babe bliss had. Within womb won he worship”) and progressing, as the chapter progresses, to styles of later periods. This gives us a sort of potted history of English prose; and the development of the language within the chapter gives an impression of the chapter itself growing and developing, almost like a foetus within the womb. If all this sounds too dry and intellectual, not to say overly schematic, we needn’t worry: this is also one of the funniest chapters in the novel, with the narrators from past ages not quite understanding the modern world they are describing, and giving the narration their own spin. (I, personally, find myself laughing out loud when the heavily rhetorical tones of Edward Gibbon are employed to reprimand Bloom for his masturbatory habits.)

Sometimes, the narrative voice seems to disappear altogether, such as in the phatasmagoric Circe chapter, or in the penultimate chapter in which narrative is replaced by an impersonal set of questions, and an equally impersonal set of detailed answers, these answers seemingly unaware of the concept of relevance. And in the midst of all this cacophony of voices – or of non-voices – we have the famous, or notorious, “stream of consciousness”, the depiction of the seemingly random wanderings and workings of the human mind, following all its twists and turns wherever it goes.

I’d guess it’s not so much the use of stream of consciousness that gives Ulysses the reputation of difficulty, but, rather, Joyce’s refusal to point it out, to differentiate it in any way from the rest of the text. Joyce also refuses to explain some of the leaps the mind makes, or to give us enough information to help us understand why certain things occur to the mind. Only when one has read through the entire novel do certain details begin to make sense. Also, these characters’ minds pick up bits and pieces of all sorts of things – advertising slogans, bits from operatic arias, words half heard or half remembered, popular music hall songs, local events, etc. etc. Our minds, when not concentrated, are not structured machines, and any realistic depiction of the workings of the mind is bound to appear chaotic. And here lies a problem: art cannot be chaotic – it requires structure. Joyce may wish to give an impression of chaos, but it must be an impression only: for if the novel itself were to be chaotic, the centre would then not hold, and things would fall apart. It is to this end that Joyce devised carefully a plan that would give the novel a structure: each chapter would refer to a certain art or science; to a certain organ of the human body and its function; to certain colours; and, as is well-known, to a certain episode from Homer’s Odyssey. Accounts of Joyce’s scheme may be found in any of the numerous commentaries on Ulysses, but I don’t know that this need detain us here; this scheme was to help Joyce, not us. Joyce himself never made public his scheme: from the reader’s perspective, all that really matters is that each chapter should have a different feel to it: how the feel of each chapter comes about is best left to the Joycean scholar. Of course, the reader can look into this as well – Joyce’s technique is fascinating in its own right – but the main thing is that the reader feels: the intricate mechanics that cause the reader to feel, though fascinating, are but a means, not an end.

Perhaps too much has been made of the difficulty of all this. The “stream of consciousness” for instance – the very phrase promising a work penetrable only by learned professors of literature – is more than enough to put off most readers: it’s reputedly what makes this novel so very difficult. But it’s nothing particularly new. It is an attempt to express in words the often random and unexpected course taken by people’s minds, and one may find it used – though not as insistently nor as extensively as Joyce uses it – in the works of such authors as Fielding or Dickens. (See, for instance, the monologues given to the housekeeper Mrs Deborah Wilkins in Chapter Three of Tom Jones, or to the dialogue given to Flora Finching in Little Dorrit.) But in these books, it is clear that the stream of consciousness passages are spoken by (or thought by) a certain character: in Ulysses, the stream of consciousness can break in at any point, and, without warning, intermingle with the narrative voice. So, for instance, in the very first page, as Stephen Dedalus observes Malachi Mulligan (with whom he shares lodging), we get this:

He peered sideways up and gave a long slow whistle of a call, then paused awhile in rapt attention, his even white teeth glistening here and there with gold points. Chrysostomos. Two strong shrill whistles answered through the calm.

That single word “Chrysostomos” is a bit of “stream of consciousness” here: it’s what goes through Stephen’s mind when he sees the gold fillings in Mulligan’s teeth. It means, literally, “golden mouthed”, and refers to John Chrysostom, an Early Church Father of the 4th century famous for eloquence of speech. Stephen’s identification of Chrysostom with the cheerfully blasphemous Mulligan is comic, but unless one identifies it not as part of the narrative, but rather, as something that is going on in Stephen’s mind, then it will make no sense at all. Most importantly, it helps characterise Stephen: what sort of person is it who can be reminded of John Chrysostom on seeing gold fillings inside a friend’s mouth?

The Stephen we see is a somewhat sullen, truculent chap, with a bit of a chip on the shoulder. The lodgings he shares with Mulligan is a Martello Tower by the sea, and he resents his fellow lodgers – the extravert, flamboyant Mulligan, and the Englishman Haynes, who appears to be stopping by temporarily. Stephen steadfastly refuses to join in with anything, keeping himself apart with a cold reserve, and seemingly resentful of something he never quite articulates openly. He is Telemachus, the son of Odysseus, who, at the start of The Odyssey, goes in search of his missing father. Stephen, too, though he may not know it, is in search of a missing father: relations with his real father are not the warmest. And as for his mother, she weighs down oppressively upon his conscience: on her deathbed, she had asked Stephen to pray for her, and he had refused. And everything in the world seems belittled by this act of defiance: even the broad, wide sea before him, ringed by the flat horizon only, reminds Stephen of that white bowl by his mother’s bed into which she used to cough up her phlegm and mucus. Stephen is a young man who needs to be humanised. At the start, while he corresponds ostensibly with Telemachus, he seems to correspond also with another son of a Greek hero – Orestes, son of Agamemnon, murderer of his mother, and pursued by the Furies.

We spend the first three chapters with Stephen: Bloom – Odysseus, the father of Telemachus – appears only in the fourth. In the second chapter, we see Stephen teaching in a school, and speaking afterwards to the head teacher, Mr Deasy, who gives Stephen a letter – on foot and mouth disease and on the state of cattle farming – to give to his friends in the newspapers. (At every stage, this novel is rooted in the solid, in the everyday.) And in the third chapter, we are in Stephen’s mind as he walks on the beach, allowing his mind to wander where it will.

It is in this third chapter that many first-time readers tend to give up. This entire chapter is an extended piece of “stream of consciousness”. It is the interior monologue of Stephen Dedalus, who had been presented in Joyce’s earlier novel as a Portrait of the Artist as Young Man. However, I cannot believe this self-portrait is very accurate – or, if it is, one can only conclude that Joyce had changed very radically between youth and middle-age: Stephen is somewhat unlikeable, priggish, and overly serious; and, while possessing Joyce’s immense erudition and intelligence, he seems to have none of his creator’s sense of humour, or of mischief. His interior monologue is meditative and often deeply lyrical, but it is likely to fox the first-time reader. The best advice to such a first-time reader is possibly not to worry too much about it: move on, and, maybe, come back to this later. For it would be a shame to get stuck on Stephen’s monologue, and miss out on Leopold and Molly Bloom, to whom we are introduced in the next chapter.

For many, it is really with the introduction of the Blooms that the novel gets going. Not that what we had before is dispensable – far from it – but the vitality and warmth injected into the novel by the Blooms are much needed. As a person, Bloom is very different from Stephen, and the patterns of his stream-of-consciousness are also very different: instead of the long, meditative flow, peppered with erudite and often arcane allusions, we have instead a more punchy, staccato delivery, seeming at times almost like the speech patterns of Mr Jingle in Dickens’ Pickwick Papers. And, again unlike Stephen, Bloom is no intellectual – although when his wife asks him what the word “metempsychosis” means, Bloom shows himself to be not entirely ignorant either:

She swallowed a draught of tea from her cup held by nothandle, and, having wiped her fingers smartly on the blanket, began to search the text with her hairpin till she reached the word.

– Met him what? he asked.

– Here, she said, What does this mean?

He leaned downwards and read near her polished thumbnail.

– Metempsychosis?

– Yes. Who’s he when he’s at home?

– Metempsychosis, he said, frowning. It’s Greek: from the Greek. It means transmigration of souls.

– O, rocks! she said. Tell us in plain words.

I’d guess that even the most devoted readers of Ulysses have sometimes echoed Molly Bloom: O, rocks! Tell us in plain words! But Joyce is too much in love with words, too much in love with words for their own sake, to tell us anything in plain language. Not sharing at least something of Joyce’s love of words is a serious handicap when reading this novel. But those who do love words – which, after all, are the basic building blocks of literature itself – can but revel in his delight in language, and in his virtually inexhaustible linguistic exuberance.

There is one word, though, that, at a crucial point in the book, remains unspoken. It occurs in the longest chapter in the novel, which is its climactic sequence. It is set in a brothel. Bloom, having observed Stephen (the son of his friend, Simon Dedalus) in a state of extreme inebriation and barely able to look after himself, has followed him there to keep an eye on him. Here, the correspondence with The Odyssey is Circe, the enchantress who turned men into pigs – an apt image when applied to the keeper of a whorehouse. We are now in the realms of magic: all the solidities break down, and structure itself – in this, the most intricately structured of all novels – seems to dissolve. There is no narrative voice: it is depicted in the form of a playscript. But the dialogue isn’t restricted to the characters: the bar of soap, the jet of gas, a moth, a fan, a fly-button – they all have things to say, even if what they say is utter gibberish: language itself seems to be on the point of collapse. Characters, real and imaginary, from history, from folklore, from the newspaper headlines, from the weirdest recesses of the mind, all wander in and out at random. Nothing is real. Men turn into women, women turn into men; and the wildest sexual fantasies intermingle with memories and desire, and play themselves out in forms increasingly grotesque. In The Odyssey, Penelope keeps her suitors at bay by telling them that she would only remarry once she has finished weaving her tapestry, but what she weaves during the day she unweaves at night. And here, we see just such an unweaving: all the accumulated details of the day here unweave, re-appearing pell-mell in a mad unstructured jumble. The unpurged images of day don’t so much recede, as intermingle with each other in an insane disorder: nothing can keep its shape. At the height of this mad frenzy, Stephen’s persistent nightmare intrudes; the ghost of his mother appears, and the stage directions describing her are fearful:

Stephen’s mother, emaciated, rises stark through the floor, in leper grey with a wreath of faded orangeblossoms and a torn bridal veil, her face worn and noseless, green with gravemould. Her hair is scant and lank, She fixes her bluecircled hollow eyesockets on Stephen and opens her toothless mouth uttering a silent word. A choir of virgins and confessor sing voicelessly.

Stephen wants to hear his mother speak one word. He pleads with her:

Tell me the word, mother, if you know now. The word known to all men.

But his mother refuses to speak the word. Instead, she tells Stephen to beware, to repent. She prays for Stephen, she says, from the other world. The word known to all men, the word Stephen longs to hear, remains unspoken.

There has been much scholarly controversy on what this word is that is known to all men. I am no scholar of these matters, but it seems to me obvious what this word is: Bloom has spoken it already, earlier that night in the pub, and had been ridiculed for it.

At this point, Stephen accidentally smashes the gaslight. “Pwfungg!” says the gasjet, and the very world – this world, not the other one from which Stephen’s mother prays for her son – seems to come to an end. The stage directions describe the apocalypse:

Time’s livid final flame leaps up and, in the following darkness, ruins of all space, shattered glass and toppling masonry.

Outside the brothel, Stephen becomes involved in a fight with two soldiers. And Bloom is there to rescue him. This is the climactic point of the entire novel. For, if Stephen had been a son in search of a father, Bloom is a father in search of a son. At the end of the chapter, as Stephen lies in a heap on the ground, Bloom has a vision of his own dead son, not an infant as he had been when he died, but eleven years old, as he would have been had he lived, the woollen handkerchief that his mother had placed in his pocket before his funeral now miraculously resurrected into a living lamb. It is as moving and as tender and as wondrous a moment as I have encountered in literature.

After this, there remain three further chapters, mirroring the three opening chapters in which we had been introduced to Stephen. Here, Stephen has found his spiritual father in the unlikely figure of Bloom. Of course, in a traditionally narrated novel, the significance of this meeting would barely register: after all, nothing much exactly happens as such. A middle-aged man sees the son of a friend very drunk, and determines to keep an eye on him; follows him into a brothel and sees to him when he gets involved in a fight; takes him back to his own home, and helps him freshen up; and then they part. And that’s it. However, in this novel, in which the tiniest and most trivial of details can assume immense meaning and significance, even something so ordinary as this becomes extraordinary: the ordinary decency and gentleness of Bloom is transfigured into the most extraordinary thing in the world. The deflation of the heroic may be funny, but it is the inflation of the everyday that seems to me to be at the heart of the matter. For all its myriad complexities, this novel is about the everyday, the ordinary: it embraces all that ordinary life has to offer, never turns its back on anything for being to trivial or too low or too sordid; and it exalts what it finds.

The final chapter is given over to Molly Bloom. She has been at fringes of the novel till now, but in the final exultant pages – once Bloom, his epic journey finished, is asleep – she comes fully into the spotlight on her own. The pattern of her stream of consciousness is different again from Stephen’s or Bloom’s: it is some sixty unpunctuated pages, words and thoughts and feeling flowing one from the other in a mighty, unstoppable torrent. It is magnificent.

Of course, while the writing may be unpunctuated, the reading cannot be: we need to pause for breath. And so, we are forced to create our own stops and pauses, provide our own punctuation. And, as we do so, this rushing torrent takes on shapes of sorts, and Molly becomes the unlikeliest model for Penelope, perhaps even more unlikely a model than Bloom had been for Ulysses. But Penelope she is. We travel with her on a voyage through her past – her marriage to Bloom, the death of her child, her lovers – and, by the time we come to that exultant ending, Bloom, despite being a cuckolded husband, is triumphant: like Odysseus, he has vanquished his suitors. At the very end, Molly thinks back to the time when Bloom had proposed to her, and she had said Yes. And that word “Yes” rings through the closing pages like a triumphant bell. Twentieth century literature, on the whole, is pretty angst-ridden, but this is jubilant. There is nothing in all literature quite as joyously affirmative as this.


In a recent post, I tried to make the point that we must allow for literature not to be entertaining. But Ulysses is a work which, despite its formidable reputation, entertains: it is sheer fun, even when it is at its most serious, and it is a great irony that this of all books is associated with stuffiness and literary snobbery. It is an amalgam of everything: a single ordinary day in which ordinary people go about their ordinary business is raised to a level where it becomes a depiction of the whole of mankind, through the whole of eternity. But there is nothing self-consciously lofty or elevated in any of this: it is all rooted in the ordinary, the everyday. The achievement is extraordinary. This novel, and Proust’s masterpiece (which Proust left nearly but not quite complete when he died in 1922, the same year that Ulysses was published) carve out the novel between them: there have been fine novelists since, even great novelists, but none has attempted anything quite as insanely ambitious as these two works. All prose fiction since has been under the shadows of these twin peaks of literary achievement. It is all too easy merely to stand in awe before such achievements, but a better response would, I think, be to familiarise oneself with them. One may not understand everything at first reading – or even, perhaps, at the umpteenth reading – but let us not let such minor details get in the way: after a while, the difficulties, far from irritating, merely add to its unending fascination. If ever there was a work to be lived with, this is it.

“It’s all down to personal taste…”

I enjoy talking about books – hence this blog – but whenever I do, I usually find that it’s just a matter of time before someone tells me that “it’s all down to personal taste”. I’m confused. What’s all down to personal taste? One’s personal preference is down to personal taste, absolutely – but that’s just tautology. What else is down to personal taste?

Anyone got any ideas?

“The Turn of the Screw” and “The Innocents”

The explicit is rarely frightening. Disgusting, perhaps, nauseating even, but not really frightening, as such. The best horror stories imply more than they tell. And this made Henry James – who had perfected the art of saying nothing and yet implying everything – ideal for the genre. While it is his contemporary and namesake M. R. James who is more closely associated with the form of the ghost story, Henry James, more closely associated with what are generally reckoned to be more worthy literary forms, also excelled. Indeed, with The Turn of the Screw, he wrote what is perhaps the finest single instance of the genre.

I remember one night reading the whole thing in one sitting. It took a few hours – it’s some 120 pages or so of often quite tortuous prose – but I don’t think any other work of fiction I have encountered has evoked so powerful a sense of supernatural terror. There is a sense of evil lurking about the work.

And yet, nothing is explicitly said. James knew exactly how to drop the subtlest of hints at just the right time, give it just the right weight, and allow the reader’s mind to do all the work. Famously, we aren’t even sure whether the ghosts actually exist.

As with many ghost stories, the story itself is told within another story, and is a first person narration, purporting to be true. Obviously, we may judge that it isn’t: good ghost stories often allow us a get-out clause of some nature. The story may not be true – or, at least, may not be quite what we are told – either because the narrator, an inexperienced young governess, is deliberately lying, or, more probably, because she herself is mentally unbalanced. But of course, the possibility exists that she is neither, and what she tells us is true, and the ghosts really do exist. There is little point in arguing over this point: the very uncertainty concerning how much of this, if any, can be taken at face value contributes to the horror of the thing. For this is horror, there is an immense evil lurking in these pages: the uncertainty lies not in the existence of the evil, but where that evil is coming from.

The story seems to be almost a sort of parody of Jane Eyre. A young, inexperienced governess is sent to a mysterious and rather creepy house. In Jane Eyre, Jane soon meets the master of the house, the domineering male presence of Mr Rochester; falls in love with him, but stands up for her own sense of dignity and worth; and, by the end, once barriers are eventually swept away and they can meet on an equal footing, reader, she marries him. In The Turn of the Screw, the governess also falls in love with the master of the house (although she does not acknowledge this even to herself), but the master makes it abundantly clear that he is going to be absent, and that he wants nothing further to do with the two children in his charge; nor, indeed, with the governess, who is to assume sole and total responsibility. But once there, she finds another male presence – a very dominating male presence, and possibly a substitute for the master who isn’t there: this presence is Peter Quint, the former valet. And Peter Quint is dead.

Although written a few years before Freud’s ground-breaking publications, it is surely no accident that the governess first sees Peter Quint on top of a tower. And another ghost appears – the former governess, Miss Jessel, who is first seen on the far side of a lake. And the governess begins to see, or, perhaps, to imagine, that Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, the former governess and Quint’s lover, are haunting the two children, and are, somehow, feeding their lust for each other beyond death through this diabolic possession. Perhaps.

It is important to add the word “perhaps”, for we can never quite tell what is happening. Everything that terrifies us so is merely suggested, hinted at: nothing is told. What exactly had been the relationship between Quint and Miss Jessel? We are made to believe that he had been a brutal and violent man. And, possibly, that he and Miss Jessel had some sort of sado-masochistic relationship together. And that, somwhow, they had involved the children. The children, these innocents, may already be corrupted. They may, indeed, be not unwilling victims of the possession. And – who knows? – they may even have been involved, perhaps even physically, in the vile and disgusting practices of the former governess and the former valet. Who knows? Nothing is stated clearly.

But either the evil spirits are practising on the innocence of the children, or the governess is. The governess is determined to save the children: she is not entirely sure from what, but she is determined, whether there is anything to be saved from or not. It is for the children, she tells herself, for the children. And maybe it is she who is projecting on to the children her own frustrations, her own sexual neuroses. Once again, nothing is clear. But whatever the truth of the matter, the children are haunted.

Henry James was fascinated by human motivations and by the power struggles humans have with each other, and often presented in his fiction the motif of two people fighting for the possession of a third: we may see this clearly in, say The Bostonians, where Olive Chancellor and Basil Ransome fight for possession of Verena Tarrant, both citing as their motives the welfare of Miss Tarrant, but both harbouring other motives that are far from altruistic. This motif recurs frequently in many of James’ work, until, in his final enigmatic novel The Golden Bowl, we are presented with four figures any two of whom appear to be fighting for possession of a third. In The Aspern Papers, the novella published alongside The Turn of the Screw, we find a twist in the motif: the narrator, a literary scholar, is trying to obtain the letters of the deceased poet Jeffrey Aspern from the poet’s mistress, now an old lady, who is unwilling to part with the documents personal to her: the narrator and the lady, effectively, fight for possession of a dead person. And in The Turn of the Screw, the narrator, the governess, fights for possession of the children against the dead. The motif is recognisably Jamesian, but its expression takes us into areas not often broached by writers of serious literature: the area is that of supernatural terror. And no other story terrifies quite like this. Underneath the apparent gentility of James’ writing there often lurks the deeply sordid, and it is hard to imagine anything more deeply sordid , or, indeed, a greater evil, than what is clearly hinted at here – child abuse. But if the abuse is but imagined, it is she who imagines it who is the source of the sordidness, the source of the evil. That we can never be sure of anything but adds to the horror.

One would think that a work whose effects are so literary would be virtually impossible to translate into another medium, but astonishingly, it has been the source of an opera and of a film, both of the very highest quality. The opera, of course, is Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, a musical and dramatic masterpiece from one of the greatest of twentieth century opera composers. The film version, made in Britain and dating from 1961, is The Innocents: it is directed by Jack Clayton, and deserves, I think, to be better known. If Britten’s version is an operatic masterpiece, then The Innocents is, it seems to me, a cinematic masterpiece of comparable stature.

Jack Clayton had long been fascinated by James’ story, and it had been his ambition to film it. He bought the rights to a play by William Archibald, The Innocents, based on James’ novella, but he wasn’t entirely happy with Archibald’s script: it was too conventional a ghost story, and Clayton wanted something that would more accurately reflect the qualities of James’ original: he wanted the script re-written. Among the early contenders for this job was a young dramatist who had recently made a name for himself – Harold Pinter: Pinter was interested in the project, but was otherwise engaged, so he merely sent Clayton a piece of advice: do not, he said, include flashbacks. The past – whether it’s the past relationship between Quint and Miss Jessel, or their relationship with the children, or the governess’ own past – must be kept mysterious and enigmatic. Then, Clayton found another young and up and coming dramatist, John Mortimer: Mortimer had only two weeks or so to work on the script, but he added some of its finest touches, and was reportedly proud of his contribution to it. (The line spoken by the housekeeper about Quint and Jessel using the rooms of the house as if they were the “wild woods”, and hinting that the children had been present while they had carried on their affair, was, apparently, Mortimer’s work.) Then, Clayton hit the jackpot: he managed to obtain the services of Truman Capote, no less. Capote introduced elements of what is usually called “Southern Gothic”, and the result was a script which, if sensitively directed, photographed and acted, could result in something very special.

For cinematographer, Jack Clayton obtained the services of Freddie Francis, and his black and white photography is astounding. I am not sufficiently knowledgeable about the technical aspects of the art of cinematography to give an account of what it was that Freddie Francis did, but whatever it was he did, it was absolute perfection: those visual images haunt the mind, just as they should, and they keep on haunting the mind long after one has finished watching the film. It is hard to imagine a visual style more suited to the content than this. (Freddie Francis won an Oscar for best cinematography for his work on the film version of Sons and Lovers, made one year after The Innocents. His cinematography on that film was, as ever, of a very high standard, but the Oscar he got for it was, I suppose, Hollywood’s way of saying “Sorry for not giving this to you when you really deserved it.”)

A scene (not necessarily the “scariest”, despite the title in YouTube) from “The Innocents”, copyright 1961 Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment Inc, DVD released by British Film Institute

And then, there was the casting. The uncle of the children, who appears only in the first scene, has to be charismatic: this is the man the governess falls in love with, after all. For a while, Cary Grant seemed interested, but that didn’t work out. However, one cannot complain: this small but vital part was taken by Michael Redgrave, who had all the charm and charisma required for the role, and who played his few minutes on screen to absolute perfection. For the housekeeper, Clayton cast Megs Jenkins, who seemed to have cornered the market for the kindly and warm-hearted housekeeper (she played a similar role in Carol Reed’s Oliver! a few years later). And for the children, Jack Clayton found a remarkable pair – Pamela Franklin as Flora, and, best of all, a young lad called Martin Stephens as Miles, who was, alternately, innocent and vulnerable, and sinister and menacing: it is one of the most remarkable performances I have seen from a child actor. And then, of course, there was the casting of the governess: Deborah Kerr got the part, and it was the part of a lifetime. (Ms Kerr herself considered this her best performance.) Ms Kerr implies, but doesn’t overplay, the governess’ attraction for her employer, her delight in the children, her sense of terror and also her sense of determination, and, as the film progresses, a mounting hysteria. As with everything else in this film, it is hard to imagine this performance improved upon.

There remained the direction. Jack Clayton has always been a dependable director: perhaps, except for this film, he never quite rose to the heights, but he was a master craftsman, and rarely disappointed. Here, when everything was at hand to make the film he had always wanted to make, he gave us more than mere craftsmanship: with extraordinary skill, he translated what had been purely literary effects in James’ novella into cinematic effects. The deep ambiguity, this sense of everything hinted at but nothing ever stated directly or made explicit, and, above all, the sheer sense of supernatural terror – they all find here perfect expression. The pacing is masterly: not a single scene, not a single shot is wasted: the tension, once it starts building, never falters: the screw keeps turning without pause, and the pitch of intensity reached by the end has to be experienced to be believed.

In films such as this where there is a long and deliberate tightening of tension, of steady turns of the screw, there is always the danger that the climactic sequence won’t live up to the build-up, but there is no danger of bathos here. The final sequence, prefaced by those horrendous nerve-jangling screams of the girl Flora, is every bit as horrific as it should be. The governess here finally confronts Miles with what she claims to be the truth, while the ghost of Quint lurks behind. For those who have neither read the book nor seen the film, it would be unfair to give more away, but, while a dramatically satisfying denouement is reached, the mystery at the heart of the story remains unresolved: the horror is not laid to rest.

This is the only horror film I have seen that I find disquieting even after I have finished watching it. When people list the great film-makers, Clayton is unlikely to be mentioned alongside the likes of Chaplin or Welles or Renoir or Bergman, but this single film is, within my personal canon at any rate, as remarkable a cinematic achievement as any, and is easily in my personal Top 5, irrespective of genre.

Recently, the BBC presented us with a dramatisation of The Turn of the Screw as Christmas special: it was embarrassingly inept. Amongst other things, it made you realise how shrewd Harold Pinter’s advice had been not to show any flashbacks: the more you explain, the more you take away from the mysteries at the heart of the story – the mysteries that make this story work. Jack Clayton understood the story well and knew how it worked: the result is, I think, the finest supernatural film based on the finest supernatural story, and one which continues to disturb and to terrify even on repeated viewings.

Why read?

Up! up! my friend, and clear your looks,
Why all this toil and trouble?
Up! up! my friend, and quit your books,
Or surely you’ll grow double.

The sun above the mountain’s head,
A freshening lustre mellow,
Through all the long green fields has spread,
His first sweet evening yellow.

Why is Willie Wordsworth telling us in a book not to read books?

Why read? What’s the point? Let us leave aside textbooks, which we need to pass our exams and get good jobs. Let us also leave aside books of non-fiction – international politics, molecular biology, ancient history, that sort of thing – books from which we may learn things: it is generally agreed that knowledge is a good thing – although, even here, there are dissenters: Charles Clarke, a former Secretary of Education (my italics), publicly questioned while in office the point of learning about a subject such as medieval history. I hate to think what the erudite Mr Clarke may have to say about learning such matters as literature, or art history, or music. Let us focus on literature. Why study it? What is there to study, after all? Why even bother reading it?

I mean, of course, all that arty-farty stuff. All that Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Proust – that stuff we don’t really like, apparently, but pretend to because we are posers. What’s the point? It’s not as if it makes anyone a better person: as we all know, many high-ranking Nazis were tremendously well cultured, and reading Ulysses certainly won’t make anyone more likely to help a blind person across the road. And it’s not going to make anyone richer either. As Mr Clarke so perspicaciously noted, pursuit of what is usually termed “High Culture” ain’t going to contribute to the economy.

This puts those of us who love literature – who, indeed, feel it an indispensable part of our lives – on the defensive. We enjoy it, we say weakly. And as soon as we say this, we open ourselves to a second onslaught. Oh, you enjoy it, do you? Jolly good! So why do you expect us to subsidise your enjoyment? I am not sure how this debate progresses in other countries, but in Britain, at any rate, this is the point when class comes into it, even – or, perhaps, especially – from those with solidly middle-class backgrounds: why should we working people subsidise your middle class enjoyments? Why do you expect us working classes to subsidise your operas and your classical music concerts and your Royal Bloody Shakespeare Companies? At this point, one can either become aggressive oneself in response (as I tend to do); or one may simply hide for cover. But one realises that even though good answers exist – as I think they do in such cases – these answers are complex and subtle, and cannot be expressed when the “debate” comprises of no more than merely an angry exchange of prefabricated soundbites. Which – let us face it – is the standard of virtually all that passes for debate on the net.

So let us try to move away from the volleys of angry soundbites, and consider this matter with a bit more care. Let us, for the moment, restrict ourselves to literature; and, even there, let us restrict ourselves to what we may term “imaginative literature” – i.e. poetry, drama, fiction – the sort of thing often denounced as a waste of time or, at best, a mere diversion or an entertainment, and considered of no greater value than any other type of diversion or entertainment. Why read these books? The answer may not be easy, but the question, however tentatively, however uncertainly, needs to be addressed.

For me, the greatest literary artists are those whose visions pierce beyond the surface of things – the “pasteboard masks”, as Ahab calls them:

All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event – in the living act, the undoubted deed – there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall?

The greatest of literary artists see things beyond the surface, and, furthermore, have the skill to communicate something of what they see. This doesn’t often make for easy reading, or even for comfortable reading, or, indeed, for any kind of reading at all that can reasonably be classed as “entertainment”. But it can make for rewarding reading. Such works are rewarding because by giving the reader glimpses beyond the pasteboard masks, beyond what is merely visible on the surface, they open up areas of thought and of feeling that would otherwise have been inaccessible.

Of course, not every reader will respond equally to every writer’s vision. For instance, I find myself responding keenly to the artistic vision of a Tolstoy or a Dickens, and also, increasingly, despite grave reservations and for reasons I find difficult to articulate, to Dostoyevsky; I find myself utterly in thrall to the dramas of Shakespeare and the poetry of Tagore; Wordsworth, Ibsen, Yeats, Chekhov, Greek tragedy, Eliot’s Middlemarch and Joyce’s Ulysses, and many, many others, are all, I find, very close to me. On the other hand, I find it hard to feel much for Austen except a somewhat grudging admiration from a respectful and decorous distance; I have ambivalent feelings about Hardy; D. H. Lawrence I simply do not understand; and the works of Woolf, I am sorry to say, I find merely tedious. Everyone will have their own lists of what they find themselves responding to or not responding to – inevitably so, as we all have different personalities, and different perceptions, the differences often subtle and nuanced. And, as we grow and develop over time, what we respond to can change even as we change as people; sometimes, what we read may even be the agents of this change. But one has, I think, to trust each other’s judgement (and I mean judgement, and not merely unthinking opinion, of which there is no shortage), and accept that something may be of great value, even if one cannot immediately see that value for oneself. This is why discussion on such matters is so important: without discussion, without exchanging our thoughts and perceptions with each other, and refining our own thoughts and our perceptions in the process, we may well become imprisoned within the limitations of our own minds. The internet should, in theory, be the ideal platform for such exchanges, instead of the vapid exchange of soundbites it all too frequently is.

If all this makes the reading of literature sound very difficult – well, it is. Let us not pretend otherwise. Let us not pretend that the masterpieces of Tolstoy or of Dickens are merely stories to be lightly enjoyed, much as one might enjoy, say, airport thrillers. Let us not pretend that it’s all simply “entertainment”: it isn’t.

Does it follow, then, that the likes of Tolstoy or Dickens are somehow superior to “mere entertainment”? No, I don’t think so. In the first place, I wouldn’t attach the adjective “mere” to the word “entertainment”. Dickens himself started his literary career as a “mere” entertainer, and, even in his most artistically sophisticated works, he never forgot the importance of “mere” entertainment: art and entertainment are not necessarily incompatible. But they can be, and we must allow for that. And if any reader, out of personal choice, prefers “mere” entertainment to profundity of vision, then that is an entirely valid choice to make. But the other choice is valid also.

However, it is hardly a matter of one or the other: a lover of Middlemarch may well enjoy rousing adventure stories, and the lover of hard-boiled detective thrillers may thrill also to the depth of insight of a Gustave Flaubert. Sometimes, the same work can serve several different purposes simultaneously: a work such as Pride and Prejudice can delight those who look merely upon the surface, and can also reward those who peer beneath. Whatever boundary there is between artistry and entertainment is porous to such a degree that the boundary itself should not, perhaps, be insisted upon. But it doesn’t follow that all books should be judged solely or even primarily on their ability to entertain; and neither does it follow that books that entertain should be privileged above those that don’t, but which, nonetheless, have riches of a different sort to offer.

For if the entertainment value of a book is privileged above other aspects; or if, as is sometimes the case, the very validity of these other aspects is denied; then we inevitably, I think, end up sidelining serious literature away from the mainstream. This is because those books that set out to do more than merely divert are often difficult books, and require effort from the reader. Reading, after all, is not a passive activity: where the content is complex, or intricate, or profound, the reader has to make what is often an immense effort to engage with it. But if that which requires effort and that which doesn’t are deemed to be of comparable value, then there is no reason, and certainly no incentive, for anyone to tackle books of the former category in preference to the latter; or, should they do so, give books of the former category the attention and the effort they demand. I fear we may have already arrived at such a state.

But let us hope my fears are unjustified: after all, the barbarians were always thought be at the gates. But in answer to the question “Why read serious literature?” we should, instead of offering the weak reply “it entertains”, be vociferous in proclaiming that imaginative literature, at its best, is capable of enriching our lives, and that we have developed means so sophisticated to make our lives richer is among the defining marks of our civilisation itself. As Wordsworth himself no doubt knew, reading his poetry in the seclusion of one’s study can be every bit as enriching as experiencing at first hand the evening sun’s “freshening lustre mellow”.

Translations of Tagore: a retraction

Back in the early days of this blog, I wrote a piece on Tagore, and, in the process, made some rude comments about translations into English. I made similar comments in the Guardian books blog recently, in response to certain denigratory comments about Tagore made by certain other posters who did not have access to the original. (I posted under the name HimadriC, an abbreviation of my own name, Himadri Chatterjee.) And, quite rightly, I was taken to task by Ketaki Kushari Dyson, who has translated Tagore’s poetry to much critical and public acclaim. Needless to say, I apologised profusely and unreservedly. I apologised not merely for the sake of politeness: I realised that I had been wrong.

One problem is that when something that is precious to me, something that I value – indeed, something that I know is of inestimable value – is denigrated, and unfairly denigrated at that, it is difficult not to point out that the denigrator knows the work only at second hand, and, thus, is not in the best position to pass judgement. Another problem is that those of us who are so in thrall to the mesmerising verbal music of the originals – a verbal music that is impossible to convey into another language, not due to any shortcoming of translators, but because of the inherent differences between languages – are always reluctant to consider alternative versions of that which they love so much. We are too close to these works, too emotionally attached to them, to judge translations with any objectivity. For instance, I love what I have read of Rilke’s poetry in translation, but I am sure that those who know Rilke in German will wonder  why the hell I am applauding these works, not knowing them in the original versions. And were I to be critical of Rilke, I am sure I would be told not to judge merely on the basis of translations.

But, as Ms Dyson quite correctly points out, the translations aren’t intended for those who do not need them. It is not to be expected that the poetry of Tagore can find an exact equivalent in another language – any more than, say, the poetry of Donne or of Leopardi or of Heine. But if translations can convey even something of the originals, then, however much those who love the works in the original may cavil, the effort is not only worthwhile, but to be applauded.

And yet it hurts all the same to see these works denigrated or belittled by those who have never encountered their magic at first hand. To commemorate the recent 150th anniversary of Tagore’s birth, JC asked rhetorically in the Times Literary Supplement: “Who reads Rabindranath Tagore now?” Well, only a few million Bengalis mate, but presumably they don’t count. And similarly, I guess those who read the translations don’t count either. I wonder if JC would ever have posed the question “Who reads Akhmatova now?” It would have been equally foolish. But, presumably, Tagore is fair game because he is only an Indian writer who insisted on writing in one of those funny little languages they have over there.

It is distressing to read denigratory comments not merely from the JCs of this world, but also from the distinguished literary figures such as Vladimir Nabokov, or Jorge Luis Borges, or Graham Greene (who wondered whether there was anyone apart from WB Yeats who still took Tagore seriously). Philip Larkin writes in one of his letters: “An Indian has written to ask what I think of Rabindrum Tagore. Feel like sending him a telegram: ‘Fuck all. Larkin.’” Anyone close to these works is bound to feel some degree of hurt, and, under such circumstances, translators, very unfairly, become suitable scapegoats.

So I would like, as a sort of apology for my previous comments, to retract publicly what I had said previously, both on the Guardian Books blog and here, about translations of Tagore. One should applaud and welcome further translations: each translation is, after all, an act of interpretation, and with literature of such quality, no single interpretation can be definitive. These translations won’t be for Bengali-speakers, so our opinions on the matter really don’t count: we have the originals to read, after all. What does matter is the number of non-Bengali-speakers who, thanks to the efforts of Ms Dyson and her colleagues, are brought closer to this astonishing body of work.

Initial impressions of Dante’s “Inferno”

It is presumptuous to set out to “review” something such as Dante’s Inferno. Even at best, what one reviews is not so much the poem itself, but one’s reactions to the poem. Entire  books can be written – indeed, have been written – about how this poem, or the larger poem of which this is but the first part, has echoed through the arts and literatures of the Western world through the centuries; it is so permanent a fixture in the culture of the Western world that anything other than scholarly exegesis appears pointless. For what can I, a mere novice to this work, encountering it for the first time (and in translation at that) in my 50s, say anything at all that could possibly be of interest to anyone else?

But that is one of the beauties of the internet: one may make the most vapid and thoughtless statements about the most intricate and complex of works, and it can count as a “review”. During my first forays into the cyberworld all those years ago, it used, I remember, to irritate me to read that Hamlet was not too bad once you sort of got into it, or that Anna Karenina had boring patches that really sucked, or that it was really kind of hard to get into Great Expectations, or identify with any of the characters in Madame Bovary, and so on. Nowadays, such comments tend to amuse me, although I still wonder why people who appear to have so little understanding of what literature is should feel the need to pass judgement on public fora on matters that clearly go far above their heads, and be so utterly lacking in humility as to imagine themselves capable of seeing through works that generations of the finest minds have revered to the point of idolatry.

But now, it seems, I am about to join their ranks: I am about to write what passes on the net as a “review” of a work that, frankly, went over my head, but which has been intensely admired across generations and across cultures by the most refined of tastes and by the most acute of intellects. So yes, Dante’s Inferno really was kind of hard to get into, the boring patches really did suck, it was hard to identify with any of the characters, but, for all that, once you did get into it, it really wasn’t too bad. And if that reads like a poor attempt at satire (which it is), it’s only fair to warn the reader beforehand that what follows is unlikely to be much better. But I did set up this blog to record my thoughts on my reading, and so I might as well get down to it.

The first issue I had to grapple with was how I should take this. Taking it literally was, of course, quite out of the question: indeed, Dante himself used the word “allegory” to describe this poem, although I am not sufficiently knowledgeable about early 14th century Italian culture to know what Dante may have meant by the word. But that still leaves open the question: as a reader in the early 21st century, if I cannot take this work literally, how should I take it? If it is indeed an allegory, what is it an allegory of?

The question remained an open one in the early cantos, in which one is carried along by the sheer vividness of the images: that fearful forest in which the poet is lost half-way through the path of life; the wolf and the lion, and the leopard that allures even as it terrifies; these are all, even at first reading, striking, to say the least. And, famously, the pagan poet Virgil is Dante’s guide. As with every other aspect of this poem, this has been endlessly discussed, but one reason for making Virgil his guide is surely to acknowledge Virgil’s influence. As in Milton’s poetry, the imaginative world of this poem seems at least classical as it is Christian: the Styx, Charon, the Gorgons – all these figures from classical mythology reappear, and the Sixth Book of Virgil’s Aeneid, with its depiction of a journey into the pagan Underworld, never seems too far away.

But somehow, the world medieval Christianity seems more distant to us now than does the classical world. What are we nowadays to make of all these people – many of them real people – assigned by a Christian God to everlasting torment? I think I got a semblance of an answer to this in the famous fifth canto, in which the adulterous Francesca and her lover Paolo, clasped tightly together, whirl aimlessly in the winds. Dante’s reactions are sympathetic: he records that he swoons after hearing Francesca’s story. There is certainly no indication that he approves of the divine punishment meted out to the guilty lovers: and yet, here they are in Hell: no matter how sympathetic Dante may be, God presumably isn’t.

But this does not seem to me so much a critique, nor even a vindication, of God’s judgement: that’s more Milton’s theme than Dante’s. For Francesca’s fate brought to mind another literary adulteress – Emma Bovary: I remembered particularly that scene where she, clasped close in sexual embrace to her lover Léon in a carriage with the blinds drawn down, whirl aimlessly for hour after hour through the streets of Rouen.  And it seemed to me that Dante was depicting in his allegorical manner what Flaubert depicted a few centuries afterwards – the Hell we make for ourselves by our own actions. Sometimes, the Hell we make is made by evil deeds; at other times, as with Francesca da Rimini, or, indeed, with Emma Bovary, the Hell is created by foolishness, by failure to understand things rightly. Some other times, as with Anna Karenina, Hell is created because these people, being who they are, could not do otherwise.

This, I am sure, is far from the only way to read the Inferno. It may not even be the most rewarding way to read it, as it no doubt obscures other equally important approaches. But, at my first reading, it worked for me. Only by relating this poem to literature with which I was already familiar could I make some sense out of it. The sins that have brought these people into this Hell are, to a lesser or greater extent, a betrayal of their potential as humans: Francesca, for instance, did not understand the meaning of love. She speaks the word “amor” often – “amor”, love, has brought her, she says, to this, but, like Flaubert’s Emma, she has but a faint understanding of what the word means. And even out of this is Hell created.

We later meet with characters who have committed deeds far more heinous, but at each instance, they either misunderstood or ignored or pretended not to know the diverse potentials of humanity. I was even reminded at times of Ibsen’s late masterpiece John Gabriel Borkman, in which Ella Rentheim accuses Borkman of that one crime for which, she says, there can be no forgiveness – the killing of love in another person. In their different ways, the inmates of Dante’s Inferno have all killed love – even Francesca, who insists that it was love that had brought her here.

We meet with all sorts of evil here. Shakespeare’s Macbeth had been happy to “skip the life to come”: he had been concerned only with “here, but here, upon this bank and shoal of time”. Lady Macbeth too had been concerned with “here, but here”: she had desired so complete a darkness to descend upon the earth that even her knife should not see the wound it makes. But by the time the play ends, they are both in Hell: existence for Macbeth is a meaningless tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, this bank and shoal of time no more than a futile eternity, with each day undifferentiated from the day that had preceded it, or the day that will follow; and Lady Macbeth, who had called upon darkness to envelop the world, has to have a light always about her, for her Hell, as she knows, is “murky”. To experience this play is not to take satisfaction of two wicked characters getting their come-uppance: rather, it is to share in the overwhelming horror of the Hell these humans have made. And it is this same sense of overwhelming horror one finds in the Inferno in its most sombre passages. It is the Hell we create when we fail to understand what we, as humans, may be.

Reading over that last paragraph, that final sentence strikes me as too schematic a summary of a work of great complexity. However, complexity cannot be grasped in its entirety – at least, not at first reading; so simplification, sadly, is inevitable. But how can such simplification account for those many passages of crude, knockabout humour and comic-strip horrors that are also apparent here? I wish I knew. For Dante’s Inferno isn’t always sombre, and if some parts make us laugh, it may be reasonable to infer that Dante intended us to laugh.

But if the Hell we make for ourselves is the Hell that comes about when we betray our human potential, then how do we account for the famous Canto of Ulysses? In Canto 26, we meet the great hero of Homer’s Odyssey, and who is also, suitably transformed, the hero of Joyce’s Ulysses. But unlike the other classical figures, he is not in Limbo: he is in Hell. Why? His lines are some of the most magnificent in all literature, and, in a famous chapter in If This is a Man, Primo Levi’s account of his experiences in Auschwitz, Levi relates how, even in the midst of the very real Hell which he had inhabited, these lines had suddenly seemed to him the most important thing in the world:

  “O frati”, dissi “che per cento milia
perigli siete giunti a l’occidente,
a questa tanto picciola vigilia

d’i nostri sensi ch’è del rimanente
non vogliate negar l’esperïenza,
di retro al sol, del mondo sanza gente.

Considerate la vostra semenza:
fatti non foste a viver come bruti,
ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza”.

   “Brothers”, I said, “a hundred thousand
perils have you passed and reached the Occident.
for us, so little time remains to keep

   the vigils of our living sense. Do not
deny your will to win experience,
behind the sun, of worlds where no man dwells.

   hold clear in your thought your seed and origin.
You were not made  to live as mindless brutes,
but go in search of virtue and true knowledge.”

(Translated by Robin Kirkpatrick)

This is the voice of the questing Faust, of Prometheus. It is not hard to see why a passage such as this should have made so great an impact on the Romantics. Here is the origin of one of Tennyson’s most splendid poems, but Tennyson’s view of Ulysses was unambiguously admiring: Dante’s isn’t. His Ulysses, after all, is in Hell.

It is not, I think, that Dante does not see the glory or the heroism of Ulysses’ striving:  were that the case, he couldn’t have given Ulysses lines so magnificent and so heroic. But Dante also knows that Ulysses, in his heroic striving, has broken bonds that should be precious:

né dolcezza di figlio, né la pieta
del vecchio padre, né ‘l debito amore
lo qual dovea Penelopè far lieta,

vincer potero dentro a me l’ardore…

   … no tenderness for son, no duty owed
To ageing fatherhood, no love that should
Have brought my wife Penelope delight, 

   Could overcome in me my long desire… 

(Translated by Robin Kirkpatrick)

This image of the man who sacrifices all for his striving towards an ideal is also familiar to us: he may be heroic, as is Ibsen’s Brand, or Dr Stockmann in An Enemy of the People; but he is also dangerous. By the time this figure appears in The Wild Duck, he is Gregers Werle, a fanatic, a man who is, perhaps, mentally unstable. And all these aspects are in Dante’s Ulysses: the striving is heroic, magnificent, but, as Ibsen was to know, even that can create its own Hell.

In the final canto, Dante and Virgil come face to face with the Devil himself. But this is not, I think, the climactic section of the poem. The Devil here is not like Milton’s Satan: there is nothing about this figure that intrigues of fascinates. Later generations could speak of Milton being on the Devil’s side without knowing it, but such a comment could not be made about Dante. To Dante, evil is unremarkable – mere brute, lumpen stupidity, lacking in any feature that may, even superficially, be considered attractive. The climactic point of Inferno had, I think, come in the previous canto, with its grotesque picture of Count Ugolino and Archbishop Ruggieri in the frozen lake, the former gnawing for all eternity into the latter’s brain. Such an image may be so grotesque as to appear comic, but it there isn’t a trace here even of black comedy, any more than there is of fascination. For Dante, evil wasn’t fascinating: it was merely nauseating, disgusting, a perversion of all that humans are capable of  being.


Given my very limited acquaintance with a work one could spend one’s entire life studying, I really don’t know that I can give anything more than a record of some initial impressions. Having come to this work relatively late in life, I doubt I’ll ever get to know it as well as I should. Certainly, there was much at this first reading that I found puzzling, that went way over my head. But one has to live with that: one can’t give everything the attention they deserve. In the meantime I think I’ll give Dante a bit of a rest before moving on to the Purgatorio. No doubt, there will be much there also that will go over my head, but perhaps a little learning need not be so a dangerous thing when one is aware of how little that learning is!

People don’t do such things!

At the end of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, when it is revealed what Hedda has done, Judge Brack says: “But people don’t do such things!” And on that note of incredulity, the curtain descends.

It is very daring to end the play on that note – especially a play such as this, which, despite its various poetic images and its symbolism, is set in a realistic milieu and depicts a very solid, realistic world. Those last words leave us wondering to what extent what we have just witnessed played out before us actually is realistic. Do people really do such things? The worldly-wise Judge Brack certainly doesn’t think so. And if we too cannot believe that people do such things, does that not throw doubt upon the verisimilitude of the drama? Does that not undermine the drama itself? No doubt. We are invited to share, should we so wish, Judge Brack’s scepticism about it all, but with the difference that Judge Brack, as a character in the play, has no option, despite his scepticism, but to accept that people actually do do such things, whereas we, the paying audience watching actors on stage, have the option of dismissing it all as wildly improbable flights of the dramatist’s imagination. We have the option of walking out of the theatre thinking the drama absurd, and agreeing with Judge Brack: people don’t do such things.

But don’t they? One need only flick through the local or the national news headlines to see that people do all sorts of things that are outrageous, bizarre, grotesque, and really quite unthinkable. Indeed, there seems no limit to what people are capable of doing. And if literature is to hold up a mirror to nature, then it must  reflect also the extremes of human behaviour, even though these extremes may upset the sensibilities of the Judge Bracks of this world.

What is it that people won’t do? Murder people merely to prove to oneself that one is capable of murder? Or even that one is within one’s moral rights to commit murder? That may be unthinkable, but there really have been Raskolnikovs in this world, who have murdered for precisely such reasons. Or is it believable that a woman deserted by her partner could wreak revenge by butchering her own children in cold blood? Thankfully, that is unthinkable for the vast majority of us, but there have been Medeas also in real life. Dostoyevsky, Euripides, and others, knew quite well that there is nothing – absolutely nothing – that people aren’t capable of, that people won’t do. Such behaviour may be extreme, but there is no reason why such extremes should not be addressed in serious literature.

One particular event in fiction that is frequently criticised on this score comes towards the end of Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. Those who have read this novel will know exactly which event I refer to: I won’t ruin it for those who haven’t, as the sheer sense of shock of that moment needs to be experienced at first hand. But, for many readers, the novel loses credibility at that point: people just don’t do such things, they say. Well, my guess is they do. Jude the Obscure may be a flawed novel in certain respects, but that particular chapter is not, I think, amongst the flaws. It is, on the contrary, amongst the most powerful things I have come across in fiction.

Human beings are endlessly fascinating in their variety. One of the reasons I find myself turning to fiction is to arrive at a greater understanding and a greater appreciation of this seemingly infinite and bewildering variety. While extreme behaviour, by definition, is not the norm, it is till part of that extraordinarily wide spectrum of all that is human, and we must, I think, allow novelists and dramatists to depict the full range of this spectrum. That no doubt makes for extremely uncomfortable reading, but one shouldn’t really expect literature merely to comfort us. People don’t do such things? It may be comforting to imagine they don’t, but Ibsen, unlike his creation Judge Brack, knew better.