Archive for August, 2011

My problems with science fiction

I’m not sure why it is that I’ve never been attracted to science fiction. It’s not because of its element of fantasy: I am more than happy to read ghost stories, say, or Gothic horror. But science fiction films (most of which, aficionados tell me, isn’t science fiction at all) hold little attraction for me, and science fiction books I have generally given a wide berth. I really do not know why: some quirk in my personality, no doubt. This is the point when aficionados tell me that Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is science fiction, as is Huxley’s Brave New World. As, indeed, is Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, or even Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Trying my best not to get drawn into an argument about matters on which I know nothing, I usually nod away politely, and utter a non-committal “perhaps”, or even a “yes, I might try some out some day”, knowing full well that I won’t: with so much out there to read (and indeed to re-read), and with only one inadequate lifetime at one’s disposal, reading books I don’t for whatever reason really fancy does seem a bit pointless.

I do admit also that I often get put off by some of the claims made for the genre by its aficionados – claims that aren’t made for other genres such as, say, horror, or westerns. Some of the finest literature of the last hundred years, I’m told, has been science fiction, and the only reason this isn’t accepted by mainstream literati is snobbery. Once again, I do not know enough about science fiction writing to comment on this, but I don’t think authors such as, say, Philip K. Dick or Arthur Clarke or Ursula le Guin or Isaac Asimov have been sidelined: these are all respected writers. Their books are all widely available, widely read, and widely admired. That I, personally, am not particularly interested, says nothing.

But recently, I have indeed been reading a science fiction book, on the exhortation of a good friend – although how much longer he’ll remain a friend given my reaction to this book remains, perhaps, to be seen. But let us not anticipate.

The book is Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon. How representative it is of science fiction in general, I cannot tell: I am happy to accept that science fiction is too wide-ranging for any single book to be representative of the whole. But that this book is widely admired, and considered a classic of the genre, cannot be denied. On the cover is a quote by Arthur C. Clarke: “Probably the most powerful work of the imagination ever written.” Phew! Given the extraordinary list of towering works of the imagination written across the centuries, this one must be special indeed to be given such praise! “It is magnificent. Almost unbearable”, write Brian Aldiss and David Wingrove. Aldiss also contributes an introduction to my edition, and cites “Dante and the author of Paradise Lost” amongst writers who “helped form Stapledon’s characteristic utterance”. And praise has come from other sources as well: admirers of this book have included Virginia Woolf (“it seems to me that you are grasping ideas that I have tried to express, much more fumblingly”, she writes in a letter to the author); Jorge Luis Borges (“Stapledon’s literary imagination was almost boundless” … “A prodigious novel”); and Doris Lessing. Even if no single book can represent the whole of science fiction, it seems to me not unreasonable to assume that this book is representative at least of the literary heights to which science fiction, as a literary genre, may reach.

The novel starts with the narrator somehow being whisked away from earth. The narrator is not characterised. He leaves behind his wife and family, and he tells us at one point that he misses them. But they are not characterised either. We are told of the narrator’s longing for home and for his family, but no attempt is made to communicate any of these emotions to the reader.

The narrator then travels through time and through space, through a variety of galaxies in different stages of formation, and makes contact with and observes a wide variety of life forms and of living species. At his first stop, he picks up a companion for his travels. His name is Bvalltu. He is not characterised either. No-one is characterised. When other life-forms are observed, there is never any attempt even to introduce any single individual figure: all life-forms encountered are reported on en masse. There is no room here for character, for individuality, for relationships, or, indeed, for anything that I, for one, recognise as human.

Each life-form is described dispassionately. We are given precise reasons as to why they developed the way they did; why evolution on their planet took the course that it did; and so on. Everything has a clear and rational explanation. All life forms are as they are because, given the conditions, they could not have evolved otherwise.

All this is written in the sort of prose one might expect in a textbook – clear, precise, unenlivened at any point by wit or by humour, unrelieved by lyricism or by poetry. I gather that this book has a reputation of being poetic, and of containing a vision of the universe that is wondrous and awe-inspiring. I appreciate that I still have some 50 or so pages to go, but I’d be grateful if anyone could point out to me passages that are poetic, or which inspire a sense of awe, because, so far, I have missed them. I can’t really see how any sense of mystery or awe can be evoked when every phenomenon observed is given a precise and rational reason.

William Blake famously wrote of seeing the world in a grain of sand, but Stapledon does it the other way round: he looks at the entire universe and finds only a grain. Far from finding any sense of awe, I find merely a somewhat disdainful look at humanity, denying it any significance at all. Here, for instance, is Stapledon’s potted view of humanity:

We saw Man on his little Earth blunder through many alternating phases of dullness and lucidity, and again abject dullness. From epoch to epoch his bodily shape changed as a cloud changes. We watched him in his desperate struggle with Martian invaders; and then, after a moment that included further ages of darkness and of light, we saw him driven, by dread of the moon’s downfall, away to inhospitable Venus. Later still, after an aeon that was a mere sigh in the lifetime of the cosmos, he fled before the exploding sun to Neptune, there to sink back into mere animality for further aeons again. But then he climbed once more and reached his finest intelligence, only to be burnt like a moth in a flame by an irresistible catastrophe.

There you go, mate – that’s yer lot.

I think I get the picture. Mankind is insignificant. We are all insignificant. There are and have been and will be many other life forms, some primitive, some equivalent to humanity, some far more advanced scientifically, spiritually, and morally, but none of that matters because they’re all insignificant and can be wiped out in a trice. Now, some may think this a profound vision, but I must admit I don’t: after trawling through 250 pages of such plodding prose (in which the poetic imagination does not rise further than such lazy clichés as comparing the extinction of mankind to the burning of a moth in the flame), I do feel entitled to a bit more than this.

I do wish, if only for the sake of friendship, that I could find something positive to say about my experience so far of this book. Maybe it’ll all turn round in the last 50 pages. Near the end, in Chapter 15, I gather, the narrator will come into contact with the great Star Maker himself (that’s God to most of us). Aldiss in the introduction writes of this chapter:

Where does one look in all English prose for a parallel with the magnificent Chapter 15?

Well, there is, of course, that passage in the Book of Job in which God speaks from the whirlwind: it reads rather impressively in the King James Version. Or there’s the 11th chapter of the Bhagavad Gita, in which Krishna reveals His divine power to Arjuna: there are several English translations of this which are magnificent. But if none of them can parallel what Stapledon achieves in his Chapter 15, then that Chapter 15 must be remarkable indeed. But after the 200 pages of utter tedium I have ploughed through so far, I can’t say I am holding my breath.

Well, let’s leave it there. Tempting though it is, I really should not judge the entire genre of science fiction from this single book. But for all that, the extravagant praise heaped upon this work inevitably makes me sceptical when I read similarly extravagant praise heaped on other science fiction books.

I am obviously missing something here. Maybe I want novels – or, for that matter, plays, poems, short stories – to have a human presence. Human beings are, after all, endlessly varied and fascinating, and I want writers to reveal to me something of that endlessly varied fascination. Maybe the vision of humanity as small and utterly insignificant really is a profound vision, and that it is I who am too dull to see it as such. Maybe the prose that I find merely plodding really is beautiful and poetic to the eye that can behold it as such. Maybe I come to literature with certain expectations that are unwarranted, and thus have no right to feel disappointed when these unwarranted expectations are not met. Well, yes, yes, and yes to all of that: I am happy to accept that the fault is with me, and not with the writer. But wherever the fault lies, I am no way inclined to give the genre of science fiction another go. Life is not long enough.

Reading plays

Plays, I keep being told, are intended to be seen, not read. Which perturbs me, as I rather enjoy reading plays.

Of course, we can accept that plays were intended to be seen, but where exactly is the evidence that they were not also intended to be read? As far as I know, playwrights are, and were, happy to have their works published. Ibsen, apparently, spent much time preparing his texts for publication. Shaw put various witticisms into what were nominally the stage directions, thus making them available only to the reader, not the viewer. In addition, he wrote long, prefatory essays to all his plays. Would he really have gone to such trouble if he did not expect his plays to be read? And even Shakespeare, I think, intended his plays to be read: a number of his plays were published in good editions within his own lifetime (the “Good Quartos”, as they are known), and it seems very unlikely that these texts could have been published without, at the very least, Shakespeare’s approval.

But even if evidence were to be produced that, on the whole, dramatists did not wish their plays to be read – the question remains: “So what?” Ibsen had written Brand and Peer Gynt specifically to be read rather than to be performed (which is why both plays are far too long for a single evening’s performance); does this make it wrong for us to perform shortened versions of these works on stage? Surely the pragmatic answer is that if it works on stage, then, regardless of what the author may or may not have intended, stage it. And this principle seems to me to work the other way round as well: even if a play intended solely for the stage, if it works when read, then, by all means, read it. Speaking from personal experience, a great many plays can and do work very well when read rather than seen. Of course, one does need a bit of practice: one needs to be able to visualise the setting, and one needs to be able to imagine how the lines are to be delivered. But there’s no obstacle here that a bit of imagination on the reader’s part cannot overcome.

I think the main reason for reading plays is that if one doesn’t, one misses out on some very important and rewarding chunks of literature. Not everyone lives within easy reach of theatres, and, even if one did, playgoing is such an expensive treat these days, not too many could afford to go regularly. Also, there are many plays of the finest quality that are rarely, if ever, performed. And, of course, even if they are performed, there’s no guarantee that the production will be good enough to do justice to the original material. If one’s knowledge of drama were to be restricted only to what one sees in the theatre, then that knowledge is bound to be very restricted.

But most importantly, perhaps, how much of the substance of a difficult play can one take in at a single viewing? There are, after all, many novels and poems and short stories that require repeated readings: plays are not different, I think, in this respect. If a single reading of a difficult Henry James novel, say, is not adequate to take in its many subtleties, then why should a single viewing of a difficult Henrik Ibsen play be considered sufficient?

This seems to me particularly true of what is generally agreed to be the finest body of dramatic work in the English language. Shakespeare’s language is difficult: there is no getting round that. And it is not to denigrate the experience of watching a good performance of a Shakespeare play to say that one really comes to grips with the language when pondered upon  in one’s study at one’s leisure, rather than heard in the theatre at the speed of sound.

I have been fortunate in having seen many fine productions of some very great plays, but even so, I think I can only really get to know a play properly by reading and re-reading. I have, for instance, seen some wonderful performances of Ibsen’s The Master Builder: over the years, I have seen this role played by Brian Cox, Timothy West, Alan Bates, and Patrick Stewart. And yes, all of them shed new light upon this difficult and elusive work. On the other hand, in all these years, I don’t think I have seen a single production of Macbeth in the theatre that I have been entirely happy with. Either way, the only way really to get to grips with works such as Macbeth or The Master Builder is to read them. Good productions will give you good interpretations, and bad productions will give you bad ones – but only when one reads a play for one’s own self does one get the opportunity to put together one’s own interpretation. Indeed, some of the most satisfying interpretations I have experienced have been from performances going on in my own head as I have been reading.

(My recent production of Antony and Cleopatra, by the way, was a cracker – it brought the house down!)

On escapism

What is it that makes me feel so uncomfortable to see the act of reading described as “escapism”?

The most obvious answer is that serious literature isn’t escapism. Serious literature is about real life, or it’s about nothing at all. Indeed, it can sometimes be quite the opposite of “escapism”: it can force the reader to face and to engage with matters they may prefer not to. The term “escapism” in this context seems to me not merely inadequate, but grossly misleading

But what about reading that isn’t serious?  Here again, I’m not sure that “escapism” is the right word. No-one will claim, I think, that the Sherlock Holmes stories or the novels of P. G. Wodehouse count as serious literature, and, yes, I find it an unmitigated delight to enter into these marvellous fictional worlds. But do I do so because I want to escape from my real life? No, I really don’t think so.

On literature and soaps

What should I blog about now, I wonder? Should I blog about the recent London riots? Of course, I have my views and opinions – strong ones at that – but since I have no particular knowledge to offer of their causes, nor any particular insight into wider political or sociological significance, let me not add to the cacophony. Let me continue instead to muse on how we talk about books.

All too frequently, when discussing books, we fall back on set formulae, to set words and expressions, without giving sufficient thought to what we mean by them. So we describe certain writing as, say, “sentimental”, or as “melodramatic”, without thinking clearly about what precisely these terms mean, what we take them to mean, how the reader may be expected to interpret them, and why such qualities should be Good or Bad Things. I am not, incidentally, excluding myself from criticism on this point: I am as guilty as anyone of using expressions  indequately defined, and passing judgement merely on such inadequate basis. But my purpose in focusing on this issue here is not to point an accusing finger at anyone, but to come to a better understanding of how we read books, how we talk about books, and how we judge books.

One expression often used when talking about books is, I find, “soap opera”. I have seen works even of the quality of Hamlet or Anna Karenina described as “soap operas” – sometimes approvingly, sometimes not. When the BBC dramatised Bleak House a few years ago, they presented it in the format of a soap opera (twice weekly episodes of thirty minutes each occupying the slot normally reserved for Eastenders), they all seemed to fall over themselves to tell us at every possible opportunity that Bleak House really was the soap opera of its day. And yet, predictably, there is never the slightest effort to articulate just what it is about these works that makes them resemble soap operas.

To address this question adequately, one needs first of all to analyse soap operas, and identify their distinguishing marks. And here, I find myself at a disadvantage, since I do not watch soaps, and nor have the slightest interest in doing so, even for the purpose of research. I gather that there is a considerable variety within soaps: there are those whose opinions I trust who tell me that Coronation Street, for instance, is often very well-written. I do not doubt them, although it’s worth remarking tangentially that “well-written”, like its sister expression “badly written”, is yet another of those expressions we often use when talking about books that communicate precisely nothing. But “well-written” though some soaps may be, soap opera is just not a genre that interests me, and, given how hard-pressed I am to find time even to keep up with what I like, I am not in any great rush to spend time with something the very thought of which leaves me, at best, indifferent, and, at worst … well, let’s not go into that here: being myself an aficionado of Hammer horror films, I am in no position to look down my nose at tastes I do not share.

Furthermore, soaps come in different colours: there are those soaps that present sensational events – armed sieges, kidnappings, murder, long-lost relatives turning up, etc. There are others that focus, some would say doggedly, on the everyday. How can such a variety be comfortably accommodated within a single category?

But there is one salient element common to all soap operas that is apparent even to non-viewers such as myself: soaps – at least, the ones shown on British television – are not conceived or written with any end in sight. The series is intended to continue for as long as there are sufficient numbers of people watching, and the plug will only be pulled (as was notoriously the case with Eldorado back in the early 90s) when viewing figures are judged to be irreparably low. Once again, I am at a disadvantage here for not watching soaps, but I would guess that while skilful writers may be able to give a sense of dramatic structure to individual episodes, I cannot see how, given the lack of an end towards which the drama is moving, any shape or structure can be applied across wider spans.This in itself makes soap unlike any work of literature: a play or a novel, no matter how long, no matter how far the end may be from the start, is, nonetheless, a discrete unity, and can, therefore, even across long spans, be structured; I’d be happy to be corrected by those who know soaps better than I do, but I cannot see how long term structure can be possible within a drama that is intended to continue indefinitely. War and Peace or Bleak House, long though they are, are carefully paced and structured over their considerable lengths in a way that, given their formats, is not possible with Eastenders or with Coronation Street.

But leaving aside the issue of structure (vitally important though the issue is, since all art requires structure), what is usually meant when certain works are compared to soaps is, I suspect, that these said works deal with themes that are commonly thought to be the provenance of soaps – everyday things, such as births, marriages and deaths; falling in and out of love;  friendships and enmities, adulteries and divorce, misunderstandings and reconciliations – all those things that make up the sum total of our humdrum lives. Of course, as noted, there are certain soaps that go out of their way to present the sensational, but nonetheless, it is these unexciting, everyday matters that still seem commonly to be the stuff of soaps; and when novels or plays are compared to soaps, the comparison is usually made, more often than not, on the basis of this shared content. But is shared content in itself sufficient to claim a parallel?  Ever since 19th century novelists turned their backs on Romanticism they have dealt with the quotidian, striving to find significance in the apparent trivia of our day-to-day lives; but merely comparing something such as, say, Madame Bovary to a soap opera purely on this basis doesn’t really tell us much. Indeed, it tells us nothing at all.

I do not mean to be dogmatic on this issue: if comparison of a novel to soap opera is at all appropriate, then by all means, let us make the comparison: but let us state clearly why we are making the comparison, on what basis a parallel is being drawn. Otherwise, to describe Bleak House or Anna Karenina merely as “the soap operas of their times” may be classed as another of those pieces of criticism that tell us absolutely nothing about what is being criticised, or why.

On melodrama

Like the term “sentimentality”, the term melodrama is frequently used in criticism in a pejorative sense, but is rarely defined. The Oxford English Dictionary gives us the following:

melodrama in early 19th-cent use, a stage play (usually romantic and sensational in plot and incident) in which songs and music were interspersed. In later use the musical element gradually ceased to be an essential feature, and the name now denotes a dramatic piece characterised by sensational incident and violent appeals to the emotions, but with a happy ending.

Sensational events, violent emotions, happy ending … do these characteristics justify us seeing melodrama as necessarily a Bad Thing? If so, we must be censorious even of such peaks of human achievement as The Oresteia, or The Winter’s Tale. But leaving aside dictionary definitions, the term “melodrama” is usually applied to works in which, regardless of whether or not it all works out happily at the end, emotions appear overblown and dramatic situations over the top. Definition along such lines, however, doesn’t really help us, as there is no point that we may all agree upon beyond which an emotion is necessarily “overblown”, or drama necessarily “over the top”. Furthermore, writers are surely entitled to depict extreme emotions, or frenzied states of mind: are such depictions necessarily meoldrama? And if so, are such depictions to be deplored? If that were the case, should we not deplore even works of the stature of Dostoyevsky’s Demons or Ibsen‘s Hedda Gabler? Or King Lear, or Oedipus, or The Mayor of Casterbridge, or…

As with the term “sentimentality”, it seems impossible to define “melodrama” in a way that makes clear at some objective level what constitutes melodrama, and what doesn’t. For that reason, we should, I think, be careful how we use this term in literary criticism. I think the reason we tend to object to that which we perceive as melodramatic is similar to the reason we object to that which we perceive as sentimental: if we find fault with the sentimental because certain important emotions are accessed in too facile a manner, then we find fault with the melodramatic because conflict, which is the basis of all drama, has been accessed with a comparable glibness. In dramas of sophistication, conflicts can be subtle in nature: sometimes, they are implied rather than openly stated; often, they can be internal as well as external, with complexities and contradictions made apparent even within a given side. None of this applies to melodrama: here, conflict is invariably overt, with unambiguous good pitched squarely against unambiguous evil, with no nuance or subtlety admitted that might compromise the clear-cut dichotomy. The result, as with sentimentality, can give an impression of lack of depth, a lack of substance, and even, perhaps, of simple-mindedness.

But we must be careful: is melodrama, even if it is as characterised above, necessarily a bad thing? If it is, then is it somehow indicative of bad taste on my part to find myself enjoying without the sligtest sense of embarrassment such works as Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, or Puccini’s Tosca? I’m afraid I do not know. But it does make me think twice before criticising anything for being “melodramatic”.

On sentimentality

It is generally agreed that sentimentality, whether in novels, films, plays or whatever, is a Bad Thing, but there seems little agreement on what precisely constitutes sentimentality. When we try to define it, when we try to state clearly the criteria that differentiate that which is mere sentiment from that which is genuine emotion, we flounder. We sometimes try to take our lead from the word “genuine” and define sentimentality as “false emotion”, but that really won’t do, as real emotion, and even perhaps profound emotion, can easily appear sentimental when vitiated by indequate expression. Neither is there any agreement on what works are sentimental, and what aren’t: for instance, I find the closing chapters of Great Expectations almost unbearably moving, although I know there are those who dismiss it as mere sentimentality; on the other hand, what I perceive as toe-curling sentimentality in so many of the classic Disney films is perceived by many others as charming. There are even cases where I find myself enjoying that which I can acknowledge is, indeed, sentimental – like, say, the operas La Bohème or Madama Butterfly: these are unashamed tear-jerkers, but I can, without any embarrassment at all, have a good cry while listening to them, and feel all the better for it afterwards. But why I should enjoy the sentimentality of Puccini but deplore that of Disney, I do not know: is it possible that there are such things as “good sentimentality” and “bad sentimentality”? If so, what criteria differentiate between the two? Or is it merely the case that it is all entirely subjective, and that sentimentality is merely sentiment of which one does not personally approve?

In a book I wrote about recently on this blog, the author Mark Dietz, in a digression from his principal themes (the passage in question appearing only in a footnote), defends sentimentality:

Now, according to a rather curious definition, sentimentality is false emotion; however, if we  take a closer look at sentimental emotions what bothers us is not their falseness, but a tendency to represent emotions that are too large, too close to the surface, too awkward, too cloying, too freely expressive. In none of this is falsehood really at blame; were falsehood present, we would have another complaint altogether – chicanery, deceit, subterfuge – all of which suggest a second level to the emotion, a something underneath the surface, an irony, perhaps. Sentimentality is thus, to my mind, if it is true sentimentality, to be valued as sentimentality (and frankly, I do think we ought to learn how to value sentimentality, for without it the world is missing a rather common and surprisingly varied ingredient), an emotion that resides on the surface of life –untempered, unalloyed, unprofound – large, voluble, broad, impersonal, awkward, and vast.

“Too large, too close to the surface, too close to the surface … too freely expressive … untempered, unalloyed, unprofound …” All of this takes us close, I think, to the heart of the matter, but the heart of this matter is worthy, perhaps, of even closer examination. “An emotion that resides on the surface of life”: ay, there’s the rub. It lies on the surface, or, at least, too close to the surface: one need not dig too deep to access it. It is too easily accessed, too easily found without being earned. And that, I think, is why we so often think it to be a Bad Thing: certain emotions do, we feel, need to be earned. But only certain emotions: we do not feel this way about the emotion of mirth, for instance. A man slipping on a banana-skin may be considered a cheap laugh because the emotion of mirth has been too easily accessed, but we would not describe this as “sentimental”. No, we reserve the term “sentimental” only for those types of emotion we think worthless unless they are hard-earned – and these are the feelings of grief, and of sweetness. It’s almost as if the lachrymose and the sweet are qualities so valuable that they must be hard-earned, and that if they were too easily accessed, if they were too close to the surface of life, then these valuable emotions are necessarily cheapened. It is for this reason that a cheap laugh can be more easily forgiven than a cheap tear.

But none of this gives us objective criteria to determine what is sentimental, and what isn’t; and neither does it explain why La Bohème and Madama Butterly move me, while Pinocchio and Bambi merely irritate. I find this particularly troubling, as, when I survey those works that mean most to me, I can see that I respond strongly to direct expressions of powerful emotion. The emotional upheavals in Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy, the heartbreak of the final scene of Chaplin’s City Lights, the despair of Othello when he knows that he has thrown away a pearl richer than all his tribe, the emotional turmoil of Lady Dedlock when she realises her daughter is still alive, the interlocking passions and the pity of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, the final bars of Tchaikovsky’s 6th symphony in which the throbbing phrases disappear into silence … this is the kind of thing I find myself responding to keenly. Are all these examples sentimental? Are only some of them sentimental, but not others? If so, what are the criteria to determine which ones are sentimental, and which ones aren’t? And if we can’t tell, are we entitled to use this word at all in a pejorative sense?

I have to end this post with these unanswered questions because, even after years of pondering them, I haven’t come across answers I find satisfactory. But nonetheless, these questions remain important for me because I find myself valuing deeply works that project powerful emotion, and which some, at least, may consider “sentimental”; and, conversely, I often find myself unengaged by works in which human emotions are kept at a decorous distance, despite recognising artistic merit in many such works. In the immortal words of Boney M, “show me emotion, tra-la-la-la-la”.

What title would you give to your autobiography?

In the first place, I wouldn’t think of penning an autobiography: it would either be dishonest or embarrassing, and, either way, tedious, both for myself and for any prospective reader. But if I were to be so egotistical as to imagine that complete strangers may take an interest in my life, what would I call it? Well, given that I arrived in Britain from India as a 5 year-old, and given that I quickly became typecast as the Second Wise Man in school nativity plays, I think I may well title my hypothetical autobiography Westward Leading, Still Proceeding.

Now, over to you.

Riots stop play

Tonight, I had hoped to have been at the National Theatre in London, to see the rarely performed Ibsen play Emperor and Galilean. I had hoped afterwards to write a review here of the production. Alas, the best laid plans of mice and men, and all that… After last night’s appalling riots in various parts of London, it seemed best not to venture tonight into the centre of the city. After all, the train I would have taken passes through Clapham Junction, the scene of some horrendous violence last night.  I have no idea what will happen tonight – I am hoping, naturally, that nothing more will happen – but I don’t want to risk being stranded in a riot-torn city, with the trains cancelled.

So that’s £20 down the drain, and no play. But there are many others who have suffered and have lost far more. I try not to get into politics on this blog, but I am very angry and deeply saddened by what has been happening in the city which, over the years, I have come to love.

Dostoyevsky’s “Demons”

My rediscovery of Dostoyevsky continues.

I first read this novel as a teenager, well over thirty years ago now, in David Magarshack’s translation. He had translated the title as The Devils (Ian Katz, whose translation is currently published by Oxford World Classics, also translates the title as The Devils), while the most recent translators, Robert Maguire (whose translation, published by Penguin Classics, I most recently read), and the husband-wife team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokonsky, prefer Demons. I do not know which is the more accurate, but I’d guess either to be closer to the original than The Possessed, the title chosen by the first translator, Constance Garnett: Dostoyevsky’s title refers, I believe, to those who are possessing rather than those who are possessed. And Demons is perhaps a better choice of title than The Devils, as it is more suggestive of supernatural possession.

It is supernatural possession that seems to me to be at the heart of this very strange novel. Of course, to describe this novel as “very strange” isn’t really saying much, as all Dostoyevsky novels can be described as “very strange”: they inhabit a curious world that is not quite this one – a world of grotesque comedy and of hysterical violence, both emotional and physical. One never knows from moment to moment which direction things will take, and I suspect Dostoyevsky was not always too sure himself. He once complained that he had always to write to deadlines, and didn’t have the luxury that Tolstoy or Turgenev had to plan things out beforehand; but even if he did, I don’t think he’d have written differently: he believed people had absolute freedom, and that were he to plan things out, he would be depriving his characters of that freedom. There is no predetermination in Dostoyevsky’s world: right till the very moment that a character does something, there is a possibility that the character may have done something else, or not have done anything at all. So, for instance, Shatov strikes Stavrogin in public, but there is no sense of inevitability about it: even as Shatov is walking up towards Stavrogin, he himself is not sure of what it is he will do. In the event, he delivers a blow; but equally well, he may not have done. And similarly, when Stavrogin receives the blow, there is no inevitability about his reaction: he may have hit back; he may even have killed Shatov on the spot; instead, he accepts the blow, and does nothing. In neither the action nor in the reaction is there any sense of inevitability: everything is inevitable only when it has already happened, and not before – not even a split second before.

To convey this sense of extreme volatility in which human actions can in no way be determined, Dostoyevsky relies, I think, on his improvisatory skills. These skills are remarkable, and often generate a sort of febrile intensity that I don’t think I have experienced from any other author. But it results also in weaknesses: the unpredictable can be tremendously exciting, but it can just as easily appear merely arbitrary, or inconsistent. I wasn’t, for instance, convinced by the sudden appearance of Shatov’s estranged wife some 700 pages into the novel merely to give birth to an illegitimate child. There had been nothing in the novel to lead up to this, and, more importantly, there had been nothing in the novel to make Shatov’s sudden sense of joy and of tenderness appear credible. How can we believe that a character who had, till then, shown not the slightest indication of love or of tenderness for anyone, can suddenly be so overjoyed and so gently solicitous for his estranged wife, and for a newborn baby not his own?

The novel can lose shape as well. Characters introduced in major roles can drop out of the novel, as Dostoyevsky’s attention is captured by other matters; and characters not adequately introduced can suddenly command centre stage. The first of the three parts of the novel, which reads more like a somewhat like a grotesque satirical comedy than anything else, depicts at great length two characters, Varvara Petrovna Stavrogina and Stefan Trofimovich Verkhovensky; but as soon as we enter the second part of the novel, these two virtually disappear from sight, to be replaced centre stage by their respective sons. The two elder characters only re-emerge towards the end, by which time most of the main action of the novel has already taken place. Or consider Varvara Petrovna’s son, Nikolay Vselodovich Stavrogin: when he appears, he is introduced as a principal character – virtually all other characters in the novel are connected to him in some way or other, and he seems to be at the centre of the various tangled webs. And yet, despite the novel developing into a furious hive of all sorts of activity, he appears never to play any kind of active role, remaining curiously aloof from it all. Meanwhile, Verkhovensky’s son, Pyotr Stepanovich Verkhovensky, who seems to emerge from out of nowhere some 250 pages into the novel, and with little preparation made for his entrance, assumes for the rest of the novel a major active role. Whatever explanations one may give for such things, such features remain, I think, flaws.

However, one must accept these things in Dostoyevsky: if his improvisatory style of writing is the source of such weaknesses, it is the source also of his considerable strengths. And amongst his many strengths is his ability to evoke terror.

There is certainly no shortage of terror in Demons.  Insofar as one can summarise a novel of such complexity in a few words, it is “about” the havoc wreaked upon a town by a group of revolutionaries, but that hardly tells us anything about the novel that is worth knowing. The political aspect of this novel is certainly worthy of serious study, but what struck me most forcibly was not so much the political polemic, but the sense of the demonic: the characters here really are possessed – and as the novel progresses, the demons of the title seem more than merely metaphorical. There are times when one says to oneself “but surely people don’t do things like that!” But Dostoyevsky, who had spent years in Siberian labour camps with some of the most depraved of criminals, knew better: people can do things like that, and they do.

One cannot quite write about the “centre of the novel”, as there appears to be no centre to it at all. We have an unnamed narrator, who is himself a wonderful piece of characterisation. But the narrative voice is not constant. There are times when we get only what the narrator knows, and, frequently, this is a case of “maybe…” and “perhaps…”, and “it seems as if…” Nothing is ever entirely clear, or entirely certain. But then suddenly, without warning, the narrative will lurch into scenes that the narrator could not have witnessed, or take us into the tortuous recesses of the minds of various characters, showing us things that the narrator could not possibly have known about. And every now and then, without warning, the narrators’s uncertain eye-witness account re-emerges. There is, quite deliberately, no consistency to the narrative: by the end of the novel, the whole world seems to explode, but there hasn’t been a centre to hold in the first place.

The strand about the revolutionaries, and their murder of a former member, is based on a real-life case, in which a group of revolutionaries, headed by a Sergei Nechaev, had similarly murdered one of their former members. The murder scene in the novel is as horrific as anything I think I have ever read – not merely because of what happens, but also because of the very different reactions of the murderers, ranging from cold unthinking obedience, to deep unease, right down to hysterical terror. Verkhovensky has convinced this little cell of five that the murder must be done to prevent the former member from informing on them: the real reason – insofar as any “real reason” can be disentangled from the mass of various contradictory aspects – is that he wanted to knit the group together by involving them in communal guilt. And perhaps the “real reason” goes even further than that: perhaps it is because Verkhovensky really craves evil for its own sake. Perhaps he really is possessed by demons. Not metaphorical demons, but real demons.

Stavrogin too seems haunted by demons. In a notorious chapter that the publisher refused to print (the book was written for serialisation, and Dostoyevsky was writing it even as it was being serialised), Stavrogin relates in a confession how he had raped a little girl, and had then stood by as the girl had hanged herself in despair. It is hard to imagine anything more evil than this, and many have regretted the omission of this powerful and disturbing chapter; but I personally feel that the novel is better without it. This chapter makes explicit too much that should merely be hinted at, and Dostoyevsky, knowing that this chapter would not be part of the novel, was compelled to characterise Stavrogin in a somewhat different and, I think, more subtle manner. (Robert Maguire gives us this chapter as an appendix rather than restore it into the main body of the text, and this seems a sensible thing to do. David Magarshack, and Pevear & Volokonsky, also present this chapter as an appendix.) And a picture emerges of a man who is not cheerfully amoral, as Verkhovensky is: indeed, he is capable even of noble emotions and actions. But he is addicted to evil simply because it is evil, and because he knows it to be evil: he has to see how far he can push himself in this direction: the ability to commit acts of unpardonable evil, of his own free will, seems to provide him simultaneously with a reason for living, and, eventually, a reason for not continuing to live. Faced with a character so monstrous, one is tempted once again to say “But people don’t do such things!” But Dostoyevsky, one suspects, knew better about such matters.

But what about the revolutionaries themselves? When I first read this novel as a teenager, I felt that Dostoyevsky had weakened his own case by constantly satirising them. No doubt the movement did attract psychopaths and fools and people who were genuinely evil, but given the monstrous social injustices of Tsarist Russia, is it inconceivable that it might also have attracted also genuinely well-meaning people, people who really were driven by a desire for much-needed change? We don’t see such people. At no point do the revolutionaries show any concern or compassion for the impoverished masses. Dostoyevsky’s picture of the revolutionaries seemed to me then, and seems to me now, a caricature of the revolutionary movement, but, knowing a bit more now about the history of Soviet Russia than I did then, and, more particularly, having read so recently of the sheer insanity of Soviet rule in the works of Vasily Grossman, Dostoyevsky’s critique of the revolutionaries, caricature though it may be, seems now more difficult to dismiss. Here, for instance, is Shigalyov expounding his ideas:

“I have become entangled in my own data, and my conclusion stands in direct contradiction to the initial idea from which I started. Proceeding from unlimited freedom, I end with unlimited despotism. I will add, however, that there can be no solution to the social formula except mine.”

And later:

“What I’m proposing is not something unconscionable but paradise, and there can be no other kind on earth,” Shigalyov concluded imperiously.

[From the translation by Robert Maguire]

This may seem insane, but it is precisely this insanity that prevailed on the largest scale imaginable. I doubt Dostoyevsky would have been particularly surprised by what eventually did turn out to be the case: the writings of Vasily Grossman seem but to record the fulfilment of Dostoyevsky’s prophecy.

And yet, what exactly was Dostoyevsky proposing instead? He was, we know, a devout believer, and a Slavophile, and yet when Shatov, who shares similar ideas, tries to give them expression, he comes out with pure gibberish: Dostoyevsky was too fine an artist to create merely a mouthpiece for his own ideology, but that does mean that Dostoyevsky’s own ideology becomes hard to discern from his work.

He certainly had no time for radicalism (which he characterises here in terms of demonic possession, no less), but he went further: he had no time either for liberalism, which he saw as essentially dilettantism, and a foolish accommodation of those who really are possessed. Is this entirely fair, I wonder? No doubt there were then, as now, foolish chatterers amongst the liberals, but there are always foolish chatterers everywhere, subscribing to all shades of political opinion: to pick on the foolish seems an unconvincing way to undermine the beliefs they profess, for what ideology is there that does not have foolish adherents?

In the notes to the Penguin edition, Ronald Meyer (who edited the volume and compiled the notes after the death of the translator Robert Maguire) quotes from a letter Dostoyevsky sent his niece:

“My dear, look after your education and don’t neglect even a profession … but you should know that the woman question, and especially that of the Russian woman, will definitely make several great and wonderful strides even within your own lifetime. I’m not speaking of our precocious ladies – you know how I view them”

So, quite clearly, Dostoyevsky, for all his strictures on the empty chatterers – “our precocious women” – approved of the “wonderful strides” being made in terms of sexual equality, and thought this a good thing. But how did he think these advances were being made? Would such “wonderful strides” be made at all if it weren’t for the liberals that he so despised?

But unfair though Dostoyevsky’s caricatures may be, it must be admitted that they are hilariously funny. Even when they are deeply sinister, as they frequently are, they do not stop being funny. The caricature of Turgenev – presented here as the “great novelist” Karmazinov – is deeply unfair and spiteful, but I must admit it had me laughing: Dostoyevsky was, amongst other things, a great comic writer.

But the comedy all too often slips into very dark, murky regions. As ever, he approaches the most profound questions concerning human existence without the slightest hint of embarrassment. He gets away with it because he had the extraordinary ability – an ability I have not come across in any other writer – of making ideas in themselves dramatic and exciting. His characters can become possessed not merely by demons, but also by ideas: indeed, sometimes it’s hard to differentiate between the two. Kirillov, for instance, is determined to shoot himself – not out of despair, but because, given what he believes, it is the only rational thing for him to do. In any other novel, this would seem merely absurd, but here, it is dramatic, and frightening, and very believable: Kirillov’s ideas have taken on dramatic shape, and, by the time he comes to do the deed, the tension generated is terrifying. No doubt, as with much else in this novel, the suicide scene too is improvised, but once read, it haunts the mind with a febrile intensity that’s hard to account for, and impossible to convey in any summary.

The impression the novel leaves in me – and which I remember even from my first reading some thirty-five years ago now – is one of sheer terror. There really is a demonic presence in these pages. In the later novel The Brothers Karamazov, the Devil makes a personal appearance, and we may, if we choose, interpret this appearance as merely the hallucination of a sick man; but a more literal interpretation is possible also. Here, there is no explicit appearance of supernatural phenomena, but it is easy to believe that the possession to which the title refers is real. For all its untidiness, for all its many flaws, this is a book that sears itself into the reader’s mind. And, despite thinking about little else since I finished reading this book a few weeks ago, I still am not quite sure why this should be so. Dostoyevsky remains for me a maddening author worth being maddened by.

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Nancy Meckler, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon, 2011

To begin with, I feared the worst. Theseus’ court was a grim, grey, bare place, with men playing cards and hookers lounging around. Why should Theseus hold court in a cheap brothel, I wonder? The mood projected seemed so far from the charm and enchantment I normally associate with this play that I had to check my programme to make sure it was A Midsummer Night’s Dream I had come to see, and not Measure for Measure.

There was one lady on stage sitting very sulkily amidst all this: she turned out to be Hippolyta, and didn’t exactly seem too happy about her forthcoming marriage to Theseus. Yes, it’s true that Theseus says “Hippolyta, I woo’d thee with my sword”, but there’s no indication in the text that Hippolyta is being forced into a marriage against her will. How could such an interpretation be consistent with the joyous celebration of marriage with which this play ends? I dreaded that this was going to be one of those readings that insist the play to be the very opposite of what it explicitly claims to be.

One can, of course, pick out lines in the text to support the depiction of Theseus’ Athens as a brutal patriarchy in which women are debased. The laws of Athens actually do decree death to a daughter who refuses to accept her father’s choice of husband. And Theseus is indeed given these disturbing lines:

What say you, Hermia? be advised fair maid:
To you your father should be as a god;
One that composed your beauties, yea, and one
To whom you are but as a form in wax
By him imprinted and within his power
To leave the figure or disfigure it.

However, context is important. The draconian law that Egeus insists upon is an “ancient privilege” – possibly, like the ones in Measure for Measure, a law that had fallen into disuse, but which had not yet been repealed: at any rate, it seems quite clear that Theseus is most unwilling to put this law into practice. Indeed, while Egeus insists on the death penalty, it is Theseus who reminds him of the somewhat less cruel (though still undesirable) alternative allowed by the law: instead of facing the death penalty, Hermia could take vows to become a nun. Theseus’ speech to Hermia, terrible though it is, must surely be seen not as a nasty and sadistic affirmation of patriarchal tyranny, but as a desperate plea to Hermia to save herself from the terrible consequences of not accepting her father’s will. For, unwilling though Theseus may be to put the ancient law into action, it is a law still, and for a ruler to assume the power to overrule a law is a form of tyranny: such a thing, Theseus makes clear, he can “by no means” do. Of course, he changes his mind about this later in the play: presumably he has wrestled with his conscience, and has decided that not to overrule so hideous a law would, in this instance, be an even greater tyranny. But this is not the subject of this play: Shakespeare will deal with such issues later in Measure for Measure. This is a play of another sort. It is a play of moonlit enchantment; it is a play about the transforming power of the imagination; and, finally, it is a celebration of married love. The first scene in this production does not so much as hint at any of this – especially when Hippolyta, disgusted by what she perceives as Theseus’ cruelty, spits on him. As Benedick says in another play, “this looks not like a nuptial”. By the end, of course, Theseus and Hippolyta are joyously united, but after what we had seen of them in the first scene, there is something here that doesn’t quite seem to fit.

But as we come into the forest in Act Two, we have a miraculous transformation: aided by some superbly atmospheric lighting by Wolfgang Göbbel, the play becomes every bit as enchanting and as magical as it should be. The four lovers interact superbly with each other, and the big quarrel scene of Act 3 Scene 2 reaches its climatic point with a marvellously choreographed and executed piece of knockabout stage comedy. Lucy Briggs-Owen, simultaneously funny and vulnerable as Helena, is particularly outstanding.

The moonlit forest scenes are presented here as Hippolyta’s dream, as she transforms on stage into Titania. As with many other productions, the actors playing Hippolyta and Thesus (Pippa Nixon and Jo Stone-Fewings in this production) also take on the roles of Titania and Oberon, but here, the identification between the two couples is made explicit: not only does Hippolyta transform into Titania, but, at the end of the forest scenes, as the Fairy King and Queen dance joyfully in reconciliation, they change back before our eyes into Theseus and Hippolyta. The on-stage transformation is magical, but, if I may assume the role of a dyspeptic critic for a while, it did seem a shame that some of my favourite lines were excised at this point: Hippolyta’s remembrance of the hunt in Crete with Hercules and Cadmus in which the baying hounds created “so musical a discord, such sweet thunder” is surely too good to be cut! But let’s not dwell on this: by this point, there was in the air a sense of wonder and enchantment – qualities that had seemed very distant in the opening scene.

The forest is presented as dark and sinister for the four lovers: there is one marvellous moment that conjured up the somewhat nightmarish world of the Grimms’ fairy tales, as the four young lovers progress through the darkness with sinister spirits lurking around them, tripping them up at each step. But this dream is not a nightmare: as Oberon says, “we are spirits of another sort”. Oberon and his crew are solicitous of mortals, and can feel compassion for their sorrows, and celebrate their joys: even Puck (played here with playful relish by Arsher Ali) is mischievous rather than malicious. And it is these spirits who, in a dream, heal human wounds.

As well as Theseus’ court, the woodland spirits, and the four young lovers, we have, of course, the “rude mechanicals”. Here, they are an endearing bunch. Marc Wootton a particularly fine Bottom, who takes all the dreamlike magic in his stride, quite unruffled at finding himself adored by the great Fairy Queen herself. This is a very ordinary man who has been granted a vision of something magnificent, but which is beyond his ken: although he doesn’t have the words to give expression to it, he knows that what he has experienced was “a very rare vision”. The “Pyramus and Thisbe” play in the final scene is a high-spirited, rumbustious affair, and capped off a superb evening’s theatre.

But this is not the last word, of course: at the very end, in one of the most inventive touches in this most inventive of plays, the fairies of the dream world invade the real world of Theseus’ court, and bless the newly married couples. By this stage, the very harsh (and to my mind, somewhat misjudged) setting of the first scene is, thankfully, long forgotten. Except, of course, by sour-faced reviewers like myself.