Archive for October, 2011

“The Apu Trilogy”, directed by Satyajit Ray

Please note that this post inevitably reveals some details concerning the plots of the three films comprising the “Apu Trilogy” – Pather Panchali, Aparajito, and Apur Sansar. However, these films do not rely on the plotlines to make their impact, and in my opinion at least, those who have yet to see the films, and are fortunate enough to be able to look forward to their first viewing, may read this without fear of having the experience of that first viewing spoilt. However, it is only fair to put up what is known as a “Spoiler Warning”.

Films about people living in poverty are usually described as “social dramas”, or even as “social documents”, as if it is expected that the principal theme of these films will be the poverty itself. But a social document is exactly what this trilogy of films isn’t: these films are not specifically depictions of poverty, far less political statements. They are films about people – people who, admittedly, happen to be poor.

The story of how these films came to be made is perhaps too well-known to need re-telling. Satyajit Ray, a commercial artist working in advertising, had dreams of filming the two novels Pather Panchali and Aparajito by Bibhuthi Bhushan Banerji*. He had briefly been Renoir’s assistant when the great man had come to India to film The River, but beyond a love of the medium of cinema, he had no credentials, and certainly no experience, to take on the direction of a film. However, in an act that even with the benefit of hindsight seems foolhardy to the point of insanity, Ray raised what money he personally could; employed the services of photographer Subrata Mitra, who had no experience of cine-photography (Ray apparently told him that he wanted the film to look like Cartier-Bresson’s photographs!); wrote a script; brought together a cast of mostly (but not wholly) amateur actors; and started shooting. Not surprisingly, the money ran out after a while, but by good fortune, John Huston happened to be passing through Calcutta, and, sufficiently impressed by what had been shot so far, he recommended the Government of West Bengal to provide funding for the rest. It was still a shoestring budget – certainly a joke by American or by European standards. But the film eventually got made, and released in 1955. And for many, including myself, this film, and the two that followed to make up the trilogy, are the most powerfully affecting works of art that cinema has produced.

(I am sorry to introduce such a personal note so early in this post, and sorrier still to use superlatives that are bound to put off at least some readers, but it is impossible for me to discuss these films without at least touching upon what they have meant to me personally over the years; and since this personal note is bound to be introduced at some time or other, it might as well be sooner rather than later.)

I remember vividly my first viewing of Pather Panchali. It was 1975, and I was a teenager, attending secondary school in Glasgow. Being of Bengali origin, and having as father a man steeped in Bengali culture, I had heard much both about the books and the films, but I did not at the time know my mother tongue well enough to read the books, and, before the days of video or DVD or satellite channels, there wasn’t much opportunity to get to see the films. Then, someone told me that Pather Panchali was being shown by the Glasgow University Film Society. So I found out the hall: it was a lecture hall rather than one designed for showing films, but a makeshift screen had been set up, and a projector whirred away at the back. And what I witnessed that night stays with me still: I came out of that hall feeling devastated. Neither before, nor since – except when I watch it again – have I been quite so affected by a film. Nothing else communicates with such intensity, with such immediacy, the sheer pain of human loss. One forgets one is watching a film: the profound sense of loss somehow becomes one’s own.

Loss is a recurrent theme through these films, but it is not the only theme, and nor even, I think, the principal one. Ray is interested in the human ability to grow through experience, to transcend the sorrow that is our common human lot, and even, yes, to find joy. And there is joy in there: this is no mere sentimental wallow in the lachrymose. The closing sequence of the last film of the series, Apur Sansar, is as joyous as anything I have seen. Of course, it is a qualified joy, as all human joys are, but it is nonetheless triumphant in its own way. It’s not that Apu finally acquires wealth, or anything like that: this is nothing so crude as a Hollywood rags-to-riches story. Rather, having for a while turned away from life and led an existence shielded from human contact, Apu, at the end, returns to take up once again his worldly responsibilities. And even in this there is joy. For this, I think, is the central theme of these films: they are not about the poverty, and, despite the pain of loss that runs through them, neither are they primarily about loss, or about pain. If anything, these films are about human aspirations. Basil Wright expresses it well in The Long View, his marvellous but now sadly-out of-print personal history of cinema:

When Apu’s family, and later Apu himself, think of the future, it is in terms of the most modest ambition – if indeed the word is not too positive in this connection. The object, really, is somehow to survive. The object is to obtain a modicum of money, a modicum of education, to be able to afford to keep one’s wife and to have the good fortune to see one’s children grow into adulthood. These hopes, in India, are not so often realized; but like all true human aspirations they carry with them an imperishable glory, and it is this which Ray celebrates in his films.

–          From The Long View by Basil Wright, Secker & Warburg, 1974

Indeed. An imperishable glory.


Pather Panchali is about childhood, about all those apparently insignificant childhood experiences and impressions that mould the person the child later becomes. The setting is a remote Bengali village: the era isn’t specified, but it’s possibly early in the twentieth century. Apu is born into a family of impoverished Brahmins: the father, Harihar, is a gentle, other-worldly man who makes what  meagre living he can by looking after a local landowner’s accounts; but he dreams of writing plays, and dreams particularly of educating his boy. (Educating the girl was not on the agenda in this society, although we shouldn’t interpret this as deliberate neglect). The mother, Sarbojaya, desperate somehow to feed and clothe her children, and often exasperated by her husband’s apparent detachment from worldly, day-to-day matters, is frequently on edge. This village, we later find out, is not where she had grown up: we find out also that she is literate. Obviously, her background had been very different, and here, she is lonely and isolated. The various pressures that fall on her push her into a certain hard-heartedness, and even perhaps cruelty, but she is neither cold-hearted nor cruel by nature.

And on top of everything else, they have living with them an old aunt, Indir Thakrun, physically bowed with the infirmity of extreme age, and aware of being but a useless burden on those who can barely afford to feed themselves. She has trained herself to be meek and submissive, to be ingratiating to those on whose charity she survives, and under whose roofs she can find even an uncertain shelter; but inside her there burns a rage, which she cannot always suppress. As she hobbles from place to place, seeking only for somewhere to rest her head in her final days, all she really wants is to die. In one unforgettable sequence uniting all three of these characters, the mother tells of her fears and of her loneliness to her husband; but he, exhausted, is already half asleep: Sarbojaya is speaking virtually to herself. And meanwhile, the old woman is sitting outside, singing in her cracked broken voice into the darkness. She sings a well-known, traditional Bengali song:

The day is done, the night is come,
Ferry me to the other shore.
Those who came after have gone before,
I am left here, stranded and alone.

These three roles are played by professional actors – the veteran actress Chunibala Devi (whom Ray found living in considerable poverty and distress in her extreme old age) as the old aunt; Karuna Banerjee as the mother Sarbojaya; and Kanu Banerjee (no relation) as the father Harihar. The children and the peripheral characters are played by non-professional actors, but to convey the intricate network of relationships that is presented amongst the principal  adult characters, one needs experienced professionals.

Apu also has an older sister, Durga. Durga has a close relationship to the old aunt, for whom she steals – much to her mother’s shame – fruit from a neighbouring orchard. And she forms a close relationship with her brother as well. It would have been all too easy to have depicted these children growing up in poverty as brutalised, but they aren’t: they are allowed their childhood, their childhood games and fantasies, and, although it may be once again a strange word to use in this context, even a sense of joy.

It is through Apu’s eyes that we see this world. It is mainly a world populated by women: the father is away for much of the time, trying desperately to earn a few pennies to feed the family. The people we see most often are the mother, the sister, the old aunt, and various female neighbours – both sympathetic and otherwise. But with every event, it is Apu’s reaction shot Ray cuts to first, thus ensuring that although his role is essentially passive, it is he who remains at the centre of the narrative. Many of these events he witnesses are trivial: a group of travelling players put on a performance; a sweet-seller passes by; a somewhat out-of-tune brass band plays “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” – of all things – on their battered instruments at a wedding; the children wander off to see a train thunder past. But these are the events that will make Apu the man he later becomes.

Apu and Durga see the train for the first time

The train is a major image in the films: it is a symbol that acquires various layers of meaning as the trilogy progresses. We first hear it on the soundtrack as Apu is being taught to read by his father: this is not just a symbol of connection with the world outside, it is the only connection with the world outside, the world which Apu will eventually have to face, and with which he must eventually make terms. It is this train that will later take Apu away from his mother into Calcutta. In the famous sequence in which the children see the train for the first time, they are confused and disorientated: Apu does not yet know it, but this is his first a glimpse of his future. But this sequence is intercut with another, very different one: the old aunt, barely able to stand on her feet but unable to take further humiliation, hobbles out of the house for the last time. And as the children return from seeing the train, they find her dead under a tree. As prospects of a new world become apparent, an aspect of the old world dies: at long last, Indir Thakrun has been ferried to the other shore.

This is not the last death in the film: the final half-hour or so is pure heartbreak. And at the end, the family, now reduced the three, leave for Benares to the sound of a haunting pastoral theme played on the bansuri (bamboo flute).

Ravi Shankar (sitar) and Bud Shank (flute) improvise on the theme from Pather Panchali, composed by Ravi Shankar

Among the many miracles of this film – not least of which, lest we forget, is that it was made by someone without any cinematic experience to speak of  – is the music. It was composed by Ravi Shankar before he acquired his international reputation, and at each point – whether depicting the carefree joy of children at play, or whether depicting hysterical, uncontrollable grief – it seems both perfect in itself, and perfectly integrated into the texture of the film.

The two later films in the series, Aparajito (meaning “Undefeated”) and Apur Sansar (usually translated as The World of Apu, but which can also mean “Apu’s Family”) possibly display, unsurprisingly, a more assured directorial hand; but for many, they lack something of the freshness of vision and the unforced lyricism of the first film. What I find particularly interesting is that Ray allowed himself greater freedom in these later films to depart from Bibhuthi Bhushan’s novels. After all, these films are not a slavish translation of those novels into the medium of cinema: wonderful though those novels are, they are but a starting point for something quite different. The artistic vision communicated in this trilogy is Satyajit’s rather than Bibhuti Bhushan’s; and, while one may have individual preferences amongst these three films, they really need to be considered together as a single unity.

In Aparajito, we find ourselves in unfamiliar territory. The family has moved now to the holy city of Benares, and the father is now earning his pennies by carrying out priestly duties by the sacred river (he is a Brahmin, after all). But the family, we find, has merely exchanged its rural poverty for an urban.

The opening section of the film seems deliberately fragmented, with little in the way of narrative continuity, and with seemingly random characters drifting in and out. After life in the country, the city is a noisy, confusing, disorientating place, but also, for Apu, an exciting one. Through all this, a narrative strand of sorts does begin to develop: the father’s health is failing, and soon, the inevitable happens: Sarbojaya becomes a widow. At the very moment of death, Ray cuts, with magical effect, to birds wheeling above the city rooftops: it is one of the many moments in the trilogy when an image seems just right in the dramatic context, even though it is impossible to put one’s finger on why it should seem so.

Eventually, the family, now reduced to two, return to the country, and as the familiar Bengali landscape comes into view through the train window, we hear once again that pastoral bansuri theme we had known from Pather Panchali: Apu and Sarbojaya are back home again.

Most novels or films about growing up – the Bildungsroman, as it is known – take the  form of a widening circle: as the protagonist becomes older, new environments, new horizons, begin to open. Indeed, in D. H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow, one of the chapters depicting Ursula’s growth and development is actually titled “The Widening Circle”. But Ray, very daringly, depicts a narrowing circle: new horizons certainly open for Apu, yes, but even as they do, the focus of the narrative closes in on the relationship between Apu and his mother. The hustle and bustle of the earlier part of the film, the disorientating crowds and the large array of characters, they all seem to vanish into the background, leaving in the foreground a teenage lad and his ageing mother, and the conflict that develops between them even as they continue to love each other – indeed, because they continue to love each other.

The mother had wanted to spend her old age with her beloved son, and, to this end, had wanted him to take on the duties of a village priest. But Apu, who years earlier had heard the sound of the train in the distance while his father had been teaching him to read, wants to engage with the world outside. Sarbojaya, partly because she remembers the aspirations her late husband had had for their son, relents, and allows Apu to attend university in the city; but the consequence is that she is left alone. The shifting relations between the two – the mother’s possessive love for her son, and her fear of the loneliness of old age; the son’s continuing love for his mother, but also his desire to escape from her – are all depicted with the subtlest and most delicate of touches that even Chekhov might have been proud of. In particular, there is one episode that might have made a short story in itself: Apu, back home on a short break, asks his mother to wake him early, so he can catch the morning train back to Calcutta; she, desperately wanting him to stay on a bit longer fails to do so; Apu wakes up late, is angry with his mother for not having waked him, and runs off to the station as fast as he can. It so happens that he is in time for the Calcutta train, but something happens on the platform – something mysterious that not even he quite understands. He doesn’t board the train. Instead, he walks back home again, tells his mother he has missed the train, and stays on for another day.

There is no surprise twist at the end of the film. Apu by the end is on his own. He grieves, but he knows he is now free, and responsible for himself. And it’s a responsibility he doesn’t shirk. His mother’s passing causes grief, naturally, but there are examinations to be passed: he will carry out his funeral duties in Calcutta, he tells the village priest quietly as he leaves the village for the last time, aparajito, undefeated.

At the start of the third and final film, Apur Sansar, we see Apu as a young man. Lack of funds has prevented him from completing his studies, and he is now living in a small room in Calcutta on which he owes rent, somewhat secluded from the teeming city life around him. Into this environment enters an old friend. The two have a night out together, and Apu, who, like his father, harbours literary ambitions, tells his friend of the novel he is writing. As with most first novels, it is pure autobiography. The protagonist of this novel, as he grows into manhood, is faced with sorrows and losses and all the vicissitudes of life, but he has never, says Apu, turned his back on life – he has always faced it, accepted its responsibilities But when Apu starts speaking of love, his friend, who can see all too clearly the autobiographical nature of what Apu is writing, turns on him in astonishment. Love? Sex? What does Apu know of such matters? Has he ever come within yards of a woman?

All that soon changes. His friend invites Apu to his cousin’s wedding, and the events at that wedding are bizarre – and not merely by Western standards. But no matter how  bizarre the events, Ray’s focus, as ever, is firmly on the people involved, on how humans behave, and react to each other. Apu attends the wedding as a guest, but somehow – he himself is not sure how it all happened: there was a sort of magic in the air, a sort of enchantment – he, who, as his friend had pointed out, had never been within yards of a woman, suddenly finds himself a married man.

How did he get to this? On the marriage night, as his wife, Aparna, sits quietly and shyly on the huge four-poster bed, Apu paces up and down, perplexed. What has he done? He had been till now content to look after himself: true, he wasn’t exactly wealthy, but he had survived. But now? A wife to look after, to care for?

The scenes depicting the early days of Apu’s marriage to Aparna constitute, for me, the most convincing depiction in cinema of love. When Aparna first sees Apu’s bare little room, she weeps. But seeing Apu distressed by her weeping, she stops herself. And the scenes that follow are magical. It is the hardest thing in the world to depict happiness: even amongst the finest of writers, very few have succeeded. But this is what Ray depicts in these scenes. If we are to look for a literary influence here, it is not perhaps to Bibhuthi Bhushan we should look (these scenes owe little to the novels on which these films are based), but, rather, to The English Teacher by R. K. Narayan. Amidst all the bitterness of life, some measure of happiness has been snatched.

But it doesn’t last long. Of the three films, Apur Sansar has by far the strongest narrative line, but Ray takes care to ensure that the narrative never takes precedence over the characters. Tragedy strikes once again, and this time, Apu, who had lived through tragedies before, whose autobiographical protagonist is determined to face life, no matter what it brings – Apu finally breaks. He even tries to commit suicide under a train that is as real as it is symbolic. He travels – by the sea, in mountains, in forests. And in a scene of haunting, breath-taking beauty, he allows the pages of his manuscript to drift away into the air. Refusing even to see his newborn child, he withdraws from life. He withdraws from everything he had stood for, everything he had aspired towards.

It is the journey back from this abyss that forms the culminating section of the film, and, indeed, of the trilogy itself. It manages, somehow, to be joyous and uncertain at the same time: life is difficult and uncertain, and will continue to be so, but even out of that may be glimpsed moments of reprieve, even of joy.


While writing the above, I realised just how difficult it is to attempt to describe something one feels very close to personally. How can one convey the essence of something very dear to one without appearing gushing, without misrepresenting it? Looking over what I have written, I think I may have run the danger of presenting it to the uninitiated as a somewhat sentimental work that merely wallows in grief: it isn’t. Yes, it does address some of the most powerful of emotions with an unembarrassed directness; and, perhaps, such directness is alien to certain types of Western sensibilities that prefer a more decorous reticence in such matters. But these emotions of grief, of loss, of pain – these had to be depicted directly: otherwise, the themes of transcending the despair, of growing and developing through experience, of the moments of joy that may still be found in the midst of all this – none of these themes would have registered with adequate force.

And, although the trajectory of my own life has been very different from Apu’s, somehow, Apu’s experiences have become my own. When, for instance, Apu tells his newly married wife of his past, he mentions briefly “I had a sister”: he stops there, and says no more about her. But having not merely witnessed, but having lived through the scenes with Apu and Durga in Pather Panchali, I find it hard not to feel myself at least something of what Apu himself feels at that moment. Such a powerful sense of personal immersion is something I rarely experience in other works – and certainly never in any other film. As Basil Wright put it, these films carry about them “an imperishable glory”.


* These two novels continue to be regarded, quite rightly, as classics of Bengali literature, but, despite translations into English being available, recognition in the West has eluded them. This is not a reflection on the literary quality of these magnificent novels – certainly amongst the finest that I’ve ever read – but is due, rather, to a curious unspoken conviction on the part of Western literati that the only Indian literature worth the name is that written in English, and that works written in one of those funny little languages of theirs need not be taken seriously. This sort of thing, I believe, passes for “liberalism”.

By Anonymous

Strange how one changes over time. I used to get quite worked up over all this Shakespeare-didn’t-write-Shakespeare business, and was happy to engage in debate. Nowadays, I really don’t care. If some people really want to believe that someone else wrote those plays, then fair enough, and good luck to them.

I was, nonetheless, amused to read this piece from John Orloff, the screen-writer of a new film Anonymous, which, I gather, rehashes all this Shakespeare-wasn’t-really-Shakespeare lark. The tone of Mr Orloff’s article seems to me somewhat badly judged: it doesn’t seem to have occurred to Mr Orloff that when an author tells readers to “think for themselves”, it implies that, in the author’s opinion, the readers haven’t, till now, been doing just that. And some readers, not surprisingly, get a bit miffed by that suggestion. This is certainly one of the reasons why the various readers’ responses to Mr Orloff’s article are, perhaps, not as sympathetic as Mr Orloff might have hoped for, but I must admit many of them had me chuckling. But the biggest laugh of all comes in the article itself, in which Mr Orloff solemnly informs us that James Schapiro, one of the world’s leading experts in matters Shakespearean, refused to debate with him. Did Mr Orloff really expect Professor Schapiro to debate with him on this matter?

(Anyone, incidentally, who would like a scholarly appraisal of the various Shakespeare-didn’t-write-Shakespeare hypotheses can do no better than to go to Professor Schapiro’s excellent book Contested Will.)

“Amelia” by Henry Fielding

In many ways, Amelia, Fielding’s last novel before his somewhat untimely death, is a sort of antithesis of the earlier Tom Jones, written only two years earlier. The principal male character, William Booth, husband of the eponymous Amelia, is like Tom in many respects. He has a frank and open nature, has about him an honesty and a lack of guile, is attractive, and is also easily attracted. But where Tom’s qualities were viewed by Fielding generally with approval and at worst with a benevolent tolerance, here, things are different: it is a dark and potentially tragic world that Booth inhabits, a world in which frankness and openness are dangerous qualities, and a world in which sexual misdemeanours cannot be so easily excused: all human actions here have serious consequences. The fictional world presented is much closer in spirit to the dark, menacing world presented by Daniel Defoe in Roxana, or by Samuel Richardson in Clarissa (Fielding’s none-too-affectionate send-up of Richardson’s earlier novel Pamela often overshadows his admiration for Richardson’s later masterpiece): it is an iniquitous world in which certain people exert virtually unlimited power over others; and Fielding knew, as did Richardson, that where power is held, it is exercised. They that have power to hurt and will do none may, as Shakespeare puts it, rightly inherit heaven’s graces, but in the world of Clarissa and of Amelia, such people tend to be conspicuous by their absence.

Fielding has moved on from Tom Jones also in that he now no longer depicts the courtship that ends in marriage: it is the marriage itself that is now his subject. The earlier novel ended when Tom had married Sophia, but this novel proceeds to ask “What next?” Unlike Tom and Sophia, William and Amelia Booth are not wealthy. This is partly the consequence of the iniquitous society in which they live, but the pressures on the marriage are not merely external: William is vain and irresponsible, and whatever the iniquities of a world in which a decent living can only be obtained through an inheritance or through preferment, William himself is responsible for much of the pressure that their marriage comes under. He is, in a sense, the darker side of Tom Jones.

We see him first in a prison. He had tried to intervene – as, no doubt, Tom Jones would have done – on behalf of a stranger who was being beaten by ruffians, and the corrupt and rotten courts have seen fit to find him, the would-be rescuer, guilty of assault. The description of the prison and of its various inmates is wonderful, with a dash and a sense of colour that recalls even Dickens at his best; and as we are bombarded with story after story of the most appalling cruelty and of perversions of justice, I was reminded, to my surprise, of Tolstoy’s Resurrection. Echoes of Dickens and of Tolstoy – possibly my two favourite novelists – in the opening pages were more than enough to make me read on.

As in Dickens’ Little Dorrit, the prison becomes one of the major themes and symbols of the novel – real prisons, certainly, but other prisons also. Booth, Amelia and the children live in lodgings in the verge of the court in London, and as long as Booth doesn’t step out of this verge, he is safe from arrest for debt: even in his day-to-day life, he is a prisoner. And there are prisons of the mind as well, the “mind-forged manacles” that Blake spoke of: Booth, a man who refuses to take responsibility for his own actions, has built a prison for himself, and also for his beloved family. We are very far from the sunny world of Tom Jones.

It is in the real prison that William Booth meets a fellow prisoner and former acquaintance Mrs Mathews, and, as in various classical epics (which Fielding claimed were his models), we learn of Booth’s earlier life in a long narration. It is in this narration that he tells of his marriage to Amelia, and it is something of a shock when, after having sung his wife’s praises so profusely, Booth ends up going to bed with Mrs Mathews. Tom Jones, we feel, may have acted similarly: Mrs Mathews is an attractive lady, after all, and Tom, like William here, is very susceptible to feminine charms, and acts all too frequently on the spur of the moment. But actions have consequences here, and they are hardly expunged by a period of guilt following the infidelity.

Once released from prison, we meet up again with various characters we had been introduced to in William’s narrative, and it is noticeable how different they appear from the pictures William had presented in his narration. William is too open, too frank and trusting – once again, all the qualities that had made Tom Jones so attractive a character – to judge other people well, and as a consequence, runs himself and his family into all sorts of dangers. For the world they inhabit is unpleasant and sinister, and hardly anyone is as they seem. Bosom friends turn out to be scheming reprobates, helpful aristocrats turn out to be unprincipled lechers, affable landladies and helpful friends turn out to be pimps. At the centre of the narrative is a masquerade: like the prison, the masquerade too is a major symbol in the novel.

And at times, it is difficult to judge character because character itself is not a stable thing. This is a significant departure from the world of Tom Jones. In that novel, what a character was, the character so remained: here, human character is in itself fluid. Even the good and virtuous Dr Harrison, so often Fielding’s mouthpiece in this novel, finds his feathers ruffled, and possibly feels threatened, when he encounters a woman whose classical learning is comparable to his own, and, as a consequence, falls somewhat short of his usual courteous self.

This lady classical scholar is Mrs Bennet – later Mrs Atkinson – and her narration, embedded into this novel, is shocking even now. There, she tells of “His Lordship”, a sinister and unnamed aristocrat, who, under the pretence of helping her husband Mr Bennet in his career, drugs and then rapes her. (It was called “seduction” in those days, and continued to be called “seduction” even when Hardy wrote Tess of the d’Urbervilles over a century later, but Fielding, like Hardy, had no doubt regarding the enormity of the act.) In the process, His Lordship infects his victim with disease, and she in turn infects her husband. The scene in which her husband turns on her and beats her is like something one may expect to encounter in a novel by Zola rather than in a novel written by the author of Tom Jones: it is astonishing how dramatically Fielding’s artistic vision had darkened within just a couple of years or so.

It would have been easy to have presented Mrs Bennet solely as a figure deserving of pity, but Fielding’s artistry went beyond easy stereotypes. After the death of her first husband, His Lordship is persuaded by the affable pimp who had helped him rape Mrs Bennet to settle on his victim a small annuity; and his Lordship is happy to do this – for after all, what is money? In a moral fable, this money would have been thrown back at him in disgust, but Fielding was writing about this world as he saw it, not as he would have liked it to have been. Accepting money from His Lordship is certainly to compromise one’s moral standards, but to have refused His Lordship’s generosity would equally certainly have meant dying destitute on the streets. Mrs Bennet accepts His lordship’s “generosity”.

But to what extent can moral standards reasonably be compromised? While accepting His Lordship’s money may be understandable in the context, to Fielding, such moral compromise is only the beginning; and when Mrs Bennet becomes Mrs Atkinson, despite her natural generosity of spirit, and despite her friendship for Amelia, she cannot resist going that one step further down the slippery moral slope to obtain a commission for her new husband; and in doing so, she implicates Amelia. Moral issues are no longer as clear-cut as they had been in Tom Jones.

As before, Fielding stands at the forefront of the action, narrating, commenting, speaking directly to the reader. But he seems to have little power to direct the plot. In Tom Jones, the plot seemed to work with a clockwork precision: here, by contrast, it seems almost meandering at times, and the fate of the marriage of William and of Amelia seems always in doubt. One wonders, though, whether Fielding’s usual narrative style, which had served him so well in his previous comic works, is entirely appropriate here in this much darker fictional world: the narrator in control of the narrative does seem somewhat incongruous in a novel in which events constantly threaten to run out of control. Of course, Fielding was living in an age that did not like tragic endings: it was the age that preferred Nahum Tate’s re-written version of King Lear to Shakespeare’s uncompromising vision; it was the age in which Handel, even when dealing with such tragic stories as those of Saul or Samson or Hercules, had to end in an uplifting mood of praise. So here also, the tragedy that had threatened is avoided – though not by the consequences of what had passed previously, but by what may only be described as an unexpected stroke of luck. Such were the demands of the fashion of the day, although I can’t help feeling that had Fielding lived longer, he may well have deepened his tragic vision sufficiently to have dared defy those fashions, and we may have been thinking of Amelia as a sort of transitionary work between his earlier comic masterpieces, and his later tragic ones. But that, of course, is mere conjecture, and, leaving such conjecture aside, what we do have here is a work that presents a gloomy and pessimistic vision of humanity, but in which the implications of the premises are not followed through to their logical ends. As a consequence, the ending can only be considered unsatisfactory – not because it is a traditionally “happy” ending, but because it does not come close to resolving the issues raised. How happy will William and Amelia be after the closing pages? We do not ask such a question about Tom and Sophia Jones after the end of Fielding’s previous novel, because a comic novel can legitimately end with a marriage and a happy-ever-after: but that won’t do here. Here, the world remains a wicked world, and the flaws in William Booth’s character give us no confidence either of his or of Amelia’s future remaining unclouded.

In short, the closing chapters do not satisfy: they do not dispel the darkness. And even in the journey to this end, Fielding’s narrative style seems at times somewhat incongruous, and even, on occasion, clumsy – as when he uses Dr Harrison as his mouthpiece. But this is Fielding experimenting: he is trying to take the novel into a new direction, and, while the experiment is by no means entirely successful, neither is it by any means a failure. The shortcomings – at least, when compared to Defoe’s Roxana or to Richardson’s Clarissa, both of which depict a world as dark and as menacing as that of Amelia – are due to Fielding, unlike Defoe or Richardson, being essentially a comic writer, and, seemingly, unable or unwilling to discard here the various techniques of comic writing that had served him so well in the past. And as the novel progresses, these techniques seem increasingly at odds with his tragic vision.

For the vision is tragic indeed. Consider, for instance, the exchange between William Booth and Dr Harrison towards the end of the novel:

“..My chief doubt was founded on this — that, as men appeared to me to act entirely from their passions, their actions could have neither merit nor demerit.” “A very worthy conclusion truly!” cries the doctor; “but if men act, as I believe they do, from their passions, it would be fair to conclude that religion to be true which applies immediately to the strongest of these passions, hope and fear; chusing rather to rely on its rewards and punishments than on that native beauty of virtue which some of the antient philosophers thought proper to recommend to their disciples.”

Although Dr Harrison is frequently Fielding’s mouthpiece, it is hard to say whether or not he reflects here Fielding’s own views, but the possibility, at least, that human beings are ruled essentially by their passions, and that the only possible means of control is not through appeals to their more rational or nobler natures, but merely through bribes and threats, seems to me to be about as depressing a view of mankind as can be imagined. Was this really the man who had written Tom Jones only two years earlier?

The pseuds vs the plebs

So, after all the hoo-ha, after all those silly comments from the panel of judges seemingly promoting populism as a criterion of literary quality, after a speech from the chairman of the panel that raised a few eyebrows, the Booker prize is awarded to a very literary author who takes serious literature seriously. But all these shenanigans have opened up a debate on the populist versus the elitist. Well, not quite a debate, but, rather, what passes for debate on the internet – unthinking soundbites rather than argument, liberal use of terms that are not defined, name-calling,  refusal to engage with any specific point anyone makes – the usual sort of thing that anyone who follows internet “discussions” will be all too familiar with to require further evidence. And on top of all this, there appears to be an assumption amongst many that what they have to say settles everything once and for all. End of. 

So what’s all this about, then? Well, it seems to be that old chestnut about whether fiction should be written to provide enjoyment, or whether it should cater merely for effete, pretentious elites who are up their own arses. No, let me rephrase that. It seems to be about whether fiction should try to understand and to depict the nature of our human lives, or whether it should merely provide banal, unthinking pap for the masses. 

And that’s just the first problem: the two sides can’t even agree on a common set of terms. But let us rush in foolishly where angels can’t be bothered to tread, and try. Let us, at least, try to understand what we mean in this context by the word “entertainment”. 

Many say that anything we like reading is by definition entertaining, because if it weren’t, we wouldn’t be reading it. This defines entertainment as anything we like doing, for whatever reason, and I can’t help feeling that this definition is a bit too broad. There is many a book I can think of which cannot really be described as “entertainment” in the sense in which we normally understand the term. There may be various reasons for this – e.g. the uncomfortable or even gruelling nature of its content, or the effort required from the reader to address its extreme difficulty, etc. These are not, in short, books that provide an agreeable diversion for a few idle hours. Of course, the fact that I (and many others) do read and value such books does indicate, some may say, that they must entertain me at some level. That’s hard to argue against. But if, on that basis, we apply the term “entertainment” even to works as demanding as, say, The Wings of the Dove or The Master Builder or The Four Quartets, it seems to me that we’re stretching the definition of the word beyond the point where it can be at all useful. For even if we consider as “entertainment” whatever pleasure I get from untangling the various difficulties of The Wings of the Dove,  it must surely be conceded that this “entertainment” is somewhat different in nature from the entertainment I get from, say, The Hound of the Baskervilles. There is a distinction, and this distinction should, I think, be acknowledged. For convenience, let us mark this distinction by referring to The Wings of the Dove as “art”, and The Hound of the Baskervilles as “entertainment” – much as Graham Greene classified his works as “novels” and as ”entertainments” – without making any assumption about either being inherently superior to or more worthy than the other.

Of course, it will be argued that the distinction between “art” and “entertainment” is not always obvious, and sometimes not even particularly meaningful: I know this will be argued, because I’m happy to argue this myself. There are many examples of works that fall easily into both categories. And there are also many works that have been written purely to entertain, but in which the level of craftsmanship is so high that the term “artistry” is not misapplied. All this is true. But we must, I think, allow that certain works can have artistic value even if they are not immediately entertaining, and even if they’re not easily accessible; we must acknowledge that certain books can be works of art even if they do not zip along, even if they are disturbing or harrowing, and, yes, even if they are excessively difficult.

At this point, those on the more populist side of the debate may argue that difficulty is merely the consequence of the writer dressing up that which is essentially banal. But I don’t think I’ll be going along with this one. Of many books, this observation is undoubtedly true. But it’s not always true: there are many books where difficulty is inescapable given the elusive or the profound nature of what the author is attempting to communicate. This is not to say that profound works are necessarily difficult, but, in my experience at least, they often are.  And even those which may not appear particularly difficult often have hidden depths: in some senses, these are the most difficult works of all, as it is all too easy merely to enjoy the surface, without seeing what lies beyond it.

So given all this, I’m afraid I do not really understand what the “populism vs elitism” debate – such as it is –  is really about. What is the issue being debated here? That popular books should not be excluded from consideration? Yes, I’d go along with that. Or is the issue more along the lines that difficult books lacking popular appeal should be excluded from consideration? If so, that’s just plain silly: there is no reason whatever to consider popularity and accessibility in themselves as criteria of literary merit. If they were, we should award the Booker Prize automatically to whichever book tops the year’s best-seller list, and dispense with the judging panel altogether.

Mind you, given the kind of things the judges have been saying recently, that may not be such a bad idea!

Imitations of styles past

Would Jane Austen have flourished in our own times?

A bit of a pointless question in many respects, since, as we all know or are supposed to know, Austen, like anyone else, was a product merely of her own times, and that it is but sentimental mush to imagine that the yawning gaps of culture, knowledge, and understanding that lie between our times and hers could be transcended merely by what we vaguely term “literary quality”. Yes, yes, I know. But those of us who are sentimental enough, despite various learned professors having proved otherwise, to cling on to those chimeras of literary quality transcending barriers, and of the ability of human minds, both of authors and of readers, to look beyond the cultural mores of their own times, the question is not perhaps entirely irrelevant. If Austen had never written Emma, say, or Persuasion, and if some contemporary writer of comparable stature were to pen these novels, how would these novels be regarded? Would we be able to recognise their merits?

A few years ago, writer David Lassman, struggling to get his own novels into print, carried out an experiment: he sent to publishers excerpts from Austen’s novels, with the names changed. Out of eighteen publishers, one spotted the ruse: others sent him rejection slips. Proof, some might say, were proof to be necessary, of the blindness of publishers to literary quality.

But is it?  If I were a publisher, and someone sent me an Austen novel with the names changed, I don’t think I’d even bother reading it. I’d flick through it, sample some passages, and – assuming I didn’t recognise what it was from these passages – I’d say: ”Not another modern author writing a bleeding pastiche!” and reach for the rejection slip immediately. It’s not a question of Austen being old-fashioned, and neither is it a question of my personally not liking Austen as much as I know I should given her undoubted qualities: it’s more that a writer with something serious to communicate should employ his or her own voice, and not take piggy-backs on established works. In other words, it’s not that one must not write in archaic styles if one want to be a serious author: it’s the other way round – serious authors don’t see the point of writing in archaic styles.

(Unless, of course, the pastiche itself is an aspect of the author’s artistic vision, as it is, say, in certain sections of Ulysses. But even here, pastiche is but one of many different aspects of Joyce’s artistic vision, and by no means its entirety.)

So Lassman’s experiment, amusing though it is, proves little. Writers write in the style of their times, or, if they are original enough, develop their own individual style, and help redefine what we understand by “style of their times”. What they tend not to do is to imitate styles past, as that is mere pastiche. All that the experiment indicates is that publishers tend not to favour pastiche, and that seems to me to redound to their credit rather than otherwise.

“Joseph and his Brothers” by Thomas Mann

When I first came across the novels of Thomas Mann, the only translations available were those by Helen Lowe-Porter, Mann’s first translator. I read The Magic Mountain, Doctor Faustus, and a few short novels (including Death in Venice) in Lowe-Porter’s translations, and, although I liked what I read, I was surprised to hear a friend who knew Mann’s works in the original German praise the suppleness, wit and expressive range of Mann’s prose. For, truth to tell, the impression I had of Mann’s prose was that of humourless Teutonic turgidity. Now, I do of course realise that associating the Teutonic with humourless turgidity is but an Anglophone prejudice, but that prejudice was reinforced rather than otherwise by what I had read of Mann. In particular, Joseph and his Brothers had defeated me: Helen Lowe-Porter had rendered in a particularly heavy-handed pseudo-Biblical prose, and I had found it frankly unreadable.

I do not mean to have a go at the Lowe-Porter translations: we do owe her a debt of gratitude for having introduced Mann to the Anglophone world in the first place, and her translations both of The Magic Mountain and of Doctor Faustus, whatever their shortcomings, had made on me a huge impact. But it was only when I read John E. Woods’ translation of Buddenbrooks did I realise what my German-speaking friend had meant: far from being turgid, here was prose that was elegant, witty, and, indeed, light on its feet. It was a far cry from the Mann I had previously known. It was then I felt I had to tackle the work that had previously eluded me – Joseph and his Brothers, but this time, in Woods’ translation. After all, when a novelist of Mann’s stature spends some ten years of his creative life on a work that he later declares to be his best, that work surely demands to be read.

I dived into this massive tetralogy of novels not entirely without trepidation. After all, I had failed to make much headway with it the first time round (admittedly in a different translation). And then, there was the length: going by the number of pages, the whole thing was somewhat longer even than War and Peace. And it goes without saying that this book is intellectually challenging. Sure, I’m all for books that stimulate the intellect, but did I really want some 1500 pages of it, re-telling an old story that takes up only a handful of pages in the Book of Genesis? And then, there was another German-speaking Mann-admiring friend of mine who opined that, because so much of the effect of Joseph and his Brothers depends on the quality of the prose, and because the prose in this book was so very individual and idiosyncratic, the work was “possibly untranslatable”.

What made me eventually go for it was finding, some four or so years ago, a handsome hardback copy of Woods’ translation in a lovely little second-hand bookshop in Clitheroe during one of my bookshop-browsing sessions. Although second-hand, the book was in mint condition, and was offered at a very attractive price. Never one to resist a bargain such as that, I had my wallet out almost immediately. And so, there it sat on my shelves, waiting to be read. It was, at the very least, a “challenge”. Since the only way to rise to such a challenge was to dive in, that is what I did: I took a deep breath and dived in. And what I found was extraordinary.

The prose is, indeed, very elegant, and with some startling use of words in contexts where one doesn’t expect them. The friend who had thought this book to be “possibly untranslatable” had told me that Mann often uses words in ways that force us to re-appraise what those words actually mean, and consider what they might be made to mean: that such an observation can apply also to Woods’ translation also is an indication of its quality. Throughout, the prose is startling, the sentences sometimes reading like miniature prose poems. For instance, here is Joseph in the pit in which his brothers have placed him:

For natural hope needs some reasonable justification for clinging to life to the very end, and Joseph found it in these confusions. To be sure, it went beyond life, this hope that he would not perish for good and all, but somehow be rescued from the pit – for on a practical level he regarded himself as dead. He found the proof he was dead in the confidence his brothers shared, in the blood-soaked garment that Jacob would receive. The pit was deep, and there could be no thought of rescue and return to the life before his plunge into the depths – a thought as absurd as for the evening star to return from the abyss into which it has sunk or the shadow to be drawn away from the black moon, making it full again.

Or, as Joseph and the slave traders journey towards Egypt:

They crossed dunes, down whose backs the wind had evidently left repulsively dainty waves and folds, while above the plain below them the hot air played and flickered as if about to burst into dancing flames and the sand was lifted in whirling vortices so that the men covered their heads in order to pass through such ghastly terrors, preferring to ride blind rather than gaze upon so vicious a delight in death.

Time after time I was startled by an unexpected use of words, or by an unexpected piece of syntax.  Indeed, if Woods’ translation had been a novel written originally in English, then I too would have opined that prose of such brilliance was untranslatable.

Moving away from the quality of the prose, it’s difficult to know how to describe either the content or the form of this book, since it is so unlike anything else I have read. The only other novel I have read that attempts to recreate a remote ancient world is Salammbô by Gustave Flaubert, but where Flaubert revels in the exoticism, Mann presents this very strange world in a matter of fact manner, emphasising the everyday nature of even the most bizarre of events. And yet, at the same time, these everyday events are also mythical archetypes: throughout, Mann relates the events both to existing pagan mythologies, and also to the myths and images of Christianity (which, of course, emerged after the events narrated here).

The most complex of ideas are communicated with a marvellous lucidity. The opening section is effectively an essay in which Mann reflects on the nature of historic time, on the nature of beginnings, on the point where historic records run out and we have to interpret myths. Then he embarks upon the story. The heart of this narrative beats slowly, but one soon becomes accustomed to the slow pace. What impresses is Mann’s control of pace: although the underlying pulse is slow, he can speed it up or screw up the tension virtually at will. The details are piled on as Mann re-interprets and gives his own spin on these familiar stories, and a very convincing picture merges of mythic times, of people with very different sets of values and beliefs from our own, but who are, nonetheless, very recognisably human. There is also far more humour than the Anglophone reader, used to the Lowe-Porter translations, usually expects from Mann. And there is also, quite frequently, a sense of awe: one of its major themes is, after all, the human conception of the divine.

It’s not easy, to begin with, to discern Mann’s artistic purpose, but it’s very easy to become caught up in the narrative. The story is, of course, well known, but where the Book of Genesis merely gives us the sequence of events, Mann expands upon the psychology of the characters, and examines their motivations in great detail. His acute psychological analyses give the story a tremendous dramatic immediacy; and yet, at the same time, Mann emphasises the ritualistic aspect of this tale. The quotidian and mythical, the immediately dramatic and the archetypal, the ritualistic and the everyday – all these apparently contradictory elements are held together in a masterly balance.

The first volume, Tales of Jacob, tells of Joseph’s father, Jacob, and acts as a sort of prelude. It presents a very strange world  – a world in which people can bury their own son alive as a sacrifice to the gods. And yet, somehow, the characters are not remote: the mythical and the human are held in balance. Joseph himself emerges in the second volume, Young Joseph, and while he first volume provided ample evidence of Mann’s mastery of pacing (despite the generally slow pulse), it doesn’t perhaps prepare us for what we get in the closing chapters of the second: when Joseph’s brothers imprison him in a pit and then sell him into slavery, the narrative acquires a tremendous forward momentum and leaves one breathless with excitement.

If the second novel of the series can be seen as a sort of symphonic scherzo, the third novel, Joseph in Egypt, is a majestic and serene adagio. Joseph is brought into Egypt by the traders, and he is sold to Potiphar, and in this new environment, he establishes himself as a trusted, and, later, a high-ranking member of Potiphar’s extensive household. The story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife is too well-known to be retold here, but Mann fills his account with the most precise and intricate psychological details: the tension comes not from “what happens next?” – since we all know what happens next – but in the painstaking of depiction of the development of various characters’ psychologies. Rarely, if ever, has sexual desire been presented in more convincing detail than in the depiction of the wife of Potiphar, proud and aloof, lusting after the mere slave Joseph. And in this volume, another theme begins, I think, to develop: it is that word that Potiphar’s wife could barely bring herself to say, even after hundreds of pages of agonising over it – “love”. Not necessarily love in a sexual sense, of course – although that’s part of it – but the love that humanity, despite everything, persists in feeling for one another. The chapter depicting the death of the overseer, Mont-kaw, who had become as another father to Joseph, is among the most moving things I have read in any novel. For all the various complexities and layers of irony, Mann could at times be almost disconcertingly direct.

Joseph starts the fourth novel, Joseph the Provider, as a prisoner: in the final chapter of the previous novel, Potiphar, apparently not believing his wife’s accusation and yet at the same time not in a position to ignore it or to challenge its veracity, had sentenced Joseph merely to imprisonment rather than to any of the hideous deaths Joseph had been threatened with. Once again, the rest of the story is too well-known to require re-telling here, but Mann looks at this tale afresh, and presents each apparently familiar scene in a new light. The novel ends in a hard-won reconciliation, as Joseph, unrecognised by his brothers, is moved by their sight, but has to delay revealing himself to them until they acknowledge their guilt. The reconciliation, the forgiveness, the blessings, when they do finally come, are tremendously affecting. The journey has been long and sometimes even arduous, but the sense of rightness at the end, the sense of a journey completed, of joy, of a consummation of all that has gone before, is something that, once experienced, stays firmly lodged in the mind.

Throughout these four novels, Mann’s themes, as I understand them, are the emergence of human civilisation, and of moral values; the emergence of religious thought and sentiment, which seem innate in the human mind; human concepts of the divine, and humanity’s aspirations towards it; the persistence through all this of our primal urges, which often find expression in forms of mythology and of ritual; the cyclical and archetypal nature of the myths themselves; and, most importantly, human love that can overleap mere accidental barriers that separate humans one from another. And I’m sure there are many other themes that I haven’t even begun to identify yet, and will only become apparent to me through re-reading. But, unless one thinks of literature as some means to an end rather than an end in itself, perhaps it doesn’t matter so much what these books are about: what matters is what they are, the experience they have to offer. I am not sure I understand fully what this extraordinary series of novels is about; but I do know that, as I was reading them I was taken through virtually every emotion I could think of, and that, since reading them, they have not stopped resonating in my mind.

One doesn’t merely read works of this quality, and then put them aside: they are to be lived with. While I have been pondering these works for a good few years now, and have re-read individual passages, I haven’t yet plucked up the courage to re-read the whole thing. But I know I’ll do it some day. I suppose I’ll just have to dive into it again.

Anyone on for a “group read” of “Our Mutual Friend”?

Recently, it was suggested that we celebrate the Dickens bicentenary next year by having a group read. For no better reason that that I was planning to re-read Our Mutual Friend, we decided to go with that one. (At least, I think I did – please correct me if I am mistaken on that.)

I hadn’t previously considered a group read on this blog, but if anyone is interested – well, why not? Our Mutual Friend, is, after all, among Dickens’ finest works, and it should be as good a one to read as any. So I suggest that we start reading this together in the New Year.

Of course, it is long, and if anyone starts this and feels at any point they don’t want to continue, then that’s fine: there’s no obligation. But in the meantime, let us by all means have a go at reading it together.

I don’t want to be the only one putting up posts as we’re reading. Anyone who wants to take part in this, and has their own blog, can, if they wish, put up posts on their blog and cross-reference to here. (I’ll be happy to put up links to posts on other blogs as well.) And anyone who doesn’t have their own blog can always send me their posts, and I’d be happy to put them up as “guest posts”. (With the usual provisos of course … no spam, no abuse, and nothing one wouldn’t wish one’s wife or servants to read!) And, of course, one could always join in with the discussion in the Comments section at the end of each post.

As I say, even if no-one goes for this, I’ll definitely be reading it myself. But the more the merrier, so please do join in if you feel at all inclined!

What do we want? Instant gratification! When do we want it? NOW!

May I draw attention to an excellent, impassioned article by Sarah Spilsbury of the group “Friends of Radio 3”?

There is little I can add to what Ms Spilsbury says, both in the article itself, and in her splendid combative responses to various comments below the line. And after all, given that the decline in cultural standards in recent decades has been a sort of running theme in this blog, it should, I think, be fairly clear where my own sympathies lie.

However, I would like to touch on one point raised by Ms Spilbury’s article that I don’t think has been adequately dealt with: the management at the BBC appear somewhat concerned because the output of Radio 3 is regarded as “intimidating”. But surely, art should be intimidating! It should challenge, it should stretch, it should scare the shit out of you. Unless, of course, art is regarded – as I think it increasingly is these days – primarily as a branch of the entertainment industry, a means merely of whiling away a few idle hours in an inoffensive manner.

Personally, I’d love to see Radio 3 become more intimidating, not less. Although, given the current climate in which popularity appears to be the sole measure of all human activity, I can’t say I’m holding my breath.

Sullivan’s Travels (1941), written & directed by Preston Sturges

I’d guess that for most film-goers today, generally uninterested in or at best condescendingly tolerant of anything deemed to be “before their time”, O Brother, Where Art Thou? would mean only the recent film of that title by the Coen Brothers. I’m afraid my tastes are rooted somewhere further in the past, and before the Coen Brothers even enter my head, I think of Preston Sturges’ 1941 film Sullivan’s Travels, from which the Coen Brothers, presumably as a tribute, picked their title. In Sturges’ film, Joel McCrea (ideal for comedy because he always looks so unremittingly serious) plays film director John Sullivan, who has made a successful career in Hollywood with such light and popular comedies as Hey! Hey! In the Hayloft and Ants in Your Pants of 1938, but who now wants to make O Brother, Where Art Thou?  – a serious artistic statement about the state of the world. But discouraged by his lack of knowledge or of understanding of the world he so wants to make a statement about, he sets out, much to the studios’ alarm, with only ten cents in his pocket, and dressed like a tramp. This occasions some marvellous dialogue with his extremely articulate butler Burrows (played superbly by Robert Greig), who seems to have stepped out from Wodehouse, and who speaks lines that could easily have come from Shaw:

Burrows:  I don’t like it at all, sir. Fancy dress, I take it?

Sullivan: What’s the matter with it?

Burrows: I have never been sympathetic to the caricaturing of the poor and needy, sir.

Sullivan: Who’s caricaturing?  I’m going out on the road to find out what it’s like to be poor and needy and then I’m going to make a picture about it.

Burrows: If you’ll permit me to say so, sir, the subject is not an interesting one. The poor know all about poverty and only the morbid rich would find the topic glamorous.

Sullivan: But I’m doing it for the poor. Don’t you understand?

Burrows: I doubt if they would appreciate it, sir. They rather resent the invasion of their privacy, I believe quite properly, sir. Also, such excursions can be extremely dangerous, sir. I worked for a gentleman once who likewise, with two friends, accoutred themselves as you have, sir, and then went out for a lark. They have not been heard from since.

Burrows: You see, sir, rich people and theorists – who are usually rich people – think of poverty in the negative, as the lack of riches – as disease might be called the lack of health. But it isn’t, sir. Poverty is not the lack of anything, but a positive plague, virulent in itself, contagious as cholera, with filth, criminality, vice and despair as only a few of its symptoms. It is to be stayed away from, even for purposes of study. It is to be shunned.

As well as being among the finest of Hollywood’s film directors, Sturges was also among the finest of scriptwriters.

On the surface, this film is an apologia for escapism. Which indeed it is: its simple message is that life is hard, and anything that can bring relief, even momentarily, is not to be derided – even if it is Ants in Your Pants of 1938. But if we look beyond this simple message, we find a most extraordinary cinematic balancing act: Preston Sturges somehow juxtaposes a very harsh and gritty social realism with the fluffiest of romantic comedies. Scenes that wouldn’t have been out of place in I Am a Fugitive From the Chain Gang or The Grapes of Wrath rub shoulders with the sparkling comic dialogue that wouldn’t have been out of place in such sophisticated romantic comedies as Sturges’ own The Lady Eve or The Palm Beach Story. And the two modes, somehow, seem to complement rather than dilute each other. It’s a film in two different keys, but these different keys are not resolved by the end: they are allowed to co-exist.

I watched it again last night after more years than I care to remember, and found myself astonished once again by the sheer sophistication of the execution, by the sheer style of it all. Barely pausing for breath, it moves from one extreme to the other and back again with a sort of seamless perfection.

John Sullivan (Joel McCrea) meets the girl (Veronica Lake) on his travels

The final act of the drama is extraordinary. Believed dead by the studios (who have stopped looking for him), Sullivan has been sentenced to six years’ hard labour. (The scene in which Sullivan, delirious with fever, is sentenced, seems to recall the scene in which the magistrate Mr Fang sentences a similarly feverish Oliver Twist.) Although hardship and suffering had been depicted earlier in the film, nothing, perhaps, had quite prepared us for this. The brutality and the intense suffering in the chain gang are not glossed over: true, they are sketched in rather than depicted in detail – anything more explicit would have disturbed the delicate balance of this film – but they are sketched in with the deftest of brush-strokes: there’s no need to pile it on because each stroke is made to count.

In the climactic scene of this film, the convicts, as a special “treat”, are allowed to attend a film show. And, quite astonishingly, this film show takes place in a black church. Before the convicts enter, the black preacher, with unaffected dignity, tells his congregation to make the “guests” feel welcome, because, after all, “everyone is equal in the sight of God”. There are so many layers of irony in this that one barely knows where to begin unpacking them. To the strains of the black congregation singing Go Down, Moses, the convicts march into the hall, almost as if they were acting out some solemn and sacred ritual. And then the film show begins. It is a Disney cartoon. And soon, one by one, these brutalised men in the audience start to laugh. But this laughter seems not merely the momentary release from pain that it is later claimed to be: rather, it seems an almost despairing laughter, wild and uncontrolled. And, to his own surprise, Sullivan too finds himself laughing – laughing hysterically, with all the others.

The moral drawn at the end – that laughter is necessary because that’s all some people have to relieve their pain – may appear trite; and it doesn’t, to me, seem an adequate summary of what we have witnessed. In the quite extraordinary journey towards this end, extremes have somehow been forced together, and made to co-exist. What moral we may reasonably draw from all this, or whether, indeed, any moral can be drawn at all, I do not know. Sturges himself would, I think, have disclaimed any artistic intention: he would no doubt have claimed to be happy making Ants in Your Pants of 1938 rather than O Brother, Where Art Thou? But perhaps we should take this denial of artistic intentions with a large grain of salt. For, whatever the intentions were, there is far more artistry in a film such as this than in any number of self-conscious efforts so applauded by modern cinéastes.