Archive for February, 2012

“Our Mutual Friend” by Charles Dickens: Book the Third – “A Long Lane”

“Our Mutual Friend” by Charles Dickens: Book the First – “The Cup and the Lip”

“Our Mutual Friend” by Charles Dickens: Book the Second – “Birds of a Feather”

“Our Mutual Friend” by Charles Dickens: Book the Fourth – “A Turning”

We now pick up again on Fledgeby and Mr Riah. This strand is frequently criticised as being unconvincing: this, we are told, is something that has merely been tacked on to the novel  – a pious attempt to atone for the antisemitism in his depiction of Fagin. But I find it convincing enough; and, far from being tacked on, it seems to me an integral aspect of the novel.

The theme of antisemitism is not, it seems to me, out of place in a novel one of the principal themes of which is the judgement of human worth in terms other than that of moral value: here, as in Great Expectations, as in Little Dorrit – as, virtually, in all of Dickens’ novels – human worth is misjudged, determined by criteria that are, or, at least, should be, irrelevant: these criteria can be social class, and wealth; and they can also include religion, race. The denigration of Lizzie Hexam on the basis of her social origin is really not so different, thematically, from the denigration of Mr Riah on the basis of his racial origin. Whatever Dickens’ prejudices were as a man (and these prejudices were many), he put the best of himself into his writing.

But his generosity does not extend to the members of High Society – the Veneerings, the Podsnaps, the insufferable Lady Tippins, and the like. Dickens had often been angry before, but, as Orwell had put it, it was a “generous anger”; but not here. There is a rage here in his humour, a rage directed at an entire class of people. This is new, and it is surprisingly effective.

Also new, I think, is his probing into a dangerously unbalanced mind. In Barnaby Rudge, he had given us, in Barnaby, a man who has what we’d nowadays describe as “learning difficulties”, and it is utterly unconvincing: Barnaby speaks and thinks as no man, learning difficulties or not, had ever spoken or thought. But in Bradley Headstone, he gives us something else: here is a sane man sinking helplessly into madness, unable to resist the tide of hatred rising in him. Dickens had perhaps given us a foretaste of this in Jonas Chuzzlewit, but even he, in comparison to Bradley Headstone, is but a pantomime villain.

The major problem Dickens faces in this novel – and it is a problem that he never, I think, quite overcomes – is that of integrating together the various strands. The society strand has already settled into being a sort of demented chorus, commenting in its absurd and vicious manner to events, but never really taking part; and that leaves two strands so different from each other that there seems no common ground between them. One of them, of course, is the very realistic and engrossing drama of love and hate across social barriers, with Lizzie Hexam, Eugene Wrayburn and Bradley Headstone its principal players; the other is the story of the Boffins, John Harmon and Bella Wilfer, and this is pure fairy tale. This is the tale of the prince who sets out in disguise to test his beloved. And it is hard to see where or how these two strands could possibly intersect.

They do eventually come together in what turns out, unfortunately, to be among the weakest sections of the novel. When Lizzie and Bella do meet, neither seems, rather absurdly, to be aware of the yawning social gulf between them. (This is all the more absurd given that it is the general awareness of this gulf is the mainspring of Lizzie’s story.) Lizzie and Bella merely mouth platitudes to each other. Dickens is, often unfairly I think, accused of sentimentality, but here, I think, the charge sticks: emotions of sweetness and light are evoked here, but there has been little in anything leading up to these scenes to render these emotions at all credible.

In between these two main strands, two more spring up, and assume importance. The first is a development of the story of Mr Riah: structurally, this story forms a bridge between the strand involving high society, and the story of Lizzie Hexam: it is Fledgeby, an associate of the Veneerings and his circle, who secretly owns the moneylending business that employs Mr Riah; and it is Mr Riah who helps Lizzie find employment outside London, and, thus, to hide away both from Bradley Headstone and from Eugene Wrayburn – two men who alarm her for different reasons. The story of Mr Riah also involves one of Dickens’ loveliest and most eccentric creations – Jenny Wren, the Doll’s Dressmaker who, like so many characters in Bleak House, is simultaneously child and adult – a child who has to act as a parent to her pathetically alcoholic father.

The other strand seems to see Dickens returning after many years to his broadest comic mode, and it’s almost as if he’d never been away. For Silas Wegg, literary gentleman, with a wooden leg, is a comic creation who could only have been created by an imagination as wild and untamed as that of Dickens. Of course, he is a villain, and I suppose Dickens could, had he wanted to, made him sinister: but there are sinister shadows enough in this novel, and I get the feeling that there was a big part in Dickens that wanted to return to the uninhibited comic exuberance of some of his earlier work. As a consequence, we never fear Silas: we never take seriously the danger he presents. He is not even loathsome as is, say, Chadband in Bleak House: of course, Silas is a moral reprobate, but his character is so delightfully and so extravagantly eccentric, that the villainy seems but the villainy of pantomime – something we may boo and hiss, yes, but not really take at all seriously.

It is similarly difficult to take seriously Boffin’s moral decline. The theme of the corrupting power of wealth has been raised explicitly earlier in the novel: Bella, after all, runs towards wealth in the full knowledge that she is being corrupted by it. Once again, Dickens could, had he wanted, have made a serious drama out of Boffin’s corruption. But, as with Silas Wegg, he chooses not to. For Boffin’s descent is treated purely for laughs. After all, one imagines there were open to Dickens many ways of depicting Boffin’s increasing miserliness, but the one Dickens lights on is so insane that one can only wonder at his pursuing this at all: Boffin becomes interested in biographies of Great and Famous Misers. Now, I am not acquainted too well with the sort of books that were widely available in Victorian times, and it may well be that there was a thriving sub-genre chronicling the lives of Great Misers. But, somehow, I doubt it. This is just Dickens unable – and, I think, unwilling – to rein in that mad imagination of his. So we have Boffin going around bookshops picking up these books; he has Wegg reading them to him; and in the meantime, Dickens overwhelms us with completely irrelevant and grotesque details about the lives of allegedly authentic Great and Famous Misers. It is all very funny, in a mad sort of way, but it makes it difficult to take this strand as anything other than comic.

But the plot is thickening. Wegg has found in the dust heaps a will that is dated later than the one that had given the Harmon fortune to the Boffins, and in this latest will, the Boffins are left nothing. Silas Wegg tries to blackmail the increasingly venal Mr Boffin, and enlists the aid of Mr Venus, the anatomist and taxidermist, and another of Dickens’ marvellous eccentrics:

“Mr Wegg, if you was brought here loose in a bag to be articulated, I’d name your smallest bones blindfold equally with your largest, as fast as I could pick ’em out, and I’d sort ’em all, and sort your wertebrae, in a manner that would equally surprise and charm you.”

Mr Venus is disappointed in love: the woman he loves (and who happens to be the daughter of Rogue Riderhood – Dickens at this late stage doing all he can to force the various different strands of the novel together) disapproves of his grisly profession. In a moment of weakness, Mr Venus agrees to Wegg’s scheme, but later recants and refuses to take part in any blackmail.

The whole thing is all very funny, but never remotely threatening or sinister. And I am inclined to think this is how Dickens intended it. Not for a minute to we believe in Boffin’s moral decline, or that Wegg’s pantomime villainy could have serious consequences.

However, Dickens’ decision to treat the story of John Harmon and Bella Wilfer as a sort of fairy tale does, I think, lead him into trouble, for, fairy tale or not, the issues broached in this story are serious issues, and they do ideally, I think, require serious treatment. Bella has appeared before in Dickens’ novels: she is the beauty who has hardened her heart – or who, at least, has tried to harden her heart – so she cannot feel the softer, gentler emotions. We have seen her before as Louisa Gradgrind in Hard Times, and, quite unforgettably, as Estella in Great Expectations. With Bella, Dickens wants to show the possibility of redemption, of human goodness asserting itself despite the odds: Bella is to be an Estella who is pulled back before she reaches the brink and loses her soul. But Bella gets nowhere close to the brink before she is pulled back. And one wonders why. After all, Dickens had already, with satiric strokes that are biting and brilliant if not always very subtle, depicted the corruption of glittering high society: why does he not depict Bella in this environment? Why, for that matter, does he not depict the Boffins in this environment? Surely, if Boffin’s moral collapse is to be rendered believable, then seeing him at the Veneerings’ table would have been a far more effective stroke than having him buy biographies of Great and Famous Misers. And yet, the strands are kept resolutely apart: neither the Boffins nor Bella are shown in society. And I can only conjecture that this was because Dickens had realised that the satiric savagery with which he had presented the Veneerings and their circle could not mix either with the warm, eccentric comedy of the Boffins, or with the delicate fairy story of Bella Wilfer and her Prince in Disguise. These worlds may be contained in the bounds of a single novel, but, nonetheless, they cannot meet.

Bella, as we had all expected, passes the test; but she was never really tested that severely – she had never really come even close to being corrupted. Boffin ill-treats Harmon, and, in a splendid scene of typically eccentric comedy, dismisses him:

‘You pretend to have a mighty admiration for this young lady?’ said Mr Boffin, laying his hand protectingly on Bella’s head without looking down at her.

‘I do not pretend.’

‘Oh! Well. You HAVE a mighty admiration for this young lady–since you are so particular?’


‘How do you reconcile that, with this young lady’s being a

weak-spirited, improvident idiot, not knowing what was due to herself, flinging up her money to the church-weathercocks, and racing off at a splitting pace for the workhouse?’

‘I don’t understand you.’

‘Don’t you? Or won’t you? What else could you have made this young lady out to be, if she had listened to such addresses as yours?’

‘What else, if I had been so happy as to win her affections and possess her heart?’

‘Win her affections,’ retorted Mr Boffin, with ineffable contempt, ‘and possess her heart! Mew says the cat, Quack-quack says the duck, Bow-wow-wow says the dog! Win her affections and possess her heart! Mew, Quack-quack, Bow-wow!’

And Bella, who had not so long ago refused Harmon, now takes his part, and so doing, renounces her wealth. All very fine, and all as we’d expect in a fairy tale. But what about psychological probability?  Some will say that Dickens never bothered too much about that sort of thing, but that is nonsense: the merest glance at the story of Lizzie Hexam and Eugene Wrayburn tells us otherwise. How can the writer who could depict with such piercing insight the psychological intricacies of that story here appear so indifferent to them? For, although we see a very dramatic change in Bella, there is absolutely no indication at all of how this change has come about. Such psychological probings are out of place in a fairy tale.

And yet, even as the conventions of the fairy story appear to take over almost completely the story of John Harmon and Bella Wilfer, the story of Lizzie Hexam and Eugene Wrayburn beomes ever darker. Wrayburn is desperate to find out where Lizzie is, and is not above bribing with drink the pathetic sot that is Jennie Wren’s father – a man who is quite clearly drinking himself to his death, and who would not be out of place in the pages of a novel by Zola. And watching Wrayburn obsessively is Bradley Headstone.  This is no fairy story. The few chapters of this third part in which these characters appear are set almost entirely in the dark, and are frighteningly intense. The fictional world of Dostoyevsky (whose major novels followed soon after the publication of Our Mutual Friend) does not seem too far away. In Oliver Twist, or in Martin Chuzzlewit, or even in Bleak House, a murder was but an extravagant theatrical gesture: but here, Dickens observes and depicts in horrible detail a mind unable to stem in himself the rising tide of hatred, and driven inexorably to violence.

This one single novel contains so many divergent worlds, it is no wonder that even Dickens could not find a way of reconciling them. As a consequence, we do not quite find the intricate counterpointing of different strands that had characterised Bleak House or Little Dorrit: instead, we see a sort of reversion to his earlier work, in which the strands merely lie next to each other without really touching. Thematically as well, there seems to be a return to his earlier novels: the broad, open humour of the Silas Wegg scenes, for instance, seems closer to the world of Nicholas Nickleby or The Old Curiosity Shop than it does to Little Dorrit or to Great Expectations; and the faith Dickens re-asserts in human goodness redeeming the darkness which surrounds it seems also in sharp contrast to the mainly pessimistic vision of so much of his later work. As we end the third of the four parts comprising this novel, we have a fair idea which way it will go. Or, at least, which way the story of John and Bella and the Boffins will go. The other principal strand is left hanging in the air. In the very midst of this warm humour and this fairy story lies the dark tale of Lizzie Hexam, Eugene Wrayburn, and Bradley Headstome – amongst the earliest and still amongst the most engrossing and terrifying of psychological thrillers.

The third part ends with another chorus of the Veneering circle. The Lammles are now exposed as being poor after all. Not a penny. How shocking! The Lammles, it appears, have been living beyond their means. “But how CAN people do that?” cries Veneering in sheer outrage and incomprehension.

Mighty opposites

Dickensians amongst us have been celebrating the bicentenary. Some Dickens-sceptics have tried from time to time to be party-poopers, but they have been politely told to piss off.  And quite right too.

Personally, I rather like these anniversaries. Why pass over an excuse to celebrate the works of a writer I love? But while I have already been celebrating Dickens (I re-read Our Mutual Friend), I was considering also having another go this year at the author whose aesthetic values are so diametrically opposed to those of Dickens, that she could justly be described as his antithesis: Jane Austen.

I have long held a theory that each reader leans either towards Austen or towards Dickens, and no-one can love both equally. True, I know of at least two people who claim to love them both equally, and I believe them; however, I see no reason why facts should get in the way of a good theory. These two novelists – the greatest English novelists, according to Edmund Wilson, and I am certainly not going to pick a fight with him on that – split everything between them.  

I am firmly on the Dickensian side of the fence (as, I note to my delight, was Vladimir Nabokov, if his idiosyncratic Lectures on Literature is anything to go by). But, instead of sensibly saying that I am temperamentally not suited to Austen and leaving it at that, I have, I fear, said some very rude and intemperate (and frankly very foolish) things about her in the past; indeed, it is only the transient nature of internet posts that saves my appearing a complete idiot.

Feeling there was obviously something in Austen’s novels that I was missing, and being a type that doesn’t like the idea of missing things, I read through Austen’s novels a good five or six years ago. True, I wasn’t converted, but I did get some inkling, at least, of something that I couldn’t quite put my finger on; and I find them now, rather unexpectedly, resonating in my mind. In other words, they have left behind an aftertaste. The time now is right for a revisit.

There are many other cases, I think, of writers who are so completely opposite to each other in terms of their literary and aesthetic values that a study in comparison can throw light on both. Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, for instance, come very obviously to mind, as do, I think, Donne and Milton, or Ibsen and Chekhov. And, moving away from literature, another pair of mighty opposites suggest themselves: Verdi and Wagner. This pairing is one I think we’ll be hearing much about next year, as it happens, very conveniently, to be the bicentenary of both. A certain convocation of politic worms are e’en at them.

I know I am not qualified to write posts either on Verdi or on Wagner, but lack of qualification has never stopped me before. And in any case, I love Verdi.

Yes, I know, I know, that’s dispraise by omission… But it’s not that I don’t like Wagner: I do. But I don’t like liking Wagner, if you see what I mean. It’s nothing to do with his odious anti-Semitism, deeply unpleasant though that is: it is more to do with the very feature of his works that so entrances his admirers – the ability his music has of completely enveloping the listener, of making the listener forget the passage of time … to forget everything other than that blasted music. I know Wagner’s music can have this effect because I have experienced it myself. Many times. But whether I enjoy experiencing this sort of thing is another matter.

However, it’s still over ten months before the double bicentenary, so I’ll have plenty of time to think out my responses to these two undeniable giants. I think I already know what I’ll be saying about Verdi. As for t’other one, our teenage lad – already a Wagnerian, poor thing – has still to convince me. And who knows? – I may still be convinced. Why listen to music at all – or read books – if one is not prepared to expand one’s tastes?

Does size matter?

I recently commented – although, admittedly, in a somewhat unfocussed manner – on the assumption often made, without any justification, that, in fiction, the shorter a work is, the better. Some works, I tried to argue, need to be long. Yes, it is no doubt true that certain works are unnecessarily long, and are padded out with much that is superfluous: but in such cases, the novel is flawed not because it is long, but because it is padded out. And even amongst such works, there are some in which a certain level of “padding” is unavoidable:  these are works such as Moby-Dick, or The Brothers Karamazov – works in which the scope is so broad and the ambition so over-reachingly high that it is not even to be expected that all shots will hit the target: some, indeed, may miss quite glaringly. However, even these failed shots – which emerge as “padding” – are integral  parts of the whole. To criticise such novels for being “overlong” or “padded” – and they often are – is to misunderstand their nature: in works such as Moby-Dick or The Brothers Karamazov, rules that apply to keep lesser novelists in check become gloriously irrelevant.

It is in this context, I find myself somewhat bemused by an article by Robert McCrum, former editor in chief of Faber & Faber, lamenting what he claims is the modern trend for longer novels. He gives very little evidence for this claim:

In these lean times, fiction is putting on weight. Take three of the major novels out in the next few weeks. Never mind the quality, which is variable, feel the width. Angelmaker (Heinemann), Nick Harkaway’s second novel, weighs in at 576 pages. My copy of Capital (Faber) by John Lanchester tips the scales at 577pp. The Bellwether Revivals by Benjamin Wood (S&S) is a 420-page debut. Even the Costa winner, Andrew Miller’s Pure (Sceptre), runs to a chunky 352 pages.

The fact of three novels being a bit on the long side does not really indicate much. And that McCrum regards a novel of 352 pages as “chunky” merely indicates to me that his idea of what constitutes “long” is somewhat different from mine. It would, I imagine, to be quite easy to find some recently published high-profile novels that are short, even on the McCrum scale, and present them as argument that novels are actually becoming shorter. It would be a foolish argument, admittedly, but no more so than the one McCrum presents.

Now, I do realise that I have myself been criticised at times for making certain claims without providing sufficient evidence; but I am merely an amateur blogger whose spare time is extremely limited: why a professional man of letters writing in the arts pages of a prestigious newspaper shouldn’t have the time to put together a bit of evidence for his arguments I really cannot imagine. I frankly have no idea whether the current trend is for longer or for shorter novels, but since it is McCrum’s starting point that novels are, indeed, becoming longer, and should really be shorter, a bit more evidence to support his premise may have been welcome.  

McCrum pronounces ex cathedra:

What’s hardly in doubt is that where novelists used ascetically to follow a regime of “less is more”, now they’re piling on the carbs.

When exactly did novelists follow “ascetically” the regime of “less is more”? The novelists of the nineteenth century – a period that many would consider to be the high water mark of the novel – certainly didn’t; Ulysses and A la Recherche du Temps Perdu – often acclaimed as the greatest novels of the twentieth century – certainly don’t either. The Master and Margarita, The Magic Mountain, Life and Fate, One Hundred Years of Solitude – even Midnight’s Children, a book that seems to me entirely meretricious but which was the recipient of the Booker of Bookers – are all big, hefty tomes.

Of course, yes, it is also quite easy to list a great many very fine novels that are short, and a great many very fine novelists – Graham Greene, R. K. Narayan, Muriel Spark, etc. – who did indeed pare away the slightest hint of excess fat. But, just as the existence of a single black swan is sufficient to disprove the contention that “all swans are white”, the existence of a single War and Peace disproves “less is more” as a universal principle. And, given the sheer numbers of supremely great works that are of immense length (certainly on the McCrum scale in which a novel of 352 pages counts as “chunky”), “less  is more” cannot, I think, stand as a general principle either. If anything, it’s quite the opposite: I’d argue that most (though certainly not all) of the novels we nowadays consider to be amongst the greatest are very long novels – Don Quixote, Tom Jones, Clarissa, Moby-Dick, Bleak House, War and Peace, The Idiot, The Golden Bowl, Ulysses, A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, The Magic Mountain, The Master and Margarita, etc etc. But yes, there are also, as I said, many works of a very high quality that are short, so I won’t press this particular point.

But in pressing his point, McCrum ends up saying some very strange things indeed:

[The] trend towards fiction of between 350 and 500-plus pages is new.


We should recognise that some of English literature’s best-loved classics are exceedingly short.

Indeed – but who exactly doesn’t recognise this? He continues:

The recent celebration of Dickens’s 200th birthday has given a new lease of life to Nicholas Nickleby and Bleak House, which are 800pp and more than 1,000pp, respectively. But the Dickens story everyone loves is A Christmas Carol, which is 160 pages, even with illustrations.

Yes, and … and what’s his point? That A Christmas Carol is better than Nicholas Nickleby or Bleak House for being shorter? Or, perhaps, for being loved by more people (if indeed, it is loved by more people)?

Further contentions follow. The Wings of the Dove and The Golden Bowl – two of the very greatest masterpieces of fiction that I have come across – are, apparently, “orotund”, a word I understand to mean “pompous” and “verbose”. No doubt McCrum commands a wider range of vocabulary than do those who give us in Amazon’s review sections such simple-minded put-downs as “It is boring” and “It sucks”, but dismissing works of the stature of The Wings of the Dove and The Golden Bowl merely as “orotund” seems to me to display no greater a level of critical awareness. And while, as an admirer of Henry James and as an aficionado of ghost stories, I love The Turn of the Screw, to declare it categorically and without supporting argument as “the master’s masterpiece” seems to me to be the sort of thing every schoolchild should be taught to avoid.

McCrum continues:

Stevenson used to say that “the only art is to omit”. Tell that to Messrs Harkaway, Miller and Wood.

Or, indeed, to Dickens. Or to Tolstoy. Or Dostoyevsky. Or Joyce Or Cervantes. Or  Melville. Or Proust. Orotund, no doubt, the whole lot of them.

And so on. Further unsupported personal opinions follow, dressed up as Facts Universally Acknowledged. The greatest short novel, for instance, is Heart of Darkness (The Death of Ivan Illych? Notes from Underground? Death in Venice? Billy Budd? The Aspern Papers?); or the greatest American novel of the 20th century is The Great Gatsby (The House of Mirth? Light in August? The Heart is a Lonely Hunter? Invisible Man? Humboldt’s Gift?)  Now, this sort of nonsense is perhaps not out of place in a casual conversation over a few drinks in the pub, but coming as it does from a prominent figure in the world of literature writing in the pages of a prestigious paper, it is hard to see it as anything other than symptomatic of a decline in the standards in public discourse.

McCrum does not, to be fair, explicitly say that shorter novels are necessarily superior to longer novels: he restricts himself to saying: “Short books, in brief, form a vigorous alternative tradition.” An “alternative tradition” to what? Presumably, to long books. But if A is an alternative to B, it follows that B must similarly be an alternative to A; and so, one may just as reasonably say “Long books, in brief, form a vigorous alternative tradition”. But leaving that aside,  is this really a point worth making? Who, exactly, is disputing that short books can be of a high literary quality? McCrum started his article taking issue with long novels; but merely to argue the uncontentious point that short novels can also be very good is hardly an argument against longer ones. So on what basis exactly is he taking issue with longer works?

The whole concept of long fiction and short fiction being somehow in competition with one another, of one being superior to the other, strikes me as a red herring. A novel should be as long as it needs to be: its length is determined by the nature of its content, and also by the author’s aesthetics. Chekhov could compress an entire world into about twenty pages: that is fine, but there is no reason why Chekhov’s literary aesthetics should be applied to others.

Normal service will be resumed shortly

I realise it has been a bit quiet around here lately. And, due to unavoidable circumstances, I am afraid it will continue to be quiet for another week or so. But normal service certainly will be restored shortly. Quite apart from anything else, I still have to write up my impressions on the third and fourth parts of Our Mutual Friend.  

“Needs a good editor…”

Books are often accused these days of being “over-written”, but rarely, if ever, “under-written”. Brevity and concision, even to the point of sparseness, seem to be valued for their own sake, and, if my forays around the net are anything to go by, “could have done with an editor” is a frequent criticism – as if the author’s task were merely to say as quickly and as tersely as possible whatever it is they have to say before vanishing discreetly from the scene. Enjoying words, luxuriating in language, expanding to take in vast vistas, seem often to be looked down upon.

This criticism – “could have done with a good editor” – is frequently made of books where expansion is the very point. One could, no doubt, edit Moby-Dick down to the point where it becomes a thrilling adventure yarn and nothing more; or cut Bleak House down such that it becomes merely an intriguing Victorian mystery. But those of us who love these books even to the point where they become central to our understanding of the world may well feel that such projected operations would reduce these massive novels merely to what is incidental in them, while discarding that which is essential. For the artistic purpose of certain works requires expansion.

When Mahler and Sibelius – arguably the two greatest symphonists of their generation, unless anyone out there wants to make a case for Elgar – met, Sibelius argued in favour of tightness of structure, of concision, of formal logic; while Mahler declared that the symphony should encompass everything: it should indeed, he argued, be like the universe itself.

These two very different composers remained true to their respective ideals: the symphonies of Sibelius became increasingly concise, and his output culminated in the single movement 7th symphony, and in the symphonic poem Tapiola (the latter built upon one single theme), each about only twenty or so minutes long, and yet in its extreme concentration packing the kind of punch one might expect from works many times that length. (Some would argue that in the 30 or so years that followed Tapiola, Sibelius took the concept of concision to its ultimate and logical end by producing absolutely nothing.) Mahler, on the other hand, continued to compose symphonies that attempted to encompass “the entire universe”. And for many admirers, he succeeded in doing just that.

These Sibelian and Mahlerian extremes of the spectrum have their counterparts in literature also, I think – particularly when it comes to the novel. There are certain novels – Moby-Dick, War and Peace, The Brothers Karamazov – that attempt, with a Mahlerian megalomania, to encompass the entire universe; and there are others – Emma, Madame Bovary, The Portrait of a Lady – that focus more intently on a more limited scope, and aim for a perfection of form that the Mahlerian attempt to encompass everything must, perhaps necessarily, forgo.

None of his means, of course, that there isn’t dead wood in Moby-Dick, or in Bleak House. Or in War and Peace, or in The Brothers Karamazov, or in Ulysses. Or in Mahler’s symphonies. Or even, for that matter, in King Lear. But it is, perhaps, the very nature of the beast that works such as these –works that attempt to encompass the entire universe – should contain dead wood. Ishmael, Melville’s alter-ego in Moby-Dick, says at one point that he tries all things, and achieves what he can. And, yes, it can be argued that he tries far more than he achieves, that most of his trials end up as failures. But even the failed attempts are important: even these depict the author’s heroic endeavours to approach the unapproachable. A novel such as Moby-Dick is, and has to be, a record of those failed trials as well as of those that succeeded. We are placed in the laboratory of the author’s mind, and, unless one is looking merely for an adventure yarn, we must accept the flaws, for they are integral pieces of the whole. In works such as these, removal of flaws, instead of enhancing, paradoxically diminishes the whole.

Of course, if one personally prefers the Sibelian ideal of concision and perfection of form, then that is fine: there are sufficient masterpieces at that end of the spectrum to keep one busy for an entire lifetime. But, speaking for myself, while I can and do admire many works of that type, it is those massive, over-reaching works that are closer to my heart. Flawed, yes, no doubt: but even the flaws I find I value, as the whole would become shrunken without them.