Archive for July, 2012

Brushstrokes

Some writers paint, as it were, with small brush-strokes. With the most meticulous precision, they delineate the most subtle and seemingly intangible of things with the utmost delicacy. One has to peer at the canvas very closely to see the brush-strokes, and even then they may elude the eye. Writers that come to mind at this end of the spectrum include Samuel Richardson, Jane Austen, Gustave Flaubert, Henry James, Edith Wharton.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are writers who paint with big, broad brush-strokes. Usually, though not always, these are writers whose works may, though not always, be described as “epic”. They are generally not too interested in pastel colours: they choose big, bright colours, and apply them with broad sweep and panache and vigour. Authors at this end of the spectrum include Charles Dickens, Honoré de Balzac, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Herman Melville, William Faulkner.

With Leo Tolstoy, I come across a problem. Is he a delicate short-brusher, or an epic broad-brusher? It’s not so much that he lies at some half-way point on the spectrum between these two extremes: rather, he seems almost effortlessly to encompass the entire spectrum. He could be as subtle and delicate as an Austen or a James; he could be as vigorous and epic as a Dickens or a Melville.

I am currently re-reading Anna Karenina for the umpteenth time, and reading it very slowly, savouring every single page. And it seems to me that, as a novelist, there was absolutely nothing he couldn’t do: there’s absolutely nothing beyond his range. Whether  depicting the physical exhilaration in the epic mowing scene, or dissecting with infinite delicacy the subtlest shades and nuances of Anna or of Karenin, he never seems out of his element. Whether he is describing the vast panorama of the field of battle at Austerlitz or at Borodino, or describingthe feelings of a teenage girl enchanted by a moonlit night, every sinngle aspect of human life appears to be within his range. And he varies the brush-strokes as he sees fit, confident thathe is the master of whatever style of brush-stroke may be required.

I’ve been meaning to write some posts on Anna Karenina, but I really don’t know where to start. I suppose I should justtake a deep breath and dive in.

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Minister addresses the nation: a grateful public responds

This blog generally stays out of politics, but may I, nonetheless, direct the gentle reader’s attention to an address to the nation by Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Culture, and, more especially, to the splendid responses from various members of the public that appear below the article?

Hooray for democracy, says I!

Shakespeare for the MTV generation: continued

Sir Richard Eyre, formerly director of the National Theatre and, more recently, director of those execrable adaptations of the Henry IV plays on BBC (I am assuming that the second part, which I haven’t seen, was filmed in much the same way as the first, which, sadly, I have), gives a rather interesting interview in the Daily Telegraph. He speaks, quite rightly, of the importance of the BBC, Britain’s national broadcaster, taking Shakespeare seriously: 

But one thing I did bleat on about then, and have continued to say since, is how philistine the BBC had become as an organisation, and about how it wasn’t taking Shakespeare seriously. 

I certainly can’t argue with that. But before he gets to this, he treats us to an obligatory denigration of BBC’s past effort: 

Next door, he remembers, was an ageing producer who had been “put out to grass” with the brief to televise the complete works of Shakespeare. “The result was a catastrophe, because what he churned out were hidebound versions, filmed in studios, that were not well-acted or well-designed. It was a chance squandered, and worse, these dreadful films are what has been shown ever after in schools all around the world as evidence of the BBC’s commitment to Shakespeare.

 The “ageing producer” in question was Cedric Messina, who did, indeed, “churn out” very conservative productions. And many of them are exactly as Sir Richard describes them. But certainly not all. 

As I had said in a previous post on the BBC Shakespeare series, many of the productions were mediocre and uninspiring: sadly, the list of poor productions include some of the major highlights of the canon –  Macbeth, Hamlet, King Lear, and a quite unwatchable Romeo and Juliet. But even in Messina’s time, a number of productions transcended the flatness of design, and the hidebound conservatism of the directorial approach: I remember in particular a tense and dramatic Measure for Measure, and a delightful Twelfth Night; and, rather interestingly, the very plays that Sir Richard has recently filmed so badly – the Henry IV plays. And, contrary to Sir Richard’s assertion, these plays were superbly acted, with Anthony Quayle an unforgettable Falstaff, and David Gwillim distinguishing himself as Prince Hal.

 I wonder whether Sir Richard deliberately forgot in his interview that the “ageing producer” who had been put out to grass was replaced after a while by Jonathan Miller; and that the quality of the series improved markedly after that. There were, admittedly, a few duds even then, but the best were certainly as fine as any production of Shakespeare as I’ve seen, and quite undeserving of Sir Richard’s derision. The BBC Othello – with Anthony Hopkins, Bob Hoskins and Penelope Wilton – is a particular favourite of mine, but that remains a controversial interpretation (not least because it featured a white actor blacking up), so let us leave that to one side: but I certainly haven’t seen better productions of The Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline, All’s Well That Ends Well Even those problematic early plays such as The Taming of the Shrew or Titus Andronicus were done about as well as I can imagine. But the crown of the series, for me, was the tetralogy comprising the three Henry VI plays, and Richard III, magnificently directed by Jane Howell. I have never seen Shakespeare done better on screen. And, far from being hidebound and conservative, these productions were far more cutting edge than Sir Richard’s recent versions: Jane Howell set the whole thing in a bare studio, relishing the artificiality of these works; the only sets represented a children’s playground, and they became progressively shabby and battered as the plays progressed; Jane Howell also made imaginative use of doubling, with the same actors appearing in different roles throughout the series, and thus highlighting in unexpected ways the various dramatic shifts. All in all, it was a triumph of the director’s imagination. Now, let us compare his to Sir Richard’s recent adaptations, with the predictable medieval settings of castle chambers and cathedral cloisters. It seems pretty clear to me that it is Jane Howell’s productions that are imaginative and cutting edge, while Sir Richard’s productions remain in comparison merely dull and, to use his own derisive epithet, “hidebound”. 

And above all, these older productions respected the text. A rather important point, I would have thought, if one is to take “Shakespeare seriously”.

Of course, Sir Richard would no doubt claim that he, too, respects the text, but I can see little evidence of any respect in statements such as this: 

I saw [the allotted two hour timeslot] as a licence to remove the repetitions that work well in the theatre but not on TV.

Of course! – silly, boring old Shakespeare, not realising he was being repetitive! Good job we have a superior modern sensibility such as Sir Richard’s to put the old boy right on these matters! “These adaptations are not dumbing down,” he continues, “I see them as dumbing up.” Anyone have any idea what he’s on about?

Having read the interview with Sir Richard Eyre, I really am not surprised that his recent adaptations are so poor. Better than nothing, some may say? I respectfully disagree. It is better not to do Shakespeare at all than to misrepresent his works in this manner.

Shakespeare for the MTV generation

BBC tells us that their recent production of Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part One was an “adaptation” of Shakespeare’s play. “Adaptation”: it’s a convenient get-out clause. It allows them to enjoy the prestige of “doing” Shakespeare, while at the same time not put off their potential audience with all that boring stuff with language and poetry and whatever. It’s the best of all worlds. 

So, what does this adaptation entail? Lots of quick-cutting and fussy camera movements, for a start. Long speeches shortened to a few lines each, or even cut out entirely. Entire chunks of the play cut, the text butchered. Scenes spliced with each other to prevent the audience becoming bored with any single scene going on for too long. Shakespeare’s carefully considered pacing replaced with a staccato exposition of the plot in fragmented spurts. The intricacy of the various relationships between characters not allowed the time or the space even to establish themselves, let alone develop. And so on. Everything, in other words, that we now accept as integral aspects of modern film-making, and made for an audience supposedly more sophisticated than its predecessors had been. 

But then again, all the reviews I have seen so far have been positive, so what do I know?

The Flashman novels

We may think that Flashman, the vicious and cowardly bully in Tom Brown’s Schooldays, was a fictional character. Not so. While Thomas Hughes, the author, presents the novel as a fiction, Flashman was real enough. After expulsion from Rugby School, he led a colourful life. Despite being a coward and a bully and an all-round bad egg, he was accidentally mistaken for a hero, and became famous throughout the British Empire. And, despite all his efforts to keep out of trouble, he found himself witnessing some of the most momentous events in history, and even taking his part in them.

Some time in the late 1960s, author George Macdonald Fraser came across the Flashman papers – detailed accounts of his eventful life written by Flashman in his old age, in inimitable style. Macdonald Fraser then devoted several years of his life editing these papers, adding scholarly introductions and notes. In these notes, he often corroborates Flashman’s accounts, and adds related points of historical interest; at other times, he points out some inevitable errors in Flashman’s accounts – errors both of historical fact, which may be put down to Flashman’s weakening memory in his old age; and also possible errors of perception: a man whose moral compass is as flawed as is Flashman’s is hardly likely, after all, to see things with the impartial eye of the scholar.

Such, at least, is the conceit that informs the twelve Flashman novels. So far, I have read five of the twelve, and it seems quite obvious to me that as far as adventure stories are concerned, George Macdonald Fraser, whom we may, I think, consider the author rather than merely a scrupulous editor, was up there with the very best: not R. L. Stevenson, nor Arthur Conan Doyle, nor even Alexandre Dumas, surpassed this for sheer panache and excitement. The technical skills are unerring: Flashman’s tone of voice is unmistakable, and never shades into that of the novelist’s; the historical details are scrupulously accurate, without ever becoming pedantic or getting in the way of the narrative; the pacing is immaculate; the sense of place superbly conveyed at all times; and the characters – whether real life people such as the Rani of Jhansi or Abraham Lincoln, or such wonderful fictional creations as the scholarly but psychopathic slave-trader John Charity Spring – are brought to life with tremendous colour and vividness. With most modern novels, I read and wonder what all the fuss is about: these, I read and think to myself that never in a million years would I have had the skill to have written anything like this.

In the five novels I have read so far, we have seen Flashman in the Afghan campaign (Flashman); involved with Bismark and Lola Montez in European intrigue (Royal Flash – a wonderful , affectionate pastiche of Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda, which, to my mind, surpasses its model); Flash for Freedom, which sees Flashman on an illegal slave ship, and, later, in the slave states of America; at the Charge of the Light Brigade in Balaclava (one of the very finest depictions I have ever come across of a scene of battle), and with the guerrilla freedom fighters of Central Asia (Flashman at the Charge); and, most recently, at the Indian Mutiny (Flashman in the Great Game). Future volumes, which I look forward to reading, will see Flashman at the Zulu War, at the Battle of Little Big Horn, in the company of John Brown, etc.

However, it is not possible to speak of these novels purely as adventure novels. And, while much of it is very funny indeed, neither is it possible to speak of them as comedies. These are blood-drenched novels: Flashman is witness to some of the most horrendous events of history, and, while Macdonald Fraser never evokes disgust merely for its own sake, it is hard to read of the slave ship, say, or of the appalling massacres during the Indian Mutiny, without feeling disgusted. Indeed, Flash for Freedom is among the post powerful indictments I have come across of slavery – and all the more so as it is narrated by someone who not only feels no compassion for the slaves, but who even finds enjoyment in bullying them.

Inevitably, perhaps, there is the question of “political correctness”. Flashman, at least in the earlier novels, is a nasty piece of work without any redeeming moral feature: to what extent can we read a narrative from such a viewpoint without becoming implicated in his amorality? In the first novel, Flashman actually rapes someone. True, the person whom he rapes is herself an assassin who had previously tried to murder him; but this hardly mitigates the horrendous nature of the act. I, personally, do not have a problem with this, as Flashman’s voice is clearly not that of the narrator’s: only a reader as lacking in moral compass as Flashman himself could fail to be disgusted by Flashman’s action. To confuse the voice of the first person narrator with that of the author is at best naïve. Yes, it leaves a very nasty taste in the mouth, but the nasty taste is intentional on the author’s part.

The other point that is often raised is that Macdonald Fraser’s view of history is reactionary. That may be so: I don’t see why that should disqualify his novels. But, reactionary or not, his view of history does seem to me scrupulously fair. He can show in all its brutal detail the horrors of slavery in the southern states, but he is perfectly clear that the West African societies from which slaves were captured also practised slavery, were extraordinarily cruel, and took a very active role in the transatlantic slave trade. The British Empire, too, seems to me to be depicted fairly, and if Macdonald Fraser has any ideological axe to grind, he certainly does not make it obvious. He loves history, and quite clearly takes immense pride in depicting the past accurately, witout fear or favour.

In depicting the Indian Mutiny, Macdonald Fraser does, as he himself admits in a note in the appendix, step into potentially sensitive territory, as, some 150 years and more after the event, feelings on both sides remain high. There was appalling bloodshed on all sides, borne of intolerance and wanton cruelty, and, once again, Macdonald Fraser strikes me as scrupulously fair. Flashman reports on the horrendous atrocities at Meerut and at Cawnpore (now Kanpur), and, while he doesn’t think of these events in wider moral terms, he does make it clear that equally savage “reprisals” were visited on innocent Indians. Ultimately, what Macdonald Fraser admires most, no matter whom it comes from, is heroism: the spirit of heroic defiance that was apparent amongst the besieged British at Cawnpore, he tells us, was the same spirit that was shown by the besieged mutineers at Gwalior; and, whatever the extent of the Rani of Jhansi’s involvement in the Mutiny (both in history, and also in Flashman’s narrative, the exact nature of her involvement remains unclear), her heroism is never in question; and Macdonald Fraser honours it.

And this, I think, is why he had to make someone like Flashman the narrator. A Victorian writer could celebrate heroism openly; nowadays, we can’t: we are more suspicious of it. So heroism is depicted here at a remove, as it were, from the perspective of one who is far from heroic himself; from the perspective of one who can, perhaps, admire heroism from a distance, but who nonetheless feels it to be essentially foolish.

Not that Flashman is necessarily a coward, as such: he will not willingly risk his life, true, but most of us perhaps will fall in that category; he perhaps goes further than the rest of us in that he is quite happy, without any moral scruple at all, to betray even those close to him for the sake of his own skin. But Flashman is far from the Bob Hope figure in The Paleface, say: when he is in danger, he keeps his head, and often escapes with no little courage and ingenuity. But yes – he would much prefer to be boozing and whoring rather than to be playing the hero.

I have been told that Macdonald Fraser softened somewhat towards Flashman in the later novels. Perhaps that is inevitable: the Flashman character, utterly amoral and unscrupulous, was a marvellous protagonist in the earlier novels, but to repeat the same thing over twelve novels can, I suppose, become tiresome. It is not, though, that Macdonald Fraser begins to admire qualities he had previously deplored: rather, Flashman is not quite, perhaps, the complete cad that he had previously been. In the marvellous ending to Flashman in the Great Game, he shows an unexpected streak of humanity. This can partly be explained by the circumstances: he has just been saved at the last minute from a terrible death, and he naturally has some compassion for the others who are still facing that fate; but it shows also a certain deepening of characterisation. I look forward to seeing how the character develops in the later novels: Macdonald Fraser was, I’m sure, too fine a writer merely to go on repeating himself.

***

For anyone who has a taste for adventure stories written with dash and panache and humour; for anyone who has grown up, as I have done, with the likes of Dumas and Stevenson and Rider Haggard; the Flashman novels of George Macdonald Fraser can be recommended without hesitation. In this genre, he is up there with the very best, and sometimes, I think, even surpasses them. And those who object to his alleged “political incorrectness” could perhaps do worse than read this. As he himself says of his own ancestors:

My forebears from the Highlands of Scotland were a fairly primitive, treacherous, blood-thirsty bunch and, as Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote, would have been none the worse for washing. Fine, let them be so depicted, if any film maker feels like it; better that than insulting, inaccurate drivel like Braveheart.

And I, for one, wouldn’t argue with that!

Note to a recent correspondent

A few hours ago today (Monday 9th July), I received an e-mail from a new visitor to this blog, commenting on my post on the endings of Great Expectations, and on Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty.

I am very sorry to say that I accidentally deleted the e-mail, and I do not have an e-mail address to which to reply. May I offer my apologies, and request the correspondent please to e-mail me again? Thank you very much.

Star-gazing

I have, over the years, been sufficiently fortunate to have seen several actors play King Lear on the stage. Of these, the least impressive by some margin was the performance given by Sir Ian McKellen. This is not, I hasten to add, because Sir Ian is not an actor of quality: far from it. Rather, it is because not everyone can excel equally well at everything, and, on the evidence of his performance, Lear appears not to be a role suited to his particular qualities. However, his performance was the most difficult for which to obtain tickets; and his performance was the only one that received a standing ovation. The reason for this is not hard to discern: unlike some of the actors whom I have seen excel as Lear – Timothy West, Brian Cox, John Wood, Julian Glover – Sir Ian McKellen is a movie star.

One may see evidence of such “star gazing” in other fields as well. Last Friday evening, somewhat jet-lagged after flying back from Tokyo, I found myself flat out on the settee watching the tennis from Wimbledon. Roger Federer, one of the greatest artists of the game (or indeed of any other game) and rightly admired for being so, was having a bit of a tough time against the unfancied Julien Benneteau. Federer did come through in the end, but Benneteau played some superb tennis, and came close to winning. And yet, while every point won by Federer was greeted by the crowd with enthusiastic cheers and applause, major points won by Benneteau were greeted with distinctly audible groans. And I couldn’t help wondering: were those groaning at Benneteau winning points – often with superlative skill – really tennis enthusiasts? Or were they, like those who gave a standing ovation to Ian McKellen’s lacklustre performance, merely “star-gazers”?

There are many examples of this kind of thing. I have seen people who couldn’t distinguish a square cut from an off-drive swoon at the mention of Sachin Tendulkar. In the Louvre, people walk past without so much as a glance some of the very greatest masterpieces of the human imagination just to have a quick look at the star of the gallery, the Mona Lisa. Prestigious football teams with prestigious players attract large worldwide viewing figures, whereas less-fancied teams who may have reached the later stages of competitions on their own merits spell disaster to sponsors and advertisers. And so on. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that what really matters is not so much love of the sport, or of the art, but, rather, to participate in some way in the prestige that goes with being a “star”.

But before I behold the mote in my brother’s eye (whatever a mote may be), I suppose I should consider the mote in my own. Am I not myself guilty of this sort of thing, at least to some extent, when I find myself reading something such as Barnaby Rudge, say – a mediocre novel at best, and considerably less than mediocre at worst – simply because it is written by Dickens? There are, after all, a great many novels of far greater quality by other writers that I could be reading instead. What is the point of my reading through every single play by Shakespeare? Shakespeare when not at his best is not, after all, easily distinguishable from a host of other writers of his time: why then do I waste my time with the likes of King John or with Pericles? If it is only because they have the magic name of Shakespeare attached to them, am I not every bit as much a star-gazer as anyone else?

I think I can answer this up to a point. I can say that I recognize Barnaby Rudge, despite having the illustrious name of Dickens attached to it, as not a work of any great literary quality; I can recognize that King John is an unremarkable play, and that Pericles is possibly a bad play; and that I read these works not for their inherent merit, but for any light that they may cast on the much greater works written by these authors; that peaks such as Hamlet or Great Expectations can only be properly appreciated once one is aware of the plains from which they arise; and so on. But none of this really refutes the charge of star-gazing: the truth is that if King John or Barnaby Rudge did not have attached to them the magic names of Shakespeare or of Dickens, I wouldn’t have been bothering with them. In short, I, too, am a star-gazer; I, too, am happy to praise the exquisite artistry of Sachin Tendulkar without possessing anything like a full understanding of the finer points of cricket.

So does this make me more tolerant of those who gave Sir Ian’s performance of Lear a standing ovation? Of those who groaned at points won by Benneteau? Sadly, no. This is possibly a point where Matthew and Luke may have got it a bit wrong: considering the mote in one’s own eye does not incline one to be more tolerant of the mote in one’s brother’s: if anything, it has quite the opposite effect. What strange creatures we all are!