Archive for December 2nd, 2012

“Joseph Andrews” by Henry Fielding

I had been putting off reading Fielding’s Joseph Andrews until I had read Richardson’s Pamela, the object of its satire; but eventually, I decided I didn’t have the patience. True, I have read the 1700 or so often excruciatingly slow pages of Richardson’s later novel Clarissa, but that was a masterpiece, and, despite its very slow tempo, utterly engrossing: but Pamela, quite frankly, promised to be a stinker. Maidservant Pamela Andrews resists for some 500 pages the sexual advances of her employer Mr B, and, as a “reward” for her virtue, gets to marry the very man who had harassed her, abducted her, imprisoned her, and had even attempted to rape her: both morally and psychologically, this seems dubious stuff. Maybe if I were to read the entire novel, I would find various moral and psychological nuances that a mere summary of the plot could not hope to convey; but frankly, even armed with the conviction that something written by the author of a masterpiece such as Clarissa could not be entirely without merit, I found the idea of sinking my teeth into Pamela (pardon the image) entirely resistible. The main reason I felt I should read it was that I would then be able to appreciate all the better Fielding’s satire of Pamela in Joseph Andrews: while I had little desire to read Pamela, I desperately wanted to read the jolly comic romp promised by Joseph Andrews. Eventually, I decided to by-pass the Richardson novel and move straight to the parody. After all, I reasoned, one need not have read the various chivalric romances to enjoy Don Quixote. Did I really have to wade through Pamela before I could come on to this, the first novel of the writer who later went on to produce such marvels as Jonathan Wild, Amelia, and, of course, Tom Jones?

Fielding decides to give us the full name of Pamela’s employer, Mr B: it is, he insists, Mr Booby. That name takes on a somewhat different comic complexion when applied to his aunt – Lady Booby. This good lady, newly widowed, sets out to seduce her young servant, Joseph Andrews, just as Squire Booby had set out to “seduce” Joseph’s sister, Pamela; but Joseph is as chaste as his sister, and, indeed, as his Biblical namesake, and, despite Lady Booby displaying to him her well-endowed charms, resists heroically. For this, he is turned out, penniless. And now, Fielding has a problem: while he was taking the no doubt well-deserved piss out of Richardson’s Pamela, he was on safe comic ground; but he could not keep this going for an entire full-length novel. Once Joseph is turned out, Fielding is forced to move away from parody and pastiche, and invent comic material that is more, as it were, free-standing. And in this, it must be admitted, he succeeded only partially: the comic genius that is consistently in view in the later Tom Jones is apparent here only intermittently.

Fielding soon realises that the virtuous, strait-laced Joseph Andrews could not carry off the central role in a comic romp; and so he introduces Parson Adams, one of his finest comic creations. Parson Adams is an impoverished, other-worldy curate, unimpeachable in his moral integrity, but not quite equipped to negotiate the various vicissitudes of the material world. In some ways, he even recalls Nazarin of Benito Pérez Galdós; but while Nazarin rejects violence under any circumstances, and ends a tragic figure, Parson Adams is quite prepared to take up cudgels, quite literally, when there are villains to be disposed of and innocents protected. (And this being a Fielding novel, there is no shortage of mock-heroic fights and severe beatings.) Fielding resists any temptation to provide Parson Adams even with overtones of the tragic: while he clearly admires his incorruptible moral probity, he allows Parson Adams to remain throughout a gloriously comic figure. And, also, one of those rare believable portraits of a completely good man. Fielding laugh at him even as he admires him, and so do we. The laughter is never superior, and there is in it not the slightest hint of malice or of condescension.

Fielding introduces also a love interest for Joseph – the delightfully named Fanny Goodwill. (Tony Richardson’s 1977 film version came with the tagline: “The story of a young, English footman who served the Lady Booby but loved the little Fanny.”) There isn’t really much in the way of characterisation either of Joseph or of Fanny: they’re merely stock figures in a generally rumbustious romp.

However, for all the rumbustiousness, Fielding’s moral compass is very firmly established. His principal argument with Richardson is not, after all, that Richardson was too serious in his morals, but that he wasn’t serious enough – that allowing Pamela to be “rewarded” for her virtue with marriage with her former tormentor made virtue itself but a commodity. As in his other novels, Fielding is, throughout, an intrusive narrator: he addresses the reader directly, comments, delivers lectures, tells jokes, and does all those things that modern literary theory tells us authors should not do (unless they are being postmodern or something). And, as in his other novels, it works: it works because Fielding’s authorial presence is so very engrossing. His is a very distinctive voice, and holds our attention. It is a voice of great charm – the voice of a man who values virtue and admires selflessness and generosity, but who is also sympathetic and humane, and tolerant of human failings. We often read books for the companionship of the author, and there can be few authors as companionable as Henry Fielding.

But despite many fine things, Joseph Andrews does, it must be admitted, have its longueurs. In the later Tom Jones, the better qualities of Joseph Andrews are consistently in view, and the flaws entirely absent. For one thing, Fielding, when he came to writing Tom Jones, realised that the kind of novel he was attempting required an interesting plot: otherwise, the final chapters would merely provide resolution for a plot that the reader has long lost interest in, and become merely tedious; and the rest of the novel would become merely a sequence of more or less unrelated set pieces. Joseph Andrews suffers on both these points. But its high points are high enough, and while I don’t think I’ll re-read the entire novel again, I will be more than happy to dip into it from time to time to renew my acquaintance both with Parson Adams, and, indeed, with Henry Fielding himself.

(As a footnote, when Clarissa was published, Fielding had acknowledged it a masterpiece, and sent Richardson a warmly worded letter of congratulation. It is good to know that the generosity of spirit apparent in the authorial figure in Fielding’s novels was present also in Fielding the man.)

“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” by Tennessee Williams

Among my reading projects for this year, I had meant to acquaint myself with the plays of Tennessee Williams, a dramatist to whose works I have never felt particularly close. I can see, looking back over the year, that I have failed miserably in this reading project. I read and quite enjoyed The Night of the Iguana earlier this year, but, for whatever reason, haven’t really felt the urge to go back and read more of his plays.  And I am not entirely sure why. After all, the dialogue is superb, depicting economically the characters’ inner lives, and their relations with each other, and yet sounding entirely spontaneous and natural; the pacing is masterly, with the dramatic climaxes placed perfectly; the characters are intriguing, and depicted with a vivid theatricality; and so on. What’s not to like? – as they say. So, I picked up Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, one of Williams’ most famous dramas, and I found the same fine qualities I had found in The Night of the Iguana. And yet… and yet, there seemed something missing, something I find difficult to pinpoint.

Before going on to examine why this may be so, let me first of all rule out of court the criticisms I used to make of Tennessee Williams: I used to dismiss his work as “overheated melodrama”. This really won’t do, for various reasons. First of all, beyond what point does a drama become “overheated”? Is there some point at which it is correctly heated? Is it underheated if we fail to reach this point? How does one heat a drama anyway, come to that? And in any case, what do we mean by “melodrama”, and why precisely is it a bad thing? “Overheated melodrama” is one of those meaningless pieces of criticism that get bandied around unthinkingly: so let’s not go there.

One may, perhaps, object the level of hysteria in Williams’ plays – all those people at the end of their tether, losing their touch with reality, and so on. Once again, I do not see why this should be a reason for criticism: there do exist people who are hysterical, or on the edge of hysteria; there do exist people who lose touch with reality. So why should a dramatist not depict such people? Extreme psychologies do exist, and there is no reason why the creative writer should consider them out of bounds. Or even, as Williams does, focus on these extreme psychologies: writers are entitled, after all, to choose and to focus on whatever most concerns them. That the reader may not necessarily share the writer’s concerns is hardly a shortcoming of the writer. If Tennessee Williams chooses to focus on extreme psychologies and extreme behaviour, then that is his privilege: our appraisal must concern not the choice of subject, but how he deals with it.

And I am not necessarily out of sympathy with his subject. After all, I rate Dostoyevsky among my favourite novelists (despite often immense reservations), and his novels are full of hysterics and emotional cripples. No – if there is something in Tennessee Williams’ plays that I can’t quite latch on to, it is not that he depicts extreme characters, and extreme behaviour. There is something other than that that I find difficult.

As with many plays by Williams, the characters and the dramatic situation – the plot, such as it is – is familiar to most who watch Hollywood films from the 50s and 60s: it was through these bowdlerised versions that I, and many others I guess, first came into contact with these works. I must admit I remember little of the film version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof starring Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor, and with Burl Ives famously reprising his stage role as Big Daddy. From what I gather, this version was quite heavily bowdlerised, and Tennessee Williams was himself unhappy with it. Admittedly, it’s hard to see how the play’s openness on sexual matters could have been depicted in a mainstream film of the late 50s, but equally, it’s hard to see what can be left of the drama once this sexual openness is taken out. For sex is at the very heart of everything here. Early in the play, Big Mama asks her daughter-in-law if she makes her husband happy in bed, and says, pointing to the bed: “When a marriage goes on the rocks, the rocks are there – right there.” Of course, the sheer inappropriateness of this, especially coming as it does from mother-in-law to daughter-in-law, is squirm-inducingly comic: but this sentiment seems to be at the centre of the play itself. It’s not just marriage: in the world of Tennessee Williams, when any human relationship goes “off the rocks”, the reasons are sexual. Characters are depicted almost entirely in sexual terms: any neurosis, any hysteria, is, at bottom, sexual in nature.

Margaret – Maggie – is the cat on the hot tin roof of the title. Her husband Brick has his leg in plaster, and appears on stage throughout the play with a perhaps too blatantly symbolic a crutch. And, yes, he and his wife have not been having sex at all, and this has become the talk of the entire family. As the play progresses, the reasons for this lack of sexual activity emerge: Maggie had been jealous of her husband’s friendship with Skipper, believing it to be essentially homosexual in nature; Skipper had tried to have an affair with Maggie, to prove her wrong, but on being unable to complete the act, had been forced to face the truth about himself; but when he had declared himself to Brick, Brick was merely shocked and disgusted, and had rejected him; subsequently, Skipper had committed suicide, and Brick, ever since, has been living a life of guilt and alcoholism, unable either to be sexually attracted to his wife, or to come to terms with his own homosexual leanings. All very torrid and tumultuous, but, inevitably, no longer as shocking as it must have seemed some sixty or so years ago at its first performance. And now that we are no longer shocked by this (indeed, if we are shocked at anything at all now, it would probably be Brick’s rejection of Skipper!) we must ask ourselves how well this holds up on purely psychological and dramatic terms.

Perhaps it does: I am no psychologist, and am in no position to judge. But it does bother me, I admit, that the inner lives of these characters, and of the relationships between them, are depicted purely in sexual terms: take out the sex, and there seems little if anything left. Now, I really don’t think I am prudish (although maybe I am – who knows?) but I really do find it hard to believe that our sexuality is the sole, or even the principal, driving force determining our psychologies and our behaviour. And perhaps this is why I find it so difficult to enter into the world of Tennessee Williams: here, all states of mind, all neuroses, all hysteria, are essentially sexual in nature.

Apart from Brick and Maggie, we have the famous character of Big Daddy, a still vigorous figure in his 60s, but, unknown to himself, dying of cancer. He is in many ways a quite monstrous figure: when we see him, he is under the impression that he is physically healthy, and, this being a Tennessee Williams play, the only way he can express his vigour and zest for life is to express his desire to have more sex. He is casually dismissive of his ageing wife, who remains, pathetically, devoted to him. And there is Brick’s brother and sister-in-law – mean, grasping schemers, straight out of Balzac, desperate to lay their hands on Big Daddy’s estate, and cut out Brick and Maggie. I hesitate to describe these characters as “mere caricatures”, since, as anyone who has read Gogol or Dickens will testify, caricatures can be tremendously subtle and sophisticated; but here, they aren’t: they are merely crude, and, as a consequence, tiresome. A dramatist more interested in aspects of characters other than sex could have made something more of Gooper’s jealousy of his brother Brick, who, despite his general irresponsibility and lack of hard work, has remained his father’s favourite; but Tennessee Williams appears to make very little of this, since, it seems, he is not interested in any aspect of human character that is not sexual in nature. And it is for this reason that, for all the many fine dramatic qualities of this play, I come away from it feeling I have witnessed a somewhat reduced view of humanity.

As ever, I do not mean to put anyone off. Those more in sympathy with Tennessee Williams’ view of humanity, or who are more prepared to be convinced than I was, will find much more to like in this play than I did. As for me, I’ll read a few more of his works in time, but at the moment, I can’t say I’m in a rush to race through them all. I think I may be prudish after all!