Archive for January, 2013

Expectations great and small

We are accustomed to speaking of Dickens as a “flawed author”. Or, at least, I am. And on the whole, it doesn’t really bother me: perfection, I’ve often felt, is such an overrated quality. But Great Expectations seems to me just about perfect. I can’t think of a single thing in it I would wish changed. Except, perhaps, for one: the character of Orlick. In a more characteristic Dickens novel – multi-stranded and multi-faceted, overflowing with life and with vigour and with figures painted in each square inch of its gloriously overcrowded canvas – such a flaw wouldn’t really have mattered: after all, who cares about a few flaws in the face of God’s Plenty? But Great Expectations is a very different sort of novel: here, a single blemish, a single vicious mole of nature, seems to disrupt the harmony of the whole. And yes, I have often wished Dickens had done away with Orlick. I have often fancied that he would have done so had he not been writing in serial form, thus committing himself in later parts to what he had already written in the earlier.

But this is, indeed, mere fancy. The possibility does exist – as it always does – that it is I who have got this badly wrong, that Orlick is, indeed, a necessary component of the whole. That is certainly the view put forward recently by novelist Howard Jacobson:

… the shock of Orlick’s brutal beating of Mrs Joe resonates through the novel: not only implicating readers in the violence (there isn’t one of us, if we are honest, that hasn’t been wishing her harm in the pages before the attack), but miring Pip further in that consciousness of crime that crowds his every thought, binding him with Orlick, an alter ego who makes a mockery of his longing to be spotless enough to deserve Estella.

Further, Jacobson contends, Mrs Joe’s pathetic submissiveness to her assailant mirrors Pip’s own relationship with Estella – “loving her for what she isn’t, and loving her the more, the more she mistreats him”. Jacobson continues: “… it asks a terrible question about the psychological hierarchy of beater and beaten.”

This deranged psychology, “the deranged fastidiousness we call romantic love”, is indeed, as Jacobson says, at the heart of the novel. And yes, there is a “savagery” and an “eroticism” that many of us perhaps fail to see because these are not the qualities we expect from a work we have come to think of as a “venerated classic”. However, I wonder whether Jacobson is being perhaps a bit unfair in denouncing the view of this novel as “a moral fable about a snob’s progress”. For it seems to me that such a view of the novel is also tenable; and that, furthermore, seeing it in such terms is not necessarily, as Jacobson claims, to “reduce” the work. After all, the search for a moral code in an immoral world is surely a big theme not unworthy of a major novelist at the height of his powers. And neither is this theme subsidiary to that of Pip’s erotic obsession: Pip learns, by the end of the novel, to love Magwitch, and this is a moral redemption – indeed, a moral victory – that seems to me every bit as significant as the failure of his erotic aspirations.

But what of Orlick? Is to omit him from adaptation to “…[wilt] before the novel’s savagery”, and to “…[dilute] its eroticism”? Perhaps. But the problem with the strand involving Orlick is that there seems no satisfactory way of resolving it. It was a problem that Dickens himself could not, I think, solve. After Pip goes to London to become a gentleman some one third of the way through the novel, Orlick, who had previously played so striking a role, effectively disappears from the narrative, and is only brought back, presumably for the sake of completeness, in a single incongruous chapter towards the end. And this chapter refuses resolutely to fit its surroundings: it is a crude episode of an adventure story set in the midst of what is otherwise a complex moral and psychological web, and seems to me a very conspicuous blemish on what is about as near perfection as makes no odds.

But Jacobson is right, I think, to complain that we have reduced Dickens to a “mincing art”. This is perhaps the fate of all works we label as “classic”: the very term seems to imply a certain gentility, a certain preciousness and over-refinement; and, in our readings, we tend, perhaps unconsciously, to reduce works bearing this label to the scale of our own Reduced Expectations. And, having reduced them to our own size, we criticise them for being too small. Great Expectations is about many things, and a “moral fable about a snob’s progress” is not, I think, to be ruled out: but yes, it’s time we saw again something of its savagery.

“A Romance with Cocaine” by M. Ageyev

A Romance With Cocaine by M. Ageyev was recommended me by Guy Savage from the blog His Futile Preoccupations, and by Emma from the blog Book Around the Corner, during various book-related fun and games we had over Christmas.

When Bill Clinton famously said that he had taken drugs but had never inhaled, many saw fit to mock him. But not me. For I know well what it is like not to inhale – ever since I was about 12 or so, and I coughed and spluttered over my first illicit cigarette. Of course, the others coughed and spluttered as well, but they soon got the hang of it: I didn’t. Try as hard as I might, the smoke would get to the top of my throat, take one look down, and say “I’m not going down there, you know”. And so it continued. A few years later, as a student, it wasn’t just tobacco being passed around, but the problem remained the same: I couldn’t force that damn smoke down my throat. So what was I to do? Try harder this time, and show myself up before my peers by coughing and spluttering like a twelve-year-old? Unthinkable. So I would take some of that smoke into my mouth, feign that look of private ecstasy I had observed in others, and then blow it back out again. Like President Clinton, I never inhaled.

After a while, even the idiot I was then (and probably still am now) decided it was all a bit silly; and so, I bid a fond farewell to drug culture, and consoled myself by drinking instead copious amounts of alcohol. Of course, I knew many others who were “experimenting with drugs”. I told them I was experimenting with lager, but that didn’t have quite the same ring to it. For the very fact of taking drugs, even soft drugs, conferred on one a sort of mystique that mere beer could not hope to match. So I had to put up with various people, who are now probably all accountants or senior civil servants or something equally dull, telling me how they were turning on, tuning in, and dropping out. And as for those who ventured beyond mere soft drugs, they were the worst of all: they were opening the doors of perception, don’t you know, and looking beyond this world into new, exalted areas of experience. And so on.

Never having really been into drug culture myself – thanks mainly, I think, to my Clintonesque inability to inhale – I find myself somewhat unimpressed by the claims its adherents often make for it. So it was, admittedly, with some trepidation that I approached A Romance With Cocaine by M. Ageyev. (The book recommended to me was A Novel With Cocaine, but Hugh Aplin, the translator of the edition I read, assures me in his preface that the Russian title could just as well be translated as a “Romance” as a “Novel”, and that seemed good enough to me.) The work itself has had a curious history. It was first published in 1934 in Paris, under the pseudonym M. Ageyev: no-one knew who this M. Ageyev really was, but he was clearly one of the many Russian émigrés living in Europe at the time. The book created a bit of a stir, and drew comparisons with the works of other émigrés such as Ivan Bunin and Vladimir Nabokov. But it appears to have been forgotten soon after, and was rediscovered only in the 1980s. It was thought by some that M. Ageyev may have been Nabokov himself, but it appears that M. Ageyev was, virtually beyond doubt, a Russian-Jewish émigré called Mark Levi, who lived most of his exiled life in Turkey, before he, along with other Turkish residents of Russian origin, was forcibly repatriated to the Soviet Union in 1942. For reasons unknown, he was not persecuted by the Communist regime, despite having previously attempted to renounce his Russian citizenship. He lived the rest of his life, it seems, uneventfully as a language teacher in Armenia, and died in 1973, unnoticed by the wider world. Whether or not he wrote anything else we do not know: A Romance With Cocaine remains his only published work.


It is certainly a very curious work. Its first person narrator, a teenager, Vadim Maslennikov, is about as uningratiating as is imaginable: self-absorbed, self-obsessed, mean-spirited and gratuitously cruel, and without even the saving grace of humour, one does wonder why Ageyev should wish to saddle the reader with so deeply unpleasant a specimen of humanity. The model is, I suppose, Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground, which is narrated by an equally unpleasant and self-absorbed character. Like Dostoyevsky’s narrator, Maslennikov is completely honest with the reader (if with no-one else), laying bare for us without any apology or excuse the nastiest aspects of his being – almost as if he is taking delight in embarrassing the reader with such frankness. Such delight in abasing oneself is a very Dostoyevskian trait, and after a while, one wonders whether this seeming self-abasement is indeed its very opposite: could it be that this Maslennikov actually takes pride in the moral depths into which he sinks? Could it be that he is actually asking us to admire his honesty in so abasing himself? We are deep into Dostoyevskian territory here, but as I was reading, something wasn’t quite ringing true. And I wasn’t really sure what it was.

We are taken through the failed attempts – failed because they are unfulfilling – at teenage rebellion, and then, teenage sex. Finally, some two thirds of the way into the novel, he takes to drugs: and not those softer drugs one inhales – or not, as in my own and in Bill Clinton’s case: no, this chap goes straight into snorting cocaine. There follows some very vivid accounts of cocaine-induced mental states – accounts the accuracy of which I, who couldn’t even inhale, cannot vouch for, but which I nonetheless found very striking. These mental states lead the narrator to a great many thoughts on the closeness of noble thoughts to bestial cruelty – a theme of obvious importance to a Russian émigré writing during the 1930s, and clearly aware of the bestiality in his homeland that had at its roots in often very noble motives. But for Maslennikov, the end is clearly in sight: the final pages, written by a hand other than that of the narrator, tell of his drug-induced death. Thankfully, there is no attempt to evoke sympathy.

So what is to be made of this strange work? I have no doubt that had it been well-known in the 60s, it would have been a classic of drug culture, and also, no doubt, have been regarded as a handbook of teenage rebellion – even though, as far as I can see, teenage rebellion has never been presented in so unattractive a light as it is here. The prose is certainly very striking: assuming that Hugh Aplin’s translation captures faithfully the qualities of the prose of the original work, Ageyev’s prose may be described as precise, lucid, and also very characterful: one can see why this book has been thought by some to be a work of Nabokov’s. But here, perhaps, was the very reason why the whole thing didn’t quite seem to ring true: would so self-absorbed an adolescent be capable of producing prose of such quality? There seemed to be a mismatch between the character and the character’s writing. For instance, taking an example more or less at random:

There was a dry and hard frost by which everything was compressed as if to the point of cracking. When the sledge crawled up to the arcade, the metallic shriek of footsteps was falling on all sides, and everywhere there was smoke going up from the roofs in such white columns as if the city were hanging from the sky like a huge icon-lamp.

This is very accomplished writing, but it is the writing of an accomplished writer, not that of a self-obsessed adolescent. Would someone like Maslennikov really have come up with that image of the icon-lamp?

And similarly when we get to Maslennikov’s ideas. Would such a person have such ideas? When he speaks of nobility of the soul, one can’t help but wonder what someone like he would know of nobility in the first place. In Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground, there was no separation between the Underground Man’s character and his thoughts: the one defined the other. Here, Maslennikov’s thoughts, like his prose, have clearly been superimposed upon him by Ageyev himself. And, striking and frequently fascinating though it all is, it does not quite, I think, ring true.

Nonetheless, it is in many ways a quite remarkable work – even for someone such as myself, who remains unconvinced about the benefits of drug culture, and merely amused by the very thought of those Doors of Perception that drugs allegedly open. But by the end, I was left, I fear, unmoved. A great deal of artifice, and even artistry, seems to have been expended in communicating an authorial vision which, compared certainly to the works of fellow émigrés such as Bunin or Nabokov, seems limited. But I have a feeling that the contents of this very strange novel will stay with me: whatever its shortcomings, it is too striking a work to disappear from the mind.

Blandings at the BBC

So soon after writing about adaptations, and claiming that there was no requirement for any adaptation to be faithful to its original source, I found myself watching the first episode of BBC’s new adaptations of P. G. Wodehouse’s Blanding stories and find myself muttering the word “travesty” under my breath. Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. But then again, perhaps I don’t: if this first episode had been good television comedy in its own right, then it wouldn’t have mattered how far it strayed from the original. But since it isn’t, the gap between the adaptation and the original becomes too large to overlook.

Wodehouse is notoriously difficult to adapt, since so much of his effect relies on his prose. Simon Callow, who has recorded some audiobooks of Wodehouse’s work, speaks of a certain Mozartean quality. Now, this may appear to be the sort of pseudo-intellectual gibberish that regularly graces Private Eye’s Pseuds’ Corner, but I can actually see what he means: Wodehouse’s sentences are all so exquisitely crafted, so artfully phrased, that not the slightest detail can be altered without spoiling their delicate perfection. The effect is admittedly very different from the effect of Mozart’s music, but the delight in the sense of utter perfection that is beyond any possible improvement is evident in both.

And the humour of his writing comes, in the main, from his phrasing. And once you take away that prose – as one must in an adaptation – what are we left with? Merely childish and absurd stories.  Even when the plotting is ingenious, as it frequently is, the ingenuity seems but to serve mere childish and absurd ends.

Not that there haven’t been successful adaptations – by which I mean adaptations that have stood up well in their own right. I am not old enough to remember the adaptations of the Jeeves and Wooster stories with Ian Carmichael and Dennis Price, although I have heard fine things about them; but the more recent adaptations of these stories with Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry were, I thought, pretty good. By no means perfect, of course: Stephen Fry was arguably a bit too young to make a fully convincing Jeeves; every time the scriptwriters substituted their own gags for Wodehouse’s, the sense of bathos was all too apparent; there was far too often a reliance on slapstick, a type of comedy that is most un-Wodehousian; the location for certain stories was changed for no good reason from the English country house to US – even for something such as Joy in the Morning, an archetypal English country house farce if ever there was one; not enough was made of Madeleine Bassett, one of Wodehouse’s most glorious comic creations; and so on. But generally, the production values were excellent, the supporting cast was good, and Hugh Laurie seemed the definitive Bertie Wooster. The misjudged slapstick episodes apart, the feel of the original stories was well caught. If the BBC Blandings Castle series could be as good, I thought, it would be worth watching. Sadly, it wasn’t. Not by a long chalk.

For the Blandings Castle stories depict an idyllic world. As Evelyn Waugh famously put it, “The gardens of Blandings Castle are that original garden from which we are all exiled.” In these stories especially, the skies are clear and cloudless, the amber summer sunlight dapples the lawn and the terraces, and there’s always a pint of the finest ale to be had at the cosy pub in Market Blandings. There may occasionally be a bit of summer lightning, but it passes quickly, and it’s nothing serious. Indeed, there’s nothing serious in mortality at all: all is but toys, and life is an endless delight. This may all sound unbearably twee and sentimental to the uninitiated, but so formidable is the charm of Wodehouse’s writing, it’s surprising how even the most embittered and cynical of souls can so easily fall under its spell. Evelyn Waugh for one – not known for being the cheeriest of souls. And even Kipling, who doesn’t really appear to have had most easy-going of natures to judge from his often disturbing later stories, described “Lord Emsworth and the Girl-Friend” as “the perfect short story”. Delight and contentment don’t normally  make for compulsive reading, but here we have a miraculous exception: Wodehouse is the only author I can think of who has managed to pull it off.

Of course, it’s all make believe. It is difficult to discern the time in which Wodehouse’ stories are set, but the 1920s or the 1930s seem most probable. Historically, this was the time of the Depression, the General Strike – a time of great poverty and of mass unemployment, of hardship and even of starvation. In this context, a bunch of frivolous people who have never done a day’s work, and who lead lives of ostentatious wealth and luxury without the slightest thought of their social responsibilities, cannot be seen as anything other than morally despicable. But all that’s in the real world: the world Wodehouse depicts is very, very far from all that. His world is, as Evelyn Waugh put it, Eden, a vision of that paradise itself from which we are all exiled.

So, how should these stories be filmed? At a leisurely pace, I’d imagine. With gentle, nostalgic lingering of the amber sun dappling the lawn in the mornings, and the lazy cotton-wool clouds drifting gently by. Or something like that. I don’t know – I am not a film-maker, and don’t really have much idea on how best to convey the feel of these, or indeed of any other, stories. But I would know better, I think, than to adopt a jaunty pace; or to focus on the plotline (which is more than a bit silly and not really of much interest to begin with); or to use fast editing techniques. Everything here was utterly misjudged: just about everything that could be done wrong was done wrong. Shame really. Let’s just hope it doesn’t put off those who have yet to enter Wodehouse’s endlessly delightful fictional world.

On adaptations

I see there’s yet another film adaptation of Great Expectations doing the rounds. And the question “What’s the point?” does come to mind. There seems to be a new adaptation of this novel either for the big or the small screen every other year – I’ve frankly lost track of them all. I suppose it shouldn’t really come as a surprise: so powerful a story with such a gallery of memorable characters is bound to attract adaptations. But perhaps it raises a wider question of why one should choose to adapt books in the first place. After all, we have the novel: is that not enough?

An obvious answer to this, I suppose, is that far more people watch films than read novels, and so, by adapting it, one could reach a far wider audience. This is undoubtedly true, but it would be wrong to infer from this that watching a film adaptation, no matter how faithful, is a comparable and equivalent experience to reading the novel. Even when the film-makers set out to be faithful, they are translating a literary experience into a cinematic experience; and the two are essentially different. There are certain things that the written word can communicate better than cinematic images; and, of course, vice versa.

Of course, this is but one type of adaptation: there is, it seems to me, another type – where the intention is not so much fidelity to the original, but to take the original as a starting point to create something that is new.  If the former category includes such works as, say, John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath, David Lean’s Oliver Twist and Great Expectations, and – my own personal favourite – The Innocents, Jack Clayton’s adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, then the latter would include Kurasawa’s Shakespeare-inspired Samurai films (Throne of Blood based on Macbeth, Ran based on King Lear), Bresson’s Pickpocket (which takes Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment as its starting point), and Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy (based on the novels of Bibhuthibhushan Banerji). Indeed, if we were to widen our scope to include adaptations other than cinematic, then we could also include Verdi’s great Shakespeare operas Otello and Falstaff. Or indeed, Shakespeare’s own plays, which almost invariably are derived from other sources. In this type of adaptation, fidelity to the original is not a serious consideration: we do not judge Shakespeare’s history plays on how closely they reflect the chronicles of Holinshed. But in the adaptation that sets out to be a translation of the original work into a different medium, then, as with any other type of translation, fidelity to the original is inevitably a major consideration.

However, when translating from a literary to a cinematic medium, some things are bound to differ. Most obviously, one cannot squeeze so much into a two hour film as one can in a novel of several hundred pages. This is why even as strongly plotted a novel as Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo is not really good material for cinematic adaptation: over its thousand and more pages, Dumas delights in introducing new plot strands at every possible opportunity, and, with all the finesse and exuberance of a master showman, allows these various strands to overlay each other to quite exhilarating effect; but in any film adaptation of reasonable length, this dense narrative texture has to be thinned out considerably, thus robbing the work of the very feature that makes it so wonderful a reading experience.

There is another problem: cinema isn’t as effective as is the written word in depicting the inner lives. What goes on in a character’s mind can at best be communicated in voice-overs. But even voice-overs can be clumsy, and cannot be used at all when, as is often the case, the characters themselves are but vaguely aware of their own selves. Of course, skilful film-making can overcome even this (The Innocents once again comes to mind), but usually, complex psychologies that we often find in novels go missing in film adaptations –  even in the finest: David Lean’s version of Great Expectations, for instance – a landmark film in its own right – conveys very little, I think, of Pip’s complex psychological development.

But of course, other aspects of literature can translate very well into film: it is hard now to read the atmospheric opening of Great Expectations now without conjuring up in one’s mind the images of David Lean’s film. (This is even more true of David Lean’s film of Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago: whatever criticism one may have of the film version, Freddie Young’s cinematic images, once seen, haunt the mind insistently.)

And sometimes, a film adaptation can add to the original: Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon is a wonderful little thriller, but how much richer is its effect when enhanced by the directorial skills of John Huston, and by the now iconic performances by Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre et al!

One may say, of course, all that matters is whether or not the film is good – as a film. That there’s no point in complaining that the latest version of Great Expectations or of Anna Karenina is not true to the book; the question is – did it make a good film? But I am really not so sure on this point. If one does know the original; and if the adaptation falls far short of the standard of the original (as is virtually unavoidable when the original is of the quality of Great Expectations or of Anna Karenina); then comparisons, odious though they may be, are inevitable. The latest Great Expectations may or may not be a fine film – I don’t know: but if it isn’t, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to ponder of the size of the gap between what it is based on, and what it is.

And finally, there’s the argument that at least it may encourage people to read the book. This is undoubtedly true: I was about 12 or so when I found myself enthralled by the BBC production of War and Peace. (The production values of this adaptation look very primitive by modern standards, but the quality of Jack Pulman’s script, and of the acting in general – a then relatively unknown young actor called Antony Hopkins gives a quite sensational performance as Pierre Bezuhov – are exceptional.) It was this adaptation that encouraged me to tackle the novel itself, and now, some 40 years on, I’m still hooked. Would I have tried to read Tolstoy had I not been taken by this adaptation? I don’t know. But I am certainly grateful to have seen it at so impressionable an age

But there’s a possible downside to that as well: a poor adaptation may convince readers that the book is not worth reading. Or it may project the wrong impression: nowadays, it seems virtually de rigeur for television adaptations to use fast-editing techniques, and not allow any single scene to go on for more than, say, a couple of minutes at most; and this really does not lend itself to communicating much of the complexity or the intricacy of literature of any quality. Or film-makers may decide that the novel may have been good enough for its own times, but we moderns are so much more sophisticated now that we can’t do without a few sex scenes. Now, why we sophisticated moderns should require sex scenes in adaptations of classic novels when pornography is so easily available on the net for one and all, I really do not know – but there it is.

So will I be rushing out to see this new Great Expectations? No, I don’t think I will. I did not rush out to see the recent Anna Karenina either. But it is possible for a great work of literature to be translated successfully into a great work of cinema: unlikely, perhaps, especially given current cinematic fashions, but nonetheless possible. So I suppose there’s no reason why they shouldn’t keep on trying. And if they happen to be somewhat less than masterpieces – well, we still have the books, don’t we?

“Paradise Lost” and the Flintstones

Of Man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree…

The prosody of the opening of Milton’s Paradise Lost is notoriously complex, what with all those consecutive stressed syllables fired at you. However, it has been brought to my attention that if we were to drop that short opening word (“of”), or if we were to treat that word as a short up-beat, then the rest of it fits perfectly with the tune and the rhythm of the Flintstones’ theme song:

Flintstones, meet the Flintstones,
They’re a modern stone-age family…

It really works. Try it!

(Of) MAN’S first
And the fruit-of-that for-BID-DEN TREE…

Just thought I’d draw it to your attention…