Archive for May, 2013

The books that have most influenced me

I am often asked which books and writers have influenced me most.

OK, not often. Sometimes. Perhaps not even sometimes.

But if I were ever to be asked this question, the answer would be, without doubt, the Russian authors I read so avidly in my teenage years, and who remain still so central to my literary tastes and perceptions. Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov … I gobbled them all up.

So now, I drink a lot of vodka, and talk incessantly about God and the immortality of the soul. And if that ain’t influence, I don’t know what is.

The thirteenth rule

Novelist Deborah Moggach has set out twelve rules for writing novels. All very wise and sensible, no doubt, but perhaps a thirteenth rule may be added:

13. If you really need someone to set out rules to help you write your novel, then you really shouldn’t bother trying to write one in the first place.

After all, it’s not as if the world is crying out for yet more new novels. Even as it is, there are so many of the damn things that we don’t have the time or the patience to sort out the worthwhile from the crap!

Lost and found in translation

… or, The Argumentative Old Git indulges in a bit of navel-gazing, and ends up with a long and rambling post

Today, I started reading When the Time is Right (Bengali title: Tithidore) by Buddhadeva Bose, translated into English by Arunava Sinha. Published in 1949, it is one of the most renowned of Bengali novels, written by one of the most prominent and gifted writers of the post-Tagore era, and I have long been meaning to read this.

Yes, I know, the obvious question: why not read it in the original Bengali? The answer to this, for anyone who has the patience to read through this long and dreary piece of autobiography, is complex.

I have not attended any Bengali class, or received any Bengali lesson, since the age of five. Five years and eight months, to be more precise. What Bengali I was taught in the year or so I attended school in India had to suffice. That wasn’t, admittedly, too bad: I knew by heart all those wonderful nonsense poems in the collection Abol Tabol by Sukumar Ray, and also many of Rabindranath Tagore’s poems for children. And even some poems not intended specifically for children: I could, I still remember, recite the entire Debatar Gras – a fairly long and complex poem by Rabindranath – by heart. And I understood it too – at least, I understood the story it told. Perhaps I had an aptitude for the language. I’ll never know.

Growing up in Britain, I spoke Bengali with my parents at home, and, at my father’s insistence, even read some simple Bengali books. But that soon petered out. I was attending a school not knowing the English language, and, if I was to be properly educated and find my place in this new land, I had to learn this strange language they all spoke. So out went the nonsense poems of Sukumar Ray, and in came the nonsense poems of Edward Lear. (l still prefer Sukumar Ray’s poems, by the way.) And, far less painlesslythan might be supposed, I took to my brave new world: soon, I was sharing adventures with Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver, or thrilling to Holmes and Watson facing the perils of the ghastly Hound of the Baskervilles. And then, on to Dickens and Austen and Shakespeare, and all the rest. I remember my grandfather telling me before my coming to Britain that I’d be learning “the language of Shakespeare”: that wasn’t quite the language I learnt at school, but I made do.

I took to Western popular culture too – partly through my schoolfriends, and also through the television set my parents had rented because they had thought it would help me with my English. First children’s programmes – Top Cat, Robin Hood (with Richard Greene), Crackerjack; soon, programmes for grown-ups – Dad’s Army, Sergeant Bilko, Morecambe and Wise – and even, once I was old enough, the now famous BBC dramatisation of The Forsyte Saga. Western pop music, which my parents so disliked, followed. I absorbed Western culture – specifically British culture, and, even more specifically, Scottish culture: I became a keen supporter of the Scotland football team, and was in tears when they were knocked out of the 1974 World Cup on goal difference. The English language was not my first language, but it soon usurped that position.

Of course, I continued to speak Bengali at home with my parents, but the vocabulary one uses with parents is naturally a bit limited. And I don’t mean merely in terms of not getting to know the rude words: I soon discovered that when I wanted to discuss anything of a serious nature – say, literary matters, or politics, or philosophy, or whatever – anything of moment, anything of significance – the limited vocabulary I used when speaking to my parents proved increasingly inadequate.

Things were even more complicated. The Bengali language, possibly uniquely, takes two quite different forms in writing and in speech. Of course, there are, and have been, many writers who have bridged the gap, but nonetheless, there are many words that are used regularly in writing, especially in writing on complex matters, that, in my experience at least, are rarely or ever used in everyday speech. Usually, an approximate but more commonly-used equivalent is found; or an English word is substituted, the incongruity between English vocabulary and Bengali syntax nowadays too commonplace even to be noticed. There are certain words that, even in writing, seem to be disappearing: every Bengali-speaker knows, for instance, what the word patsala means, but to use that word instead of its English equivalent “school” seems nowadays but a quaint affectation.

(I once used in conversation with people who were, unlike me, Bengali born and bred, a Bengali word I had discovered in my reading, and from the sea of blank faces I observed around me, it was obvious that the word I had used was unknown to them: I quickly substituted the English word, and the conversation then flowed again as normal.)

And so, as my grasp of English improved, I found myself far more articulate in my second language than I was in my first, to the extent, indeed, that I felt embarrassed to speak in the first, as what I wanted to express far exceeded what I was capable of expressing. I suppose this must have pained my parents – especially my father, who was very attached to Bengali literature and culture – but I think they accepted the inevitable.

Of course, it is a truism that teenagers turn against their parent’s values, but return to them later in life. And the problem with these truisms is that they are, quite often, true. Not that my “rebellion”, such as it was, was anything more than teenage posturing: I dearly loved the films of Satyajit Ray, after all, and found myself more deeply affected by Pather Panchali (and the rest of that trilogy) than by other film I had seen; and, much though I claimed to dislike Rabindrasangeet (the songs of Rabindranath Tagore, which, effectively, form the national music of Bengal), this music had formed the soundtrack to my childhood, and those tunes were more firmly lodged in my mind than I cared to acknowledge. So when, in middle age, I sat surrounded by the multi-volume edition of the works of Rabindranath and the invaluable Samsad Bengali-English dictionary, the journey back was neither as long nor as arduous as I had expected.

On reflection, “journey” is not a well-chosen image. When one journeys, the closer one gets to the destination, the further one is from the starting-point. But that was not so here. The western culture that I had absorbed throughout the greater part of my life – highbrow, lowbrow, everything in between, from the operas of Mozart to The Morecambe and Wise Show, from Shakespeare’s sonnets to Hammer horror films, from visiting art galleries to boozing with my drinking cronies in pubs – I continue to regard as my culture, and for the best of reasons: not because I was born into it, but because, having lived with it and absorbed it, I happened to rather like it. And I find frankly rather offensive the suggestion I have heard from diverse sources that one’s cultural values are or should be determined by the accident of one’s birth. There is, as far as I am aware, no evidence whatever that cultural values are coded in our genes: usually, these values are simply those we have grown up with, and have thus become accustomed to. And sometimes, one finds oneself attracted to cultures one has neither been born into nor has lived with: whenever I revisit, for instance, the works of Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy or Chekhov, or listen to the music of Tchaikovsky or Mussorgsky or Stravinsky, I feel curiously at home. I cannot explain why I love all things Russian: I have never set foot in the country, and don’t even know the language. But there’s no accounting for these things. However, Bengali was still a language that I was close to, and it seemed madness not to try to get to know it a bit better.

As I tried to re-acquaint myself with the Bengali language, I found, rather to my surprise, that my pondering over each individual word with a dictionary proved a surprisingly effective way of reading poetry. Even when I read a poem in English, I focus in my first reading on the sounds and the rhythms of the piece: I treat it almost purely as music. Only then do I consider the meaning of the words – or, rather, the different levels of meaning of the words – and their various connotations. Only after pondering these matters for some time – often a very long time – do sound and sense begin to gel together, and communicate more than either could have done in isolation. (Sometimes, the sense fails to materialise adequately, and I satisfy myself with the sounds alone: this is true of much of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, for instance, whose works fascinate me despite frequently not making much sense.) So approaching the Rabindranath poems with my Samsad dictionary was not in the least a barrier to my appreciation, especially given the extraordinary musical qualities of these works. (My mother is sometimes surprised when I read some poem she considers difficult because of its excessively Sanskritic diction. But for me, the reed is as the oak, as it were.)

So now, I think I have gained a Bengali vocabulary that would have pleasantly surprised my late father. However, the words that I can understand on the printed page do not come to me at speed of conversation; and so, when talking, I do tend to revert to English. Although I still speak Bengali with my mother, as I always have done.

And similarly with reading prose narratives. I am still nowhere near as fluent in Bengali as I am in English, and I still do not have the confidence to embark on a Bengali book without my trusty Samsad dictionary at my side, as a sort of comfort blanket if nothing else. This means that I am quite happy with Bengali poetry, which requires close consideration of each word, but less happy with Bengali prose, where, in considering each word carefully, I lose the sense of pace and the momentum. I’m sure I could read the Buddhadeva Bose novel in the original if I tried, but it would require far more time than I currently have; and, in addition, I’d have to carry around with me a bulky dictionary. As I do most of my reading on the commuter train, this is not really a very attractive option.

So, the translation it is. And, admittedly a mere 20 or so pages into it, it seems a very fine translation. As well as enjoying what I am reading for its own sake, I am also having fun trying to guess at what was in the original Bengali. For instance, in the opening sentence, Rajen-babu is described as having “delicate” tastes. Could the word used in the original Bengali be soukheen, by any chance? If so, this is a very good translation of what really is a quite untranslatable word.

There are a few other words I can think of in Bengali that have no equivalent in English. One is naka: in Bengali, this is an adjective used to describe people who are irritatingly childish and affected in a manner that sets one’s teeth on edge, and the use of the word betokens contempt for whoever is so described. It is an apt description for, say, Dora Spenlow in David Copperfield, or for Madeleine Bassett in the Jeeves & Wooster stories of P. G. Wodehouse. And also for various people I have encountered in real life but whom, for obvious reasons, I will not name here. I have often wondered why there is no equivalent of this word in English. Is it because there is less naka-ness amongst English speaking people? Or is it that there’s less tolerance for this sort of thing amongst Bengalis? I guess we’ll never know.

The Bengali word I think I miss most in English is adda, and why this word doesn’t exist in English I do not know. Adda refers to people getting together primarily or solely for the joy of conversation. The English words “gossip” or “chat” don’t really cover this, for adda can be about anything – from light, trivial matters to profound discussions on politics or philosophy or even the very nature of our being: there are no limits to a good adda, and the pleasure of it is in the flow of convivial conversation. (I believe there is a Spanish word, tertulia, that approximates to adda. If there are any Spanish speakers reading this, please do feel free to correct me.) Now, I am what is known as an addabaj, i.e. someone who loves adda. Except, of course, I like holding adda in a pub, with the booze flowing freely, thus enjoying the best of all cultures.

Of course, no culture stands still, and India has been going through a period of accelerated change. People of my parents’ generation often find themselves shocked as they find that the culture to which they remain so attached is not only not to be found in their adopted country, but is disappearing also from the land they left behind. I do not, I confess, have my finger on the pulse in these matters, but it seems to me that the Buddhadeva Bose novel I am reading now, written in the late 40s, is describing a society that is already on the wane, and may well disappear entirely within my own lifetime. Even to me, it seems nothing short of surreal that those Rabindrasangeet, which in my youth had seemed excessively staid and demure, are now being performed by all-girl rock bands! Perhaps Bengali culture won’t disappear after all: it will merely be transformed, as all cultures are over time. But that is not up to me: that is up to people living in Bengal.


Well, that’s more than enough navel-gazing for one post. Sorry about the rambling nature of this one. Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.

The Peter Cushing centenary

As a keen fan of Hammer horror films, I could not let the opportunity pass to pay a tribute to Peter Cushing on his centenary. Actually, his centenary was yesterday, and I should have written something last night, but I decided instead to pour myself a good whisky, sit back, and watch the great man in The Gorgon.

Peter Cushing and Barbara Shelley in "The Gorgon"

Peter Cushing and Barbara Shelley in “The Gorgon”

Curious film, The Gorgon. Obviously, they were looking for a horror theme a bit different from the usual fare of Frankenstein, Dracula, the Mummy and the Werewolf, and, perhaps rather bizarrely, hit upon the Greek myth of the Gorgon, the creature who had live snakes instead of hair, and the sight of whom turned people into stone. Not too terrifying a premise, admittedly, but director Terence Fisher, cameraman Michael Reed, set designer Bernard Robinson and composer James Bernard all combined their considerable talents to give the film a gorgeous romantic gloss. Lyricism is not a quality we tend to associate with horror films –a t least, not nowadays – but there is a haunting dreamlike lyricism to this (as some of the screen-shots here will testify) that really is quite unlike anything I have seen in any other film.

Peter Cushing’s role – as the guilt-ridden doctor in love with his assistant Carla, and trying desperately to protect her – is badly under-written (screenwriter John Gilling complained about the changes made to his original script, claiming that but for these changes, it “might have been a very good movie”), but, as ever, Cushing makes more out of the role that one could think possible. But he had a habit of doing that. Because he made most of his career in horror films, non-aficionados of the genre often seem not to realise what a truly fine actor he was. In film after film, he projected elements that, judging from the script alone, simply weren’t there. And the range too is surprising: from the kindly but authoritative presence as van Helsing, to the cold and austere Sherlock Holmes, to the gentle and persecuted old man in Tales From the Crypt, to the murdering religious fanatic in Twins of Evil. Putting my personal taste aside, it is doubtful that any of these films would be ranked alongside La Grande Illusion or Citizen Kane, but that does not detract from the quality of the performances. In Twins of Evil, for instance, he actually makes the religious fanatic Gustav Weil appear, ultimately, a sympathetic figure, as the realisation of the true nature of his acts begins to dawn upon him. Cushing projects here a depth of character that one had no right to expect given the premise and the script.

Perhaps the centrepiece of Cushing’s performances are the five Frankenstein films he made with director Terence Fisher –

Peter Cushing as Baron Frankenstein

Peter Cushing as Baron Frankenstein

The Curse of Frankenstein, The Revenge of Frankenstein, Frankenstein Created Woman (a personal favourite of Martin Scorsese’s, apparently), Frankenstein Must be Destroyed (surely amongst the finest of all gothic films) and Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell. (The Evil of Frankenstein was directed by Freddie Francis, and is not really part of this series.) These films are no mere series of worn-out sequels in a tired franchise; each of these films re-thinks the premise of the original, and provides new and intelligent variations. Taken together, I really do think they are among the finest achievements of British cinema, irrespective of genre. And at the centre of these films are the performances of Peter Cushing: his depiction of the increasingly monomaniac and unhinged Frankenstein is breathtaking.

And yet, from all accounts, this stalwart of horror films was in real life the warmest and kindest of people. We all speak well of the dead – especially on their centenary – but those who knew him and worked with him all invariably break into a loving smile when remembering the man. He was a much-loved resident of the seaside town of Whitstable, which has been warmly celebrating his centenary. There is even a beauty spot on the beach that has been named Cushing’s View.

There’s not much to be said about the man that hasn’t been said already. He was a part of my childhood, and of my growing up, and now, for that reason (though not only for that reason), I would like to offer my own tribute and thanks to one of the finest of all screen actors.

( I should like to point out that, it just so happens, today is the birthday of that other great stalwart of hammer Horror films, Christopher Lee. Happy birthday, Sir Chris – but I’m afraid you’ll have to wait another nine years for your centenary celebrations!)

Prince Hal, Hamlet, and Antony: parallels and contrasts

I can’t help thinking of Hamlet as a sort of neurotic cousin of Prince Hal’s. I had suggested this tentatively when I wrote about Hamlet as part of my trawl through the Shakespeare plays, but I think I am less tentative about it now. Of course there are very salient differences between Hamlet and the Prince Hal we see in the Henry IV plays: Shakespeare wasn’t interested in merely repeating himself, after all. But the parallels are so very striking that it is hard to avoid the impression that Shakespeare was exploring similar themes from a somewhat different perspective. And if so, comparing and contrasting the two characters seems a fruitful exercise.

Both princes are extraordinarily quick and intelligent. Hamlet could easily have held his own with Hal and Falstaff in terms of quickness of wit and of verbal dexterity; and while no-one in Hamlet’s play can quite keep up with him, one doubts whether Falstaff or Hal would have had such problems. These three seem to me quite indisputably the three most intelligent characters Shakespeare ever created.

More crucially, both Hal and Hamlet live under the shadow of an immense obligation of duty. Both their fathers expect filial love to be shown in the form of adherence to duty: Hal’s father, King Henry IV, laments his son’s apparent dereliction of that great weight of duty, while the ghost of Hamlet’s father commands his son to duty with the words “if ever thou didst thou dear father love”. (And this is the only point during the meeting with his father’s ghost that Hamlet appears to break down: “Oh God!”) Hal, of course, accepts his responsibilities, as he knew from the start he had to; he is reconciled to his father before his father’s death, and, in accepting his father’s values, he breaks off connection with his surrogate father, Falstaff. But in doing so, he has also to amputate away a big part of himself. What he becomes after this amputation we may see in Henry V: here, we see the great leader of men, but, inevitably, there is something missing; and that something is that part of himself he had discarded. King Henry V cannot, though he tries, forge the bonds with the common people that his former self, Prince Hal, had done with such ease. The assumption of responsibility requires a sacrifice of a big part of one’s own self.

Shortly after writing Henry V, Shakespeare went on to write about Hamlet, another intelligent prince, also under the weight of a call to duty; but this prince had not been reconciled to his father before his father’s death, and is now crushed under the weight of the responsibility that is placed upon his shoulders. Unlike Hal, he cannot steel himself to amputate away that part of himself that prevents his assuming his filial duty.

I can’t help wondering also to what extent Hamlet actually grieves for his father. He knows he should. He castigates his mother, and indeed develops a sort of hatred for her, for her refusal to grieve for her husband. And yet, while he opens to the audience some of the deepest recesses of the mind, at no point do I remember him exhibiting any real grief for his father’s death. And when he meets his father’s ghost, there is conspicuously no expression of love or even of affection on either side.

If it is indeed the case that Hamlet cannot grieve, then the awareness of this is intolerable – as intolerable, perhaps, as is the burden of duty now placed upon him. For Hamlet knows that lack of grief for the dead robs life itself of any pattern that could render it significance. Customary suits of solemn black, windy suspiration of forced breath, the fruitful river in the eye, the dejected ‘havior of the visage, together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief – these, indeed seem. Hamlet goes on to say that he has that within himself that which “passeth show”; but whether that which passes show is indeed grief, which he never expresses, or, possibly, an inability to grieve, he does not specify.

It is hard to imagine a character so self-aware as Hamlet not to be aware of this, although it may be too painful for him to acknowledge openly. Is this, I wonder, why Hamlet keeps castigating himself so mercilessly throughout the play?

I am myself indifferent honest; but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me: I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offences at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in. What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven?

Of course, it will be objected that I am building an edifice on what is no more than a conjecture. Perhaps. But without this conjecture, there is too much about Hamlet that I cannot make sense of. Why, despite a facility with language that enables him to express the subtlest and most elusive of thoughts and feelings, does he never express grief for his father? Why does he express no love or affection when he meets with is father’s ghost? Why does he castigate himself so mercilessly throughout? Why does he admire Fortinbras even while recognising him as being but a warmonger?

Hamlet’s path of development is complex, and there can be no single way of interpreting it. But most readers and audiences tend to agree that while he does carry out his duty at the end, the Hamlet at the end is not the same Hamlet we had seen at the start, and that, as with King Henry V compared to his former self, there is something that is missing. Possibly the two princes had made similar journeys, albeit via different routes.

Another character who makes a similar journey is, I think, Mark Antony in Julius Caesar. At the start of the play, he is roundly dismissed, as is Prince Hal, merely as a riotous drunkard – as a person of no real consequence. But, when duty calls, he, like Prince Hal, answers it; and the duty that calls him is the same duty that calls Prince Hamlet – that of avenging a murdered father. (Caesar had been for Antony a father figure.) And this riotous drunkard, this playboy, transforms himself into a ruthless politician and soldier. Shakespeare does not, in this play, consider what Antony had to sacrifice of himself in order to achieve this transformation. But perhaps he returns to this in Antony and Cleopatra. Commentators tell us not to think of this play as a sequel to the earlier Julius Caesar, and that is probably sensible advice, but I wonder if the two plays are entirely unconnected. For here, in the later play, we see Antony no longer young: he is well past his prime, and now facing old age. Having made his decision to choose duty over his personal inclinations, he has lived a life of service to his country, as a politician, as a soldier, and as a ruler. He is renowned and respected for all this. But that part of him which he had been forced to sacrifice has not entirely gone away. And now, in his sunset years, it returns and makes its claim. All that Antony had lived his life for, all that he had sacrificed for, now come to mean nothing: kingdoms are clay. All he wants now is to befuddle that once sharp mind of his with alcohol, and fall into Cleopatra’s arms. And even from this Shakespeare creates the sublime.

Gogol’s “Dead Souls”: a comic inferno

A preamble
I first read Dead Souls when, as a teenager, I developed a mania for 19th century Russian literature, and determined to read everything I could lay my hands on. The version I read then was the work of an anonymous translator, and probably one of the many versions that had been so mercilessly attacked by Nabokov as “worthless”. Nabokov did, however, praise the translation by Bernard Guilbert Guerney, a revised version of which is still available. Since Nabokov’s critique, a good many well-received translations have appeared. I re-read Dead Souls a few years ago in the highly rated modern translation by Robert Maguire published by Penguin Classics. This third and latest reading was in response to a mini-group-read organized by Richard, who blogs in Caravana de Recuerdos, and by Scott, who blogs in Six Words for a Hat. I have, till now, deliberately avoided reading their posts on Dead Souls until I had put my own reactions down on paper – or, at least, on computer screen. I’ll remedy that once I have posted this.

The translation I read this time round was the older version published by Penguin Classics, by David Magarshack. All quoted passages in this post are taken from this translation.


Anyone familiar with 19th century literature will know the landscape. An unutterably dreary, drab little town, somewhere in the provinces, miles from anywhere, riddled with filth and poverty and decay and corruption, and stinking of moral stagnation and decay. It is the place from which any person of sensitivity longs to escape – like Chekhov’s Three Sisters; those who don’t, like Chekhov’s Ionych, become embroiled in the corruption; or, like Dr Ragin in Chekhov’s “Ward 6”, become victims of it. It is this town that forms the grey setting of Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and it is this town we see collapsing into psychopathic violence and an almost apocalyptic disorder in Dostoyevsky’s Demons; and it is this town also that is revealed in Tolstoy’s Resurrection as containing behind its shallow façades of faux-respectability the most unutterable institutionalised cruelties. Meanwhile in Saltykov-Schedrin’s The Golovlyov Family, this town seems to stand for Hell itself, from which no-one can ultimately escape. This town is as much a landscape of the mind as it is a real landscape, and it looms large in Russian literature.

The earliest appearance of this town, as far as my admittedly limited reading allows me to judge, is in Gogol’s play The Government Inspector. And it reappears in the novel Dead Souls. In the play, an ordinary man, at a loose end and unable to pay his hotel bill, is mistaken by the corrupt town officials for an inspector, and is larded with all sorts of bribes; by the time the truth is realised, he is away with his gains. And even as we’re laughing, the mayor of the town breaks the invisible fourth wall of the stage to tell us directly, the audience, that we are laughing at ourselves: we all inhabit this Town of the Mind. In Dead Souls, which Gogol referred to as a “poem” rather than as a novel, we once again have a visitor from outside, who causes consternation. But it is not the outsider, Chichikov, who seems at first to be the centre of the reader’s attention: it is the rather eccentric narrator. Chichikov is described, and yet not described, so that we, the reader, get no mental picture of him:

The gentleman in the carriage is neither too fat, nor too thin; he cannot be said to be old, but he was not too young either.

And having given us this piece of non-description, the narrator veers off for no apparent reason to tell us about two peasants speaking about Chichikov’s carriage. What they say is not quite nonsensical, but it doesn’t really seem to make much sense either:

“Lord,” said one of them to the other, “what a wheel! What do you say? Would a wheel like that, if put to it, ever get to Moscow or wouldn’t it?” “It would all right,” replied the other. “But it wouldn’t get to Kazan, would it?” “No, it wouldn’t get to Kazan,”” replied the other. That was the end of the conversation.

The narrator is in no rush to move things along. We are given a leisurely account, seemingly overloaded with utterly irrelevant detail, of the filthy inn, and of the people working there; and then, of the town itself. The details the narrator fixes upon tend towards the eccentric, or even the downright bizarre; much of what he says seems like non-sequiturs. And when the narrator uses a simile or a metaphor, the image takes on a life of its own, quite overwhelming that which it purports to describe:

As he entered the ballroom, Chichikov had for a moment to screw up his eyes, dazzled by the blaze of candles, the lamps, the ladies’ gowns. Everything was flooded in light. Black frock-coats glided and flitted about singly or in swarms here and there like so many flies on a sparkling white sugar-loaf on a hot July day when the old housekeeper chops or breaks it up into glittering lumps in front of an open window, the children gather and look on, watching with interest the movements of her rough hands raising and lowering the hammer, while the aerial squadrons of flies, borne on the light breeze, fly in boldly, just as if they owned the place and, taking advantage of the old woman’s feeble eyesight and the sunshine that dazzles her eyes, cover the dainty lumps in small groups or in swarms.

Whew! But we aren’t finished yet:

Already satiated by the abundant summer, which sets up dainty dishes for them on every step, they fly in…

And so on for another few hundred words, the reality this image has been set up to elucidate by now more or less forgotten. It is fair to say, I think, that I have never come across a narrative voice quite like this one. Dickens too loved eccentricity, and one often wonders about the sanity of some of his characters; but here, one is left wondering about the sanity of the narrator himself.

In the second chapter, Chichikov sets off to visit local landowners. The landowners and their estates are all described by that same affable but seemingly demented narrative voice. And what that voice tells us is just as bizarre as the voice itself. These elements of the bizarre are dropped in as if they were perfectly reasonable and everyday. For instance, Chichikov, having lost his way on a stormy night, and his carriage having overturned, is put up by elderly widow, who sees to his comfort:

“Take the gentleman’s coat and underwear and dry them first in front of the fire as you used to for your late master, and afterwards have them well brushed and beaten.”

“Yes, ma’am,” said Fetinya, spreading a sheet over the featherbed and laying down the pillows.

“Well, here’s your bed all ready for you, sir,” said the old lady. “Good night, sir, sleep well. Are you sure you don’t want anything else? Perhaps you’re used to having your heels tickled for the night. My late husband could not get to sleep without it.”

As the novel progresses, an extraordinarily vivid cast of characters appears – each bizarre and eccentric beyond the bounds of sanity. There’s the impossibly effusive Manilov; the bear-like, deliberate, and somewhat madly methodical Sobakevich; the disgustingly filthy and threadbare Plyushkov, surely the most grotesque and repulsive of all literary misers; and Nozdryov, the colourful braggart, bully and compulsive liar – except, of course, no-one outside a Gogol novel could lie with quite such uninhibited flamboyance and gusto. Chichikov visits these landlords to buy from them, at as cheap a price as he can, serfs (or, not to put too fine a gloss on it, slaves, which is what they were) – serfs who are dead, the “dead souls” of the title, but who are still listed from the last official census as being alive, and for whom, consequently, the landowner is continuing to pay taxes. When Chichikov’s curious business activities are known, the town is in turmoil. All sorts of strange stories start up, and are believed: it becomes common knowledge, for instance, that Chichikov had been planning to elope with the Governor’s daughter (shameless hussy that she is!) A meeting of worthies discuss who Chichikov may be. The postmaster knows: Chichikov is none other than Captain Kopeikin! And who is this Captain Kopeikin? The postmaster launches on a long story – fully reproduced, in all its Gogolian bizarreness – of a Captain Kopeikin who had lost an arm and a leg in the 1812 campaign. Only after the story has progressed through several pages does someone think of mentioning that Chichikov has both arms and both legs. The postmaster admits that he was wrong, and sits down; Kopeikin is not mentioned again. Why the postmaster had thought Kopeikin was Chichikov in the first place is not explained.

The pace of the narration is slow – for modern readers, perhaps, too slow for a comedy: but it is in the narrator’s eccentric voice that so much of the comedy resides – a voice apparently gentle and friendly and even reasonable, and yet, we suspect, utterly insane. And for that voice to establish itself, a slowness of pace is required. The narrative, such as it is, unfolds at a leisurely pace, and that leisurely pace may perhaps suggest a certain gentleness: but the sheer bizarre nature of the content, full of mad non-sequiturs and irrelevant and often grotesque details, belies any sense of the gentle. Gogol had seemingly intended this narrative to be the first part of a trilogy that was to reflect Dante’s vision of Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise: what we see here is no less than Gogol’s vision of Inferno itself. The Dead Souls of the title are not merely the dead peasants.

It is hard to imagine how these Dead Souls presented here could be redeemed, as Gogol had intended: it is hard to imagine what Gogol’s Purgatorio and Paradiso may have been like. Gogol never completed his grandiose project. Towards the end of his life (he died when still in his early 40s), he became dangerously insane, developed a sort of religious mania, and seemingly starved himself to death. And, during these last terrible days, he burnt what he had written of the second part of Dead Souls. (There exists a quite horrific painting by Ilya Repin of Gogol burning the manuscript.) Some fragments of this second part have, however, survived, and all modern English editions dutifully include these chapters, but I find them distressingly banal and uninspired. Gogol may have aspired towards redemption, but it seems to me unlikely that his imagination could conceive of anything but the hellish. The rather hellish last days of Gogol’s own life are perhaps not surprising.

What we get in this novel – or this “poem”, as Gogol insisted it to be – is a vision of Hell itself. But things are never simple with Gogol. From our viewpoint, we may think this to be the Hell of a slave-owning society; and yet, Gogol was firmly in favour of serfdom (slavery by another name), and opposed strongly liberal campaigns for emancipation. It is hard, at least for me, to imagine what really went on in that very strange mind of his. I generally try to heed the well-worn advice of “trust the book, not the writer”, but it becomes difficult here to try to put out of mind details of Gogol’s own life and opinions.

In this third reading, the sense of an Inferno seemed more apparent than had previously been the case. It’s a comic Inferno, certainly, but comedy and seriousness are by no means mutually incompatible. Somehow, the comedy renders this Inferno all the more disturbing: as with the farting devils of Dante, the comedy, if anything, intensifies the horror. Here is world that is utterly grotesque, but presented with such vividness and, despite its slow pace, animated with such vitality, that the effect it had on Russian literary culture, and, one suspects, on the Russian mind itself, is tremendous, and can hardly be over-estimated. That drab Gogolian town became for succeeding writers – for Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy and Chekhov, for Saltykov-Schedrin – the very image of Hell itself. I know of nothing quite like this outside Russian literature: in no other literature that I know of has a physical location become so firmly entrenched as also a moral and psychological landscape. But Gogol could not transcend this landscape, much though he longed to, any more than could the characters of Saltykov-Schedrin’s utterly bleak and desolate novel The Golovlyov Family. This is a Hell in which we still remain trapped.

On desiccated pedants, and ageing hippies

I’m coming into this a bit late. In media res, as they say. (Or at least, those who are classically educated say. Or those who, like me, haven’t had the benefits of a classical education, but who nonetheless enjoy showing off by peppering their writing with Latin tags.) A veritable storm is currently raging here in Britain on educational practice, and, until about a couple of days ago, I knew nothing of it. Mea culpa.

Having researched the matter a bit on the internet yesterday, but having had neither the time nor the patience to read through everything that has been written on this fraught matter, it seems to me that, as ever, two opposed sets of stereotypes are emerging, and that each side is seeing the other purely in terms of these stereotypes. And it doesn’t help that people from both sides seem intent upon living up – or down – to these stereotypical images. On one side, we have the dry-as-dust desiccated pedants determined to make the process of learning as unpleasant as possible, reducing education merely to endless learning by rote, and labelling as failures that vast majority of children who, when tested at an impossibly early age, fail to meet requisite pre-determined standards. And on the other side, we have ageing hippies disputing the very concept of correctness (seemingly on the grounds that deeming a child’s response as “incorrect” can but cause irreparable damage to that child’s psyche), and insisting that any learning that isn’t “fun” or “exciting” is not worthy of the name.

So what side am I on? I ask myself. Am I a Desiccated Pedant (DP) or an Ageing Hippy (AH)? I seem to have divided loyalties here: one the one hand, I am, by nature, a cultural conservative (as this earlier post of mine amply testifies), constantly bemoaning “our benighted times” to anyone who will listen – or just to myself when no-one does; but on the other hand, my political sympathies remain strongly on the Left – or, at least, on what passes for the Left in our benighted times.

This whole thing came to my attention by a speech given a few days ago by Education Secretary Michael Gove (DP), in which, amongst other things, he attacked by name children’s writer and poet Michael Rosen (AH). Rosen, in turn, penned a combative response.

(Rosen’s response relates only to that part of Gove’s speech in which he is referenced, but it is worth pointing out that Gove’s story of schoolchildren using Mr Men stories to learn about Nazi Germany has turned out not to be true: apparently, the students in question – they were 15-16 year olds – were exchanging ideas about how best to teach small children about Nazi Germany. Gove has not, to my knowledge, yet apologised for having used evidence that is inaccurate, to put it mildly; and Michael Rosen seems to me therefore perfectly entitled to post on his on Twitter account (@MichaelRosenYes) hostile tweets such as “Why did Gove lie about the Mr Men teacher? He was getting his students to write stories for young children – not teaching the orig. history!” And later: “Children, the person in charge of your school has told a lie about a teacher and Mr Men books. Shall we ask him what he thinks about lying?” It’s all, as I said, got more than a little fraught.)

In the meantime, Toby Young, whom I had previously known as editor of the self-regarding but little read Modern Review and as a self-confessed former cocaine addict (see his introduction to this book, in which he talks about himself rather than about the book), has a go at Rosen for a grammatical error in his piece:

In the course of extolling his own virtues as an educator – he’s the ex-Children’s Laureate and has written over 140 books – [Rosen] writes:

“I have spent thousands of hours in schools in the last 40 years doing writing workshops with children engaging in discussions with them about what kinds of language is appropriate for a particular piece of writing.”

Call me an old pedant, but shouldn’t there be a comma after “children”? And, more importantly, shouldn’t it be “what kinds of language *are* appropriate” not “what kinds of language *is* appropriate”?

In answer to Mr Young’s questions, yes, there should be a comma after “children”, and yes again, that should have been “are” rather than “is”. And while we’re picking on errors, Mr Young’s own piece should have spoken of “two howling errors”, rather than “a howling error” (my italics). However, I am fairly sure even Mr Young knows how to count to two, just as I am fairly sure that Mr Rosen understands basic use of punctuation, and the difference between plural and singular. The errors from both writers are errors of carelessness and of proof-reading rather than of ignorance, and, being myself guilty on several occasions in this blog of carelessness and poor proof-reading, I am prepared to be charitable about these matters, although I know it can be argued that professional writers writing in national newspapers should be held to higher standards than a mere unpaid blogger such as myself. But let’s leave that aside. More serious is a letter to which Mr Young links, signed by a hundred (count ‘em!) academics, addressed to the Guardian and to the Independent, raising concerns about the new national Curriculum proposed by Michael Gove. Incredibly, this letter is riddled with grammatical errors. A few examples will suffice:

This mountain of data will not develop children’s ability to think, including problem-solving, critical understanding and creativity.

Dear me!

This will put pressure on teachers to rely on rote learning without understanding.

Is it the teachers or the children who will be subjected to “rote learning without understanding”?. From the context, one may infer it’s the children, but this should have been clear from what is written: the reader shouldn’t need to infer.

Inappropriate demands will lead to failure and demoralisation. The learner is largely ignored.

Why the change from the future tense to the present tense?

Little account is taken of children’s potential interests and capacities, or that young children need to relate abstract ideas to their experience, lives and activity.

“…their experiences, lives and activities”, surely? But even leaving that one aside, the sentence is pisspoor for reasons that may be explained without recourse to grammatical technicalities. In very simple mathematical form:

A.X + A.Y = A.(X+Y)

Put into words, we may apply A to X, and then apply A to Y, and then add them together (that’s the left hand side of the equation); or we may add X and Y together first, and then apply A to the combined entity (the right hand side of the equation). The two amount to the same, but the right hand side is more compact and more elegant.

So, to apply this to a simple sentence, I could say “I’d love a whisky, or I’d love a brandy” (left hand side of the equation); or I could say “I’d love a whisky or a brandy” (right hand side of the equation). They mean the same. In this case:

A = “I’d love a…”

X = “a whisky”

Y = “a brandy”

The offending sentence from the letter quoted above has the same simple structure, and this time:

A = “Little account is taken of…”

X = “children’s potential interests and capacities”

Y = “that young children need to relate abstract ideas to their experience, lives and activity”

But while A can easily be applied to X (“Little account is taken of children’s potential interests and capacities”), when you apply A to Y, you get gobbledegook (“Little account is taken of that young children need to relate abstract ideas to their experience, lives and activity”).

In short, it doesn’t take a detailed understanding of grammar to see that this sentence is incorrect: it just takes a basic feel for the language, and for how it works. Those who do not possess even this really have no business pontificating in public on matters of education.

But it is hard to know which is more shocking: that a letter signed by a hundred academics and educationalists should contain basic errors; or that, once these errors have been pointed out, people should write in to the Guardian defending this same letter (one correspondent even describing it as “well written and correct”). For the errors in the academics’ letter are not errors of carelessness, or of proof-reading: these are errors of people who seem neither to know nor to care about even the basics of the language in which they write.

And yes, it matters. The thrust of the various letters in the Guardian defending the academics’ letter seems to be that we know by instinct what is correct and what isn’t, and that this instinct overrides rules; or that language is all about communication, and as long as language communicates, we need not worry about rules; indeed, rules may act a barrier to communication, and certainly act as a barrier to creativity; and so on. The kind of stuff that gives even Ageing Hippyism a bad name.

I am afraid I am enough of a Desiccated Pedant not to be impressed by any of this. Our instinct for language may no doubt be sufficient for our everyday needs (“It’s a sunny day outside”, “My credit card bill is due”, “I fancy a beer”, etc.), but if we wish to express thoughts that are intricate or subtle or precise, we will not be able to do so without an understanding of the intricacies and the subtleties and the precisions of language. Indeed, it’s even worse than that: not only will we not be able to express such thoughts, we won’t be able even to think them. How can I think a subtle thought, or a complex thought, or a precise thought, if I do not possess language of sufficient intricacy, subtlety and precision with which to think them? To deny children the teaching of the intricacies and subtleties and precisions of language – i.e. grammar – is to deny them access not merely to jobs, but to thought itself.

Of course, as Michael Rosen explains so clearly in his article, there is not one single correct grammar, but many. Indeed, he is far from objecting to the teaching of grammar:

Michael Gove wants to position me as someone who is against schools teaching grammar. No, I am someone who thinks that the place for grammar teaching is the secondary school, college and university, and that it should be taught on the basis of the evidence that someone like Professor Debra Myhill has produced. In fact, I am so keen on grammar, I have written a mini-course in grammar and put it up on my blog where it is free for all to read and download.

However, I must confess to reverting to my Desiccated Pedant mode when I read this:

A problem that arises from talking about “correct grammar” is that it suggests that all other ways of speaking or writing are incorrect. This consigns the majority to being in error. Gove might be happy with that way of viewing humanity, but I’m not.

Even if we are to accept that there are alternative grammars all equally valid, it does not follow that there can be nothing that is incorrect. In mathematics, for example, there are many correct ways of solving simultaneous equations; but there are many incorrect ones also that lead to wrong answers. If every mode of speaking or of writing were to be correct, then why bother with teaching grammar in the first place? This applies to any subject: if everything were correct, then why teach anything at all? Isn’t it then merely a case of – as Pirandello put it – right you are if you think you are?

To demonstrate that there is more than one form of Standard English, Michael Rosen gives us the following:

To take one simple example, we can write in modern Standard English: “Do you have any wool?” “Have you got any wool?” “Have you any wool?” All three are acceptable forms of Standard English.

That’s fair enough. But should someone – a child, say, whose first language is not English – say “Do have any wool you got?”, would it not be right to correct the child? Or does Michael Rosen really think that doing so would “consign” the child “to being in error”? For if this child is not corrected, I don’t see we’re doing the child any favour. But if this child is to be corrected, then I don’t really see the validity of Rosen’s point.

Neither am I impressed by the various appeals to “creativity”. I am not even sure what is meant by “creativity” in this context. One cannot, after all, expect someone to be, say, a creative strategist in chess who is ignorant even of the basic moves. Before we even think of creativity, we must provide children material to be creative with. Even a creative genius such as Schubert, even while creating works the quality of which we lesser mortals can but wonder at in awed disbelief, took formal lessons in counterpoint. He did not see these formal lessons as a bar to creativity: quite the opposite.

And sadly, yes, this does mean an element of rote learning. Of course I don’t want to see education as merely a sequence of learning by rote without understanding: no reasonable person, I think, does. But I don’t really see how all rote learning can be avoided. It is not possible to become acquainted with the wonders and the beauties of mathematics without knowing, at the very least, the times tables. And should anyone know of a way of teaching the times tables that does not involve rote learning, I’d be glad to hear it. And so it continues, year after year of boring drudgery, until the beauty of the subject becomes apparent. And similarly with other subjects – both the sciences and the arts: to get to the stage where things get really interesting, one has to trawl through much that is boring and dull. I wish it weren’t so, but it is. Under the circumstances, the Ageing Hippy stance of insisting only on that which excites and stimulates children does strike me as misplaced. It robs them of that which, ultimately, enriches.

So on balance, on matters of education, I think I am more of a Desiccated Pedant than an Ageing Hippy. Which is a bit of a shame, as I’d much rather be on Michael Rosen’s side than on Toby Young’s. Best would be if people could move away from their entrenched positions, and consider seriously what the other side is saying, but, as with anything else, that would be too much to hope for.

“Levels of Life” by Julian Barnes: a meditation on grief

In the 8th book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the gods Jupiter and Mercury, wandering the earth in disguise, find scant hospitality in the homes of the wealthy; however, they do find welcome from a poor and elderly couple, Philemon and Baucis. Once they reveal themselves as gods, they ask their hosts what they most desire. And their hosts reply that they would like to die at the same time. It isn’t death they seek to avoid, but the grief that accompanies loss. As reward, they pass from life simultaneously, metamorphosed into a pair of intertwining trees.

Grief is an emotion that we possibly still haven’t come to terms with, despite centuries of experience. We all know ‘tis common: all that lives must die, passing through nature to eternity; and yet, grief sticks in our throat. We know neither how to react to the grief of others, nor how to express our own. In the presence of the grief of others, we worry about appearing intrusive, or uncaring, or insincere; we worry about saying things that are trite, or sentimental, or commonplace. And silence seems no better. As for our own grief, words, once again, fail us: what we experience is so powerful that it demands to be spoken; and yet, whatever we say falls short, too short.

Many feel embarrassed by the whole thing. Some resort to “black humour”, or “gallows humour”, claiming this is the only way we can deal with emotions so powerful. Perhaps. But even if this were so (which I doubt), humour comes well short of expressing what we feel. Indeed, some may argue that it expresses quite the opposite.

Some four years ago, literary agent Pat Kavanagh, Julian Barnes’ wife of thirty years, died of a late-diagnosed cancer: “it was thirty-seven days from diagnosis to death,” Barnes tells us. In his latest book, Levels of Life, Julian Barnes writes a memoir – not of their life together, but of his grief. He is well aware of the pitfalls of writing such a book: he is laying himself open to accusations of breast-beating, and of self-pity. For what we know must be and is as common as any the most vulgar thing to sense, why should we in our peevish opposition take it to heart? Why indeed.

The theme of grief is not, of course, a new one: anyone who has thought seriously about life has also thought seriously about death. But each individual’s grief is different, because each individual is different. However, as Barnes tells us, unique though each individual grief may be, there can be overlaps. (“Griefs do not explain one another, but they may overlap.”) By focusing on the individual, light may be thrown on the general. And so Barnes focusses on the individual grief that he is, naturally, closest to: his own.

This is not a novel. Perhaps the second of its three parts contains elements of fiction: I haven’t checked. And it is hard to describe it as a “memoir” either – although I have done so earlier for convenience. Rather, it is a personal meditation on the nature of a personal grief.

But of course, no matter how sincere and deeply felt the writing may be, unless it has some sort of structure, it would be mere meandering. The titles of the three chapters given in the list of contents give a fair idea of the form of the work:

–       The Sin of Height
–       On the Level
–       The Loss of Depth

A journey from the heights to the depths – from the heights, where one may, blasphemously, take a God’s eye view on those puny human creatures; down to the level of humanity itself, without self-aggrandisement or hubris; and finally, to the depths of our deepest feelings, where we grieve for loss. Or, if we want to read the title of that last chapter differently, where we lose the sense of depth itself, and everything appears shallow and meaningless. Even so cursory a summary indicates the various different meanings that may be attached to the concepts of height and of depth – both literal, and, in various different ways, metaphorical.

Each chapter starts in almost the same way:

You put two things together that have not been put together before. And the world is changed.

You put together two things that have not been put together before; and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

And, at the start of the final chapter:

You put together two people who have not been put together before.

In the first chapter, the two things that are put together – at least in a literal sense – are hot air ballooning and photography. These two things are put together, and a new image of humanity emerges: an objective view from the heights. This view reached its culmination in the famous picture taken by Apollo astronauts of earthrise from the moon – beautiful, cold, and inhumanly objective. This first part focuses on ballooning: in prose of limpid elegance, Barnes tells us about some of the pioneering balloonists – the bluff Englishman Fred Burnaby; the glamorous and enticing celebrity Sarah Bernhardt; and the eccentric Félix Tournachon, pioneer both of ballooning and of photography. This is certainly an unexpected beginning to a book that is essentially a meditation on personal grief, but Barnes is establishing the images and emblems that are to hold the book together. In the second chapter, Barnes continues in this vein, giving us an unlikely story of Fred Burnaby’s unsuccessful wooing of Sarah Bernhardt. How much of this is true and how much fiction, I do not know.

It is in the third and the longest part that we get to the heart of the matter: the loss of depth. When two people come together, sometimes, when it works, something new is made.

Then, at some point, sooner or later, for this reason or that, one of them is taken away. And what is taken away is greater than the sum of what was there. This may not be mathematically possible; but it is emotionally possible.

What follows is hard to categorise in any conventional sense. Fiction it most certainly isn’t. The back of the dust jacket helpfully offers “biography/memoir”, but they both seem inadequate. If “meditation” were a recognised literary category, that would perhaps be more applicable.

And this is the point where readers embarrassed by direct description of powerful and personal emotion should stop. But such embarrassment is surely misplaced. Writers always have depicted human emotion, and have not shirked even the most powerful of them – and even when the emotions are their own: one thinks of Milton’s sonnet on seeing his dead wife in his dream; or Ben Jonson’s lament for his dead son; or Wordsworth’s heartbreaking sonnet about his dead daughter (he had not forgotten her, he tells us – he had merely forgotten momentarily that she was no longer alive). The Bengali-speaker will know also the disconsolate poems written by Rabindranath after the death of his young wife and two daughters within a few years, and also the poems he continued to write to the very end of his long life on those moments in which that intensity of grief would, for no apparent reason, resurge. No – however embarrassed we may feel by the direct depiction of raw and powerful emotions, such matters are legitimately within the provenance of literature.

Not that Barnes makes a show of his grief. He depicts it honestly and clearly, and soberly, knowing fully that any attempt to make an exhibition of such matters would not merely be disrespectful, but empty emotional grandstanding. The voice he speaks in is clear and lucid, quiet and thoughtful: all hint of hysteria is avoided. He speaks, amongst other things, of his anger; however, he does not believe in God, there is no-one he could direct that anger towards. So he directed it, unfairly, at others – those who said the wrong things (not that there is any right thing to be said), those who said nothing at all, those who kept away, those who didn’t. As a former lexicographer, he takes issue with the various euphemisms people use – “lost”, “passed away”, and so on, although avoidance of such euphemisms would not have helped either. As bereaved, he feels literally be-reaved, robbed: the injustice was palpable, but there is no-one whom he could possibly charge with the injustice, with the robbery. He speaks – once again calmly, without hysteria – of his thoughts of suicide, deciding against it only because with his death, his memories of his wife would die also.

He considers the various platitudes and truisms that are trotted out on these occasions. He rejects angrily Nietzsche’s assertion that whatever does not kill us makes us stronger; he also rejects the idea of time being a healer. He tells us that he still speaks to his wife, even though he is convinced that she cannot be there even in spirit. He tells us that he has become unexpectedly fond of opera, a medium he had never cared for before, because it addresses the most powerful of emotions directly and openly, and without any apology or doing so.

He rejects any consolation religion has to offer. He speaks of a Christian friend of his:

He [said] he would pray for her. I didn’t object, but shockingly soon found myself informing him, not without bitterness, that his god didn’t seem to have been very effective. He replied, “Have you ever considered that she might have suffered more?” Ah, I thought, so that’s the best your pale Galilean can do.

One does not need to be Christian to find this unfair: one cannot, after all, condemn the whole of Christianity on the basis of a few injudicious and insensitive words uttered by an adherent. But religion has nothing to offer Barnes.

Of course, had he lived, say, a hundred or so years earlier, he would have been more likely to have been a believer, or, at least, to have turned to religion at so stressful a time: our stance in these matters owes more to the currents of our times and less to our own independent thought than we’d like perhaps to think. In our age, we have “killed God”, and while Barnes thinks this was the right thing to have done, there remains a part of him that can regret this:

When we killed – or exiled – God, we also killed ourselves. Did we notice that sufficiently at the time? No God, no afterlife, no us. We were right to kill Him, of course, this long-standing imaginary friend of ours. And we weren’t going to get an afterlife anyway. But we sawed off the branch we were sitting on. And the view from there, from that height – even if it was only the illusion of a view – wasn’t so bad.

I personally cannot think much of any conviction, however true we may think it to be (we can never be certain, of course: at least, I can’t), that adds to our sorrows; but there is something admirable all the same in Barnes’ refusal to espouse that which he had rejected before. But perhaps, I can’t help feeling, we would have been better not to have sawn off that branch. As Barnes himself acknowledges at the start of this third part, there exists a truth other than pure mathematical truth.

Barnes reflects on the moral status also of love and of grief:

Love may not lead where we think or hope, but regardless of outcome it should be a call to seriousness and truth. Whereas grief, love’s opposite, does not seem to occupy a moral space. The defensive, curled position it forces us into if we are to survive makes us more selfish.

This did, I admit, strike me as odd when I read it. Is grief really the opposite of love? We grieve only for the loss of her whom we had loved, and whom we continue to love: without love, there is no grief. Is grief therefore not the complement rather than the opposite? Hamlet had, correctly, taken his mother’s lack of grief to indicate her lack of love, and, this being so, he could no longer make sense of the world, he could no longer see in life any significant pattern. The intensity of grief seems to me an indication that what we are grieving for is worth grieving for. And, maybe, that does in itself render life – even without any thought of a possible afterlife – at least some semblance of a significance.

Barnes later changes his mind on this point, but his reason for thinking of grief as not occupying a moral space is an interesting one: to survive grief, he says, we must be selfish. This is an area of the human mind with which I am unfamiliar, and I can’t say I have as yet quite absorbed it.

The book ends on a vaguely hopeful note. Not that the grief has in any way disappeared, or has been in any way assuaged. But there appears a hope, expressed as ever in the clearest and most lucid of prose, that perhaps a new stage of life may now be entered. What that stage is, he does not know: he can but guess where the balloon will land. It will go wherever the wind takes it.

And the wind, of course, bloweth where it listeth.


Although the prose is simple and elegant, this book is not an easy read. It is certainly not a comfortable read, and neither is it meant to be. There is throughout a dogged determination to refuse all easy solutions, to reject all possible consolation. The rawness of the emotions seems to rub against the quiet and dignified eloquence of the telling, and even the various emblems of ballooning and of aerial photography cannot impart a decorous shape to a theme that is so infinitely large and incomprehensible.

This is an account of an intelligent and reasonable man trying, with predictable lack of success, to understand that which is beyond al understanding. But if the attempt to understand is doomed to failure, one can, at least depict. What is depicted here is an important aspect of our lives – our lives, because while griefs cannot explain each other, they do overlap.

What makes characters tragic?

Imagine, in the final chapter of a novel, the protagonist taking a walk in the park on a windy day; and that the wind very suddenly becomes a violent storm; and that the protagonist, before she can head home, is killed by a tree falling upon her. I think we can agree that this would be a deeply unsatisfactory ending, and few would describe it as “tragic”. But why? People in real life have indeed been killed by trees falling on them is high winds, and when it happens, it is most certainly tragic. However, we reply, the rules that govern art are not quite the rules that govern real life; and in art, one simply can’t kill off a protagonist by dropping a tree on her head.

Of course, the idea of “rules governing art” is problematic, to say the least. Who formulated these rules? we may well ask. And why should we be expected to conform to them? The answers to these questions seem to me to be, respectively, “No-one”, and “You needn’t”. The idea of prescriptive rules in art is nonsense: what we sometimes think of as “rules” are really no more than observations on what tends to work, and what doesn’t. So if there exists a “rule” that a narrative should not be resolved by some arbitrary event unconnected with the protagonist’s character or actions, then that is not because some pedantic busybody has made it up; rather, it is because we observe that arbitrary endings tend to leave the reader unsatisfied. We may allow chance to play its part in narrative, but when it plays a decisive part, then, irrespective of how true-to-life it may be, the narrative seems unresolved and incomplete.

This consideration, together with a misreading of the concept of “hamartia” in Aristotle’s Poetics, has led to the much cited principle of the “tragic flaw” – the idea that tragic protagonists must have some shortcoming in their character, and that, because of this shortcoming, they come to a sticky end. This has always seemed to me disastrously reductive: far from helping us understand profound and difficult works, it diminishes their richness and complexity to a mere barren formula. So Hamlet is indecisive, Othello jealous, Macbeth ambitious, and so on; and once the boxes are all routinely ticked, the plays can be marked as “solved” and folded away, like completed crossword puzzles. But I remain unconvinced that this takes us any closer to understanding the work. Even if the idea of the tragic flaw were but a “tool”, I cannot see what aspect of our understanding this this tool has helped enhance.

Of course I agree that Hamlet, Othello et al all play their part in their own tragedies: were that not so, their stories would be of no more than that of the tree falling on the head. But to obtain even a basic understanding of these complex characters, we must delve deeper, far deeper, than merely sticking simple labels on them. And what labels we observe others sticking on them, we must question. For instance, is Hamlet really indecisive? He is certainly not indecisive when he plunges his sword through the arras and kills Polonius; neither is he indecisive when he jumps onto the pirates’ ship; or when he confronts Laertes at Ophelia’s funeral. Yes, he is indeed unable to act in carrying out his father’s commandment, but to ascribe this merely to “indecision” seems to me not merely an over-simplification, but worse, a distortion.

Nor can Hamlet’s “flaw” be described, as it sometimes is, as that of “thinking too much”. Hamlet himself, admittedly, speaks of “thinking too precisely on the event”, but should we see this as a flaw? Since when has depth of thought been a flaw? Would Hamlet have been free of his tragic flaw had he thought too little? Or maybe he should have thought just enough – neither too much, nor too little? Maybe his tragic flaw lies in his not finding that precise level beyond which intellectual activity becomes tragic?

This sort of thing quickly becomes a bit silly, and does not, I think, lead to any greater understanding of the work. And worse, in presenting works of moral complexity and of psychological depth as essentially moral fables, it distorts. For in seeing tragedy as essentially a consequence of shortcomings in the protagonist’s character, there seems to me to be an implication that were it not for those shortcomings, were it but possible for the protagonist to be at some ideal level free of flaws, then there need have been no tragedy at all. And this strikes me as deeply wrong-headed.

Let us stick with Hamlet. Let us imagine a Hamlet free from the supposed flaws of indecision, or of “thinking too much”. This Hamlet wastes no time mobilising his forces, killing Claudius, and establishing himself as king. But would such a Hamlet be free of flaws? Such a Hamlet would, after all, fail to think about, and, indeed, be insensitive to, the various complex moral issues in which he is enmeshed. And in killing the man his mother loves, he must either be insensitive to the distress he causes his mother, or he must bear the guilt for it. For, as the Greek tragedians knew too well, even a killing that is committed in the name of justice carries with it an intolerable burden of guilt.

In short, whatever sort of person Hamlet is, whatever he does, his fate is tragic. This is because the world itself is tragic, and we cannot escape it. We must beware of reducing works of complexity to a “message”, but if the great masterpieces of tragic literature were to have a lesson at all, it is not that we may avoid tragedy to the extent that we are successful in minimising the effects of our flaws, but rather that whatever we do, however we act, the tragic world, the essence of which we have witnessed on stage, is our world also.

Whether perfect happiness would be procured by perfect goodness … this world will never afford an opportunity of deciding. But this, at least, may be maintained, that we do not always find visible happiness in proportion to visible virtue. All natural and almost all political evils, are incident alike to the bad and good: they are confounded in the misery of a famine, and not much distinguished in the fury of a faction; they sink together in a tempest, and are driven together from their country by invaders. All that virtue can afford is quietness of conscience, a steady prospect of a happier state; this may enable us to endure calamity with patience; but remember that patience must suppose pain.

– from “Rasselas” by Samuel Johnson, Chapter 27


There is one undisputed masterpiece of tragic drama in which the concept of a “tragic flaw” breaks down completely, and this is the very work that Aristotle focussed on in his Poetics: King Oedipus by Sophocles. In Aristotle’s formulation, Oedipus’ “hamartia” was killing his father, and marrying his mother: these aren’t “tragic flaws” because he did all this unknowingly, but it is, nonetheless, “hamartia” in the sense that Aristotle had intended it – i.e. it is an “error”. However, commentators have frequently tried to interpret Oedipus’ tragic fate in terms of some character flaw of his, and, in the process, have tied themselves in all sorts of absurd knots.

We are sometimes told, for instance, that Oedipus’ tragic flaw is that he is arrogant and hot-tempered. Indeed he is: Sophocles was too fine a dramatist to present us with major characters who are morally perfect. But neither his arrogance nor his hot temper is the cause of his downfall.

Or we are sometimes told that his downfall came about because he was too inquisitive – because he continued searching for the truth even when told to stop. But is searching for the truth not a noble activity? And, as king responsible for his subjects, is he not duty-bound to search for the truth that, according to Apollo’s oracle, will free his people from the plague that is devastating them?

I suppose when all else fails, we could see it as a grave moral warning not to kill our fathers and then marry our mothers! Absurd as it may seem, some have seen the play in such terms also.

But once we move away from the “tragic flaw” theory of tragedy, we may, I think, approach a better understanding of this elusive and difficult play. For if Oedipus’ fate is not a consequence of any conscious action of his, we are seeing on stage a vision of humans but as playthings of the gods. Sophocles depicts , in effect, the tree falling on the protagonist’s head, deemed to do so by gods who, but for the oracular edicts from Delphi, remain absent and silent. That Sophocles could create from this drama that grips as no other, drama that thousands of years later is regarded as the very epitome of tragic action, is a testament to his genius, and a reminder that the literature at this level is not subject to any of our “rules”.