Archive for July, 2013

The operas of Puccini; or, how I learnt to stop worrying and love the schmaltz

One should never apologise for one’s tastes. I am not talking about extremes here: if one’s tastes run to murdering and dismembering random members of the public, say, then an apology is, I imagine, the very least that may be expected. No, I mean one’s tastes in reading, in films, in music: no matter how banal or undiscerning or unschooled one’s tastes may be, one is entitled to like or to dislike whatever one damn well wants. That must never be at issue.

But given this, I do not know why I feel I should apologise for enjoying Puccini. When I was loading some of my favourite music on to my i-Pad before going on holiday, there I was picking out from my CD collection La Bohème, Tosca, Madama Butterfly, in full knowledge that there were CDs containing far greater music untouched on the shelves.

Generally, when we love something, we are quick to refute, or, at least, to refuse to acknowledge the validity of, damning criticism. I love Chaplin’s City Lights, for instance: when it is accused of being sentimental, I am quick to reject the charge, for “sentimentality” is a Bad Thing, and City Lights I know isn’t bad. Or when Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler is accused of being melodramatic, I reject that criticism also, and for similar reasons. After all, I do not love these works with that postmodernist irony (is there any other kind of irony these days?) that rejoices knowingly in the work’s weakness: I love these works because I think they are good, and how could something be good if they are characterised by qualities I acknowledge to be bad? But with Puccini, it’s different. However one defines sentimentality and melodrama, I acknowledge La Bohème to be grotesquelysentimental, and Tosca to be absurdly melodramatic. And yet I wouldn’t be without either. And the worst of it is that I love these works not despite these qualities, but because of them.

One may add to these crimes of sentimentality and melodrama that of “manipulation”. Frankly, I have never understood why this should be regarded as so heinous a crime: I cannot think of a single work of art, no matter how great or exalted, that doesn’t manipulate the reader or the listener or the viewer in some way or other into feeling and experiencing certain things. But I suppose it is a serious flaw when the strings are pulled in too obvious or in too mechanical a manner. And even this, Puccini is guilty of. He revels in it. He is so good at pulling the strings, that he makes a show of it – he allows the audience to observe him doing it. When at the end of La Bohème, Rodolfo becomes aware of what everyone else in the room already knows – that his beloved Mimi is dead – the orchestra lets out three loud chords, like the pealing of funeral bells, and then launches with untrammeled passion into that big tune to which Mimi, only a few minutes earlier, had sung to him “There’s so much I’d like to tell you”. And as we realise she never will tell him, goddammit, we weep along with Rodolfo. We weep even as we see Puccini pulling the strings. Yes, we are being manipulated, but not only do we acknowledge it, we find ourselves happy to be complicit in the manipulation; and we continue weeping, quite unembarrassed by it all. And – you know what? – we feel all the better for it. At least, I do.

Those composers who continued composing in a Romantic vein even as modernism was developing and flourishing – Puccini, Strauss, Rachmaninov – were frequently “schmaltzy”. Perhaps we should deplore their music for being so, but for some reason I can’t quite put my finger on, I can’t. And neither, I know, can many other music lovers – vast numbers of them, across several generations now – whose tastes in all other respects are often immaculate.

So what conclusion can we draw from all this? That these works aren’t sentimental, or melodramatic, or manipulative? No, that won’t do: I am happy to concede that they are all three. Or that these qualities are not necessarily bad qualities? I have a problem there as well, since there are many works I can think of off the top of my head that I find unbearable for one or other of these reasons. The only other option I can think of is that these qualities are acceptable, and even enjoyable, under certain circumstances. But what these circumstances are, I frankly haven’t a clue.

Last night, unable to get to sleep, I put on La Bohème on my earphones, and was once again transported by the gorgeous voices of Victoria de los Angeles and of Jussi Bjoerling singing the most glorious and passionate of melodic lines, with the orchestra, under the direction of Sir Thomas Beecham, breaking the heart with every manipulative phrase. Yes, yes, I know – this music is everything its detractors claim it is. But I love it – and I ain’t going to apologise!

A somewhat rambling post, on failed metaphors, the woodcuts of Dürer, and the Mann-James spectrum

It all started over at the Wuthering Expectations blog. Its estimable writer, Tom, found himself somewhat unimpressed by Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, and, as I had rather liked the novel when I had read it some fifteen or so years ago, I felt I had to say a few words in its defence. But it is not easy to engage in discussion fn a novel one had last read so many years previously with someone who has read it only recently; and so, instead of engaging on specific points, I decided to make a broad-brush argument.

Oh dear, there I go again, introducing unwarranted imagery drawn from the world of visual arts: it should be a primary rule of writing that one should never draw a metaphor or a simile from an area one knows little about. And, not being by any stretch of the imagination an expert on the visual arts, I should never have claimed, as I did on Tom’s blog, that Buddenbrooks was drawn in firm, clear lines; and neither should I have drawn a parallel with the woodcuts of Dürer.

You may see for yourself how the conversation went. I ended up claiming after a while that woodcuts did not allow for shading, and that its effect had to come from the correctness of line. But Dürer’s woodcuts do have shading, Tom responded, citing as evidence the famous woodcut of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse by Albrecht  Dürer

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse by Albrecht Dürer

This was hard to argue against: there certainly was tonal variation in there. And yet, surely a woodcut is restricted only to black and to white, and to no shade in between. I brought down from my shelves a book containing reproductions of Dürer’s woodcuts, and yes, there was an extraordinary variety of tone throughout: while each of the lines was placed to absolute perfection, the effect did not depend on these lines alone. So I found myself looking closely at these areas that appeared to be shaded. The shading was not a consequence of applying shades of grey: black and white were indeed the only tones available. The apparent shades are achieved by the closeness of the lines, and by various types of cross-hatching.

Is this what I had meant when I had brought Dürer into the discussion? It’s hard to say. The human mind is adept at justifying itself in retrospect, and convincing itself that it had intended what, at the time, it hadn’t.

And I did what I should have done earlier – contacted a good friend of mine who just happened, rather conveniently, to be an art historian specialising in the Northern Renaissance. She confirmed to me that the woodcut is restricted to black and white only, but, when apprised of the background to my question, felt that there was indeed shading in Dürer’s woodcuts. Not through different shades that may be obtained through varying the pressure on the brush or on the pencil, but through varying the closeness of the lines, and their thickness. And so on: there were virtually an infinite number of tricks up the old boy’s sleeve. It depends on how one defines “shading”.

Well – that’s an easy get-out clause for me, isn’t it? “It’s a question of how you define it.” No – I decided not to go for that one. I’d stick to my guns: the tonal variation only looks like shading, I insisted, but it can’t really be called shading since there is no shade other than black and white; what tonal variation we see comes from an immensely skillful manipulation of the black and the white, rather than from any actual shading as such.

And that’s what I had meant in the first place. No, really. That’s what I had meant, and no mistake.

And I was hoping Tom wouldn’t ask “If that’s what you’d meant, then why didn’t you say so?”

Fortunately for me, he preferred to talk about literature rather than about art. The depiction with firm clear lines was something he attributed to Flaubert rather than to Mann, although he did agree with me that the smudging together of tones and doing away with anything resembling outlines are best exemplified by Henry James, especially in his later works. Nothing in these works is clear. The vague, ambiguous states of our mind shade with the finest subtlety from one tone into another, barely aware of the passage, and refusing resolutely ever to be pinned down or defined. It can be maddening for the reader, and yet no other author has captured with such painstaking delicacy the infinite fluidity of human consciousness.

So, although my comments on Dürer may have been ill conceived, I wondered if I could be on to something here: could it be reasonable to speak of a Mann-James spectrum? Of clarity and precision at one end of the scale, and of endless smudging and obfuscation on the other?

Sadly, as soon as one starts to consider where on this spectrum various other writers may stand – Austen, say, or Hardy, or Joyce – the metaphor breaks down rather quickly. I suppose it is in the very nature of similes and of metaphors to break down beyond a point, since if X were to be precisely like Y in all respects, then X would equal Y, and not be a mere representation of it. But this metaphor breaks down a bit too quickly to be of much critical use. But while the spectrum between the poles remains unclear, I don’t know that I’d wish to jettison my initial conceit (in all senses, perhaps, of that word): for there is a firmness and clarity of line in Mann’s Buddenbrooks that, rightly or wrongly, recalls to my mind Dürer, who in a single precisely drawn line could express more than most artists could in an entire canvas painted with oils; and there is in James’ The Golden Bowl the subtlest and most delicate of shading from one microtone to another, with never a hint of a containing outline. I find myself unable to go much further beyond this, but at least the whole exercise has made me return to the woodcuts of Dürer with a renewed wonder and awe. And that can’t be a bad thing.

So here, to finish with, is Dürer’s woodcut Melancolia. And yes, however he achieved it, however one defines it, there is shading in here. It’s a miracle booth of technique, and of artistic vision.

[Ps Please note, Melancolia is an engraving, and not a woodcut, as I was careless enough to have stated above. Please see comments below.]

Melancolia by Albrecht Dürer

Melancolia by Albrecht Dürer

“Sense and Sensibility” by Jane Austen

Sense and Sensibility could serve as title to all Austen’s novels. In each, sense and sensibility – reason and emotion, reflection and instinct – contend with each other, the question of the proportions to which they should ideally be blended forming the backbone of the narrative. But, as the very clear dichotomy of the title implies, in no other novel are the two presented in such clear contradistinction to each other. Elinor Dashwood clearly represents sense, and her sister Marianne sensibility: there appears little if any intersection between the two. Most of the other characters, too, are presented as being on one side or the other of the divide, and if the purpose is indeed to find a judicious balance between the two, the dice does frankly seem somewhat weighted: for sensibility, even when belonging to people who are decent and likable – the Dashwoods’ mother, Mrs Jennings, Marianne herself – invariably leads people astray: it inevitably leads to the forming of wrong judgements, misperception of reality, and seeing the world, disastrously, for what it is not. And, inevitably, it is left to sense to make amends.

Misperceiving reality is, of course, a recurring theme in Austen. Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey misperceives reality – not necessarily because she is foolish, but because she is inexperienced, and trusting; but she grows through experience, and, by the end of that novel, can temper her youthful sensibility with a grown-up sense. As ever, it is left to sense to make amends, to put things right. But this is not to disparage sensibility: far better, after all, the trusting and affectionate sensibility of a Catherine Morland, helpless and vulnerable though it is, than the mercenary sense of an Isabella Thorpe.

In Sense and Sensibility, however, the two qualities are presented as a clear-cut dichotomy, and this creates certain problems – the principal one being that it becomes very difficult to present sensibility as anything other than merely silly and frivolous. Not that sense is always admirable: the Dashwood sisters’ half-brother and his wife display a “sense” of sorts in their money-grubbing meanness, and are repulsive. Equally repulsive is the vulgar Lucy Steele, possessed, as was Isabella Thorpe, merely of a “sensible” self-interest, unmediated by a humanising sensibility. But the principal representative of sense here is Elinor Dashwood, and so irreproachable is she in all that she says and does and thinks that, in comparison, the characters on the “sensibility” side of the divide cannot but appear foolish. By the end, Marianne, like her predecessor Catherine Morland, acquires sense to balance her sensibility: Elinor, however, requires nothing to complete her person; and the symmetry promised by the title seems, as a consequence, inevitably compromised. For while Austen could understand the importance of blending the two, her own sympathies, one strongly suspects, remain on the side of sense rather than of sensibility.

In her later novels, Austen knew better than to be so schematic. Elizabeth Bennet or Emma Woodhouse are allowed to misperceive reality not because excess of sensibility has rendered them foolish, but because they are complex, fully-rounded characters who, like the rest of us, can be blind in certain respects, though intellectually vivacious in others. And in her last completed novel, Persuasion, Austen allows sensibility to triumph and to bring fulfilment where, previously, mere sense bereft of sensibility had provided but unhappiness and barren frustration. But there is little here of any of that: here, sensibility leads one astray, and sense puts things right. However, it is easy to forget that, for all its accomplishment and sophistication and passages of often starling psychological insight, Sense and Sensibility is but the writing of one still starting out on her literary career: although the novel was published in 1811 when Austen was 36, an early version of it had existed when she was merely 20, and it seems more than likely that this early version had been drafted out when she was but a teenager. The precocity of such an achievement is breathtaking, especially when one considers that Austen was breaking new novelistic ground. Of course, since we do not have that early draft, there is no way of determining what elements of the novel we have now are the product of a teenage prodigy, and what is the product of a more mature artistic sensibility: I rather suspect that the schematic nature of the characterisation is a leftover from the earlier work. But the depth of insight that overlays the schematic outline is exceptional. Take, for instance, that startling moment when Mr Willoughby explains why he cannot be reconciled to Colonel Brandon, whom he has injured:

“… But I will not stay to rob myself of all your compassionate good-will, by shewing that where I have most injured I can least forgive.”

Perhaps, in a later novel, Austen would not have made Mr Willoughby so self-aware as to realise this truth about himself, but the insight that we are least capable of forgiving those we have most injured remains remarkable, and one of which even Tolstoy may have been proud. Indeed, it crops up in one of Tolstoy’s later masterpieces:

[Tsar Nicholas] had done much harm to the Poles and to explain this it was necessary to believe all Poles were scoundrels.

– Chapter 15 of Hadji Murat by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Paul Foote

The entire chapter in Sense and Sensibility where Mr Willoughby explains himself to Elinor is extraordinary. A character previously shown merely as a heartless cad is now shown as a flawed being aware of his flaws, and suffering as a consequence. This could easily have appeared an afterthought on the author’s part, an extra chapter gratuitously added to make the characterisation somewhat less schematic than it would otherwise have been; and, indeed, this is how it would most likely have appeared in the hands of a lesser writer. But not here. The depiction of Mr Willoughby as a man who himself suffers is certainly unexpected, but its effectiveness and credibility indicate that this revelation of depth had indeed been prepared for.

Like Mr Willoughby, Colonel Brandon also has a scene in which he reveals himself to Elinor – her ever-present sense forever inspiring trust in others – but the person he reveals is one who is suffering not for flaws in his character, but, rather, for cruel circumstances in the face of which his rectitude has been helpless. Colonel Brandon’s narrative, like Mr Willoughby’s later in the novel, is deeply felt, but, unlike Mr Willoughby’s, his sense keeps his sensibility in decorous check. And Edward Ferrars, too: he had, some years ago, contracted himself unwisely as a consequence of a youthful infatuation, and, as with Catherine Morland, it was his inexperience rather than his lack of intelligence that had led him astray; but he is determined to accept, as honour dictates, the consequences of his error, even though he is aware that this determination can lead only to unhappiness. In short, as with Colonel Brandon, his sensibility is held permanently in check by his sense. Austen does, very subtly, allow us to see the extent to which both these characters suffer as a consequence of their moral rectitude, but in neither instance is there any danger of sensibility overturning sense; and this is presented as entirely admirable. As ever, it is sense that is seen as bringing order to the world, and sensibility as unbalancing it.

There is another respect in which sense and sensibility stand in opposition to each other: Austen was writing at the height of what we now term the “Romantic era”, and, although an admirer of Walter Scott, Austen’s outlook was closer – much closer, one suspects – to the ethos of classicism. In an earlier post on this blog (to which I will not link as I have changed my mind significantly on certain matters since writing it), I had described Austen as a writer who, despite the times in which she lived and wrote, had not “a single Romantic bone in her body”. This is not true: an author utterly lacking in Romantic sensibility would not have been capable of writing Persuasion, which depicts romantic love and sexual attraction vividly, and with utter conviction. But it is true, I think, that her leaning was towards classicism: it was this leaning that led Charlotte Brontë famously to dismiss Austen as “bloodless”. Of course, compared to the Brontës, just about any writer could be described as “bloodless”. The criticism is unfair: Austen had the finest understanding of human emotions, and even, perhaps, of human passions, but her aesthetic preferences were, I think, classical, and she would have regarded too open and too uninhibited a display of emotion – such as Romantic writers had no scruple in depicting – as indecorous.

In this context, it is not hard to see sense and sensibility as representing, respectively, Classicism and Romanticism. Austen had already poked gentle fun in Northanger Abbey at the excesses of Romanticism, and here, she allows the very sensible Edward Ferrars to disapprove of various Romantic tropes:

“You must not inquire too far, Marianne — remember, I have no knowledge in the picturesque, and I shall offend you by my ignorance and want of taste, if we come to particulars. I shall call hills steep, which ought to be bold! surfaces strange and uncouth, which ought to be irregular and rugged; and distant objects out of sight, which ought only to be indistinct through the soft medium of a hazy atmosphere. You must be satisfied with such admiration as I can honestly give. I call it a very fine country — the hills are steep, the woods seem full of fine timber, and the valley looks comfortable and snug — with rich meadows and several neat farm houses scattered here and there. It exactly answers my idea of a fine country, because it unites beauty with utility — and I dare say it is a picturesque one too, because you admire it; I can easily believe it to be full of rocks and promontories, grey moss and brush wood, but these are all lost on me. I know nothing of the picturesque … I like a fine prospect, but not on picturesque principles. I do not like crooked, twisted, blasted trees. I admire them much more if they are tall, straight and flourishing. I do not like ruined, tattered cottages. I am not fond of nettles, or thistles, or heath blossoms. I have more pleasure in a snug farm-house than a watch-tower — and a troop of tidy, happy villagers please me better than the finest banditti in the world.”

Unmistakably, sense here is enlisted on the side of Classicism, and against Romanticism. Given how sense is allowed to triumph over sensibility in virtually every aspect of the novel, and especially in characters who are presented as admirable, it is hard not to conclude that this is where Austen’s own sympathies lie.

But what then of sensibility, which Austen knew had to be part of a well-balanced life? We have, I think, to wait for her later novels for this. The proper integration of sense and sensibility is, at this stage, still work in progress. What we do get here is, nonetheless, a novel of tremendous charm and of acute psychological insight, and a pointer to greater achievements still to come.

The Liebster Questions: Part Two

Right, let’s start Part 2 of this (see here for Part 1).

There are eleven questions Melanie has set, so here goes.

1) Why did you start blogging?

Sheer vanity, I suppose. The conceit that complete strangers would be interested in what I may have to say or think.

I had long been contributing to various message boards on books, and, unable as I appear to be to talk about anything in only a few sentences, I soon found my posts becoming, in effect, miniature essays more appropriate for a blog.

Furthermore, when I found myself reading anything with which I strongly disagreed (and that, sadly, was, and remains still, often) I had an irresistible urge to put together a counterblast: I even found myself phrasing replies in my head! Basically, I am argumentative by nature.

So, a blog of my own seemed the best way to go.

On top of all this, I enjoy writing. I could, of course, try to write that novel that would never get published and never get read even if it did; and which, if I worked hard enough at it, might just about pass for mediocre. But no – there are too many people doing that sort of thing already. The world really, really doesn’t need yet another mediocre novel.

2) You’re going on an once-in-a-lifetime expedition to a far flung part of the planet. Where would you go? And what would be the one luxury item you would pack in your rucksack?

Into the Arctic Circle in winter to see the Northern Lights. This is unlikely right now, as our holidays are currently restricted to summer breaks only; and, in addition, my wife will take an awful lot of persuasion to go into the Arctic Circle in winter. But some day, I’m sure …

3) If you lived in the same parallel universe as Lyra in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, what animal would your daemon be? Or, put another way, what settled form would you hope it would adopt, and why?

I’d like to give an exciting answer to this – a tiger, say, or a shark. Sadly, a giant sloth is possibly nearer the mark!

4) If you had the chance to step into a painting, and to spend a magical hour wandering its world, which painting would you choose? Maybe it would be Constable’s Hay Wain? Van Gogh’s Starry Night? Or, perhaps you’d like to join in with Edvard Munch’s Scream?? Or – much more light-heartedly – maybe you’d prefer to go trip-trapping over Monet’s bridge? The possibilities are endless. It’s your choice…

There is a wonderful landscape by Rubens in the National Gallery that I pop in to look at whenever I am in Central London. The landscape is of Rubens’ native Flanders, and is very, very flat. But it doesn’t appear dull at all, because Rubens bathes it in the most glorious autumn light. Yes, I could happily walk into this.


5) The Doctor has invited you to time travel with him on board the Tardis. Which period in history would you most like to visit and why?

I’d like to good doctor to take me to Vienna in the late 1780s, when Mozart was playing one of the violin parts in a performance of his G minor string quintet. The other violin part was played by his friend, Franz Joseph Haydn.

Surely no explanation is necessary!

6) If Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Will Shakespeare were alive today and were regular tweeters, I’d definitely be persuaded to join Twitter! Is there anyone from pre-internet days who, if they were alive today, you would love to see dazzle us daily with tweets of sheer brilliance and delight? Or are you glad they never had to suffer the tyranny of 140 characters?

The writers I most love lived in a time when concision was not necessarily considered a virtue, and their writing frequently displays a prodigality springing from a love of language. I suppose Sam Beckett might have taken to Twitter, but he is an author I respect more than I love.

7) Which three books and three pieces of music would you take with you to a desert island?

I would take a piece each from my two favourite composers, Mozart and Schubert.

For Mozart, I’d take the opera Le Nozze di Figaro: it is a fast-moving comedy, full of class politics and sexual politics, but, while short-changing neither the hard realities of these politics nor the hectic sparkle of farce, Mozart (with his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte) presents us with a depth of humanity and an unsentimental compassion that melt the very heart. And in that miraculous ending, Mozart gives us a glimpse of heaven itself.

For Schubert, I’ll go to the other extreme: the song cycle Winterreise is a chronicle of grief, of despair, of isolation, and even, seemingly, of madness. Where Le Nozze di Figaro warms the heart, this freezes the blood. I do not know what perverse element it is in me that makes me return to this piece, but, perhaps, blood-freezing is as necessary to us as heart-warming.

My third choice of music would be an anthology of Rabindrasangeet – songs by Rabindranath Tagore. I’ve grown up with these songs: they provided the soundtrack to my childhood, and are, I think, the first songs I ever remember hearing. At least, I cannot remember a time when I didn’t know these songs: they are an integral part of my childhood. (Well, these songs and “Tiger Feet”, I suppose.)

Tagore wrote both the words and the music of these songs, and the lyrics are great poems in their own right. Here, as a taster, is one of my favourites, sung here by Kanika Bandapadhyay:

I have tried to translate the lyrics, but the Bengali text is knotty and elliptical in its syntax, and the compound words Tagore puts together so difficult to unpack (imagine trying to translate, say, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “dapple-dawn-drawn falcon”) that a completely literal translation becomes impossible. However, this is about as close as I can get.

Your vina plays its song of grief, ah, from afar,
from where the ground kisses the soles of your feet…
My mind is made restless, it yearns to wander,
but to what purpose, I do not know.
The troubled air carries the scent of jasmine
in anxious, impatient ecstasy –
And so it carries my distracted mind
in this darkest midnight of separation.

(Please do not pass judgement on the poetic qualities of the original merely from this: I have made no attempt to reproduce Rabindranath’s poetic qualities – that would be well beyond me. This translation is merely to give some indication of what the song is about.)

Now for the books. The Complete Works of Shakespeare and the Complete Sherlock Holmes Stories are automatic choices. For my third choice, I suppose that as a Bengali I should choose the poems of Tagore, but Tagore is already represented in my music choices. However, a large part of my cultural world is Russian: it’s a country I have never been to, and its language I cannot speak, but nonetheless, I find myself endlessly drawn to its music and literature. So my third book choice is a good translation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.

8) Out of all the species of wild animals or birds you have yet to see, which one would you most like to encounter?

None face to face – as I am rather zoophobic! But from a suitably safe distance, I would love to see a tiger, surely the most beautiful of all creatures. When Blake wanted to depict the concept of terror and beauty co-existing, no wonder he chose a tiger!

9) Which of the following would most closely correspond to your natural habitat?

a) Out on the moors with Heathcliff.

b) In the Forest with Robin Hood.

c) Out at sea with Long John Silver.

d) Cosy by the fireside with a Pickwickian gathering of genial folk, sharing a bottle of your favourite tipple.

e) The bookish calm of a country house study – in mutual retreat with Mr Bennet.

f) Striding across the meadows with Elizabeth Bennet, a healthy glow in your cheeks and mud caking your boots.

g) In the Attic with Jo from Little Women, scribbling stories and dreaming of adventure.

h) Absorbed in the life of the city streets – in the company of a fictional detective of your choice.

i) Roaming Manderley – and the windswept Cornish cliffs – with the second Mrs de Winter.

j) Wandering alongside William and Dorothy Wordsworth, pacing out poetical rhythms on the Cumbrian fells, and waxing lyrical about wild daffodils.

k) In a cave with Gollum.

l) Hey, Mel – I’m an incredibly complicated human being – a mix of all the above holds true. It depends on my mood…

m) I wouldn’t be seen dead with any of them – Bah! Humbug!

I love the Yorkshire moors, but I don’t know that I’d choose Heathcliff as companion: the man’s a psychopath!

Had I been some forty and more years younger than I am now, I would have been torn between being one of Robin Hood’s merry men, or voyaging out at sea with Long John Silver. I suspect I would have chosen the latter, as Treasure Island was (and remains) a particular favourite of mine. But I am too old for such hectic stuff these days. And while going down those mean streets with Philip Marlowe would be exciting, it would be, perhaps a bit too exciting for someone like myself who likes dangers strictly from the pages of a book.

Bliss it would be to wander around the Cornish cliffs with the second Mrs de Winter (especially if she looked anything like Joan Fontaine) but wandering around the Lake District with William and Dorothy Wordsworth would be Heaven itself! A bookish retreat in a country house also sounds most attractive. But no – if I had to choose just one of these, it would be that cosy, Pickwickian gathering with genial friends around the fireside, drinking and chatting, and indulging in what we Bengalis, even expatriate ones, refer to as adda. There is nothing quite so delightful as convivial conversation with friends. (And with whisky – don’t forget the whisky!).

10) Where would you rather live and why:

Toad Hall

Bag End

Green Knowe

Little House on the Prairie

Green Gables

Kirrin Island

221B Baker Street

Oh, this one’s easy! 221b Baker Street. I distinctly remember, aged eleven, checking out from the Bishopbriggs Public Library The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and since then, Holmes and Watson have become lifelong friends, and 221b Baker Street has become my spiritual home, a permanent and most welcome fixture in my mind.

11) If you had to go on a long journey with a fictional character, who would you choose? And what form of transport would you take – ship, hot air balloon, train, canal boat, motorbike, bicycle, gondola, skateboard, horse drawn gypsy caravan? Space ship?

Anna Karenina on a train? Sorry – I’ll stop being silly.

Of course, there are the various sexy ladies of literature: Shakespeare’s Cleopatra on a barge down the Nile, Emma Bovary in a horse-drawn carriage through the streets of Rouen … But such things, I fear, are not for married, middle-aged men like me.

But – what the hell – Cleopatra on a barge it is!

(Some time ago, some of us were playing that old parlour game of nominating three people from history we’d most like to invite to dinner. We had all the usual answers – Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, etc. – but, after giving the matter much thought, I decided to invite Cleopatra, Lola Montez, and Ava Gardner.)

Now for eleven questions of my own. As I said, I do not wish to select specific blogs, but if any blogger reads this, please feel free to have a go. (And this applies to past recipients of the Liebster Award who have already answered eleven other questions.)

And if any non-blogger reads this – there’s always room in the comments section below!

1. Do you believe in ghosts? If you were to see something which you could not explain rationally, would you put it down merely to a hallucination or to an optical illusion, or would you be prepared to consider at least the possibility of the supernatural?

2. Is there any area or region of natural beauty to which you feel particularly drawn?

3. Is there any piece of horrendously bad taste to which you would care to own up?

4. Is there any teacher from your schooldays whom you remember fondly, and who has left an influence on you?

5. If you could own any single work of art, which would it be?

6. What ability or skill would you like most to possess?

7. If a revolution were to break out, would you:

(i) Remain loyal, and fight against the mob that threatens anarchy and disorder?

(ii) Man the barricades, singing “La Marseillaise”?

(iii) Go to the pub, have a drink, and wait for the whole thing to blow over?

8. A national television broadcasting network has given over its entire Saturday evening schedule to you to show whatever you want – favourite television programmes, favourite films, etc. – from, say, 5 in the afternoon into the early morning hours. How would you fill this schedule?

9. If you could live in any kind of house anywhere in the world, which would you go for?

10. Is there any major issue – political, moral, religious – on which you have radically changed your mind over the years?

11, If you could play any Shakespeare character on stage, then which would you most like to play?

The Liebster Questions: Part One

Among the many social changes brought about recently through technology is the creation of “cyberfriends”. The very sound of the word has a vaguely sinister ring to it – but the sense of the sinister is belied entirely by the reality, as increasing numbers find themselves good friends with people they have never met in real life. A few years ago, this would have been dismissed as “sad”, and the making of cyberfriends seen as something indulged in merely by social inadequates who are unable to make friends in the real world. There may be some remnants of truth in this, but good cyberfriends have been made by so many people who are perfectly normal and gregarious in real life, and who have a more than adequate social life outside cyberspace, that this cannot be considered generally true. In any case, the opportunity to make contact with people sharing one’s own tastes and values, often from across the world, is surely to be welcomed rather than sneered at.

I am happy to say that I have, over the years, made a number of very good “cyberfriends”. Cynics may say that one never really gets to know them. Perhaps. But the same observation applies to real world friends also. The point surely is that, after a point, one comes to feel about one’s cyberfriends in the same way as one does about real-world friends. Indeed, the very terminology that opposes “cyberworld” to the “real world” is, in this context, misplaced, as cyberfriends inhabit the real world also. And soon, one comes to sympathise with their sorrows and rejoice in their triumphs much as one does with one’s non-cyber-friends.

All of this is a verbose preamble to introducing a good cyberfriend of mine, Melanie, writer of the lovely Bookish Nature blog. From her latest post, I am well chuffed to find that it was I who inspired her to start her blog: it is wonderful to discover that not only am I a blogger in myself, but the cause that blogging is in others!

The reason I introduce her is partly to encourage you to visit her blog, and partly also to respond to her awarding me the Liebster Prize. To accept this prize, one has to:

– Give thanks.

That’s hardly a problem: my thanks go without saying!

– Tell 11 things about yourself.

Ah – I am not sure what I can say about myself without repeating myself here. Readers of this blog will already know those salient facts about myself that I do not mind saying in public. But, ever a solipsist, I am always more than happy to talk about what is, after all, my favourite subject. So yes, I’ll have a go at this as well.

– Answer to the best of your ability the 11 questions that are asked of you.

I’ll do my best.

– Nominate 11 other bloggers for this award – and let them know. Ask the above nominees 11 questions of your own, or use the questions you were asked.

May I please be excused from nominating eleven others? There are so many whose blogs I enjoy that nominating some to the exclusion of others seems not quite fair. But I will set eleven questions, to be answered by whoever wishes to answer them!

First, eleven things about myself.

1. One of my earliest memories was a medical skeleton that my grandfather, a doctor, used to have in his surgery back in India. This skeleton fascinated me, and often used to appear in my nightmares. Indeed, even when I have nightmares now, that damn skeleton frequently makes a guest appearance.

2. The first film I remember seeing in English was The Sound of Music. This was shortly after I had come to Britain, aged 5, and The Sound of Music was, at the time, a recent release. I couldn’t understand a word of it, and I think I fell asleep. Falling asleep to this film has become something of a tradition in the intervening years.

3. My parents rented a television back then because they thought it would help me with my English (English was, of course, a new language to me back then). I remember being frightened by Abbott and Costello in Jack and the Beanstalk. It remains a disturbing film, and not one I’d care to revisit.

4. We soon moved to the Scottish town of Kirkcaldy, in Fife, on the North Sea coast. I never could understand why the sea was always described as “blue”: I never saw anything other than a dull, grey mass.

5. The first football match I ever went to was Raith Rovers vs Kilmarnock, in Stark’s Park in Kirkcaldy, in what was then Scottish League Division 1. The local team, Raith Rovers, whom I was supporting, was leading 2-0 with only 7 minutes to go, but ended up losing 3-2. This set the pattern for the future: whoever I support, in any sport, is almost so certain to lose, that on the rare occasion that I have found myself on the winning side, I have felt somewhat uneasy, and unsure what to do with myself.

6. My family moved around a bit in those years, and as a consequence, as soon as I’d made a set of friends, I’d end up losing them. But two sets of friends I made in my childhood years remain good friends still – Laurel and Hardy, and Holmes and Watson.

The Laurel & Hardy memorial in Ulverston, birthplace of Stan Laurel

7. What with all the moving around, I skipped a year somehow in my schooling, and left school a year earlier than is normal. In Scotland, they left school (in my day at least) at seventeen; but in 1976, aged sixteen, I found myself a student in Strathclyde University, studying physics, and living in a Hall of Residence on Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow. I was a cocky wee kid, and it never occurred to me then that I wasn’t mature enough. However, whatever I may or may not have achieved as a student, I was very soon introduced to the delights of underage drinking. I was a rather heavy underage drinker, I regret to say!

8. My drinking has moderated significantly with age; I would have been in serious trouble had it not! But I would be loath to give up my long-standing membership of the Scottish Malt Whisky Society.

9. After completing a doctorette in Manchester University (on multi-objective optimisation – if you must!), my first job was in Liverpool. The office I worked in was just a few hundred yards from the site of the old Cavern Club, where the Beatles used to play in the early days. When I was in Liverpool, this was just a car park, but every day, Beatles devotees from all around the world used to come to take photos of this car park.

(And incidentally – that shelter in the middle of the roundabout at the top of Penny Lane used to be Sgt Pepper’s Fried Chicken. This was back in the mid- to late- 1980s: I guess it has all changed now.)

10. It was in 1989 that my job took us (I say “us”, as I was married by then) down to London: I found gainful employment with British Airways, for whom I subsequently worked for nearly 18 years. I am down here still, on the outskirts of the great metropolis. But getting into the centre of London is such a hassle, that I rarely bother. Unless it’s a trip to the Scottish Malt Whisky Society.

11. I am a very nostalgic person, and am always looking back to my past with misty-eyed affection. This is often considered reprehensible, though I never understood why. So I was delighted to find the conclusions of a recent scientific study apparently vindicating my nostalgic bent. We are, all of us, products of our past: hold on to it, says I!

I have done eleven now, haven’t I? Right, on to the next part.

But this post is long enough. Let’s take a break.

The rhythms of prose

What kind of lunatic would read a book on grammar for fun? Well, me, I guess. And I can’t be the only one. But this is no ordinary book on grammar: it’s Fowler’s once venerated Modern English Usage.

Since I am acquainted only with the second edition of this book, I don’t know how much of what I enjoy I owe to the brothers Fowler, who published the first edition back in 1906, or to Sir Ernest Gowers, whose revised version appeared in 1965. That the first edition lasted so many decades without any change thought to be required is testament enough for the Fowlers’ achievement. There is, I believe, a third edition now on the market, but this, from what I gather, is a completely re-written version rather than a revised edition. I haven’t, I admit, investigated it: in the first place, the version I have serves my needs admirably; and in the second place, I like so much the charm and the elegance of the second that I would not wish to see it replaced.

Yes, charm and elegance: not qualities one normally associates with grammarians, who seem widely regarded as dry-as-dust pedants – oh, how the Fowlers would warn me against using so trite a simile as “dry as dust”! – and as people whose declared aim it is to fetter us to inflexible rules, smothering any spark of creativity we may have. Don’t these grammarians know that language is changing, and that this simple fact, for fact it is, gives us licence to put together any words we choose in any manner we see fit?

But no, charm and elegance are what I meant. Throughout this textbook, one finds these most un-textbook-like qualities in abundance. Added to this is a deep knowledge and a love of the English language itself. And what better companions could one possibly wish for than those who display wit, charm, erudition, and passion?

The Fowlers – or Sir Ernest Gowers, I cannot tell – effectively write miniature, and sometimes not-so-miniature, essays on various aspects of written English, and, far from being pedantic, they advise us to break the rules when breaking the rules aids clarity, or elegance, or both. Typical is their opening paragraph on the entry on “split infinitives”:

The English-speaking world may be divided into (1)those who neither know nor care what a split infinitive is; (2) those who do not know but care very much; (3) those who know and condemn; (4) those who know and approve; and (5) those who know and distinguish.

Each of these five positions is then analysed, with copious illustrative examples showing how injudiciously split infinitives may lead to lack of clarity, and how pedantically undivided infinitives may lead to clumsiness.

This is their approach throughout: the rules are to be applied not slavishly, but judiciously. The purpose of grammar is not to enforce conformity, but to aid both intelligibility and elegance, especially when we are trying to express matters of complexity or of subtlety. And when the rules of grammar evidently do not serve this purpose, they are to be discarded in favour of whatever does. But iconoclasm for its own sake is no more admirable than dogged pedantry.

The advice in this book is not merely on matters of grammar, but also of style: throughout, the authors insist on the qualities of clarity and of elegance. The latter is not something I find too readily in modern prose. I refer here not merely to the Jeffrey Archers and the Dan Browns of this world: such people are all too easy targets to stick the boot into. I refer also to many writers who are highly acclaimed by contemporary literati, and who may even win literary awards, but a mere few paragraphs of whose writing sampled in bookshops make me wonder how people with such tin ears for the rhythms of English prose could even have thought of choosing writing as their careers. But let us stop there before I get on to mentioning names.

The essay in Modern English Usage on the rhythm of English prose is, indeed, among the finest in the volume. Firstly, they explain with the sort of prose I don’t think I’d find in any other textbook, what they mean by “rhythm”:

Rhythmless speech or writing is like a flow of liquid from a pipe or tap; it runs with smooth monotony from when it is turned on to when it is turned off, provided it is clear stuff; if it is turbid, the smooth flow is queerly and abruptly checked from time to time, and then resumed. Rhythmic speech or writing is like the waves of the sea, moving onward with alternating rise and fall, connected yet separate, like but different, suggestive of some law, too complex for analysis or statement, controlling the relations between wave and wave, waves and sea, phrase and phrase, phrases and speech. In other words, live speech, said or written, is rhythmic, and rhythmless speech is at best dead.

There follows a number of hilarious examples of “rhythmless” writing, and for each, there is a lucid explanation of what had gone wrong with the sentence, and what steps may be taken to improve it. But before we go through these examples, we are promised that there will appear, at the end of the article, “a single masterpiece of rhythm”. One wonders why they chose to end this article with this “single masterpiece”: the example chosen was certainly not intended to be exemplary, since even in 1906 no-one would have been expected to write in such a style. I think they chose this “single masterpiece of rhythm” simply because they loved it, and wished to share it with their readers. And it is worth sharing:

And the king was much moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate and wept: and as he went, thus he said: O my son, Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!