Archive for September, 2013

Staging the classics: the radical, and the unintelligent

As You Like It ends with multiple marriages, and the god of marriage, Hymen himself, comes down to officiate. It is an ending permeated with joy. Now, let us imagine that in a production of this play under the auspices of a respected body – such as the Royal Shakespeare Company, say – the director decides that marriage, far from being joyful and something worth celebrating, is essentially dark and tragic; and, because Shakespeare does not depict it as such in this play, he interpolates at this point some of the darkest passages from Othello.

It doesn’t really work, does it? I don’t mean the interpolation of lines from Othello into As You Like It (although I don’t think that works either): I mean my rather ham-fisted attempt at parody in the opening paragraph above. For to parody something, you have to exaggerate, and sadly, what I am attempting to parody cannot be exaggerated. For in the current production of Beethoven’s opera Fidelio at the English National Opera, director Calixto Bieito, believing that the reunion between Leonore and Florestan should not be joyful (although Beethoven’s music at this point unambiguously tells us that is is), has interpolated at this point ten or so minutes from the slow movement of Beethoven’s A minor string quartet. And I am left racking my brains trying to think of a parody that could exaggerate the sheer stupidity of this.

However, in talking about “sheer stupidity”, I am going very much against the grain: to object to a production such as this is to brand oneself a hopeless conservative who wants mere cosiness rather than a drama that challenges and stimulates. In this context, any argument beginning with “I’m no conservative, but…” is self-defeating: nothing one says afterwards is likely to be taken seriously. Now, I don’t think I’m particularly conservative in these matters: if I may be so immodest as to quote myself from my previous post:

When a work of art becomes very familiar, there is a danger that it becomes too comfortable, too cosy – that it loses its edge. Or, rather, our perceptions are so dulled that we can no longer feel its edge. Instead of exciting, or provoking, or disturbing, it merely relaxes, and becomes merely a sedative.

Other than the clumsy repetition of “merely” (one only notices these things once one has hit the “post” button!), I stand by that. I went on later in that post to say that what matters is not so much whether a staging is “conservative” or “radical”, but, rather, whether it is intelligent. And interpolating a passage from the slow movement of a late quartet – a passage that communicates a profound introspection and inwardness – at the very point where the music (composed by Ludwig himself specifically for this point) communicates boundless joy, strikes me as supremely unintelligent.

However, the production has been receiving good reviews: here is a typical one. In the course of this review, we are directed to an interview with Bieito in which, we are told, he “gives his reasons”. Except that he doesn’t give his reasons. He doesn’t explain why the reunion between Leonore and Florestan is not presented as joyful when Beethoven composed music at this point that very definitely expresses joy.

There are many other idiocies also in that interview – a lot of stuff about office buildings of glass and mirrors, Borgesian labyrinths, questioning who is really making decisions in our society, and so on – all tremendously fascinating, no doubt; but, sadly, there’s not a single word explaining what any of this has to do with Beethoven’s Fidelio.

Of course, it can be said, quite rightly, that it is foolish, and, indeed, somewhat glib, to speak of the “true meaning” of any major work of art: meanings of major works of art are rarely obvious, and good productions, both conservative and radical, can bring to light elements of the work that one had previously not considered. I agree enthusiastically. But if an alleged insight cannot be related to any part of the text of the original – and also, in the case of opera, to any part of the music – then I can’t for the life of me see how such an insight can be considered an insight into the work. If that makes me a hidebound conservative, then I’m afraid I have no option but to accept the title, albeit unwillingly: for I do agree with Pierre Boulez (in a quote so famous that I can’t seem to find it on Google Search!) that when one sets oneself to be the guardian of a pure tradition, one ends up as a guardian merely of a mausoleum.

However, it will be objected that I am criticising a production I haven’t seen. This is true. Neither have I seen Calixto Bieito’s earlier production of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera, which opened with a lot of people sitting on toilets having a crap. Neither, indeed, have I seen a great many other instances of similar “re-interpretation”, where the very fact of people taking exception is seen as evidence of success. I don’t, as it happens, fully subscribe to the contention that one must experience something before one is entitled to criticise it, if only because one does not need to eat a turd to know it tastes like shit; but nonetheless, let me focus now on a production by Bieito that I have actually seen: Don Giovanni at the English National Opera, some twelve years ago.

Here, the drama of Mozart and of da Ponte was presented as a bunch of lads and laddettes having a wild night out. Donna Elvira is here a drunken floozie, staggering around a bar, gulping down all the unfinished drinks she can find – not, perhaps, what we might expect given how she is perceived by Donna Anna and by Don Ottavio (“Cieli! Che aspetto nobile! Che dolce maesta!”) She, Donna Anna, and Don Ottavio, are, like Don Giovanni, mere lads and laddettes on a wild night out, thus eliminating any moral distinction that might have existed in Mozart’s opera.

As for the plot itself, there are some significant changes: as in Mozart’s version, Don Giovanni kills Dona Anna’s father in the opening scene; but, as not in Mozart’s version, he first rogers the not unwilling Donna Anna; and at the end of the opera, where, in Mozart’s version, the dead spirit of the murdered man appears as a statue to drag Don Giovanni into Hell, here, the dead man appears merely as a drug-induced hallucination: Don Giovanni’s downfall comes afterwards, as the other characters tie him to a chair and, in the manner of Murder on the Orient Express,  queue up in orderly fashion to stab him to death. New insight into the opera? Admirers of this production, and there are many, say so. But once again, I can’t see what there is either in da Ponte’s libretto or in Mozart’s music that can justify any of this. In the opera (as opposed to Bieito’s production), we are never sure whether or not Don Giovanni has had his way with Donna Anna before killing her father, and neither are we sure, assuming he had, whether she had a been willing partner; this ambiguity gives the drama an uncertain edge, and I really can’t see what is gained by removing this ambiguity – although I can see that much is lost. In the course of the opera (once again, as opposed to the production), various people try, with singular lack of success, to revenge themselves on Don Giovanni, but it is eventually only a supernatural force that achieves what mere mortals can’t. There are many legitimate ways of interpreting this, but changing it to its opposite so there is nothing to interpret surely isn’t amongst them.

One may, of course, have one’s own opinion on the quality of Bieito’s re-writing: my opinion happens to be that it is trite and unimaginative: a lot of bad boys and girls boozing and copulating and tripping on drugs is not in itself likely material for compelling drama. But that’s just my opinion: I don’t insist upon it. But whatever one’s opinion on the quality of Bieito’s re-write, why anyone should go to see a work advertised as being by Mozart and da Ponte, and see instead something entirely different, I really can’t imagine.

And what does Bieto himself have to say about all this? He talks about it here:

That Don Giovanni, he says, illustrated “what happens every Friday night” among young people across Europe…

Yes, I know, I know. But once again, he is remarkably quiet on how these typical Friday night happenings relate to Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Lads and laddettes having a wild time of it on a Friday night really is pretty boring stuff: Don Giovanni isn’t.

So why does Bieito do this? Here he explains, in his own words:

And this is all done to provoke my audience, to make them think.

So now, thanks to Bieito, I’ve thunk. And, having thunk, I find I have no problem with Bieito taking a radical approach to these great works: I really have no desire to see safe, conventional stagings that put these works reverentially behind glass, as if they were museum pieces. No – I’m fine with radical reinterpretations. But I do, I must admit, have a problem with radical re-writing, and, especially, with Bieito (and other directors of similar inclination) re-writing these works in such a dull, trite, and supremely unintelligent manner: that seems to me unforgivable. Whatever Bieito’s vision may be, when I pay good money to see operas by Mozart or by Beethoven, or, indeed, by anyone else, it is not Bieito’s vision I’m interested in.

A night in at the opera: Verdi’s “Rigoletto” from the Met

When a work of art becomes very familiar, there is a danger that it becomes too comfortable, too cosy – that it loses its edge. Or, rather, our perceptions are so dulled that we can no longer feel its edge. Instead of exciting, or provoking, or disturbing, it merely relaxes, and becomes merely a sedative.

Verdi’s operas seem to me to fall quite frequently in this category. Take Rigoletto, for instance – it’s among the best-loved of all operas, and full of the most hummable tunes. But if we stop seeing it merely as a medley of great tunes and consider what the opera is actually about, should we love this work?

Both in this opera, and in La Traviata, Verdi presents a world in which gratification is seen as the only end worth striving for – a world in which mere pleasure is mistaken for joy; and he dramatises the fate in such a world of human emotion – of true human emotion, whose end is other than that of mere self-gratification. In both operas, the outcome is tragic. In La Traviata, however, human emotion is affirmed despite the outcome: as Orwell famously said of tragedy, we are left with the feeling that humanity is greater than the forces that destroy it. But in Rigoletto, we don’t even get this: there is no affirmation, and the darkness that falls upon the scene by the final curtain is absolute. A work such as this should inspire us with terror and with awe: but instead, it is seen all too often as a safe work, as something merely to tap our feet to as we relax in our armchairs at the end of a hard day. And I can’t help feeling that something, somewhere, has seriously gone wrong.

The plot of Rigoletto, taken from a play by Victor Hugo, is simple enough. The Duke of Mantua is charming and charismatic, but sees sensual pleasure as the sole purpose of living; and to this end, he doesn’t care whom he hurts or even destroys. He has around him a sycophantic court that appears to share his cheerful amorality. And in this court is the jester, the hump-backed Rigoletto, cruelly taunting everyone around him – even the Duke’s victims – and hated by all. Rigoletto appears, indeed to be the very personification of the moral degradation of the court.

But then, Verdi digs deeper. An outcast and an outsider, Rigoletto has forced himself into this role as a means of survival, and, recognising his own hatefulness, he hates himself for being what he is. It seems at times that he makes himself all the more hateful to justify his intense self-hatred. But there is one part of himself that he tries to keep pure from this corruption, and the living embodiment of this part of himself is his daughter. The more he hates the corruption both within and without his own self, the more he loves the purity that is his daughter; and the more insistently does he try to keep her isolated from the evil that he knows is all around. But, of course, as he knows full well, he is himself part of this evil. The mechanics of the plot are perhaps not so important here: what matters is that Rigoletto cannot keep the corruption at bay, and that the evil from which he tries to protect his daughter, but of which he is himself a part, claims her. She is abducted (with his unwitting participation), and is raped. And when he seeks justice by hiring a hit-man to assassinate the Duke, his daughter, who has been kept innocent of the ways of the world and is now confused in the extreme, heroically sacrifices her life to save the man not worth saving. Never has a sacrifice been simultaneously so heroic, and yet so pointless. As she expires, mouthing pious but meaningless platitudes, Rigoletto knows what the real score is: from now on, he will have to live completely alone in a world that is not worth living in. He won’t possess even that part of himself that he had tried to keep clean and pure: even that has been casually violated, and then just as casually destroyed. In most tragedies, the tragedy is that the protagonist dies; here, the tragedy is that the protagonist has to go on living. I cannot think of any other opera, except perhaps Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, that is so utterly bleak and despairing.

I am afraid I have seen too many productions of this piece that are, though well sung, merely jolly romps. Last weekend, I watched on DVD the recent production from the Metropolitan Opera of this work, and, to be frank, I watched expecting the worst: while musically, the Metropolitan Opera of New York is among the best opera houses in the world, its productions have frequently been ultra-conservative. Yes, it is true that one can misrepresent a work with wilful and daft productions – the sort of thing known across the Atlantic as “Eurotrash” (this year’s Ring Cycle at Bayreuth, complete with copulating crocodiles – no, seriously! – is a case in point); but it seems to me that presenting Rigoletto essentially as a cosy, comfortable work, without communicating the profound darkness at its heart, is equally a misrepresentation. The question shouldn’t be whether the production is “conventional” or “radical”: I have seen good and bad examples of both. The question should be: Is the production intelligent?

This production places Rigoletto in Las Vegas some time in the 60s. Although this has displeased some of the more conservative reviewers on the Amazon page, this seems to me quite reasonable: after all, where better than Las Vegas to represent a world in which pleasure is mistaken for joy? And on the whole, it seems to me rather well done. But it is not without its problems. The Duke here is transformed into a night-club singer, and that is surely wrong: the whole point of the opera is that the Duke is a man who commands immense power. He is a man who can have Monterone sentenced to death simply because Monterone had accused him in his own court of having “seduced” his daughter (although, as we see with Gilda, “seduction” in this context often covered what we’d now more accurately describe as “rape”). In this production, we see Monterone (here an Arab sheikh) led away to his death not by the Duke’s soldiers, but by professional hitmen. And the question arises: why? We can understand that the Duke would not tolerate being denounced in his own court, but it’s hard to see why a singer, even assuming that he has powerful underworld connections, should put hitmen on to this chap.

It would certainly have made more sense to have turned the Duke into a gangland boss, as Jonathan Miller had done in his celebrated ENO production, but  even this has its problems: in the opera, there is the great irony that the Duke, ostensibly the lawmaker, and the professional assassin, who lives outside the law, are morally equivalent; but if they are both depicted as living outside the law, then this irony is lost. But at least the drama made sense in Jonathan Miller’s production. Here, presenting the Duke merely as a singer doesn’t really make much sense at all.

Neither is it clear what position Rigoletto occupies in relation to the Duke. In the opera, he is court jester; in Jonathan Miller’s production, he is a barman, with a penchant for cruel mockery. But what exactly is he here? It’s hard to say.

And removing the hump – or, at least, making it so small as to be unnoticeable – also seems counter-productive. It is his physical disfigurement that has made Rigoletto an outsider in society: he is seen merely as a circus freak for people to laugh at. But what reason is there here for his alienation, and for his bitterness? I don’t have a problem with the action moved to Las Vegas, but it does seem to me that the implications of this move have not been fully thought out.

And neither, in terms of the action, has been that notorious scene where Rigoletto unwittingly helps the Duke’s men abduct his own daughter. For the drama to hold together thematically, Rigoletto must be complicit, however unwittingly, in the violation of his beloved daughter: his unwitting involvement in this particular piece of action reflects his greater involvement in his daughter’s downfall. But the plot mechanism used by Verdi (and, presumably, by Hugo, although I am only guessing here, as I don’t know the play) is clumsy in the extreme. Verdi’s audiences possibly wouldn’t have minded, but, to a modern audience, it can’t appear as anything other than silly. This piece of silliness wouldn’t have mattered in an opera in which the entire dramatic action is a bit silly (Il Trovatore, say, or Parsifal), but in a work in which the rest of the drama is compelling, and, indeed, frighteningly believable, this passage sticks out badly. In this production, the silliness is avoided, but Rigoletto has no involvement, unwitting or otherwise, in the abduction of his daughter; Rigoletto’s part in the violation of his daughter is lost, and the drama, as a consequence, diminished.

For all the shortcomings of the production, something of the power of this bleak and uncompromising drama did come through. This is due to a great extent to the music, which, as it should in any opera, depicts the drama rather than being merely decorative. I do not want to comment on the musical aspects of it, except to say that to my admittedly untrained ears, the performance sounded good, though not, perhaps, exceptional. But then again, having heard on recordings some of the very greatest singers of the last 60 or so years in these roles – Leonard Warren, Tito Gobbi, Maria Callas, Carlo Bergonzi – I may be a bit spoilt. Be that as it may, the performance here of the orchestra, the conductor, and of the singers, did communicate very powerfully the tragic power of this very great masterpiece. Even decades of familiarity cannot, and should not, dull the effect of something such as this.

Over and under

With my newly found interest in Lawrence, I had a quick look round the net, in various book blogs and the like, to get some idea of how he is generally regarded. On the whole, it was all predictably hostile, and even the few lone voices speaking out for him seemed apologetic. But leaving all that aside till later (when I have immersed myself sufficiently in his work to be able to comment with any credibility), one thing I couldn’t help noticing was the frequency with which the adjectives “over-wrought” and “over-written” were applied. And it got me thinking:

Is there some point beyond which a work can be considered “overwrought”? Is it “underwrought” if it falls short of that point? And, perhaps, “correctly wrought” if it is at that point, or thereabouts?

For that matter, who decides where this magical point is? Is there some sort of consensus on this? If so, why did no-one ask me to vote?

And it’s the same, I think, with any adjective beginning with “over-“ or “under-“. Utterly meaningless in the context of literary criticism.

So I made a note to myself never to use such terms myself. Although I am sure I have done so often enough in the past…

The abiding enigma of D. H. Lawrence

It is too easy merely to read what comes easily. By which I mean, to read only those writers whose perspective is sufficiently close to our own to allow us, while reading, to nod away comfortably in agreement. And indeed, some of these writers may indeed be great, however we may define that much-abused word.

But is this enough? I go to literature, after all, to broaden my perspectives, and the only way I can do this is to encounter writers whose perspectives on life are different to my own: only when I can incorporate these very different perspectives into my own does my own become richer.

If we survey the bewildering range of perspectives offered by literature – in works by authors of all imaginable or even unimaginable temperaments – it very soon becomes obvious that no one reader could possibly respond to them all. There are bound to be certain works that are too alien to the reader’s individual temperament – works that, no matter how meritorious the work, continue to elude. This is particularly the case with writers whose perspectives are extreme and idiosyncratic – Dostoyevsky, say, or Strindberg. (I love Dostoyevsky despite very grave reservations, but my latest attempt with Strindberg has been, so far, only partially successful.) But it’s worth trying: one never knows in which direction which one’s personal perspective is capable of expanding.

It is with this in mind that I wonder if I should make another attempt on D. H. Lawrence. Back in the 1970s, when I was a teenager and introducing myself to the wonders of literature, Lawrence’s stock was very high indeed. In my late teens and early 20s, eager to absorb as much as I could of what had impressed minds other than my own, I read through most of Lawrence’s major work – Sons and Lovers, The Rainbow, Women in Love, St Mawr, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and so on. Many I thought were frankly weak (Lady Chatterley’s Lover, for instance). There were others where I sensed a certain power, but which, all the same, did not make too great an impact on me. No doubt he is a great writer, I felt, but his concerns aren’t mine.

I have since returned once in a while to his short stories, but, once again, they failed to make too deep an impression. I wasn’t too worried by this: one cannot possibly respond to everything. But last night, I read the short story “The Odour of Chrysanthemums”. I cannot remember whether I have read this story before: if so, it clearly did not make an impression deep enough to remain in the mind. But this time round, I thought it was stunning. And I am beginning to wonder whether my concerns have now changed sufficiently with age to bring me closer to Lawrence than I had been before.

The story tells of a miner’s wife waiting for her husband to return in the evening; when he doesn’t, she assumes, with some anger, that he’s boozing in the pub. It becomes clear that the marriage is not a happy one. Eventually, it emerges that her husband has died in a mining accident – asphyxiated – and the climactic point of the story comes when, as she washes his corpse, she becomes aware of how little she had ever known him, how distant they had been despite their physical intimacy, and how, indeed, her failure to know him had asphyxiated the life out of him even while he had been alive.

Such a bald summary cannot convey the depths and subtleties of the story. The quality of the prose is spectacular: the control over the rhythms that of a master; and the imagery often startling. The impact of these few pages is that of a great tragic work.

When Lawrence was bad, he was very, very bad; but at his best – or, at least, when I can understand him, as I think I might have done last night – he was spectacularly good. There was about him so fiery an intensity that the adjective “visionary” is not misapplied. But he does take the reader into emotional and intellectual regions that are deeply uncomfortable, and where the reader may not be willing to follow, or capable of following. At least, I know I have often felt that way.

He was unremittingly serious, both as a writer and also, I believe, as a person. And I can’t help feeling this is one of the major reasons why our age, which demands that even the utmost seriousness must be laced with frivolity, and which regards “humourless” as about the most damning of all criticisms, doesn’t take to him. If so, so much the worse for our age.

Perhaps he is at his best in his short stories, where the form does not allow much space for his indulgences, or for his didacticism. (Too much of his work, especially his later work, is too informed by his ideology, which seemed to become increasingly bizarre with the passing years.) But I want to read at least some of those novels as well. He is a troublesome writer, certainly, but one I think worth taking the trouble over. After all, the very fact that contemporary literati tend not to like him should be a major point in his favour.

I think I need to read more of his short stories, and revisit The Rainbow and Women in Love. It may well be that these works are still too distant from me. But why come to literature at all if one is not prepared to be challenged by that which is alien to one’s natural temperament, and to be led into regions of thought and of feeling that, however uncomfortable they may be, nonetheless give us glimpses of that which had previously been beyond our imagination?

I am currently reading Les Misérables, which, given its immense length, and given further the slowness of my reading, may take some time. But come next year, I think a period of immersion in the works of D. H. Lawrence may well be on the cards. I imagine, at the very least, he will be somewhat different from Victor Hugo!

Warning: Philosophy can damage your health

I have often had occasion to use this blog as a platform to go on a rant about the sidelining from our society of high culture. It does sadden me that that which should be so precious to our lives is hidden away, and those who immerse themselves in it are often referred to as elitists, or snobs, or whatever.

Given all this, it is gratifying to see a report about people who feel passionately about philosophy. About people who care so deeply about something as recondite as the philosophy of Kant that, for them, it is nothing less than a matter of life and death.

Oh, all right, very well then – the outcome of all this is not really so gratifying: a man had to be admitted to hospital with injuries, after all. Admittedly, according to the report, the weapon used was only “small” and “non-lethal”, and the injuries, thankfully, are not life-threatening. But it makes me shudder to think what might have happened had they been discussing Spinoza instead!

In the immortal words of Boney M – “Ooh! Those crazy Russians!”



“Thunder in the Air” by August Strindberg

It is difficult to argue with the contention that through the nineteenth century, while the novel was flourishing, and, some may say, establishing itself as the principal form of literary expression, drama – the form that had in the past given us the Athenian tragedians, Shakespeare, Calderón and de Vega, Racine, Corneille and Molière – had stagnated; and that it was only with the emergence towards the end of the century of Ibsen, Strindberg and Chekhov that it was once again revitalised. However, while the plays of Ibsen are dear to me, and while I love the last three of four plays of Chekhov, I have never really come to grips with Strindberg. He’s an odd ’un, as they say.

Both as a person and as an author, Strindberg was what may kindly be described as “eccentric”. His plays, even the more ostensibly realistic ones, such as The Father, Miss Julie or The Dance of Death, seem to take place not so much in the real world, but, rather, in some curiously disembodied region, some vague and obscure chamber of the author’s very strange mind – a mind filled with paranoia, bitterness, and misogyny. It is hard to think of any other dramatist who communicated such private and personal visions in so public a form as the theatre. And yet, his influence has been enormous: both Synge and O’Neill cited Strindberg rather than Ibsen as a major influence; and while Ingmar Bergman (to judge from the account given of him by Michael Meyer in his memoirs) was at best ambivalent about Ibsen, his closeness to Strindberg, whose plays he had frequently directed on stage to much acclaim, seems obvious.

According to his biographer and translator Michael Meyer, “[Strindberg] had a much narrower vision than Ibsen, but wrote better than anyone except perhaps Dostoevsky and Poe about that borderland where sanity and insanity merge.” This closeness to insanity certainly gives his dramatic work – the best of them, at least – a certain frisson; but, at the same time, unless one has a certain sympathy with his particular brand of insanity, it can also leave the reader or the viewer bewildered. And that is the effect his plays tend to have on me: I find myself bewildered, and really don’t know that I understand them adequately.

Meyer himself seemed to have an oddly ambivalent attitude to Strindberg, both as man and as writer. His biography of Strindberg is certainly authoritative, but while his earlier biography of Ibsen was a triumph, this one seems vitiated by his dislike for his subject. (There is a more recent biography of Strindberg by Sue Prideaux: I have not yet read this, but the consensus of critical opinion appears to be that this now supersedes Meyer’s biography for the very reason that Prideaux has greater sympathy for her subject.) Meyer is also frequently censorious of much of Strindberg’s work, describing his dramatic output as “wildly uneven”; while he is clearly keenly appreciative of Strindberg’s finest plays, there are others which he is happy to dismiss with an almost casual nonchalance. Here, for instance, is Meyer on the five late works Strindberg wrote for the Intimate Theatre (Intiman), and which he designated as “chamber plays”:

…the new plays which Strindberg wrote for the Intimate [Theatre] were not good, apart from Storm … and The Ghost Sonata, which was too far in advance of its time for the cast to encompass or the critics to understand.

This is certainly not the opinion of translator Eivor Martinus, who, in the short essay that prefaces her translations, describes all five of these plays as “miniature masterpieces”. There was only one way to find out: read these works for myself. For, clearly, I was missing something.


I had intended to read all five plays one after the other, but after reading the first one, Thunder in the Air (the one Michael Meyer refers to as Storm), I felt I needed a break from that claustrophobic environment. That I felt this way indicates in itself the power of the work; and, yes, I shall certainly go on to read the others. But not right now. The play itself is not too long: it takes about ninety minutes to read without a break, and a performance would, I imagine, similarly take about ninety minutes; but, as with the other plays I have read by Strindberg, I had a sense of being trapped in that vague, obscure chamber of Strindberg’s mind; and, strange and fascinating though that mind is, even so brief a period as ninety minutes in there has one gasping for a bit of fresh air, for a bit of sanity.

The play is partly about the serene detachment of old age; and also about the fragility of this detachment. The protagonist, unnamed, is an old man who has left behind, as he thinks, his earthly entanglements, and who wishes merely to spend his remaining days with equanimity, without bitterness, remembering only those aspects of his life that had been beautiful:

And it’s nice and quiet like this … no love affairs, no friends, just a little company to break the silence. People appear really human and they don’t make any emotional demands on you. In the end you become loose like an old tooth and fall out painlessly.

This renunciation of earthly ties in preparation for death is a common theme in Hindu and Buddhist scriptures; it was enthusiastically taken up by Schopenhauer, and found its way into several of Wagner’s operas. But such detachment is not easy to achieve: renunciation does not come easily. The unnamed protagonist’s equanimity is shattered when his young ex-wife and their child intrude once again into his life. He who had wanted to keep only the most beautiful memories of them must once again be forced to enter the world of human passions: the tooth he had thought was ready to fall out painlessly is still rooted in all the hatred and bitterness and anger that he had thought he had left behind. By the end, he looks forward once again to his departure from the world:

Shut the windows, and pull down the blinds, please. And we’ll leave our memories in peace! The peace of old age! And this autumn I shall move away from this silent house.

But his equanimity has been ruffled: the detachment he so yearns for has proved a fragile thing.

This is a play rich in veiled imagery, and Eivor Martinus’ translation is a work of limpid beauty: I think I am beginning to understand why Strindberg’s works, even at their most discordant, are so frequently described as “poetic”. But this is not a serene work. The hatred that resurfaces on encountering his ex-wife takes us into those regions of the mind that many of us some time or other may have entered, but in which it is unhealthy to stay too long: it is a deeply oppressive world. And Strindberg, it seems to me, couldn’t keep away from it – from that borderland where sanity and insanity merge, as Michael Meyer put it.

Once, only once, does Strindberg allow us to see something of the perspective of Gerda, the protagonist’s former wife:

And when I was prisoner in this house it wasn’t because of the jail-keeper that I was unhappy but because of the prison!

This is a striking image, but Strindberg doesn’t seem very interested in exploring further the implications of this. Despite this sudden and unexpected shaft of light, this play is less the story of a failed marriage than a depiction of the bitterness and unhappiness the failure has left in its wake. It is certainly a powerful and fascinating work, and, having read it only once – and so soon after the reading – I am not at all sure that I have yet taken it in to an adequate degree. I shall certainly return to it: it merits re-reading; and, despite Michael Meyer’s airy dismissal, I shall certainly read also the other four chamber plays. But not yet. I need first  a few breaths of fresh air. Even a mere ninety minutes of Strindberg goes a long way.

Lying about books

Maybe I’ve just been mixing in the wrong circles. For I don’t think I have encountered any social circle in which literary erudition is particularly valued. Not that it is looked down upon, as such – that sort of thing, in my experience, only happens in certain areas of the internet where people are keen to establish their anti-snobbery credentials – but it is not much valued either. And that frankly suits me fine, because then, no-one sees the point of lying about books they (he? she? he or she? one?) haven’t read. Not only is no-one impressed by such bragging, but, even if the brag happens to be true, advertising one’s accomplishments is seen, quite correctly, to be in bad taste. Of course, if someone can speak in an intelligent and interesting manner about their reading, that is different; but merely to mention one has read something, whether one has or not, is but pointless braggadocio.

So I am a bit surprised that, according to this report in the Telegraph, over 60% of Britons admit to reading works they haven’t. What is the point? I wonder. But leaving the lying aside, I find myself intrigued by the five titles that have been chosen to represent the classics – Great Expectations, Crime and Punishment, War and Peace, Nineteen Eighty Four and The Lord of the Rings. Had this list been American rather than British, one might have expected Moby-Dick, Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby or To Kill a Mockingbird to have found a place there (or even, heaven help us, something by Ayn Rand), but overall, the titles in this very short list are all among the usual suspects. And they are all novels, of course, since poetry, short stories, drama, essays, etc. tend not to loom very prominently in the general perception of what constitutes literature.

Why Crime and Punishment, I wonder, and not, say The Idiot, or Demons, or The Brothers Karamazov? Why Pride and Prejudice (which admittedly isn’t in this particular list, but could so easily have been) rather than, say, Emma, or Mansfield Park, or Persuasion? I suppose that in each of these cases, the favoured title is the most accessible of the writer’s work (by which I mean the easiest to read and to take in), and is therefore most likely to have been read. That’s fair enough, I suppose. But even in this very shortlist of only five, the presence of Nineteen Eighty Four intrigues me. That it is a fine work, and very widely read, and hugely influential in shaping the modern imagination, there can be no doubt; and perhaps these qualities alone justify its inclusion. But Orwell himself, I imagine, might have felt a trifle embarrassed to have his work ranked alongside the novels of Dickens, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy.

And there’s one more title I haven’t mentioned: The Lord of the Rings – the book that tops just about every single public poll ever held on favourite books. I had better not comment on this title, since it is obviously very widely read and very deeply loved, and since, further, my personal tastes are such that the attractions of the fantasy genre elude me completely. But I will admit that this is one book I lie about having read. Not to brag about it, you understand, but because, in this instance, lying saves a lot of time and hassle. It saves my having to hear, repeatedly, that I absolutely must read this, that I owe it to myself to read it, that it is among the greatest of masterpieces, and so on. And it saves my nodding away politely, saying that yes, I really must get round to it some day, and dreading that someone will press a copy of it into my hands and ask me later what I made of it. Better just to say that yes, I have read it, but that it isn’t really my kind of thing; and then we can all move on painlessly to some other topic.

Actually, I have read the first of the three volumes, and didn’t feel in the least inclined to read the others. No, that’s a lie as well. I started the first of the volumes, trudged through about half of it, and decided that life, even at the age of nineteen or so, simply wasn’t long enough.

Or maybe that’s a lie as well: I honestly can’t remember. When one lies so frequently about something, it becomes a habit one can’t shake off, and one can’t remember what really is true and what isn’t. Heaven only knows what the truth of this matter is.