Archive for November, 2013

On Jane Austen, love, and instant erections

Pardon me, gentle reader, for the coarseness of the title, but the coarseness isn’t mine. I am merely quoting Andrew Davies, who dramatised the phenomenally successful mid-90s BBC production of Pride and Prejudice :

“Pride and Prejudice is all about sex and money, about young people with pumping hormones,” explained Davies, who has cornered the market in TV and film adaptations of classic novels. “Darcy is supposed to marry this sickly aristocrat, but as soon as he sees keen-witted, rosy-cheeked Elizabeth Bennet panting from a walk, he gets an instant erection.”

I have not seen the adaptation, and so will refrain from commenting on it. But, despite being only a relatively recent convert to Austen, and yet to count myself a fully paid-up Janeite; and despite Mr Davies having no doubt lived with this novel for far longer than I have; it seems to me that his assertion that Pride and Prejudice is “all about sex and money” (my italics) could do with some scrutiny. For if this is indeed what Pride and Prejudice is all about, my own reading of the novel is quite considerably wide of the mark.

That Austen was keenly aware of the significance of money and of the social status it confers is a commonplace observation. And yes, Austen was also keenly aware of, and depicted (albeit with the utmost delicacy), sexual attraction. One may say that this delicacy on her part was dictated by the conventions of her times – conventions that didn’t allow her to write of, amongst other things, instant erections; and that, indeed, if she could, she would, but she couldn’t, so she didn’t. And further, that had she had the good fortune to live in our own less squeamish times, when talk of “instant erections” raises not even the most conservative of eyebrows, she would eagerly have ventured into areas that had in her own time been closed to her. For, as we all know, Austen was, like all others whom we see fit to admire, modern: and so far in advance is modernity in all respects from what had come before, there can surely be no greater praise than that.

An enterprising publisher is even now making available works from the past as their writers – unimpeachably modern  as they were in outlook – would no doubt have wished to write them, and would have done  if only they could. In these re-writes, Catherine Morland is introduced by Henry Tilney to “a whole new world of eroticism … where sex knows no boundaries”; the mutual passion of Holmes and Watson is at long last realised; and what Mr Rochester says to Jane Eyre about his own instant erection, dear reader, I blush even to acknowledge.

The idea behind these re-writes, I must admit, I find quite funny – but that’s only because I retain still an immature, schoolboy sense of humour. I don’t know, though, that I find the idea so funny as to want to read these re-writes: the joke would wear out pretty damn quick, I imagine. But I doubt the publishers are being serious. I doubt also whether Martin Amis is being entirely serious when he writes:

These days, true, I wouldn’t have minded a rather more detailed conclusion–say, a twenty-page sex scene featuring the two principals, with Mr. Darcy, furthermore, aquitting (sic) himself uncommonly well.

At least, I hope he isn’t being serious: I’d hate to imagine the man who declared war against cliché endorsing the clichéd perception that physical representation of sex can adequately represent the reality of love. For, pace Andrew Davies, Pride and Prejudice is not all about sex and money: central to the novel is the theme of love. Sex and money, yes, are present; and yes, these things are important. But when Elizabeth asks Darcy towards the end of the novel why he had admired her, he does not reply – and nor would he have replied even if the conventions of the time had allowed it – that he loves her for her body, and that he finds her “hot”: he replies: “For the liveliness of your mind”. He loves her for her personality; he loves her for being for the person she is. And if we in our enlightened modern times find this merely soppy; if we feel that there can be nothing beyond the physical, and that love can be nothing more than instant erections; then, it seems to me, Jane Austen, living though she did in her benighted times, was wiser by far than our modern selves.

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On fairy tales

“There Was Once a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbour’s baby: Scary fairy Tales” by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, translated by Keith Gessen and Anna Summers, published by Penguin

 

It was an impulse purchase. I’m not sure what it was that made me take up to the counter the intriguingly titled There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbour’s Baby (subtitled “Scary Fairy Stories”) by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. I’m not really the greatest fan, after all, of fantasy literature. However, an admittedly quick browse through some of the pages indicated an intriguing literary personality. And I also felt, I suppose, that the very fact of a small-town bookshop (such as I was browsing in) even stocking, amidst all its endless piles Fifty Shades and wannabe Fifty Shades,  a book of translated contemporary Russian literature, deserved to be rewarded. Perhaps its management team won’t be sitting down at the end of the week and deciding on the basis of this single sale to stock more translations of contemporary Russian literature; but the part of me that believes still in Santa Claus hopes it will.

Fantasy, folklore, fairy tales … these are not areas of literature in which I am particularly well-versed. I do have on my shelves the complete fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and of Hans Christian Andersen, but despite my having promised to myself that I must get to grips with them some time, all I have managed in several years is to read some of the better-known titles. Having bought the collection by Petrushevskaya, I thought I’d read first a few of the more unfamiliar titles in the two classic collections to give me some bearings, as it were, in this unfamiliar territory. So I opened at random the Hans Andersen collection, and read the first story I came across – “Big Claus and Little Claus”. I must say I was quite unprepared for what I got. I knew, of course, that fairy stories are not necessarily for children, and that many of them are very nasty and violent indeed, but, for whatever reason, I had associated all the nastiness with the brothers Grimm, and had thought of Andersen as more gentle, perhaps even sentimental and saccharine. Such preconceptions were rudely shattered. The framework of the story is a familiar one: there’s a big bully of a Claus who is outwitted by a small, resourceful Claus – a classic, cheerful tale, in other words, of David getting the better of Goliath. And yet, it’s hard to cheer. For instance, when little Claus’ grandmother dies, our hero, not sure if she really is dead, places her in his own bed hoping the warmth may revive her, while he sleeps in a chair. But Big Claus enters that night with an axe, and strikes at the head of – as he thinks – his little adversary sleeping in his bed. The dead grandmother’s head is split open, and as soon as Little Claus sees what has happened, he devises a cunning plan to make money out of it. This involves propping the mutilated corpse of the old woman in the back seat of a carriage, as if she were still alive, and, after a series of stratagems too intricate to be rehearsed here in full, convincing the local publican that it is he who has killed her, and getting him to pay a large amount of money to hush it up. After more side-splitting escapades of a similar nature, it all ends with Big Claus being tied in a sack and thrown into the river. All, no doubt, to much rejoicing.

I had turned to Andersen and Grimm to get some bearings, but I must confess that after reading something like that, what few bearings I had to begin with were all lost. What does one make of something such as this? Sure, it’s black comedy. But I can’t say I laughed. And neither was I horrified, as the violence is too cartoonish to be taken even remotely seriously. It all seemed to be taking place in some remote world into which I had no point of entry. Well, I decided to leave till later my explorations of the brothers Grimm and of Andersen (“some day…”) and embark on my new purchase.

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The stories here are dark. Much darker, I think, than Andersen’s story of the two Clauses, because the world presented is not in any sense cartoonish. They seem to inhabit some vague shadowland between life and death. Sometimes, we seem to travel into Death’s Domain; at other times, Death’s Domain seems to intrude into ours. The fantastic, the grotesque, the suspensions of our earthly laws and logic, may be taken as dreams, or as hallucinations, or as mystical experiences – as you will. Each story seems to explore some inner landscape of minds that are staring into some abyss of terror, or of grief, or of loneliness and isolation. In one story, a father who has lost his beloved daughter has her body smuggled out of the mortuary, and pays a doctor handsomely to bring her again back to life; he falls asleep, or falls into a coma, or has a heart attack: we are not quite sure; and he meets his daughter again, and eats a raw human heart. In another story, a woman is convinced – or perhaps she knows – that there is a supernatural presence in her house, and to thwart this presence, she destroys all she has. In another, a man finds himself in the wintry forest at night, in search of a child, his own child, whom he has never seen. In yet another story, a Russian man possibly dies (once again, we cannot be sure) and finds himself an inmate in a psychiatric hospital in America, with no memory of his past life, but with some vague intimations that his soul had once lived. And so on. Human identity becomes plastic, memory becomes easily detached from the past,all solidities dissolve; and the whole seems saturated with a bleakness, and an inconsolable grief. In a couple of the stories – “Hygiene” and “The New Robinson Crusoes” – we seem to be witnessing the demise of the human race itself.  As with the fables of Kafka, or the short fictions of Borges, each story challenges us to interpret, but, at the same time, defies interpretation: as the translators say in their introduction, “the final revelation is always somewhat ambiguous, the screw never turns all the way…”

Not being well read in this type of literature, I cannot say to what extent this is a departure from other writings in this genre. But, speaking as someone who generally dislikes the genre altogether, I found myself, despite my usual inclinations in these matters, captivated. What fascinated me was the very real and powerful emotional intensity with which Petrushevskaya imbues storylines that are obviously unreal: the unreality of the events depicted seems to heighten rather than otherwise the emotional content. Where, in the Andersen story of Little Claus and Big Claus, the events were so unreal that I felt no emotional involvement at all, here the unreality seems an aspect of an overwhelming emotional trauma.

I generally find it difficult to suspend my disbelief over long stretches, and, perhaps, had these stories been longer, they would have failed to hold my interest; but at this length, in this form, each seems perfect of its kind, and haunt the mind.

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The translations, by Keith Gessen and Anna Summers, sometimes threw me by their American diction, but I suppose American readers are similarly thrown by British-isms in works by British translators. However, once I became used to Russians addressing their mothers as “mom”, or to the use of words such as “gotten” (I have no problem with these things in American fiction, but they do, I admit, make me start somewhat in a Russian context), I found the clear and fluent prose communicated very effectively the unearthly nature of these stories. I do wish, though, that dates had been supplied: Petrushevskaya had been born in 1937, and is still, I believe, writing; so, presumably, these stories could have been written during the darkest era of Soviet Communism, or during Perestroika, or in contemporary or near-contemporary times. A bit more information on dates and publication would certainly have helped me contextualise them. But that gripe apart, there is much to be thankful for. Impulse purchases don’t always reap rewards, but this time, I certainly got lucky.

“Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen

My rediscovery of Jane Austen continued with a reading of possibly the best loved of her novels – possibly, even, the best loved of all novels.

A rum lot, the British. They have built themselves a reputation for the stiff upper lip, for decorous emotional detachment; and yet, possibly the three most archetypal love stories – Romeo and Juliet, certainly, and also, I’d argue, Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre – were all written by British writers. I’m not, admittedly, very well read in the area of romantic fiction (that’s “romantic” without a capital R) but I do get the impression that most romantic novels owe at least something to at least one or other of these three works. Or possibly even to all: those better versed in this area can correct me if I am wrong.

Not that everyone would agree that Austen was particularly romantic – with or without that capital R. The author of Jane Eyre was particularly severe, describing Austen’s novels as “bloodless”; and I, being by temperament more at home with the Gothic blood and thunder of the Brontës than with the cultivated elegance of Austen, was happy to agree, going so far as to say in an earlier post (to which, out of embarrassment, I will not link) that Austen had not a Romantic bone in her body. I am happy to admit I was wrong – very wrong: but at least, I console myself, I was in good company in being wrong.

For there is, indeed, much depth of feeling and of sensibility in Austen. It is true, I think, that Austen’s temperament was more Classical than Romantic: she tended, I think, to mistrust sensibility when not accompanied by at least some modicum of sense. But the fact of sense accompanying the sensibility does not in itself diminish the sensibility, and that’s the point. What Elizabeth and Darcy feel for each other is a passion, no less in intensity than the passion Jane Eyre and Rochester feel for each other; what is different is not the nature of the emotions, but their expression. In Jane Eyre, the passions are out in the open, and are set against a turbulent background of Gothic halls and of tempestuous skies; in Pride and Prejudice, on the other hand, we are in the world of elegant balls, and of well-maintained ornamental gardens. The emotions may not in this decorous environment be out in the open, but they are there nonetheless.

Of course, Austen was keenly aware, as ever, of social status, and of money matters. It is often pointed out triumphantly by those who refuse to see anything of the Romantic in Austen that Elizabeth, when asked by her sister Jane when she first realised that she loved Darcy, replies : “I believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley.” But of course,  Elizabeth is joking: like her father, she finds it hard to resist a good gag. And Jane knows this: she entreats her sister that “she should be serious”. However, we have to ask ourselves, I think, why Elizabeth should make this particular joke. We have to bring to bring to mind as well Elizabeth’s feelings when she first sees the grounds at Pemberley:

She had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste. They were all of them warm in their admiration; and at that moment she felt that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!

This is not to say that Elizabeth is a vulgar mercenary: she had, after all, turned Darcy down knowing full well how wealthy he was; and even though she fantasises about being mistress of Pemberley, she does not at the time regret having turned down the opportunity to be so. But what her joke to her sister does indicate is that human motives are not always easy to disentangle; and that Elizabeth, intelligent and self-aware, is aware of this, and not entirely sure of the extent to which her love is properly disinterested. She makes this particular joke, I think, because she has at the back of her mind the worry that she may indeed be, at least in part, mercenary.

Such subtlety and intricacy place Pride and Prejudice in a very different psychological world from that of Jane Eyre, and certainly from that of Wuthering Heights – a novel in which the darkest and most intense of our desires are terrifyingly out in the open. Here, human minds are extremely complex things, and, unless one is an airhead such as Lydia or Mrs Bennet, there can be no feeling, no emotion, no sensibility, that can be so pure as to be unmixed with other matter. Not even love. This is not to deny the validity of love, or even of its overriding importance in our lives: indeed, so far is Austen from the hard-headed cynic she is often taken to be, Pride and Prejudice can easily be seen as a depiction of the transforming power of love. But it cannot override everything else: the world here is too complex for any one thing, even love, to override all other considerations. And if this means that a Heathcliff or a Captain Ahab is beyond Austen’s range, it may just as well be argued that Elizabeth and Darcy are similarly beyond the range of Emily Brontë or of Herman Melville: no work of art, no matter how vast in scope, can hope to encompass the whole truth about ourselves.

The principal plot, as is well-known, is, effectively, the story of Beatrice and Benedick: a young couple take a dislike to each other, and squabble and bicker; but even as they squabble and bicker, they are in love; and while, in terms merely of the events of the novel, misunderstandings are cleared up, at a deeper level, the characters come to discover themselves, learn to see with clearer eyes, and, finding themselves in love, find themselves ennobled by being so. As a summary, this is crude – far cruder than is warranted by the extreme elegance and subtlety of the writing; but it is easy to see why such a novel should be so well-liked: for it is hard to escape the conviction, or at least the hope, that human love has, at least, the capacity to ennoble; and never has the capacity of love to ennoble been presented with greater conviction than it is here.

But for Austen, sensibility has to be balanced with sense. As in her previous novels, this question of balance is rarely far from the centre of the work. Elizabeth’s airhead sister, Lydia, has not the slightest vestige of sense, and she is perhaps the only person in the entire novel (apart from her equally airheaded mother) who does not seem to realise that her unfortunate marriage to the rascally Wickham is bound to end in unhappiness. And Elizabeth’s beloved father had displayed more sensibility than sense in his own marriage, and is, as a consequence, desperately unhappy. He hides himself away in his library, and takes refuge in barbs of sarcasm; and, apart from his love for his two eldest daughters, he has, effectively, washed his hands of his family. As he himself concedes after Lydia’s elopement, he has been a failure as a father. Austen had a marvellous Mozartian facility of switching for the briefest but most poignant of moments from the major to the minor, and it is hard not to be affected by the lightning modulation into the minor when, in the midst of the celebrations following Elizabeth’s engagement to Darcy, Mr Bennet tells his daughter how important it is for one’s happiness to have a life-partner whom one can respect. The tonality immediately turns to the major again, but that single minor chord so deftly placed leaves behind the saddest of impressions.

And despite Elizabeth’s love for her father – or, rather, because of her love for him – she can find herself pained by his witticisms. Mr Bennet is a man so habituated to sarcasm that he finds it difficult to adopt any other tone; so when Mary is making a fool of herself in public by her singing, and Elizabeth indicates to her father that he should put a stop to it, he says in his accustomed manner “You have delighted us long enough”. Mary is, we are told, “disconcerted”, and Elizabeth is hurt that her sister, foolish though she is, should be so humiliated by her own father in public:

Mary, though pretending not to hear, was somewhat disconcerted; and Elizabeth was sorry for her, and sorry for her father’s speech, was afraid her anxiety had done no good.

And later, when Mr Bennet reads Elizabeth the letter from Mr Collins speaking of rumours about Elizabeth and Darcy, and unthinkingly makes light of feelings that should be treated with greater respect, Elizabeth finds herself feeling that “never had his wit been directed in a manner so little agreeable to her”; indeed, we are told a few paragraphs later, “her father had most cruelly mortified her”. (Memo to Charlotte  Brontë: could creatures who are “bloodless” really be mortified?) It is because she so loves her father that her feeling of mortification is so very strong.

There are other dark clouds as well in the novel. Sometimes, when reading certain works, I wonder whether one could write a different novel focussing on some characters who, in these particular works, are peripheral. I couldn’t help feeling this about Charlotte Lucas, an intelligent person, and not deficient in feeling, but who, for the sake of her future security, quite knowingly sacrifices herself by marrying a man she knows to be an idiot.  What’s her future? I couldn’t help wondering. Would a novel with Charlotte Lucas at the centre be another great 19th century novel of adultery? Or can she remain resigned to her fate and fade sadly into an unfulfilled old age? Either way, it is hard to envisage for her a happy ending.

But the tragic elements – or, rather, elements that have the potential to become tragic if further developed – are kept well in the periphery. For, as with Fielding’s Tom Jones – a very different work in virtually all other respects – this is the sunniest of novels. Indeed, Austen herself worried whether it was not too “light”. Generations of those who have been captivated and enchanted by this novel will hardly complain, but it is noticeable that in her very next novel, Mansfield Park, Austen produced her most sombre work, with a heroine as unlike Elizabeth Bennet as is possible to imagine. It is almost as if, having produced Pride and Prejudice, Austen wanted to explore perspectives as far removed from it as possible. (Similarly, I think, Fielding wrote the very dark Amelia immediately after Tom Jones almost as a direct counterpart to the earlier work.) In the three novels that followed Pride and Prejudice, Austen addressed moral ambiguities and psychological intricacies in comparison to which Pride and Prejudice seems, if not slight (I hesitate to describe as slight any work that treats seriously, without sentimentalising or deriding, the theme of human love), then, at least, straight-forward, and relatively uncluttered by the messiness of our human lives – “all mere complexities”, as Yeats put it. But of course, it is this uncluttered directness that makes Pride and Prejudice so well-loved a work. At its heart is the happiest of stories – the story of Elizabeth and Mr Darcy. It is a story of two people who, at the start, do not really understand themselves, let alone each other: one is proud and the other prejudiced. However, unlike the two abstractions in the title of her previous novel, the pride and prejudice are not unmixed here in either character: the proud Darcy can also be prejudiced, and the prejudiced Elizabeth proud. But by the end, the two understand each other so well, that Mr Darcy does not even need formally to propose, nor Elizabeth formally to accept. The stages of this progress are depicted with the lightest, deftest, and most accomplished of touches.

It is not that all my own former prejudices against Austen have entirely dissipated: I still get the impression that, on the whole, Austen did not really like people very much. And it does still does worry me a bit that her laughs – for she is, indeed, a very funny writer – are always at someone’s expense: there is rarely an open, hearty laugh, as there is so frequently in Dickens. But whatever prejudice I may still harbour, I am not so proud that I can’t concede that, in view of the achievement, these reservations do not weigh anywhere near so heavily for me as they had formerly done. For all her often coruscating wit, Austen, unlike Mr Bennet, knew when not to exercise it. And so, by the end, does Elizabeth: she has at the tip of her tongue a waspish comment concerning Mr Bingley propensity to be easily led, but she bites that wicked tongue of hers:

Elizabeth longed to observe that Mr Bingley had been a most delightful friend; so easily guided that his worth was invaluable; but she checked herself.

Sometimes, it is worthwhile suppressing even the most elegantly phrased of barbs for the sake of simple human kindness.

Tolstoy’s darkening vision

When comparing War and Peace and Anna Karenina – and it is hard for Tolstoyans not to compare – it becomes clear purely from the internal evidence of these works that, between the writing of these two novels, Tolstoy’s vision had darkened considerably. But it is not easy to identify exactly why we should think so. After all, War and Peace has more than its fair share of darkness, both on a personal and on a wider historical level. And there are passages in Anna Karenina that are luminous with joy. And yet, for reasons not entirely obvious, it is hard to imagine anyone who has read both these novels who fails to perceive a greater darkness in the latter.

An obvious explanation is that War and Peace culminates in marriages, and with the promise of propagation of a new generation; while Anna Karenina culminates in death. But, undoubtedly true though that observation is, it tells us little. The culminating point of a novel – at least, of a novel of such quality as these – is not something random that is tacked on to the end, but is, rather, a consequence of all that has gone before. Why should marriages be an appropriate culminating point of one, while death the appropriate culminating point of the other?

Despite having given this matter some thought, I am not sure I have come across a satisfactory answer. But it seems to me that the answer lies not so much in the course of events depicted, but, rather, in the different conceptions in the two novels of human character. In both, Tolstoy is fascinated by why it is different characters behave, think, and perceive as they do; in both, Tolstoy tries to delve as deeply as he can into these reasons. But whereas in War and Peace the characters’ behaviour and perceptions are always conditioned by reason, in Anna Karenina, they are not.

It’s not so much that we can always understand the reasons behind human behaviour. In trying to establish the chains of causality that make the characters behave as they do, there comes inevitably a point where even Tolstoy concedes that he can go no further. This is not because causality fails to hold: rather, it is because, as Tolstoy argues in the often-skipped second part of the epilogue to War and Peace, the causes underpinning any effect are often seemingly infinite in number, and each infinitely small. It is not that the chains of causality do not exist, but, rather, the human brain is simply not capable either of collecting or of processing the data required to establish these chains. This of course implies that humans can have no freedom of action; Tolstoy, at the end of War and Peace, accepts this. We may have the illusion of freedom, he says, because we are incapable of analysing all the causal factors; but it is an illusion only: in reality, we do not have any freedom.

I can’t help feeling that even as Tolstoy was writing this, he was not satisfied with it. Amongst other things, this would imply that no person can be held morally responsible for anything; and this Tolstoy could not accept. When he started Anna Karenina, only a few years after finishing War and Peace, his ideas about why and how humans perceive and behave as they do had changed considerably. Once again, he tries to delve as deeply as he can into the roots of human action; but now, over and over again, he comes to a point where no explanation of human behaviour is possible. It isn’t that we are not capable of understanding all the causes: it is rather that we find ourselves in a world where, all too frequently, there aren’t any causes to begin with. We are in a world where attempts to explain human behaviour all too frequently run up against the tautology “People act as they do because they do”.

Compare, for instance, the passage in War and Peace where Lise Bolkonskaya dies in childbirth to the passage in Anna Karenina where Anna nearly dies in childbirth. They are both passages of tremendous intensity, and of profound psychological intricacy. But in War and Peace, no matter how complex the psychologies of the characters, they are amenable to rational analysis; in Anna Karenina, they aren’t. Here, the characters behave as they do because they do: it is not that their reasons for doing so are difficult to understand – but, rather, there is no reason, and any attempt to understand the roots of human motivation ends merely in tautology. Human behaviour is not a purely rational thing.

This takes Tolstoy’s fictional world closer to Dostoyevsky’s. Dostoyevsky insisted that all his characters have complete freedom, and as a consequence, all his characters, at all points, act as if utterly unhinged and demented. It is an extreme fictional world, admittedly, and, frankly, not entirely sane: it is not something all readers can respond to. (And even those, like myself, who do respond to it, often find themselves harbouring grave doubts, and feeling deeply uneasy about it all.) But I do find it quite astonishing that the rational author of War and Peace should, within only a few years, come even within touching distance of the insanity of Dostoyevsky’s fictional world.

And it is this, I think – this picture of humans as precariously placed, driven as they are by forces susceptible neither to reason nor to understanding – that imparts to Anna Karenina so profound a sense of darkness, and, indeed, of terror.

Dostoyevsky himself, despite the resentment and envy with which he viewed Tolstoy’s literary reputation, described Anna Karenina as “a perfect work of art”; and one can only imagine how much pain it must have cost Dostoyevsky to concede this. But perhaps it is not surprising that Dostoyevsky should have reacted in such a way to this novel, which comes closer to the ethos of his own masterpieces than is generally, I think, accepted.

Autumnal

No spring nor summer beauty hath such grace
         As I have seen in one autumnal face.
– John Donne, from Elegy IX
WordPress recently gave me a “tip” to the effect that I could make my posts more attractive by adding a few pictures. So today, i decided to take them at their word.
 
Of course, you can easily find better autumnal pictures elsewhere on the net, but, as with everything else on this blog, this is the best I could do.
 
These pictures were all taken yesterday afternoon at the Winkworth Arboretum, near Godalming, in Surrey, England.
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“Les Misérables” by Victor Hugo

This book is a drama in which the leading character is the Infinite. Mankind takes second place.

– from Les Misérables, part 2, book 7, translated by Norman Denny

Not many novelists, I imagine, would have the nerve to make, and be so unembarrassed about making, so grandiose a statement of intent. Not even if they thought it. But such a statement (made at the beginning of one of the longer and duller of Hugo’s many digressions – so long and dull, indeed, that the translator of the volume I read felt it best to detach it from the main body of the narrative and place it in an appendix) seems perfectly in keeping with the general tone of the novel. For Hugo’s vision was nothing if not grand – megalomaniac, even. Not for him piddling little subtleties, or those minutiae of everyday that the likes of Austen or Flaubert seemed so preoccupied with; not for him those infinitely small brush-strokes that aim for precision, for exactitude, or even for that matter, shading and nuance. Hugo seems loftily above all that. His brush is broad, and he applies his strokes with vigour and with energy, if not necessarily always with grace. He has the confidence of one who sincerely believes that nothing is beyond him – not even Infinity.

Generally, I am tempted to think that such matters as Infinity, Eternity, the Soul, Transcendence, and all the rest of it, are best left to the Russians: the French are too down-to-earth for that sort of thing. At most, they will lament, as Flaubert did, the inability to achieve transcendence: language, even when applied with infinite care and with the greatest genius, is, Flaubert famously lamented, but a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when what we really want is to move the stars with pity. But Hugo has no such misgivings: moving the stars with pity is precisely what he set out to do. None of old Gustave’s pessimism here: Hugo is convinced that once he rolls up his sleeves and get down to it, damn it, those stars will move with pity! Just see if they don’t!

There is a certain naivety – and I do not use that word in a pejorative sense – both in Hugo’s ambition and also, I think, in his execution. On grounds of strict realism, one may take issue with all sorts of things. For instance, is it very likely for a man so saintly as the Bishop of Digne to have led so untroubled a life? (One may be tempted to think that a man of the cloth determined so unequivocally to live by the principles of the Beatitudes is more likely to resemble the eponymous hero of Nazarin by Pérez Galdós.) Is it at all likely that Monsieur de Madeleine could be so unstintingly generous to all who are needy, and still make a fortune? Or that Javert, no matter how devoted he may be to his duties, should spend so much time and resources tracking down one man over so many years when there are surely any number of felons with far greater crimes on their heads who have eluded justice? If one is to pick holes in the plot, there is no end to it, but picking such holes is, I think, to miss the point. For this is not a realist novel such as Flaubert’s (although written a few years after Madame Bovary), far less a slice of gritty naturalism in the manner of Zola: the world presented here is realistic certainly on the surface, and its depictions of historic events is clearly the product of immense study, but the moral world it presents, and the psychology of the characters, seem to me entirely products of Hugo’s fantasy. And none, perhaps, the worse for that: so much of this novel, after all, has now become mythic – part of the consciousness even of those who have not read it.

Given its vast dimensions of this novel, and its huge ambition, Les Misérables is sometimes compared with War and Peace, but the comparison seems to me misguided. A more apt comparison is surely The Count of Monte Cristo. The opposition between these two masterpieces by Tolstoy and by Dumas is instructive, for if War and Peace is the closest the modern world has come to Homeric epic, The Count of Monte Cristo is surely the closest we have come to A Thousand and One Nights. Like the anonymous authors of the A Thousand and One Nights, Dumas’ interest is purely in plot: the development and motivation of the characters – that were so important to so many novelists of the nineteenth century – are restricted to only so much as is required to make the plot intelligible. The delight comes from the sequence of events – or, rather, the sequences of events, as Dumas, like one of those plate spinners who delight audiences by keeping a seemingly impossible number of plates spinning on sticks simultaneously, thickens his narrative texture with more plot strands than one might have thought feasible, keeps them all spinning, and, somehow, uncovers the most unlikely connections between them to link them into a unity. It is an extraordinary display of the art of the storyteller – never, to my mind, bettered, or even equalled. In War and Peace, on the other hand, we are in a very different fictional world: here, characters have feelings and motives that do not necessarily serve the plot; they grow and develop over time as they interact with each other; and perhaps above all, they have inner lives – they have souls. Infinity is indeed depicted – the Russians, as I said, are good at this kind of thing – but not by putting Mankind in second place.

In the spectrum between Dumas and Tolstoy, Les Misérables seems to me far closer to the former than to the latter. Hugo’s characters are memorable, certainly; at best, they are what is generally termed “larger than life” – i.e. they have about them a mythic quality. But their motivations are generally straight-forward and uncomplicated – naïve, if you like; and, more significantly, none of them have an inner life. What you may see on the surface is really all there is to them.

Purely in terms of plot, there are many similarities between Dumas’ novel and Hugo’s – far too many, indeed, to be put down merely to coincidence. In both novels, the principal character is a former convict (Edmond Dantès had been framed, Jean Valjean imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread during hard times) who, once out of prison, take on new identities, acquire wealth, and devote the rest of their lives to what they regard as their life’s mission. In both novels, various characters re-emerge in different environments and often under different names, and are not identified immediately to the readers. Both novels are punctuated by big, dramatic set-pieces; and, at one particular point, Hugo unashamedly recycles one of Dumas’ finest plot devices: just as Dantès had taken the place of a dead person to escape from the Château d’If, so Valjean takes the place of a dead person to make his way out of the convent without Javert noticing. (Well, to be fair, it is too good a piece of plotting not to recycle!) It is true that Hugo doesn’t match Dumas in his plate-spinning act: while, admittedly, Hugo does have quite a few plates spinning, they aren’t all spinning at the same time, and when a particular strand of the plot takes centre-stage, the others retreat into the background, and are effectively put on hold. Indeed, even the central character, Jean Valjean, barely appears for a few hundred odd pages in the central sections of the novel when the spotlight is on Marius.

But unlike Dumas, plot for the sake of plot is not really what Hugo was aiming for. He wanted to put into this novel everything that was important to him, everything that he found interesting, so that, piece by piece, it would build up, as he states, into a depiction of Infinity itself. One may personally prefer dumas to Hugo, but it cannot be denied that Hugo aimed much higher.

Amongst other things, the missions taken on by Dantès and by Valjean are very different in nature. For Dantès, the mission is revenge, while for Valjean, converted to sainthood after his encounter with the Bishop of Digne, it is to look after the unfortunates of the world as best he can; and, in particular, to ensure the happiness of Cosette. In short, Dantès’ mission makes for an exciting plotline; Valjean’s makes for reflection on the moral natures of our lives.

Of course, the theme of revenge could also lead to moral reflection, but that is certainly not Dumas’ aim; Hugo, on the other hand, cannot stop moralising. He is happy to interpolate polemics on whatever topic takes his fancy, at any point of the novel he fancies. Even at some of the most exciting points of the storyline – and indeed, it is very exciting at times – Hugo is happy to break the narrative line with digressions. Except that these aren’t really digressions; or, rather, they are digressions only if one thinks of the plot as being the principal point of the book. But Hugo has set out to depict Infinity itself, and to that end, nothing can be considered digressionary.

Some of these “digressions” are, indeed, fascinating. I particularly enjoyed, amongst others, his essay on the nature of revolution, and his thoughts on the circumstances under which revolution may be morally justified. As well as his polemical digressions, we get also narrative ones – pieces of narrative that have little if anything to do with the central thrust of the story. The flashback depicting the Battle of Waterloo, for instance: apart from the little incident narrated near the end, the entire sequence – taking up about fifty or so closely printed pages in my edition – has absolutely no bearing whatever on the central plot. But Hugo includes it because he finds it interesting: he needs no further reason. And it is interesting: it is among the finest depictions of the field of battle I have encountered in fiction. Tolstoy had famously chosen Stendhal’s depiction of Waterloo (from La Chartreuse de Parme) as the model for the battle scenes in War and Peace, but what Hugo gives us here is just as impressive as the battle scenes either by Stendhal or by Tolstoy; but unlike the other two writers, Hugo depicts the battle not from the perspective of any of the participants, but, rather, an objective “God’s eye” view. It is magnificent, yes, but in his mad attempt to depict Infinity, Mankind does indeed – at this point, at any rate – take second place. And it shouldn’t: when, as the title itself suggests, one’s principal theme is the injustice of human suffering, it is Mankind, and not Infinity, that should take centre stage.

Or take the description of the Paris sewers. Admittedly, this does come at one of the most exciting points in the story, but the evocation of place is extraordinarily vivid (although I suppose I could have done without those extra chapters detailing Hugo’s view on how sewage should ideally be processed); and once the story does get going again after this, we have those magnificent chapters of Valjean carrying the half-dead Marius through the sewers – as fine a piece of pure storytelling as I have come across.

But sadly, all these “digressions” are not equally interesting. The problem with Hugo is that he never knew when to leave something out. I generally try not to make that penny-in-the-slot criticism “it needed a good editor”; indeed, I find this unthinking piece of criticism generally quite annoying; but I cannot think of any other novel I have read – certainly not Moby-Dick, to which this criticism is all too frequently applied – where I have been so tempted to resort to this. For Hugo can often be tiresome. As a completist, I do not like to leave out any bits – not even the bits translator Norman Denny has placed as appendices – but in retrospect, I really should have left out those huge chunks of Hugovian pontificating, and that rhetoric of his that all too often slips over into bombast.

Which, of course, raises the question of what it is precisely that distinguishes rhetoric from bombast. After giving the matter much thought, it seems to me that it is rhetoric if you like it, and bombast if you don’t. So when I speak of Hugo’s rhetoric often shading into bombast, I suppose I should make it clear that I am offering it only as a record of my personal reaction, and not as a piece of literary criticism.

But bombast or rhetoric, as you will, once the story gets going, it is fine stuff. Whatever higher ambitions Hugo had, he could spin a rattling good yarn; and some of the purely narrative sequences in the story are such that even Dumas would have been proud of. Admittedly, when he had to depict pure and innocent young lovers, he was no more successful than Dickens had been on that score, but when one considers, say, Valjean’s escape from the ship; the sequence where Javert tracks him across the streets of Paris; or the big showdown at the Gorbeau tenement; or the scenes at the barricades, or the splendid sequence set in the sewers (clearly the inspiration for Grahan Greene for the finale of The Third Man); we are left in no doubt that we are in the hands of one of the greatest of all storytellers.

It is difficult by the end to know quite what to make of this vast and often unwieldy novel. The storytelling is magnificent, and the characters as vivid and colourful as one is likely to encounter in any novel. But those longueurs are – well, long. The mad ambition of depicting Infinity is nowhere near achieved – it never was likely to be achieved anyway – but what we get on the way, though frequently dull and frustrating, is also, even more frequently, exciting, and even, at times, mythic, and magnificent. But I must confess that after some twelve hundred and more pages of this, I do long for something a bit more deftly shaded, a bit more subtle and nuanced. A bit more Flaubertian, perhaps, with its sad admission that the stars cannot really be moved with pity, rather than a mad and megalomaniac attempt to do so.