Archive for September, 2014

“Caravaggio: A Life” by Helen Langdon

Many use the adjective “theatrical” as a pejorative, but as someone who loves the theatre, I can’t say I do. As I understand it, the word refers to a heightening of the audience’s response not merely in an artificial manner – all art is artificial, after all – but in a knowingly artificial manner: we are aware as we experience it of the artifice of the creation – of the artist (or the author, or the composer, or whoever) pulling the strings in order to intensify our response. Indeed, our awareness of the artist pulling the strings is part of the intended effect. This can, I accept, lead merely to the meretricious, especially when the material is slight, or is treated in a superficial manner. But when it isn’t, when the material itself is substantial in its own right and the treatment is more than superficial, then the artist’s presence, if sufficiently striking, can enhance the work.

Some seven or so years ago now, the National Gallery in London had hosted an exhibition of some late paintings of Caravaggio, and I remember vividly the effect of walking into that first room. No reproduction could have prepared me for something such as this. There, looming out of the darkness, was a vast canvas, almost three metres in height, of the Flagellation of Christ. At the centre was Christ’s almost naked body, lit as if by a fierce spotlight, his hands tied behind him, and his head, crowned with thorns, hanging limp; to the right of the picture, one of the executioners presses on Christ’s calf with his foot as he tightens the bonds; while to the left, another executioner, a man who, to judge from the vicious sneer on his face, enjoys his job, grabs Christ by the hair with one hand, while holding the scourge in a clenched fist in another; and a third executioner, in the forefront at the bottom left, is tying the rods together in preparation for the beating. These are working men doing a job: their job just happens to be inflicting pain. But it is that lighting that is so theatrical – that relentless spotlight picking out these figures from the profound dark that surrounds them, and covering them in a light of the most dazzling brilliance.

"The Flagellation of Christ", courtesy Pinacoteca di Capodimonte, Naples

“The Flagellation of Christ”, courtesy Pinacoteca di Capodimonte, Naples

I remember going from room to room, amazed. Nowadays, the adjective “amazing” merely signifies “very good”, but I actually was amazed: never, on seeing these paintings in reproduction, had I imagined that their real presence could make so visceral an impact. These were all late works, painted in Naples, Malta, and Sicily, while Caravaggio was on the run: in Rome, he was wanted for murder, and there was a price on his head. Of course, any work of art should be judged purely on its own terms, but once something such as this is known,  it is not possible to un-know it: like it or not, it is not possible to look on these highly charged tragic works, these meditations on violence and mortality and terror, and, sometimes, even of tenderness, without having in the back of one’s mind the thought that these were the creations of a man who had himself killed, and who feared for his own life every day. In one picture, David holds the severed head of Goliath. David is but a boy, and his face, though expressive more of sorrow than of triumph, is relatively bland. It is the dead head that seems a living thing. The strength of character is all in that dead and battered head of Goliath, and here, Caravaggio had painted himself. How is it possible to see this painting and keep from one’s mind the circumstances in which it had been painted?

It was that last room of that exhibition that particularly affected me. Here were three paintings rarely seen – two from the Museo Nazionale in Messina in Sicily, and the other from the Musée des Beaux Arts in Nancy in France. The Sicilian paintings depicted the Adoration of the Shepherds, and the Raising of Lazarus, while the painting from Nancy depicted the Annunciation – all familiar subjects in Western art. But never had they been treated like this. In the Annunciation, the angel seems to be entering the space of the painting from our own space, and, his back to us, his shoulder and arm are brightly lit by a white light supernatural in its radiance. Before the angel, Mary, dressed in a deep blue, bows in deep submission, at once accepting and weighed down by the burden placed upon her. Mary appears again, of course, in the adoration of the Shepherds, this time in red. Here, she is not, as in most paintings of this subject, joyfully showing her divine child to the adorers: she is, instead, clutching the newborn baby in her arms, and is collapsed on the dirty floor of the stable in utter exhaustion, as if unaware of the shepherds who have come to pay homage. The shepherds themselves are ragged working men; the stable is dark and dingy and filthy. These figures take up less than half the space of the canvas; the rest – especially the vast space above the figures – is in almost complete darkness. And similarly with the raising of Lazarus: the top of the figures’ heads come up to just above the half-way mark of the height of the canvas, and all above is a cavernous, dark emptiness. These figures are seen in an unearthly, ghostly half-light, as if inhabiting some vague region between life and death. Christ’s face is in darkness: the light, from behind Christ and outside the frame of the picture, catches the back of his shoulder, and the top of his sleeve as he points towards the resurrecting Lazarus. Around Christ’s head is a complex of several other heads: Christ’s head stands out from theirs not by being in the light, but by being in the dark. One of the heads behind Christ strains forward to see what is happening; two workmen in front of Christ, holding the stone which is to cover the grave of Lazarus, seem to be looking over their shoulders to somewhere behind Christ, towards the source of this mysterious light that illumines the scene. The body of Lazarus is stiff with rigor mortis; the flesh is greenish, and the arms outstretched, as if crucified. Only the right hand has begun to move: it is at an angle from the wrist, and is receiving divine light. Pressed close to his face is the face of his sister, loving and tender even in the face of Death itself.

"The annunciation", courtesy Musee de beaux arts, Nancy

“The annunciation”, courtesy Musee de beaux arts, Nancy

These three paintings in the last room seemed to contain an entire world. It was a sensibility that was entirely new to me. It presented a world that is profoundly dark, where pain is as intense as it is inevitable, and where divine power, whatever power there is that is greater than our own, fills us with awe and wonder, but not with joy. And yet there is in all this human tenderness. There is the tenderness with which the rough and ragged shepherds view the newborn child, the tenderness of Mary who, even in the utter exhaustion of childbirth, holds the beloved child close to her heart; and there is that unforgettable image of the sister of Lazarus (who is either Mary of Bethany or Martha), pressing her living face close to the face of her dead brother, her love persisting even beyond this greatest of all mysteries. These are visionary works. And yet, how could such a vision belong to a man who was a common brawler and murderer?

"The Adoration of the Shepherds", courtesy Museo Nazionale, Messina

“The Adoration of the Shepherds”, courtesy Museo Nazionale, Messina


I came out of that exhibition barely able to think, but when I did recover my faculties, I found myself thinking that I must get to know more about this artist. So why it took me a full seven years to come round to reading Helen Langdon’s acclaimed biography I don’t know. I suppose it’s because I’m not really a great reader of biographies: I am interested in the work, not the man. But Caravaggio is so fascinating a person; and it is so hard to think of the works without thinking also of the man behind them; that I was prepared to make an exception: what kind of man was this Caravaggio?

"The Raising of Lazarus", courtesy Museo Nazionale, Messina

“The Raising of Lazarus”, courtesy Museo Nazionale, Messina

Well, as far as can be judged, he was a thug, a brawler, a bully, and a great quarreller; he was a man quick to take offence, and  given to almost gratuitous acts of violence; and he was, possibly, a neurotic. As with his almost exact contemporary Shakespeare (Shakespeare was only seven years older), we don’t really know that much about Caravaggio’s life; we know that, like Shakespeare he was born in the provinces – in Caravaggio’s case, in a small town near Milan; that, again like Shakespeare, he came to the capital city to make a career for himself; and, once again like Shakespeare, his art developed from gentle and sensuous lyricism of his early works to a visionary tragic intensity that has not since been surpassed, or possibly even equalled. But that’s where the similarities seem to end. Shakespeare, to the great dismay of his biographers, seemed to have kept a low profile while in London, and was sufficiently level-headed and business-like to make a fortune and retire back to his home town; Caravaggio, on the other hand, seemed to spend his time whoring and brawling, and, while Shakespeare was buying himself the biggest house in Stratford, Caravaggio was fleeing from place to place, armed even in bed at night, constantly in fear of his very life.

Helen Langdon’s biography of this spectacularly unbalanced man is very level-headed and sober, almost to a fault. She gives wonderfully vivid depictions of the milieux which Caravaggio inhabited – from the plague-ravaged Milan of his youth to the violent and sexually licentious streets of Rome – but generally, she is not prepared either to speculate, or even to consider certain possibilities. She is not interested, for instance, in whether Caravaggio was gay: she reminds us that homosexuality was a capital crime in those days, that the awful punishment for sodomy – burning at the stake – was enforced, and that, under such circumstances, even if Caravaggio had been gay, he would hardly have advertised the fact. And indeed, there is no evidence except in his paintings – from the sensually painted young men in his early works with their delicate, androgynous beauty, to two rather explicit paintings of male nudes –  the Victorious Cupid in the Staatliche Museen in Berlin, and St John the Baptist in the Musei Capitolini in Rome. The male nude is of course hardly a new subject in art, and in both these paintings, the pose is very obviously taken from Michelangelo’s ignudi in the Sistine Chapel; but the sexually enticing and blatantly provocative nature of these Caravaggio’s nudes can hardly be mistaken. Of course, we live, thankfully, in more tolerant times, in which gay culture is not just tolerated but celebrated; but these paintings of Caravaggio remain disturbing because they indicate not homosexuality, which does not trouble us, but pederasty, which does. If any photographer nowadays were to exhibit such sensual images of naked boys, far from celebrating them as art, we would, I fancy, have the exhibition closed down. And yet, disturbingly, these paintings are undeniably masterpieces.

We have other reasons also to find Caravaggio a disturbing figure. Rome in those days was a dangerous and violent city, and, from the surviving evidence, Caravaggio seemed to revel in it. Even as a successful and much sought-after artist, he seemed to delight in low-life, moving from tennis court to tavern to brothel, often deliberately quarrelling and provoking fights. Reading through the pages of Langdon’s biography, the wonder is not that he eventually killed someone in a brawl, but that it took him so long to get round to doing it.

And yet, all the while, he was producing masterpiece after masterpiece. The turning point came in around 1599-1600 – at around the same time as Shakespeare was writing Julius Caesar and As You Like It and Henry V and Hamlet – when he painted for the Contarelli chapel three extraordinary paintings relating to St Matthew, and, for the Cerasi Chapel two paintings – the Crucifixion of St Peter, and the Conversion of Paul – which flank and overwhelm by their extraordinary intensity the central painting by Annibale Caracci.

Just about everything he painted after that was a masterpiece: The Supper at Emmaus (currently at the National Gallery London); the Deposition (currently at the Vatican Pinacoteca), and the almost unbearably moving Death of the Virgin (currently at the Louvre in Paris); possibly the most poignant depiction I think I have come across in painting of the sheer pain of loss; and many, many others.

And then, of course, those last few years of his desperate life. Little is known. Why, for instance, did he leave Naples in such a rush? Why, after his welcome in Malta and his success there (he was made a Knight of the Order of St John), did he end up in prison? How did he get out of prison? (The story goes that he made a daring solo escape, but Helen Langdon is sceptical: it is more likely, she suggests, that he had powerful friends who helped him get away.) Why, in Sicily, did he sleep armed with a sword? Why did he hurriedly leave Syracuse immediately after completing the Burial of St Lucy? Was he, perhaps, being trailled by his enemies from Malta? (Certainly, he had good reason to fear: he was savagely attacked and almost killed in Naples only a few months later. Who attacked him, and why, remain unknown.) And, perhaps the greatest mystery of all, how is it possible that such a thuggish and violent brute could have painted – especially given the state of mind he must have been in – works of such visionary intensity?

Caravaggio’s death in 1610, aged only 39, is part tragedy, part farce. A pardon had been arranged for him in Rome, and he was on his way back. But when his ship stopped at the town of Port ‘Ercole, the governor of the town, either not aware of the pardon or not knowing who Caravaggio was, had him imprisoned. And by the time Caravaggio could buy his way out of imprisonment, his ship, containing paintings he was intending for Rome (and now lost), had vanished. Desperate to recover his precious paintings, Caravaggio trekked overland, through disease-ridden marsh-land, to catch up with the departed  ship; and in the process, he caught fever and died. While his contemporary Shakespeare was no doubt in the process of buying with his carefully accumulated wealth the largest house in Stratford in which to spend his well-earned retirement, the violent and unstable Caravaggio was feverishly shivering to death somewhere in the middle of nowhere.

The enigma remains. I look at the face of the dead St Lucy in the painting now in Syracuse: she is lying on the bare earth with her face turned towards us, filling our hearts with infinite pity; and I ask myself how a man who habitually and gratuitously inflicted violence upon others could ever sympathise so entirely, at least in his art, with this innocent victim of that same violence.

There is no answer to these questions. If we consider what little we know of Shakespeare’s life, all we see is a provincial who comes to the big city and becomes a success, carefully accumulates wealth and invests shrewdly, and then returns to his home town to spend his retirement in a big house. In short, we encounter a middle class bourgeois with middling aspirations. And yet, this seeming mediocrity created Falstaff, Hamlet, Cleopatra, plumbing the very depths of the human soul. And meanwhile, the brutish and neurotic Caravaggio, thug and murderer and possibly pederast, conveys the most intense and dark visions of awe and terror and pity.

Perhaps it is a mistake to expect geniuses to be different from the rest of us. They come in all shapes and forms, much as the rest of us do. Some of them may indeed be noble and generous; some may even correspond to the popular image of the genius as a misunderstood and tortured soul; while others may indeed be as mediocre and as unremarkable, or as nasty and as violent, as their less gifted fellow humans. Perhaps there is no real difference between geniuses and the rest of us. Except, of course, for their genius.

Are you experienced?

A few minutes ago, I put up a new blog post (see below), and was encouraged by WordPress to “switch to the improved posting experience”.

Goddammit, does no-one speak in English any more?

Anthony Burgess on Mozart

Anthony Burgess once confided to me many years ago that Stanley Kubrick had misinterpreted his novel A Clockwork Orange.

Ha! There’s nothing like a bit of name-dropping to get things going, is there? But at least the name-dropping on this occasion made for, I hope, an engaging opening sentence. And, it so happens, it told nothing less than the literal truth: the lie is not in what is stated, but in what is implied – that I had known Anthony Burgess personally, and even, perhaps, that he had been in the habit of confiding in me. Sadly, no. I had attended a lecture he had given in what was then the McLennan Galleries on Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow, and, in the book-signing session that followed, had queued up with many others with an inevitable copy of A Clockwork Orange. Anthony Burgess dutifully signed my copy – I have the signed copy still – but didn’t frankly seem too happy with my choice. In retrospect, I think I can understand why: A Clockwork Orange, as a novel, is really no better and no worse than a great many other novels he had written, but its reputation far outstrips the others purely because it had famously, or infamously, been filmed by Stanley Kubrick; and Burgess’ authorial pride was very understandably hurt by being merely an adjunct to someone else’s work, to a mere film. And to make it worse, he did not seem to think too highly of that film to which his name was by then indissolubly attached. When I took up to his desk a Penguin copy of the novel, he waved at the picture on the cover featuring a bowler hat and a single eyelash, and said: “All this is Mr Kubrick’s invention, not mine.” And then, he added – and I use inverted commas as these were, I distinctly remember, his precise words – “sadly, Mr Kubrick misinterpreted my novel.”

I could, of course, have argued that Kubrick was creating his own work, using the novel as no more than a starting point, and, as such, was under no obligation to remain close either to the letter or to the spirit. But I didn’t, partly because I wouldn’t have had the nerve to engage in debate with so eminent a figure, and also because there was a long queue behind me of people waiting to get their Clockwork Oranges signed, Kubrick’s invention and all.

Anthony Burgess had been a very strong presence for me as I was growing up, and, without doubt, he helped shape my literary tastes and perceptions. I used to look forward to his book reviews in the Observer every Sunday (this was back in the days when Terence Kilmartin, translator of Proust, was their literary editor, and serious literature was taken seriously). These reviews were, as I remember, wonderful little essays, and I relished Burgess’ wit, his delight in putting together words in a manner that engaged and delighted, and the elegance and sparkle of it all. I enjoyed also, I admit, his rather grumpy and dyspeptic literary persona. I was then but a teenager, and, to be frank, I did not personally know anyone who shared my growing interest in literature sufficiently to discuss literary matters with me; and I most certainly did not know anyone sufficiently knowledgeable about literature to guide me. My literary conversation with Anthony Burgess was, admittedly, something of a one-way conversation, but it made its mark. There were times when I did find myself disappointed that Burgess did not always share my own taste: his strictures on Dostoyevsky, for instance, I remember finding particularly distressing, as Dostoyevsky was then – and remains still, albeit with grave reservations – something of a hero of mine. But I remember that his admiration for Smollett’s translation of Don Quixote had me going straight to the bookshop to place an order on it. And his boundless enthusiasm for Shakespeare and for Joyce – his two great literary heroes – was infectious. His biography of Shakespeare is both serious and unfailingly witty: I think I still see Shakespeare from the perspective presented in that book. And his book on Joyce I’d still recommend as the best introduction to this often intimidating writer. Indeed, when I wrote my own paean to Ulysses on this blog a few years ago, I had to be careful not to plagiarise. (Not consciously, at least: the unconscious echoes I don’t think I can be held responsible for.)

And there were the television appearances. Once again, although this was only some thirty or forty or so years ago, we are talking about very different times from our own: then it was considered quite acceptable to invite academics and scientists and opera singers and writers on to popular chat shows, rather than restrict the guest list only to showbiz celebrities. Anthony Burgess loved to appear on those shows, and he was a marvellous conversationalist, often eliciting more laughs from the audience than the professional comedians invited alongside him. It seemed almost a sort of revelation to me that one could write seriously about Shakespeare and Joyce, and still get huge laughs on the Wogan Show.

And he wrote also about music. Now, if literature was an area in which I could not engage in discussion with anyone I personally knew, classical music was way beyond the pale: neither my family nor my friends, nor, indeed, anyone else I knew, had the faintest idea about or interest in Western classical music. Burgess was not, admittedly, the first writer I’d turn to on the subject, but the very fact that he was knowledgeable about it, and could discourse on it with his characteristic wit and eloquence, and, above all, enthusiasm, made me warm to him. At the very least, it made me feel somewhat less strange for being so passionate about something that was greeted by all around me merely with a bewildered indifference.

I read some of Burgess’ novels as well. He wrote prolifically, and it would be foolish to claim that all his writings were on the same exalted level. And even considering him at his best – Earthly Powers, say – I’d hesitate to rank him amongst the foremost English novelists. But he was certainly at the head of the second division, and, to my mind, well ahead of many others who nowadays seem to enjoy a far higher reputation. And, whatever he wrote, he was unfailingly entertaining. He saw himself as a performer: the act of writing was, for him, putting on a performance for the reader. And they are wonderful performances – erudite, urbane, and sparkling. Brendan Behan once famously referred to Wodehouse as the “performing flea” of literature: Wodehouse was so delighted by this intended invective, that he used it as the title of his autobiography. But the term is better applied, I think, to Burgess, and I think he’d have taken it as a compliment also.

So when, recently, I found in a second-hand bookshop a book Burgess had written in 1991 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the death of Mozart, I had to buy it. For if Anthony Burgess had been, in effect, my mentor in literary matters back in those days when my tastes were beginning to take shape, Mozart was the composer whose music I found myself turning to most often, and whose pre-eminence within my personal canon has never really been challenged.

I had not known about this book: Burgess wrote so many, that it’s easy for one or two to slip under the radar, as it were. It’s entitled On Mozart: A Paean for Wolfgang. But that’s only on the dust jacket. The title page gives a somewhat fuller version:

On Mozart: A Paean for Wolfgang

Being a  celestial colloquy, an opera libretto, a film script, a schizophrenic dialogue, a bewildered rumination, a Stendhalian transcription, and a heartfelt homage upon the bicentenary of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

And Burgess is as good as his word. We start off with a scene in heaven, featuring Beethoven and Mendelssohn, who are soon joined by Sergei Prokofiev and by Arthur Bliss, both of whom are celebrating their own centenaries, and, later, by Wagner. Their conversation, as they discuss how things stand in heaven and in earth, and how best to celebrate Mozart, is worthy of Shaw. Then we get an opera libretto: the opera is about Mozart, but the libretto, with its dazzling rhythms and unlikely rhymes, seems more designed for musical comedy than for opera. Between the acts, we are treated to heavenly conversations featuring Stendhal, Berlioz, Rossini, Schoenberg, Gershwin, etc. Even Henry James makes a surprise appearance for reasons that now escape me.

There follows the “Standhalian transcription”, although it seems more Joycean than Stendhalian to me: it is an attempt to tell a story using a musical structure – specifically, the structure of Mozart’s 40th symphony. I only know that it uses the structure of the 40th symphony because Burgess, very considerately, tells us so: there’s no way I’d have guessed otherwise. And the model seems to me not Stendhal at all, but Joyce – specifically, the “Sirens” chapter of Ulysses, in which quasi-musical effects are produced with words. However, I must admit to finding this passage tiresome: it’s the only tiresome passage in the entire book, but, thankfully, it’s only a few pages. Later, Burgess admits to its failure:

…things have occasionally to be done to show that they cannot be done.

Sorry, Anthony, but that’s pretty lame; but given how royally he entertained me the rest of the time, I’ll let that pass.

There follows the schizophrenic dialogue between two characters called Anthony and Burgess, which is interrupted by a few pages of a film-script – the subject of the film being, of course, Mozart. And then, after another brief scene in heaven with Beethoven and Mendelssohn, Burgess finishes off with his two selves put back together again, and, this time, speaking directly to the reader on the miracle that was Mozart.

Through all these fireworks, a great many themes are touched upon: the abstract nature of music; the definition of sentimentality and of vulgarity; the opposition between music as diversion, and – as Mozart puts it in the film-script – as “that language that reaches higher than the language of prayer, that tenuous golden chain that links the human soul to the divine essence”;  art as an extension of craftsmanship, and as a legitimate product of professionalism; the characteristics in the various arts of Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Modernist, and the relationship of these styles, even in the most abstract forms, to the societies in which they are created; the perception, or misperception, amongst many of a certain blandness in the music of Mozart; the breakdown of tonality; the significance of dance; and so on, and so forth. Perhaps, it may be said, Burgess does not delve into any of these themes deeply – but this book is not a thesis: it is, rather, an entertainment, and a very civilised entertainment it is too. Burgess, as ever, puts on a great performance.

This is not the greatest work I will read this year, nor the most profound. But for sheer fun, it’s hard to beat. It has been a long time since I last enjoyed Burgess’ company: reading this book was a bit like meeting up after a long separation with an old friend.

Thinking aloud: a change of direction?

Regular readers of this blog – and I believe there are a few – will know that this blog isn’t particularly focussed on any one thing. I don’t even describe this as a “books blog”, or as a “literary blog”: most of my posts are, admittedly, on literary matters, but on the whole, this blog is as unfocussed and as meandering and – let’s be honest – as undisciplined as my mind. I write about whatever takes my fancy, and, on the whole, quite enjoy the freewheeling nature of it all.

However, this freewheeling approach means that this blog doesn’t really have a brand, as such. There’s no niche in which to settle. And recently, I have been tempted, sorely tempted, to give this blog a more distinctive identity. It all started recently when I started tweeting on a book I have been reading recently – a biography of Caravaggio by Helen Langdon (of which more later: watch this space, as they say). And it struck me what a wonderfully rich era, in terms of culture, the turn of the 17th century was – from the 1590 into the 1600s. For me, of course, this was principally the era of Shakespeare; but it was also the era of John Donne, Monteverdi, Francis Bacon, William Byrd, Cervantes, the young Rubens, John Dowland, Caravaggio, Lope de Vega, Ben Jonson, Thomas Campion, El Greco, Johannes Kepler, Giordano Bruno, Galileo, and so on. In short, it was one of the most extraordinary periods in the Western world in terms of culture, and the advancement of learning. Now, wouldn’t it be interesting to focus my blog on this era? Perhaps to discipline myself to write on nothing but this era?

Histories of England tend to split this era into the Tudor period and the Stuart period, thus introducing a break in 1603 with the death of Queen Elizabeth I; and in terms of “-isms”, no-one can really decide whether this was the era of the late Renaissance or the early Baroque: Byrd and Shakespeare are often referred to as Renaissance figures, whereas Caravaggio and Monteverdi are considered Baroque. Perhaps the Italians, ahead of the times as ever, decided to become Baroque somewhat earlier than the British got round to it – who knows!

As with any era, of course, it’s an era of great diversity, and there’s little point – or even perhaps convenience – in sticking labels. What does it matter whether Shakespeare was Renaissance or Caravaggio was Baroque when they were both, at the same time, producing masterpieces of unsurpassed tragic grandeur? It’s an era I really would like to immerse myself in, and writing about it here would be, if nothing else, an education for me: apart from the plays of Shakespeare – whose works I won’t claim to know well, but which I have at least lived with for a great many years – I am really not at all knowledgeable about these other major figures of the time. Wouldn’t it be great to know well the music of Byrd, or of Monteverdi? To come to a deeper understanding of those dark masterpieces of Caravaggio? To appreciate better the poetry of Donne? To re-read Don Quixote? Or, if I allow myself the freedom to go back a decade or two, come to terms – as I have long been intending to do – with the essays of Montaigne?

It’s certainly tempting. However, while I think there will be a great many posts here next year on this fascinating period, I doubt I’d want to lose the freewheeling aspect of this blog: I’d like to give myself the freedom to continue to write about whatever takes my fancy – whether it’s a piece of nostalgia, or some account of some film or play that I’ve just seen, or some concert I’ve just heard, or simply have a damn good rant. That last bit is especially important: I most certainly do not want to give up on my rants, especially when there is so much in our times worth ranting about.

So, no radical changes I suppose; but when we get into 2015 – which is now frighteningly close – do be prepared for a plethora of posts on the arts and culture of the late 16th to the early 17th centuries.

The myth of Elektra

I was at the BBC Proms concert performance of Richard Strauss’ opera Elektra a couple of weeks ago. I am not qualified to comment on the musical quality of the performance, although reviews by those who are tend to confirm my layman’s impression that it was utterly magnificent. I came out afterwards in a sort of daze, my head spinning, my mind too unsettled even to try to think of the immense drama that had been played out before me.

However, from near where I was sitting, a number of people – five by my count – walked out during the performance, the expression on their faces speaking more eloquently than words could ever have done not only of their boredom, but also of their utter contempt of that which was boring them so.

I tried to imagine myself as I was back in those heady days nearly 40 years ago, when I was trying to discover what this classical music lark was all about. How would my younger self have reacted to this harsh, uncompromising, jagged and tuneless piece of modernism? Yes, I think the music would have gone over my head completely; yes, I would have found the sounds produced unattractive; and yes, I think I too might have been bored by it all. But no, I don’t think I would, for all that, have walked out. For one thing, I like to think I would have had some degree of respect, or at least consideration, for other members of the audience who had paid to be there, and who may well have been concentrating hard on this demanding music: expecting them to interrupt their concentration to make room for my egress would, I think, have struck me, at the very least, as impolite. And secondly, I think I might have had the humility to put down my lack of appreciation to an insufficiently developed understanding; for even then, I think I was aware at some level that culture requires cultivation – that it is not reasonable to go to something as forbidding as Elektra with one’s ears untuned to its musical idiom and one’s mind unschooled to its aesthetic, and expect to be able to take it in. I might even have seen the concert as an opportunity to take a first tentative step towards an understanding. At least, I hope I would have reacted in such a manner: it is hard to look back over the years and judge accurately what one had been.

Of course, I shouldn’t make too much of this: indeed, I shouldn’t make anything at all out of this – only five dissidents from an audience literally of many thousands is a fairly nugatory matter, and I raise the matter only because it annoyed me at the time, and annoys me still. However, it is sometimes worth questioning one’s most firmly held assumptions. Culture may indeed need to be cultivated, but is there really any pressing reason to do so? It may be that it requires great effort and years of immersion into this mode of music to be able to appreciate something such as Strauss’ Elektra, but what precisely does one get in return? The story is horrific; the emotions depicted in the work, and projected to the listener, are rebarbative; there is no hint at any point of human redemption, or of that feature that Orwell had claimed must belong to tragedy – a sense that humanity is nobler than the forces that destroy it. One’s nerves are jangled by it, sure, but is that jangling of nerves in itself an end worth pursuing?

The myth of Elektra is not one that offers any comfort or solace, let alone entertainment by any reasonable definition of that word. And yet, the myth refuses to go away. In its outline, the story is simple: the princess Electra’s father, Agamemnon, had been murdered by his wife, Klytemnestra; and now, years later, Elektra awaits the return of her exiled brother Orestes; and when finally he does come, she helps him assassinate her mother Klytemnestra, and her mother’s lover Aigisthos. A simple and rather repulsive story. And yet, this story continues in its various forms to haunt the imagination. Amongst other things, it is the only story on which there survive plays by all three great Athenian tragedians – Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides – and comparing their various treatments of this story is fascinating.

Aeschylus’ play, The Cheophoroe (The Libation Bearers), is the second play of the Oresteia trilogy, and demands to be seen as such: although the protagonists are characterised up to a point, they are part of a wider pattern stretching back to the first part of the trilogy, Agamemnon, and forward to the last, The Eumenides. Here, the theme is justice – both human justice, and divine justice – and the endless cycles of violence and bloodshed engendered in pursuit of justice. Here, Orestes kills for the sake of justice: his father had been murdered, and it is but justice that his father’s death is avenged, and that he, his father’s son, should, with his father’s daughter, mete out what is right and just. But the threads stretch out far into the past and far into the future.  For Klytemnestra, too, had killed for the sake of justice: Agamemnon, leading his troops to Troy in order to carry out the Justice of Zeus, had sacrificed Iphigenia, at the altar of Artemis; he had, with his own hand, slit the throat of his own daughter, and Klytemnestra’s.

Artemis had insisted on this sacrifice. Agamemnon may have been pursuing justice in leading the Greek troops to Troy to avenge Paris’ abduction of Helen, but in order to achieve this justice, he must shed much innocent blood; and this shedding of innocent blood also calls out for justice. If Agamemnon is to shed innocent blood, Artemis had insisted, he must shed first the innocent blood of his own family, of his own daughter. For this, too, is justice.

And since that terrible day, which the chorus in Agamemnon cannot even bear to think on, Klytemnestra has been waiting for her husband to return. She has taken in the meantime a lover, Aigisthos, a cousin of Agamemnon’s, who has his own reasons, stretching back into generations, for wishing Agamemnon’s death: for generations, atrocities had been committed, the latest of these when Aigisthos had been a boy: his father, Thyestes, had been invited by his uncle Atreos, father of Agamemon, to what he believed was a feast of reconciliation; but in that feast, Atreos had fed Thyestes with the flesh of his own sons. Aigisthos’ father had unwittingly eaten of the flesh of Aigisthos’ brothers.

And so, Agamemnon, returning triumphant from Troy, the victorious soldier, is murdered by his own wife, Klytemnestra. Justice is served. But each act of justice is but a new crime calling for further retribution. And humans are caught in this infernal machine, each duty-bound to render justice, and each committing in the process a crime that but perpetuates the horror.

It is in this context that Aeschylus places the story of Elektra. The Gods demand justice; Man is the instrument of this Divine justice; and yet, Man has to take moral responsibility for the crimes committed in its pursuit. There is no end to this terrible logic, no respite. By the end of The Choephoroe, Orestes, having carried out Divine will, having justly murdered his mother who had also justly murdered her husband, can already see the Furies in pursuit: whatever the claims of justice, he has committed matricide, and must therefore be punished.

The third and last part of this trilogy appears to offer a way out. The goddess Athena institutes the concept of a “trial”: no more blind retribution, but a jury of twelve honest men and true to determine through civilised discourse the nature of the crime, the issue of guilt, and the appropriate nature of the punishment. The trilogy ends with the acquittal of Orestes, and a triumphant torchlit procession through the streets of Athens. However, while clearly this is among the many masterpieces that depict a journey from darkness into light, the light does not seem to me entirely without its dark shadows. For one thing, in this instance, the human institution of trial by jury doesn’t resolve the issue: the jury is hung, six votes each, and it takes the casting vote of Athena – in other words, divine intervention – to achieve what humans cannot, and bring to an end this cycle of violence. And neither are the Furies exiled: they cannot be. Athena incorporates them into the new legal system she has devised for humans, and this incorporation seems to me an acknowledgement that justice cannot be administered without, at some level, the presence of terror. The joy at the end of the trilogy seems to me very deeply qualified. And the more I read these plays, the more fatal these qualifications seem.

It is not difficult to see in these Aeschylean cycles of violence, in the repeated calls for justice and in the repeated bloodshed and atrocities, an image not only of our own times, but of all times since these plays were written. What human institutions we have to control these savage urges of ours seem precarious at best, and often compromised; and sometimes, indeed, the very reason for yet another cycle of bloodshed and retribution. The Furies cannot after all be banished.

If Aeschylus’ main interest was in the themes of justice and of cycles of violence, Sophocles was more interested in what this violence does to the human psyche. The past is still important, but the rights and wrongs stretch back neither so far, nor so deeply, as in Aeschylus’ plays. In this version of the story, Agamemnon had to sacrifice his daughter because he had inadvertently offended Artemis by hunting on her sacred land. This terrible human sacrifice is not, here, a connecting link in the endless chain of historic rights and wrongs, but, rather, the humour of a cruel and heartless divinity. And Sophocles’ Elektra, unlike the Elektra of Aeschylus, has grown up a fierce and feral creature. Treated even worse than the slaves, starved and beaten, barely even recognisable as human, she has one thought and one thought only – the murder of her mother. This savage desire has invaded her entire being, and deformed everything about her. She undergoes through the course of the drama a vast range of emotions, but even those emotions that are, or should be, beautiful and sacred, are here deformed. She grieves when she hears of the death of her brother Orestes, but that grief is not merely an expression of the loss of one she has loved: it expresses also her rage that her mother can no longer be murdered. Conversely, her joy in finding her brother alive is not easily separated from her joy in realising that soon, very soon, her mother’s skull will be split open by an axe. And when the axe does fall, and we hear Klytemnestra’s screams offstage, what we see on stage is perhaps the greatest horror of all:

ELEKTRA: Stab her again –
if you have the strength!
– from the translation by Robert Bagg

By the end of the play, Elektra is utterly triumphant. But in her very victory is her defeat. The one thing she has desired, had desired above all else, has now been achieved, but the cost has been horrendous: it is hard to see her even as a human being.

I had seen this play over 20 years ago now – I cannot, I’m afraid, remember the translation used – in a nerve-jangling production directed by Deborah Warner, and with Fiona Shaw striking terror into the heart with a performance of the utmost savagery. Of course, Sophocles’ play itself is a work of the utmost savagery, and it was on this version of the Elektra story that Hugo von Hofmannstahl based his libretto for Strauss’ opera. He keeps reasonably close to the play – although he starts, not as Sophocles had done, with Orestes returning to Mycenae with his friend Pylades and his old servant, but with Elektra herself and the maidservants. In Sophocles’ play, the maidservants are largely sympathetic to Elektra, and are on stage throughout, discoursing with Elektra and providing commentary; in the opera, they are largely unsympathetic to her, and do not appear after the first scene. But the most significant change is in the great confrontation between Elektra and Klytemnestra: in the play, it is Elektra’s sister Chrysothemis who tells her of Klytemnestra’s dream, and when Elektra and Klytemnestra meet, they each speak of the justice of their respective causes, though each is unable to take in what the other is saying. But in the opera, neither character refers to past events: the focus is not on the past at all, but, quite unremittingly, on their present states of mind. It is Klytemnestra who describes her dream to Elektra, and here, in possibly the most terrifying passage of any opera, Strauss’ music twists and turn and curdles and churns and drifts off into multiple tonalities, evoking mental landscapes that most of us, hopefully, do not encounter even in our most horrific nightmares.

Elektra is on stage, still alive, at the end of Sophocles’ play: the tragedy is not that she dies, but, rather, in the deformation of her mind, in her defeat even as she claims victory. In Strauss’ opera, Elektra, her sole purpose in life achieved and with nothing more to live for, falls dead, in, one can but assume, an excess of ecstasy. But the sheer terror of brutal, implacable hatred is not something that leaves the listener easily. It has been two weeks now since that concert, and that sense of terror is with me still.

But perhaps the opera is not entirely to blame for that: always a sucker for punishment, I suppose, I have been immersing myself these last two weeks in Sophocles’ play, in translations by Robert Bagg and by Michael Ewans. (A production of Michael Ewans’ version may be seen here.)

In works I value written in languages to which I have no access, I often find myself comparing different translations; but whenever I compare translations of Greek tragedies, the differences are so often so great, I can’t help wondering whether the various translators are all working from the same text. I suppose it could also be the case that the original text contains so many different layers of meaning, that translators are forced to interpret, and highlight certain meanings above others. But I was glad I picked these two particular translations, as they are so very different in conception. Ewans (and his colleagues Graham Ley and Gregory McCart for the other Sophocles plays in the set) focuses hard on how the plays would have been staged in the Greek theatre: the various scenes are numbered, the strophes and antistrophes clearly marked, and so on. The language, if not necessarily monumental, is dignified. Bagg and Scully on the other hand aim for a greater fluidity of language, not afraid of intrusions of what may strike us as modern diction. When I had written earlier of James Scully’s translation of Sophocles’ Aias, I had been generally appreciative, but had complained of the occasional sense of bathos; but now, having read all the Sophocles translations by Robert Bagg and James Scully, I think that criticism had been more a reflection of my own expectations than anything else; for, as the translators say in the introduction, the plays of Sophocles range across a wide range of dictions, including the everyday, and that the expectation we have of a monumental quality does these plays no favours at all. Not knowing Greek myself I am in no position to argue; but it is fair to say, I think, that I have now become accustomed to their style of translation, and, while I am clearly unable to comment on its closeness either to the letter or to the spirit of the original, I no longer find in them those  moments of bathos that had struck me on my first reading.

However, I remain perplexed at some of the variations between the two translations. For instance, in Bagg’s translation, Elektra says near the start of the play to the chorus of maid-servants:

So how can I be calm
and rational? Or god-fearing?
Sisters … I’m so immersed
in all this evil, how
could I not be evil too?

In Ewans’ translation, this becomes:

My friends, in such a situation it’s impossible
to be modest and reverent; when times are bad
there is tremendous pressure to act badly too.

I suppose the two versions say similar things, but the effect is very different: “when times are bad” is hardly the same as “in all this evil”. I have no idea which one is closer to Sophocles, but in terms of how it reads in English, much prefer Bagg’s version here: it is more direct, and depicts a self-awareness on Elektra’s part of what she has become; in contrast, in Ewans’ version, Elektra’s lines seem merely defensive, and its phrasing seems to me dramatically weak.

But then, compare this following passage, when Elektra recognises her brother Orestes:

The hate of many years has melted into me,
And now I’ve seen you, I’ll never stop
my tears of joy. How could I stop?
I’ve seen you come back here first dead and then alive;
You’ve wounded me in ways I cannot understand.
– from the translation by Michael Ewans

 I think this is splendid – especially that final line. But here is the same passage in Bagg’s translation:

My hatred for her runs too deep.
Since you’ve come home, I feel
so much joy it makes me cry.
How could I not? One moment
you’re dead, the next, you’re not!
you’ve made me believe anything
can happen.
– from the translation by Robert Bagg

In this instance, it is Ewans’ version that seems to me both poetically and dramatically more impressive. But I must confess myself puzzled by their renditions of that last line. No matter how knotty the original text may be, it is hard to believe the same line of Greek yielding the different interpretations “You’ve wounded me in ways I cannot understand” and “You’ve made me believe anything can happen.” These are times when I wish I had a classical education, so I could read what the original says.

However, having spent these last two weeks since the concert perusing these two versions of Sophocles’ Elektra, and having listening to a recording of it (I have the famous recording conducted by Georg Solti with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, with Birgit Nilsson as Elektra), I find I am no nearer an answer to my original question: why should we cultivate a taste and receptive faculties to take in something so horrific and so utterly devoid of nobility or of elevated thought as this? Oh, of course, one can wheel out all the old arguments about how tragedy purges us, and all the rest of it, but I have never quite believed that: I don’t think a work such as Elektra purges us of anything – not me, at any rate. In Aeschylus’ play, this horrific story is part of a larger pattern in which, even in the joyous finale, the dark shadows obstinately remain. And in Sophocles’ play, and in the modernist masterpiece created by Richard Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hofmannstahl, we are presented with an unblinking look into the darkest abyss of the human spirit; these works depict humans so deformed morally and mentally that they can barely be recognised as human at all. And no, I cannot defend the fascination I obviously feel for these works. Maybe those who walked out had a point after all!

On Cavaliers and Roundheads

When you set out to stick the boot into another author’s literary style, it’s best to ensure that your own style is … well, if not necessarily above criticism, then, at least, competent. For if your philippic contains sentences such as this:

I like Orwell’s writing as much as the next talented mediocrity.

…then you’re likely not to be taken very seriously. From the context, one may discern that the author, Will Self, means it is Orwell who is the “talented mediocrity”; yet, the unfortunate construction of his sentence seems to indicate that the “talented mediocrity” is Self himself. And one can’t help reflecting that Orwell would never have written a sentence as crap as this.

But let us not get sidetracked into having a go at Will Self, enjoyable though that may be. The issues raised in his attack on Orwell deserve, I think, greater attention.

Self declares near the start of his piece:

… overall, it’s those individuals who unite great expertise and very little originality – let alone personality – who arouse in us the most perfect devotion.

This attack on the lack of originality or of personality does seem an odd prelude to a piece attacking Orwell, who was original enough to go persistently against the flow in his politics, often alienating himself from both the mainstream Left and the mainstream Right, and whose writings are generally acknowledged to project a very powerful and individual authorial personality. But Self’s piece gets odder: he goes on to characterise Englishness as essentially bland and colourless – so bland and colourless, indeed, that it has extended its baleful tentacles even to subdue the Celtic exuberance of its neighbours:

In truth the grey hold sway in Edinburgh, Cardiff, Belfast and Dublin quite as much as they do in London. Is it any surprise? Whatever their own talents, the Scots, Welsh and Irish have all been colonised by English mediocrities.

If we are talking here about literary style – as I guess we are, since that is the thrust of the rest of the piece – then I personally wouldn’t have characterised as bland or as colourless, and certainly not as “mediocre”, the literary culture of a people who have produced such flamboyant stylists as John Donne, Charles Dickens, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence, and, obviously, that chap Shakespeare. But I suppose if you don’t feel obliged to provide supporting evidence, you can assert just about anything you want. So let us not worry too much about that, and continue.

After this curious preamble, Self moves to his theme: the “Supreme Mediocrity – George Orwell.”

At this point, Self anticipates with relish, as all self-regarding iconoclasts do, the gasps of horror his iconoclasm will occasion:

I don’t doubt characterising Orwell as a talented mediocrity will put noses out of joint. Not Orwell, surely!

This is followed by an extended passage of heavy-handed sarcasm:

Orwell the tireless campaigner for social justice and economic equality; Orwell the prophetic voice, crying out in the wartime wilderness against the dangers of totalitarianism and the rise of the surveillance state; Orwell, who nobly took up arms in the cause of Spanish democracy, then, equally nobly, exposed the cause’s subversion by Soviet realpolitik; Orwell, who lived in saintly penury and preached the solid virtues of homespun Englishness; Orwell, who died prematurely, his last gift to the people he so admired being a list of suspected Soviet agents he sent to MI5.

That last bit is a reference to the revelation, made some years ago, that Orwell had compiled a list of prominent public figures who, to his mind, had Communist sympathies, and were, hence, unsuitable as writers for the Information Research Department, a propaganda department that had recently been set up by the Labour government. This revelation created at the time something of a rumpus, and remains a contentious issue; but I personally can’t help wondering whether there would have been such a rumpus had it been revealed that Orwell had compiled in the mid-30s a list of writers sympathetic to Nazism. In retrospect, as we all know, or should know, Soviet Communism was every bit as great an evil as Nazism; and in the late 40s, when Soviet Communism was indeed a great danger, and when many public figures were indeed sympathetic to it, the moral ambiguity of the situation seems to me to have been far too great to allow for any simplistic apportioning of blame. However, I do not insist on this point: no doubt there are many who, with good reason, are more censorious on this point than I can bring myself to be. But whatever we may think of Orwell’s action on this matter, it does seem to me a tad spiteful, and, indeed, malicious, to bring it up in a piece that is about Orwell’s writing style, not his politics.

And finally, after all that, we come to the heart of the matter: Self thinks Orwell a mediocrity because Orwell wrote plain English:

It’s this prose style that has made Orwell the Supreme Mediocrity.

And worse, in his essay “Politics and the English Language”, Orwell recommended writing plain English. In brief, it’s the old story of Cavaliers and Roundheads: Orwell was a Roundhead, and Self thinks it is better to be a Cavalier.

Self then goes on to declare war against the Standard English that Orwell stood for, declaring it to be “mediocre”, and preferring instead language of greater flamboyance – in short, preferring the Cavalier rather than the Roundhead aesthetic. Self claims, amongst other things – although, as ever, he offers no arguments in support – that African-American vernacular English “offers its speakers more ways of saying more things” than does Standard English. That may or may not be so, but I do know that whatever merits this particular vernacular may have, if ever I am ill and am admitted to hospital, I would much prefer my medical report to be written in the plain Standard variety of English that Self so looks down upon.

No doubt Self would think this is a trivial and mundane point, and that, as a literary artist concerned with richness of expression, he is far above such trivial and mundane matters. But it’s thanks to these trivial and mundane matters that our world works. Medical files, journalism, parliamentary reports, reportage, business references – all these things and more require writing that is, above all, lucid. And for this, it is Roundhead writing one must turn to, not Cavalier. Orwell himself was primarily a journalist and essayist, and much of his writing – including his two most famous books – is didactic in nature; so it is hardly surprising that he preferred the Roundheads to the Cavaliers when it came to writing style. Indeed, it is noticeable that Self himself, in making his didactic point, has adopted a style that is – the odd “fulguration” apart – more Roundhead than Cavalier.

Orwell’s advice on writing is actually excellent advice for anyone who sets out to write lucidly: to judge from his article, Self could, I’m sure, learn much from it. But Orwell was addressing a particular kind of writing: the title of this essay is a bit of a give-away – “Politics and the English Language”. Orwell was specifically talking about political writing, where lucidity is vital; in other kinds of writing, he most certainly did not insist that the Roundhead way is the only way to write well: his obvious admiration, as evidenced in his literary criticism, for Dickens, Joyce and Lawrence, should leave no-one in any doubt at all that on that point. What he was insisting was that in certain kinds of writing, lucidity is of primary importance; and to achieve lucidity, one must eschew flamboyance. “The simpler the better” is not a dictum that always holds true; but in certain kinds of writing, it does.

And even for other kinds of writing, there is, pace Self, much to be said for simple English. If “the simpler the better” is a foolish maxim in the context of creative writing, “the more flamboyant the better” does not seem to me any better. My own personal preference in these matters is actually for the Cavaliers rather than the Roundheads: I much prefer Faulkner, say, to Hemingway; but given the choice between the harmonious simplicity of Bunyan’s prose, say, or the flamboyant prose of some writer with a tin ear for the rhythms of English prose (let’s not name names), I certainly know which I prefer!