Archive for November, 2014

“Life in the Country” by Giovanni Verga

Life in the Country by Giovanni Verga, translated by J. G. Nichols, Hesperus Press 2003

If someone had asked me a month or so ago what I knew about Verga, I’d have said that he was the author of Cavalliera Rusticana – or, rather, the author of the story on which Mascagni’s famous opera is based. I might even have burbled a bit about D. H. Lawrence having been an admirer. In other words, I’d have been selling Verga short, both in terms of his stature as a writer, and also, I think, in terms of his aesthetics: he disapproved strongly of Mascagni’s overt emotionalism, and of what he regarded as his sentimentality. He aimed for an objectivity that was very far removed from the passionate outpourings of the verismo style of Italian opera, or, indeed, from the relish in excess that is all too easily found in Zola. Indeed, in one of the stories in this collection, “Bindweed’s Lover”, he states explicitly his artistic credo:

… it is my belief that the novel, the most complete and human of all works of art, will triumph when the attraction between all its parts and their cohesion are so perfect that the process of its creation will remain as mysterious as the development of the human passions. Then the harmony of its form will be so perfect, the sincerity of its content so obvious, its style and its raison d’être so inevitable, that the hand of the artist will be absolutely invisible, and the novel will bear the stamp of a real happening, and the work of art will seem to have been made by itself, to have matured and arisen spontaneously like a natural occurrence, without keeping any point of contact with its author. It will therefore not preserve in its living shape any stamp of the mind in which it germinated, any trace of the eye which glimpsed it, any hint of the lip which murmured its first words like the Creator’s fiat. May it exist for its own sake, simply because it must be and has to be, throbbing with life and yet as immutable as a statue in bronze whose author has had the godlike courage to be eclipsed by and disappear into his immortal work.

I wonder to what extent Verga was aware of the irony of speaking directly as the author of the importance of keeping the authorial persona in the background; or of writing such a purple passage of prose (assuming the translation here reflects the qualities of the original) on the desirability of rendering “absolutely invisible” the “hand of the artist”. Given the obvious intelligence of the author, I’d guess he was well aware of the irony; however, despite the irony, his aims were real enough. The author must not in any way lead the reader: the author should ideally be, as far as possible, in the background.

I cannot help wondering, however, to what extent this is possible. It has always seemed to me when reading, for instance, Flaubert – another author who tried to keep his authorial persona in the background – that the further the author retreats from the front of the stage, the more apparent his presence is: it is the very absence of the author from the spotlight that alerts the reader to his presence somewhere in the background. For no story can write itself. Even when the author is not commenting directly, even when the reader’s sympathies are not explicitly directed, the author’s presence is apparent from the story he has chosen to tell; from the details he has chosen to highlight, and those he has chosen to suppress; from the way he has chosen to structure each individual sentence, and to pace the overarching narrative; and, indeed, in countless other features. Flaubert’s personality is a strong presence in his fiction, as Verga’s is in his, even when he is not addressing the reader directly. And, whatever Verga’s aims, I , for one, think this a Good Thing: the last thing I want from any work of art is anonymity – for that is what making “the hand of the artist absolutely invisible” amounts to – and Verga is far from anonymous: he may not direct the reader’s sympathy explicitly, but such things need not be explicit.

Take, for instance, the story “Rosso Malpero” –which literally means “Red Evil-Hair”, and is translated here as “Nasty Foxfur” – one of the most perfect short stories I think I have read. Its protagonist is a poor lad working in brutal conditions in the mines of Sicily, and orphaned at an early age. We are told about him:

He was called Nasty Foxfur because he had red hair. And he had red hair because he was a bad, malicious boy, who gave every promise of ending up a complete villain.

Is it possible to take these words at face value? Does the author really need to direct our sympathies explicitly in favour of this brutalised little boy?

Neither is there any need for Verga to spell out the love the boy has for his father. Early in the story, his father is involved in a mining accident, and is buried under thousands of tons of sand: there is no hope even of digging the body out. And Verga tells us of this little boy desperately trying to shovel away the sand with his bare hands:

The others started to laugh … Foxfur did not reply, he did not even weep, he dug with his fingernails in the sand there, inside the hole, so that no-one noticed him. And when they came near him with the light they saw such a distorted face, such glassy eyes, and such foam around his mouth as to inspire fear. His fingernails were torn out and hung from his hands all covered in blood. Since he could no longer scratch, he bit them like a mad dog, and they had to seize him by the hair to drag him away by main force.

We are not taken into the boy’ mind, but we don’t need to be taken there: the “objective” description of the physical details tells us all we need to know about what was going on there. We aren’t even fooled by that little touch about the state of his face inspiring “fear”: Verga, far from remaining in the background, far from refusing to direct the reader, has chosen every single detail carefully to ensure that the reader is feels not fear, but compassion.

The boy had clearly been loved by his dead father; and he, in turn, loves his father’s memory. And yet, in that brutal and utterly heartless environment in which he lives, he is not aware even of the concept of love, and he cannot account to himself the feelings he has for his dead father: he doesn’t know what name to give them.

Neither can he begin to understand the affection he feels for an even younger lad, who comes to work in the pit: this younger lad, while working as a bricklayers’ assistant, had fallen from a bridge and dislocated his thigh, and here, at the pit, when carrying sand, he “hobbled so much that he seemed to be dancing the tarantella”. And, we are told laconically, “that made all the men in the pit laugh”. They call this lad Frog, on account of his being crippled, and unable to walk properly. Foxfur – for so he is called throughout the story – takes him under his wing, but there’s no sentimentality about the attachment: although Foxfur really is attached to the crippled little boy, he beats him mercilessly. He beats him because violence is the only way he knows to express his feelings for any other human:

At times he beat him without cause and without mercy … if Frog did not defend himself, he beat him harder, and more furiously, and said to him: “Take that, jackass! … If you haven’t even got the guts to defend yourself against someone who doesn’t even hate you, it means you’ll let every Tom, Dick and Harry walk all over you!”

And yet, Foxfur loves this boy: he does not know what that means, and throughout this story the word “love” is conspicuous by its absence, but he loves that boy in the only way he knows how. When the younger boy falls ill, Foxfur does all he can to help; and when the boy dies, he is heartbroken – although, even here, he does not know what “heartbreak” means, and can’t understand the feeling. And he can’t understand why Frog’s mother should weep over her dead boy “as if her son were one of those who earn ten lire a week”.

The story is bleak and dark, right up to its desolate final sentences; but curiously, it is not nihilistic, as it could well have been in lesser hands. For underneath the endless exploitation and cruelty, there is an awareness – all the stronger for never being explicitly stated – of nobler human feelings and impulses that even conditions such as this cannot quite kill.

The other stories in this collection are hardly less remarkable. “Cavalliera Rusticana” – translated here as “Rustic Honour” – is nothing like Mascagni’s opera (marvellous though I think that is): the story is, once again, sparely told, with not the slightest hint of the sort of wallowing in emotion that we so often take for granted in Italian opera: it is, once again, a bleak tale, stripped to the bone and narrated without even an ounce of excess fat.

I must admit that as I read story after story – mainly on buses during our recent holiday in Sicily – I found myself thinking “What has Verga been all my life?” I am hard pressed to think of any other writer I have encountered for the first time in the last few years who has made such an impact on me. The first story in this collection, “A Reverie”, is not among the strongest; but fortunately, neither is it amongst the most characteristic. The other stories bespeak a writer of individuality and stature, and to whose works I shall undoubtedly be returning.

“Emma” by Jane Austen

Of all the novels of Austen, the plot of Emma is perhaps the most difficult to summarise. This is not because it doesn’t have a plot, but because the principal events that shape the plot are internal rather than external. Here, a character perceiving reality in a certain way is a major plot development, a character beginning to perceive things in a new way a dramatic climax. This is not to say that there aren’t external events: there are accepted proposals, declined proposals, people falling in and out of love, people thinking they’re in love – all those various events that populate all Austen novels. But what gives these external events significance here, to a greater extent, I think, than in Austen’s other works, are the internal events: that is where the drama of the novel principally lies. As a consequence, the scale of the drama is here reduced: we are certainly in a very different fictional world from the sombre and dramatic Mansfield Park, which seems at times to stray even towards the oppressive world of Richardson’s Clarissa. But just as Austen had seemed determined to remove Mansfield Park as far as possible from its bright and sunny predecessor, Pride and Prejudice, so she seems here equally determined to remove Emma into a fictional world as far removed as possible from Mansfield Park. It’s not that there is no plot here; it’s not even that there’s no drama. But to find either, to see this novel as more than a mere pleasant sunlit idyll in which everything rambles on agreeably and nothing much really happens, we have to look closely at the nuances and at the fine detail. For in Emma, it’s the smallest points, the tiniest gestures, that contain the drama.

Take for instance the point that may, I think, be considered the turning point of the entire novel – the picnic at Box Hill: Emma can’t resist cracking a rather mild joke at the expense of the tiresome Miss Bates, and Miss Bates is hurt. The joke itself is not particularly malicious, and the hurt is not so grievous that Miss Bates cannot quite happily welcome Emma to her house the very next day. A minor event, one might have thought, in the unremarkable lives of a set of unremarkable characters. And yet, Austen, with the most delicate and understated of artistry, makes this seemingly trivial event the turning point of a novel of over 400 pages.

The scene is worth examining in some detail. On the surface, nothing much happens. Miss Bates has not been involved in the “plot”, insofar as there has been a plot at all: she has not been involved in any way in any of Emma’s matchmaking schemes, and nor has Emma ever speculated on her feelings or thoughts, as she has on the feelings and thoughts of others. Miss Bates is simply a tiresome chatterbox, who natters on and on endlessly without ever even in error communicating anything of the slightest interest. Emma finds her absurd and tiresome, and she is not the only one: we, the reader, can hardly fail to find her absurd and tiresome also. So when Miss Bates says that she is sure to say three dull things as soon as she opens her mouth, Emma can’t resist a rejoinder:

“Ah! ma’am, but there may be a difficulty. Pardon me – but you will be limited in number – only three at once.”

It takes the slow-witted Miss Bates some time to realise that the joke is at her expense, but once she does, her reaction, far from being angry, is sad and humble: she recognises how disagreeable she must be to others. There is something curiously dignified in her realisation, and also, even in a matter so slight as this, something almost infinitely sad. The matter is so slight indeed that Emma doesn’t even notice; but Mr Knightley notices, as Miss Bates confides to him her perception of her own disagreeableness; and we, the readers, notice. And since we, the readers, have so often regarded Miss Bates as Emma has done, as tedious and disagreeable, this sudden realisation of her humanity, of the vulnerability of her feelings, comes to us as a sort of admonishment. The scale of the drama may be reduced in this novel, but, once one has adjusted one’s receptivity to that small scale, even so apparently slight an incident as this takes on a tremendous dramatic weight.

Later, Mr Knightley remonstrates with Emma on her thoughtlessness, and she is as admonished as we, the readers, have been. The next day, Emma makes a point of visiting Miss Bates, possibly with a half-formed intent of apologising. In most other novels, we would have had here a scene of overt acknowledgement of guilt, and of redemption, but here, with the scale of the drama reduced, such a scene would be out of place. Miss Bates seems unaware that Emma has anything to apologise for, and the conversation never even touches on the previous day’s excursion to Box Hill. But the slightest gestures are important here: that Emma has made the gesture at all of visiting Miss Bates is sufficiently significant to restore her into Mr Knightley’s good opinion.

And from this point on, the plot unravels. Not so much, perhaps, in terms of external events – although the death of Frank Churchill’s aunt does open the door for various matters to be happily resolved – but, more importantly in a novel in which the principal focus of interest is internal rather than external, the plot unravels in terms of what goes on in Emma’s mind: the understanding that she has been needlessly cruel to a harmless old lady who had not deserved such cruelty is the first step towards the unravelling of various internal matters – of various misperceptions and delusions that Emma had harboured in her own mind, both about others and about herself. Emma begins for the first time to understand her own self. The novel may seem superficially to be a gently rambling idyll, but this is what it has all been leading towards. In Austen’s previous novel, Mansfield Park, the protagonist Fanny Price is rewarded because, throughout, she, and only she, has perceived clearly; here, in contrast, Emma has misperceived everything all along; but, since this novel is, unlike its predecessor, a comedy, the clouds of her misperceptions lift by the end one by one, leaving only the clearest of blue skies. Austen doesn’t often use the weather as anything other than plot devices, but when, as we approach the end of this novel, we are presented with a rain that plays no part at all in furthering the plot, we should sense its wider significance:

The weather continued much the same all the following morning; and the same loneliness, and the same melancholy, seemed to reign at Hartfield–but in the afternoon it cleared; the wind changed into a softer quarter; the clouds were carried off; the sun appeared; it was summer again.

– from Chapter 49

Not, it must be conceded, that the clouds in Emma had ever been darkly threatening. If Austen had indeed set out to write a novel as far removed from its predecessor as possible, she must remove even the possibility of tragedy. In Mansfield Park, the clouds had been threatening indeed, and a happy ending for the protagonist Fanny could only be achieved by the unhappiness of others around her: the final pages there depict a very uncertain heaven. But from the very first lines of Emma, we know that we are in an idyll, a delightful comedy of manners; and comedies of manners, we know, do not end in tragedy, or even in uncertain heavens. The interest lies in seeing not if the clouds will lift, but in how they lift. And we know that as and when they do lift, they will lift for all, and that not even the deplorable Eltons will be excluded from universal happiness; for, deplorable though they both are, they do seem rather to like each other. There is no Malvolio or Jaques by the end who cannot or will not be reconciled.

With this assurance offered, the dramatic immediacy that had informed Mansfield Park is conspicuous here by its absence: even when things go disastrously wrong – even when, thanks to Emma’s meddling, a possible happy marriage for Harriet Smith is turned down – we don’t worry: we rest contented in the assurance that it’ll all and end up right by the end, and that the very worthy Mr Martin, who had proposed to Harriet and on whom Emma had so snobbishly looked down, will not languish too long under the pain of rejection. Indeed, whatever pain of rejection he suffers is not even depicted, as that would have broken up the happy and genial surface of the work.

But this happy and genial surface should not blind us to the dangers of Emma’s misperceptions, nor, indeed, to their unpleasantness. Mr Martin appears only as an incidental character, but even from what we discern of him incidentally, we perceive a genuinely worthy man, a man possessing nobility of nature if not of social status. For Emma to look down upon such a person cannot be seen as anything other than unpleasant. And her persuading Harriet to turn down Mr Martin’s proposal on the ground that he, given his social status, ranks far below her in terms of human worth, is as absurd as it is reprehensible. Not only does this rejection cause the worthy Mr Martin pain (a pain we may easily infer even though it is not depicted), it jeopardises also the future of Harriet, a sweet but empty-headed young lady whose future is indeed most uncertain.  Emma is, as all readers acknowledge, a flawed character, but I am not sure it is often acknowledged just how deeply flawed she is: Austen has, indeed, to use all the considerable art at her disposal not to alienate the reader from her heroine.

Indeed, she goes further: she ensures that Emma charms us. Before writing the novel, Austen had referred to Emma as “a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like”, a remark that inclines me to think that Austen employed irony as liberally outside her novels as she did in them. For she lavished on Emma as much natural charm as she could, making all her flaws appear as consequence not of an ill nature, but of a certain lack of understanding; and we are convinced that once that understanding does come, these flaws will vanish. Quite how Austen manages to persuade the reader of this, it is hard to say. Perhaps it is in the presentation of Emma’s refined manners; or of her patient forbearance of her hypochondriac father; or, perhaps, of the obvious affection that the knightly Mr Knightley has for her. More importantly than any of these, I think, Emma is capable of introspection: it is this quality, above all, that sets her apart from the odious Mrs Elton, who, mean-spirited and objectionable though she is, is a sort of image of Emma as seen in a grotesquely distorting mirror. Emma takes a strong dislike to Mrs Elton, and with good reason: Mrs Elton is snobbish, self-centred, patronising, and self-aggrandising. She takes Jane Fairfax under her wing purely for the purpose of self-aggrandisement, to demonstrate both to herself and to everyone else her own superiority over her protégé. And Emma herself is guilty of every one of these faults that she can see so clearly in Mrs Elton: for Emma too is snobbish, and self-centred; and Emma, too, takes another person –  Harriet Smith – under her wing purely for the purposes of self-aggrandisement. What raises Emma above Mrs Elton is partly Emma’s refinement of manners, and partly a certain personal charm – a quality that eludes analysis, but which Austen depicts unerringly; but mainly, I think, Emma is raised above Mrs Elton by her ability to look into herself, and to examine what she finds. Until the final section of the novel, this ability is, admittedly, but partly used, but we are left in no doubt that it is present; and so, when she does come to look into herself fully, and acknowledge her many errors, the reader is not taken by surprise. Indeed, if anything, the reader warms to her even more.

For this is among the sunniest and warmest of novels. The small-town life that Austen so often depicted – those few families living close together, and, despite incidental absurdities which are mainly to be laughed away rather than grieved over, bound together by ties of mutual acquaintance and of friendship – is here celebrated. The pace is leisurely: Austen seems to relish depicting the measured pace at which everyday life proceeds. There is a genuine affection in her depiction of the small town of Highbury:

 …while she was still hanging over muslins and changing her mind, Emma went to the door for amusement. Much could not be hoped from the traffic of even the busiest part of Highbury; — Mr. Perry walking hastily by, Mr. William Cox letting himself in at the office door, Mr. Cole’s carriage horses returning from exercise, or a stray letter-boy on an obstinate mule, were the liveliest objects she could presume to expect; and when her eyes fell only on the butcher with his tray, a tidy old woman travelling homewards from shop with her full basket, two curs quarrelling over a dirty bone, and a string of dawdling children round the baker’s little bow-window eyeing the gingerbread, she knew she had no reason to complain, and was amused enough; quite enough still to stand at the door. A mind lively and at ease, can do with seeing nothing, and can see nothing that does not answer.

– from Chapter 27

Here, it seems to me, is Austen’s rationale for lack of overt drama: a “mind lively and at ease” does not require overt drama, as it can see “nothing that does not answer”.  What overt drama is inherent in the story Austen actually suppresses: we do not witness Robert Martin’s pain of rejection, and neither do we know of the extent or the reason of Jane Fairfax’ sufferings until it is all over. The setting is idyllic, and whatever clouds are present we know will lift.

The tale set in this most idyllic of settings is a tale of transgression and redemption – of crime and punishment, if one wishes to be fanciful about it: except there is no real punishment here. Emma transgresses, recognises the nature of her transgression, and redeems herself; there is no punishment involved, for her transgression is a common one, one that we are all guilty of, and not really worth punishing. This transgression of Emma’s is a favourite theme of Austen’s – that of perceiving wrongly: Catherine Morland, Marianne Dashwood, Elizabeth and Darcy, just about everyone in Mansfield Park except Fanny – they all perceive wrongly. But Austen proves far from censorious about this: not understanding fully, or understanding imperfectly, this world we live in, is a common affliction, and while not understanding adequately one’s self or the world one inhabits has tragic potential, Austen, unlike Hardy, preferred to see it as comedy: the remedy for misperceiving the world is to learn to perceive it better. And that it is possible to do so is cause for rejoicing.

This is a very different vision of life from that presented in Mansfield Park, or, from what I remember from my previous reading some years ago, that presented in her last completed novel, Persuasion. But in each new novel, Austen seems intent on not repeating herself: although the themes may be similar, she is determined to see these themes from as many different perspectives as possible. Here, her perspective is forbearing, optimistic, and, despite her naturally waspish wit, gentle. While, by temperament, I find myself drawn more towards the sombre drama and passion of Mansfield Park, it’s easy to see why Emma has so many devoted admirers: it is a work of optimism and of geniality, while in terms of artistry, it ranks with her finest work.

My unfortunate partiality for “colonising texts”

When I first came under the spell of Shakespeare some forty and more years ago, I failed to realise that I was siding with a tool of colonial oppression. And now, it’s too late to do anything about it: I am too stuck in my ways.

I suppose it has much to do with my family background. One never escapes the cultural ambience one grows up in; even those elements we reject define us: they define us by the very fact that we have rejected them. And there are other elements that one rejects, but later comes back to. And, finally, there are those elements in one’s family background that, consciously or unconsciously, become integral parts of one’s very being. My love of Shakespeare belongs, I think, to the third category.

Not that my parents read Shakespeare: my late father, who loved and had an encyclopaedic knowledge of Bengali literature, often lamented to me that his English wasn’t good enough for him to read and appreciate Shakespeare’s plays. I think he was wrong in this: his English most certainly was good enough to enable appreciation to a significantly high degree, but, given the level to which he understood and appreciated Bengali poetry, the standards he set himself were high. He did love watching the plays though, and never spoke of Shakespeare with anything other than respect. As a man steeped in Bengali culture, and who had lived the first twenty-one years of his life under British rule, if there was any resentment to be felt about “cultural imperialism”, he was well placed to feel it: but he didn’t. Yes, it did distress him that the Bengali culture he loved and valued so much was so little known outside the Bengali-speaking world; but the idea that Shakespeare was a colonial imposition was something that never even had occurred to him.

And this, I think, is only to be expected from someone who was so steeped in Tagorean ethos as was my father. In the first decade of the twentieth century, when Indian nationalist sentiment, though in its infancy, was establishing itself as a potent force, Tagore wrote possibly the most startling of all patriotic poems. (It is No. 106 in the Bengali Gitanjali, for those who have access to it.) He does not here proclaim the greatness of India; and nor does he speak, as he was fully entitled to do, of India’s violation by foreign powers. Instead, he calls for people from all around the world, of all cultures and all backgrounds – even, quite explicitly, the imperialist rulers, the British – to bring to India their cultural riches, and thereby enrich the Indian mind and the Indian soul. The very concept of “cultural imperialism” was to Tagore utterly alien.

Looking back, that was the ethos in the household in which I grew up. My parents obviously thought it important that I, a five-year-old newly arrived in the country and unable to speak a word of English, should learn the language, but their motives were by no means purely utilitarian: even before I knew who Shakespeare was, I knew that this strange language I was to learn was “the language of Shakespeare”; and that if I learnt it well, I would have the privilege of being able to read the original works. This reverence – which, contrary to popular belief, does not preclude critical engagement – that was inculcated into me remains with me still. And, somewhat absurdly I suppose (since it reflects no credit on me personally), I find myself rather proud of this: my love of Shakespeare, far from being a foreign cultural imposition, is an aspect of my Bengali, Tagorean heritage.

And so, when I see an article in the arts pages of a prestigious newspapers that tells us, with obvious disapproval, that “in India and countries in Africa, Shakespeare’s works were made compulsory in schools, as they were seen as a mark of civilisation”, I struggle to understand what there can be in any of that that the author finds objectionable: does the author think these plays aren’t a mark of civilisation? And when the author then goes on to refer to these plays as “the master’s colonising texts”, something inside me, I confess, dies a little.

There are many other aspects of that article that I find – to put it politely – puzzling. The author, Preti Taneja, says of a recent Catalan film, Otel.lo, that it is “genuinely far more entertaining, political and provocative than many contemporary productions of Shakespeare in the UK”. Presumably, she is stating her own personal opinion here, and if so, that’s fair enough. There’s no arguing with personal opinion: de gustibus, and all that. But I can’t help wondering what the point of this comparison is. For one thing, comparing a Shakespeare play with a film in which a Shakespeare play is used as the basis for a new work of art is not a like-for-like comparison. And secondly, while I am sure that there are indeed productions of Shakespeare in the UK that are mediocre or worse – quality, after all, varies in all areas of human activity – the standard of Shakespearean performances in British theatres remains, despite the often desperate state of theatre finances, very high. Preti Taneja’s slur seems to me frankly gratuitous and churlish.

And there’s more. “It’s time to break this national monopoly on Shakespeare,” the headline proclaims. What “national monopoly”? The article itself tells us of the various productions and adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays from all around the world. Translating Shakespeare into other languages, adapting Shakespeare, seeing Shakespeare through different cultural prisms to arrive at new levels of meaning – this has all been going on for a few centuries now, and none of it requires special pleading. From Verdi’s Otello to Kurosawa’s Ran (Italy and Japan both countries in which Shakespeare looms large, despite the rather inconvenient fact that neither has ever been colonised by the British), the plays of Shakespeare have formed the basis of new works; and often (as is certainly the case with the works of Verdi and Kurosawa), these new works themselves are widely acclaimed as masterpieces in their own right. So, once again – what national monopoly? What, in short, is Ms Taneja complaining about?

Personally, I welcome new adaptations of Shakespeare. I can’t imagine any lover of Shakespeare who doesn’t. Otel.lo may no doubt be a very fine film, and I would be keen to see it. But it remains somewhat dispiriting that in order to praise new adaptations of Shakespeare’s work, Preti Taneja feels the need to disparage the very fine work that is going on in theatres all around Britain. And it is equally dispiriting to see these endlessly enriching works characterised as tools of colonial oppression.

As for me, I shall go on revering the plays of Shakespeare. I owe it to my Bengali heritage, after all.

A Sicilian romance

No, this post is nothing to do with Ann Radcliffe. I did read The Mysteries of Udolpho once, and, to slightly misquote Joel Cairo, my experience of reading Radcliffe was not such that I am anxious to continue it. No – this post is to share a few pictures from last week, which I spent with my better half in Sicily, hoping that this will both explain and excuse my rather long silence on this blog.

First, here is the Greek theatre in Siracusa (Syracuse), where Aeschylus himself is reputed to have performed.


And this is me waiting for the Oresteia to start. Or maybe it’s just the People’s Front of Judea.


I didn’t take any pictures inside Monreale Cathedral, as neither my crappy wee camera nor my crappy photographic skills could hope to capture the magnificence of the Byzantine mosaics. i would, however, recommend a google image search on Monreale Cathedral: some of the images really are magnificent. Here, however, is a view of the cloisters:


And here are a few of the magnificent Greek temples in Agrigento:


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And there’s Etna, of course. All week in Catania (where we were based), the clouds were low: we knew Etna was there somewhere, but it was out of sight. But then, on the last day, the clouds lifted, and we had a magnificent view of the smoking mountain. So here it is, taken from Catania Airport (do excuse the foreground):


I make no excuses for including among these pictures a snap of the bust of Verdi outside Palermo Opera House: Verdi is, after all, a great hero of mine.


And finally, there’s “The Burial of St Lucy” by Caravaggio, in the small church of Santa Lucia alla Badia in Siracusa. I had seen this picture in reproduction, but never, a it were, in the flesh. This is one of Caravaggio’s late paintings, executed while he was on the run: apparently, he fled from Siracusa, for reasons that we can only conjecture, as soon as he had finished this. And yet again, I find it difficult to reconcile the man who could have it in him to have painted so compassionate a vision of innocence and vulnerability crushed by the brute forces of violence, with the man who was himself a violent and murderous thug.

Dominating the lower half of the canvas are the gravediggers – two huge, monumental figures that even Michelangelo would have been proud of: this is, in effect, Merisi playing Buonarroti at his own game. But then, the eye is then subtly drawn to the frail corpse of St Lucy, lying on the ground between these two figures, her face turned slightly towards us, her foreshortened arm reaching out to us as if in supplication. And above it all, taking up some half of the huge canvas, is a dark void, a vast emptiness.

"The burial of St Lucy" by Caravaggio, courtesy of the Church of Santa Lucia alla Badia, Siracusa

“The burial of St Lucy” by Caravaggio, courtesy of the Church of Santa Lucia alla Badia, Siracusa

The theme of innocence violated and destroyed by brute forces of violence has particularly strong resonance in our own time; it could be argued, I suppose, that there has never been a time when it hasn’t had strong resonance. And it is hard to imagine a time when this painting, or that terrible final scene of King Lear, will cease to resonate. It is moving beyond words.

Well, that’s enough of holiday snaps. This blog will now be returning to its usual, mundane self.