Well, that year whizzed by quickly, didn’t it?
As usual at this time of year, this blog will be taking a break for a while. may I wish you all a peaceful and convivial Christmas, and a very Happy New Year.
Your very good health!
An elderly, kindly man is married to a much younger woman. Then, out of nowhere, a stranger appears, and it seems that he is a figure from the young wife’s past, and that she is in love with him. The older husband is stricken by jealousy, and even considers killing the stranger. But then, having considered the situation, comes to feel that it is he who is in the wrong – that it was wrong for him to have married a woman so much younger than himself, and possibly, in the process, have thwarted her own desires and aspirations. So, although he still loves her – indeed, because he still loves her – he offers her freedom.
I could be describing a play by Ibsen here. Indeed, this is, more or less, the central dramatic action of The Lady From the Sea. But no – I am describing here one of the strands of The Cricket on the Hearth, the third of Dickens’ Christmas Books, a series that had started with A Christmas Carol. Dickens never did recapture the genius of that masterpiece: The Chimes, that followed the year after, was a dark and angry work – very powerful in its way, but lacking much sense of festive cheer, or any of the whimsy or exuberance we associate with Dickens at Christmas. Here, in The Cricket on the Hearth, he seemed to go the other way: the darkness is effectively banished, and we get nothing but the whimsy and the good cheer: even John Peerybingle’s jealousy dissipates almost as soon as it starts, and, unlike the Ibsen play where the possibility of the young wife leaving her husband was all too real, there is little danger of that here: it is all a misunderstanding here, and is wiped out quite painlessly. There is little danger, indeed, of anything: and there, perhaps, is the problem. The sense of joy at the end of A Christmas Carol was convincing because it was hard-earned; here, it is hardly earned at all. In A Christmas Carol, on the way to all that joy and rejoicing, we had been allowed to glimpse into the abyss: here, the abyss doesn’t even exist. There are very few shadows in this work, dark or otherwise: even the Scrooge-like figure, Tackleton, doesn’t seem that monstrous, and is easily accommodated into the general rejoicing at the end. Of course, this is a fairy tale, and a very whimsical fairy tale at that, but fairy tales, no matter how whimsical, need more than their fair share of darkness, and Dickens’ refusal to supply any – possibly as a reaction to the excessive darkness of The Chimes – results in a sort of flatness, a lack of those contours that mould figures and give them shape.
And yet, the themes were there, and, as A Christmas Carol demonstrates, neither whimsicality nor a fairy tale format need inhibit serious treatment of serious themes. But in his depiction of the Peerybingles, there doesn’t seem to be much awareness at all of the potential thematic richness: it’s not that I was expecting an Ibsenite dissection of marriage; but I was entitled to expect, I think, something not quite so superficial as this. Even the night where John Peerybingle wrestles with his conscience – a passage that really should have been the climactic point of the work – is dispatched in a quick couple of pages or so.
And then, there is the motif of the blind girl. The very motif of a young blind girl who imagines her world to be something grander than it actually is may appear sentimental to modern taste, but once again, there is potential here – as Chaplin demonstrated so triumphantly in City Lights. But Dickens makes surprisingly little of it. Even the scene where the blind girl is told how shabby everything really is around her does not make much of an impact. The problem is not that it is “stagey”, or “sentimental”, or “melodramatic”, or any of those other epithets that are regularly aimed at Dickens by his many detractors: it is, rather, that neither the staginess, nor the sentimentality, nor the melodrama, seems particularly well handled. It’s almost as if Dickens’ heart wasn’t in it. I frequently got the impression reading this that he was merely going through the motions; that, indeed, he was producing another Christmas Book for no better reason than that the public expected it of him. Perhaps.
And yet, The Cricket on the Hearth was immensely popular in Dickens’ own lifetime. Since I do not subscribe to the idea that public taste necessarily improves over time, I couldn’t help wondering whether I had approached this work in the wrong frame of mind – whether I had not been ideally responsive to this because I had failed to make the leap of the imagination that any fiction requires from the reader. That, too, is possible.
The next in the Christmas Books series was The Battle of Life – a real Christmas turkey that I’d prefer not to re-read: there’s nothing quite so depressing as a favourite writer writing badly – in this case, very badly. The year after that he gave it a rest, but then returned the next year with The Haunted Man, a splendid piece that was excessively florid even by the standards of Dickensian prose, and which was, like The Chimes, almost unrelievedly dark. It seems that the man who had given us Christmas at Dingley Dell could now see little in the world worth celebrating, or rejoicing over.
Well, we needn’t repine: The Cricket on the Hearth may be a bit of a flop, and The Battle of Life even worse; but The Chimes and The Haunted Man, dark though they both are, are wonderful works, and A Christmas Carol is a work beyond compare – a work one can return to year after year without ever feeling it has become stale. And anyone who says otherwise gets a punch on the nose from me – season of goodwill or no!
The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, translated by Archibald Colquhoun
In trying to describe The Leopard, the words “aristocratic” and “patrician” come readily mind. This is not merely because it is a novel about the aristocracy, with a very powerful aristocratic figure at its centre; and nor is it merely because the author himself is from an aristocratic family, and is, effectively, depicting his own forefathers in a fictional form; it is more because the tone of the narration bespeaks at each point an unmistakably patrician mien, a comportment and bearing that is refined and courteous even at its shrewdest and most cutting, and which maintains a formal and decorous distance even at its most personal. At times, it seems almost as if the author is not so much speaking to us as granting us an audience, allowing us the privilege of sharing in his thoughts.
The novel was published posthumously in 1958, a year after the di Lampedusa’s death. It is his only novel, and written, from what we can gather, at a feverish speed during his last few months. His widow tells us that he had mentioned to her the idea of such a novel some twenty-five years earlier: “He thought of it continually, but he could never decide to begin.” One can but conjecture that it was the awareness of his fatal illness that spurred him to put down on paper the novel that had been maturing in his mind for so long. But, feverish though the the act of writing may have been, there is nothing febrile about the work itself: it is, at every page, at every paragraph, poised and sedate, almost, some might say, to a fault.
The passing of time is among the major themes of the novel, but di Lampedusa avoids the difficulty of depicting the fluid passage of time – among the most difficult of things for any novelist to communicate – by presenting us not with a continuous narrative, but with a series of tableaux, each set in a different time: the passage of time between the successive tableaux we are invited to fill in ourselves. All but the last two of the eight tableaux are set in the early 60s, around the time of the Risorgimento, when Garibaldi and his men, the “Thousand”, swept through Sicily, bringing about the end of one era, and the start of a new. The principal character of the novel, Prince Fabrizio of the illustrious Salina family, is a large and dominating figure, both physically and metaphorically; he is a man who is, naturally, conscious of his aristocratic standing and is proud of it. Now in his middle age, he remains vigorous both in body and in mind: he is a compulsive womaniser and serial adulterer, much to the disapprobation of his Jesuit chaplain who nonetheless has not the power to oppose him; and he is also an intellectual, devoted to his astronomical studies. As an intellectual, he knows that the tide of history cannot be stopped. Indeed, he even gives his blessing to his favourite nephew, the dashing Tancredi, who is on his way to join with Garibaldi’s Redshirts. And yet, he knows, he can sense, that his aristocratic status will not, cannot, remain as it has been.
The Prince is perturbed: awareness that things have to change co-exists with an exasperation that it must be so. In the same way, he at the same time admires and is disgusted by his wife’s religious prudery; and, on returning from an impromptu visit to his mistress in Palermo, he finds himself satisfied sexually, and, at the same time, disgusted by his own lechery. Beneath that composed and powerful exterior there seethe all sorts of contradictory impulses and desires, incapable of any kind of resolution.
The narrative moves on. By the third tableau, Garibaldi’s forces are victorious: the Bourbons have been expelled, and Sicily is now under the rule of Victor Emmanuel II of the Kingdom of Sardinia. We now meet the new mayor of Donnafugata, the wealthy Don Calogero Sedàra. Tasteless and vulgar, of course, and, as may be expected, utterly lacking in Don Fabrizio’s patrician poise; but it is, nonetheless, he, and not Prince Fabrizio, who represents the future. He can offer a far greater dowry for his beautiful daughter, Angelica, than Don Fabrizio can offer for his own daughter Concetta. For the ambitious Don Fabrizio, it seems hardly a contest: Angelica’s dowry but enhances her beauty, although, himself an aristocrat, he would not have put it in such terms. The two, indeed, make a dashing couple, straight out of a romantic novel. Although, when his confessor, Father Pirrone, is asked about the prospects of their marriage, he can only reply guardedly that Fabrizio has the potential of becoming a good husband.
The Prince thinks back on the recent plebiscite. He himself had voted in favour of the new regime: one cannot, as he keeps telling himself, hold back the tide of history. But the church organist, Don Ciccio, confides to his once feudal master that he could not bring himself to vote against the old regime. He tells also of how the votes were rigged: Don Calogero, now the mayor and formerly a peasant moneylender, had fraudulently announced a unanimous vote in favour of the new regime. There is more: Don Calogero had eloped with the woman who is now his wife, and his father-in-law, who had sworn vengeance, had been found murdered. While the Prince keeps to himself his own misgivings about the new regime, Don Ciccio is more forthcoming: he is scandalised at the very idea of Tancredi marrying into Don Calogero’s family.
And as they climbed down towards the road, it would have been difficult to tell which of the two was Don Quixote and which was Sancho Panza.
We move on. Prince Fabrizio becomes more ruthless in his business dealings; Don Calogero tries to adopt some of Don Fabrizio’s refinement of manners. The Prince refuses an offer to sit in the Senate, explaining his reasons at some length, and suggesting they make the offer instead to Don Calogero:
“He has more qualities to sit there than I have; his family, I am told, is an old one, or soon will be … as to illusions, I don’t think he has any more than I have, but he is clever enough to know how to create them when needed.”
In a brief narrative digression, Father Pirrone pays a visit to his peasant family, and settles to everyone’s satisfaction his niece’s marriage, a sordid affair involving lust and money, which parodies the equally sordid marriage, also involving lust and money, between Angelica and Tancredi. And so life continues. The old ways must pass, and new ways take their place; that, as the Prince understands, is as it should be, as it must be. And yet, there is a deep sadness at the passing. At a ball, the ageing Prince, still physically vigorous, still capable not only of lust but of acting on it, dances with the beautiful young Angelina: one may, I suppose, interpret the symbolism of the dance as one chooses.
The penultimate tableau takes us forward some twenty years, and a scene more moving than it had any right to be describes the Prince’s death. At the point of death, he has an enigmatic vision of a beautiful young woman approaching him. The sensuality that had defined his life defines his death also. And in the final tableau, set some twenty years again after Don Fabrizio’s death, representatives of the Church come to examine the religious relics of the Salinas’ private chapel to determine their authenticity. The symbolism is obvious. Tancredi is now dead: his widow, Angelica, and the three daughters of Don Fabrizio, are now old ladies, and they too must, whether they like it or not, examine their own relics, the fragments of the past that they have stored against their destruction. Tancredi’s marriage to Angelina had not been successful: it’s all in the past now, but Concetta, who had once hoped that Tancredi would marry her, and who had blamed her father for her disappointment, has to revisit and re-evaluate her past. Like the representatives of the Church examining the relics, she too has to discover what, if anything, is, or has been, authentic.
It is possibly because Di Lampedusa was not a professional writer that The Leopard seems so unlike any other novel of that period. It is poetic and elegiac, and, indeed, sensual; it is a novel about passion. And yet, the surface is poised, unruffled – one is tempted to say “aristocratic”, even at the risk of over-using that word. Its passion – for there is passion there – is seen as if from a distance, from a most decorous distance. And there hangs in the air a profound melancholy – the melancholy of time passing and of the changes effected by the passage of time, both in public life and in private. Inevitable these changes may be: like the Prince, we can but bow to this inevitability. The aristocracy was decadent, and its demise was inevitable. But there seems no sense of joy in what replaces it. And meanwhile, in the private sphere, all hopes and aspirations, all strength and vitality, eventually dissipate. It is hard not to ask oneself whether it has all been a waste – all, in the final analysis of the relics, meaningless. And yet, this is not a nihilist work: it is a work that seems not to harbour any illusion – a work, indeed, that even Flaubert may have approved of; and yet, beneath its calm and unruffled surface one may discern a powerful heartbeat, and, quite frequently, a compelling sensuality. It certainly leaves behind a most distinctive aftertaste.
Politics in a work of literature, Stendhal once opined, is like a pistol shot in the middle of a concert. Perhaps the same may be said of politics in a literary blog. Except, of course, I do not pretend this is a literary blog: I write about whatever comes to mind. But I do tend to keep away from politics: this is not out of fear of disturbing the cultured and refined proceedings of this blog with the violence of a pistol shot, nor because I lack interest in matters political, and certainly not because I lack opinions. Rather, it is because the offering of political views on a public platform – as opposed to the spouting of intemperate opinions over a few drinks with friends – ideally requires a thorough grasp of facts and of arguments as can only be achieved through long and focussed thought, and painstaking research. And while I appreciate that a great many political writers on the net are innocent of anything approaching either thought or research, I have no great wish to join their ranks: hence my reticence.
However, exceptions must always be made. And when an MP plays Candy Crush Saga while attending a meeting of a parliamentary committee – a parliamentary committee dealing with works and pensions, no less – some comment doesn’t, perhaps, go amiss, even on a blog as non-political as this. For I do not seek to make a party political point here: it is true that the Member of Parliament involved is of the Conservative Party – a party for which I never had any great love – but really, he could have been a member of any party at all: it is not his political affiliations that bother me. Neither am I, if I am to be honest, particularly bothered by his playing Candy Crush Saga during a committee meeting, reprehensible though that undoubtedly is. No – what bothers me most is that he plays Candy Crush Saga at all.
I am told that things could be even worse. In India, some two years ago, three MPs of the Bharatiya Janata Party – the nationalist party that was recently elected into power to restore to the Motherland the glorious pristine purity of the Hindu religion before it became so corrupted by foreign influences – were caught watching pornography on their smartphones during a parliamentary session. However, while approving neither of watching pornography during a parliamentary session, nor, indeed, of pornography itself, I can nonetheless understand the attraction of sexual arousal: more, I admit, than I can the attraction of Candy Crush Saga.
Candy Crush Saga! It is true that, in our cynical age, we no longer expect our democratically elected representatives to possess integrity, or even, for that matter, competence, but it is surely not unreasonable to expect from them a modicum of gravitas!
Nigel Mills, the Member of Parliament in question, has graciously said that he will “try not to do it in future”. Not that he promises never again to do it in future, ever, but that he will try not to do it. That even with the best of intentions, during those long committee meetings on matters as unimportant as pensions, the urge to turn to Candy Crush Saga may be too strong even for the most iron-willed of parliamentary committee members to resist.
We live, dear reader, in Godless times.
Towards the end of the play of which he is protagonist, Macbeth speaks these famous lines:
I have lived long enough: my way of life
Is fall’n into the sear, the yellow leaf;
And that which should accompany old age,
As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have; but, in their stead,
Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath,
Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not.
(From V, iii)
And yet, a brief couple of scenes later, he speaks these even more famous lines:
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
The earlier speech is a heartfelt lament for what he is; the latter a statement of nihilism, a conviction that nothing in life really matters. And of course, the two speeches are inconsistent: for if nothing in life really matters, there is nothing for him to lament. So the actor looking for a consistency is here flummoxed: Macbeth surely cannot mean both!
And yet, I think he does: at the time he speaks each speech, he means it. Both speeches are heartfelt. So has he changed dramatically between the two speeches? It seems unlikely. The only difference is that before he utters the second speech, he receives news of his wife’s death; but the two had grown very far apart by then, and he must have been expecting this news anyway. And even if that were not the case, it is hard to see why this news should change him in such a manner.
One reason Shakespeare seems so profound a depicter of humanity is, it seems to me, that he recognises humans are bundles of contradictions. The drama in his plays is frequently within his characters as much as, or even more than, between his characters. Thus, Macbeth can at the same time lament the profound tragedy that he knows his life to be, while at the same time believe that it doesn’t matter. And instead of resolving this conflict, Shakespeare is happy to leave it as it is. Macbeth is both. This cannot be resolved.
And Macbeth himself knows this. He seems to me by far the most self-aware of all Shakespeare’s tragic protagonists. Even Hamlet, that most intelligent and introspective of characters, is often puzzled by his own self, asking himself questions about his own self that he cannot answer, and admitting that he does not know:
I do not know
Why yet I live to say ‘This thing’s to do;
‘Sith I have cause and will and strength and means
(From III, iv)
Hamlet’s acute self-awareness is, quite frequently, an awareness that he doesn’t truly know his own self. But Macbeth knows his true self all too well. Alone amongst Shakespeare’s tragic protagonists, Macbeth does not make the journey towards greater self-knowledge: this is because he has known himself perfectly from the start. His tragedy is not that he had acted from lack of self-knowledge, but, rather, he had acted knowing perfectly that his acts will damn his soul for ever; knowing perfectly that once started, there can be no going back. And yet, he is unable to stop himself. Othello’s vision had been fatally clouded as he walked into damnation, but Macbeth goes into his damnation with his eyes wide open at each step. And their sense is not shut.
Lady Macbeth, too, is a huge bundle of contradictions. Does her invocation to evil spirits to possess her an indication of her evil nature? Or an admission that she cannot truly be evil with the spirits’ possession? Why does this personification of evil in a female form herself shirk from the act of murder – and for the most sentimental of reasons?
Had he not resembled My father as he slept, I had done’t.
How, indeed, can so implacably evil a woman eventually become mad with guilt?
Shakespeare never repeated himself. After the terse bleakness of Macbeth, he went immediately to the opposite extreme, and gave us the expansive and overflowing opulence of Antony and Cleopatra; here, instead of a protagonist who knows himself, he gives us a queen who, regardless of what she had been in life, mythologises herself into a great queen at death; and a once mighty soldier whose extent of acquired self-knowledge amounts to his realising that he doesn’t have the first understanding of who or what he is.
That which is now a horse, even with a thought
The rack dislimns, and makes it indistinct,
As water is in water.
It does, my lord.
My good knave Eros, now thy captain is
Even such a body: here I am Antony:
Yet cannot hold this visible shape…
(From IV, xiii)
Like the Macbeths, Antony and Cleopatra too are bundles of unresolved contradictions. There is, by the end, a closure in terms of plot, but never in terms of character.