Archive for May, 2015

Jane Austen’s writing desk

This is the house in the small Hampshire village of Chawton into which Jane Austen moved with her mother and sisters in 1809.

Jane Austen's house in Chawton

Jane Austen’s house in Chawton


And this very small desk is the one on which Austen used to write. It was on this desk that she revised Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility; and on which she wrote Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Persuasion.

Jane Austen's writing desk

Jane Austen’s writing desk


The village of Chawton itself is idyllic. There’s everything you’d expect from a traditional English village – a pub serving good English ale, a village church, …

The village church in Chawton

The village church in Chawton


…and even cricket on the village green.

Cricket on the village green

Cricket on the village green

Lear eviscerated: Jonathan Miller’s latest production of “King Lear”

Although it’s often quoted as if it were a profound piece of wisdom, I have never really understood what Wilde meant by the line “Each man kills the thing he loves”. I suspect that, as with most other Wildean epigrams, he was more concerned with sound than with sense. But I couldn’t help thinking of that line on seeing the Northern Broadsides touring production of King Lear, featuring Barrie Rutter in the title role, and directed – for the eighth time, I believe – by Jonathan Miller.

This is a production I very much wanted to like. Regional theatre companies are amongst the most important aspect of our artistic life here in Britain, and the standard of Shakespearean production in this country – despite some ill-considered sniping to the contrary – remains very high. Putting on such a colossal masterpiece such as King Lear is precisely what a company such as Northern Broadsides should be doing. And there can be no doubt that Jonathan Miller loves this play: he would hardly have directed it eight times if he didn’t. In the programme notes of this production, he is quoted as saying that this is the play he “knows best”. His production of King Lear for the BBC Shakespeare series in the early 80s struck me as, in many ways, quite outstanding: it would certainly be my top recommendation for anyone wanting a performance of this play for home viewing. And yet, this latest production, which is likely, given Jonathan Miller is now 80, to be his last of the work, never springs to life. I do not think this is a fault of the cast, who were hardly given the opportunity to make the most of their parts: no – it is Jonathan Miller himself who, for reasons I cannot fathom, appears to have killed the thing he so obviously loves.

Of course, Jonathan Miller has long held views on this play that may be described as idiosyncratic. Perhaps uniquely amongst major theatre directors, he does not see King Lear as an epic play; he does not see Lear himself as a towering figure, larger than life; he does not see the drama as a work of cosmic significance: the characters in this play, he insists, are contending not against cosmic forces, but against each other. This is not, I admit, my own view of the work, but I am always happy to have my views challenged, especially by someone who has thought as long and hard about the work as Miller has obviously done. But he has a strange way of making his point: to demonstrate that the play is not epic or cosmic, he simply removes from it all passages that suggest the epic or the cosmic. If, say, a pianist is convinced that Beethoven’s piano sonatas contain no slow music, and tries to demonstrate this by omitting all the slow movements in performance, I doubt anyone would be taking that pianist too seriously; yet, I do not see that Miller’s approach is any different.

It is not that I insist on a full presentation of the text. In the first place, what is generally regarded as a “full text” is really a conflation of two quite separate texts; and, in general, most Shakespeare plays can, in performance, take a bit of judicious cutting. But here, the text wasn’t so much cut as eviscerated. In scene after scene, some of the most affecting, extraordinary, and – dare I say it – epic and cosmic of passages were simply cut away.  Of course, in saying this I realise I lay myself open to the charge of being a mere Shakespearean tourist, as it were, wanting merely to savour the famous highlights, like those who step off the tour bus for a few minutes to take a snap of the Eiffel Tower before being whisked on to the next famous landmark. But I plead “not guilty” to that. The cuts imposed by Miller were so ruinous that they seemed to take the very heart out of the play. I understood how Miller doesn’t see the play, I got no sense of how he does.

For instance, I can understand – though not necessarily agree with – the excision of the passage depicting the mock-trial in III,vi: if the Folio text is regarded as Shakespeare’s own revision of the earlier Quarto text, Shakespeare made the cut himself. But if the reason for this excision is textual, it is hard to account for the excision of the lines Shakespeare had added in the Folio text: Lear’s last line, for instance, which, at the very point of extinction, seems to hint at a transcending vision. Perhaps Shakespeare was being too “cosmic” here for Jonathan Miller – I don’t know.

The famous storm scenes too had their dark heart removed. In other productions I have seen, and even in my readings of play, the combination of Lear’s ragings, the Fool’s increasingly irrelevant gibberings, Poor Tom’s utter gibberish – in which the very structure of language seems to break down – and, of course, the elemental nature of the storm itself, transports me into a world of apocalyptic terror. But here, Lear does not rage – so when the French doctor later says his “great rage … is killed”, one can but wonder what he is on about; and much of the Fool’s part, and virtually all of Poor Tom’s are cut. After the Fool speaks a prophecy (mainly nonsense: Shakespeare has taken us into a world here that has stopped making sense), he speaks the very strange line “This prophecy Merlin shall make, for I live before his time”, and suddenly, we realise that the Fool is actually prophesying a prophecy, and chasms open at our feet; the very structure of time itself seems to have collapsed. In this production, the prophecy is retained, but not the line that follows, and, as a consequence, nothing very much is communicated to the audience at all. (This entire passage appears only in the Folio text, not in the Quarto, but since only part of it is retained, I doubt that the reasons for the cut had anything to do with textual considerations.) And while there is, as I said, some textual argument to support the excision of the mock-trial (which appears only in the Quarto text), one wonders what could have prompted Miller to cut the entire scene in which it appears.

And so it continues. The scene where the mad Lear meets the blind Gloucester – which projects the most terrible of tragic visions more powerfully than just about any other scene in drama that I can think of – is cut to shreds; and even at the end – where, in this production, Lear, instead of entering with Cordelia’s corpse in his arms, totters in weakly after her body – the chilling animal-like cries of “Howl! Howl! Howl! Howl!” are cut. And, of course, Lear’s final line, which really does hint at the cosmic dimension that Miller insists isn’t there, is also cut. All that is grand; all that is magnificent, colossal, epic; all that is visionary; is cut away.

One does not, I agree, need to be epic to communicate artistic visions of passion and of intensity: to consider an example from a rather different medium, Rafael Kubelik’s recording of Mahler’s mighty 6th symphony is conceived on a much smaller scale than the grand, epic readings of Barbirolli, Bernstein, Solti or Karajan, but is nonetheless overwhelming on its own terms. But that is not so here: there was nothing, absolutely nothing, to compensate for all that was missing. At times, it seemed no more than a perfunctory run-through of selected scenes from the play. Indeed, I can think of no better argument to counter the “Meant-to-be-seen-not-read” contingent: any reading of this play yields greater dividends than seeing a production as limp as this; and anyone whose sole acquaintance with this towering masterpiece is this production will come away with a very distorted and diminished view of Shakespeare’s work.


Normally, I try not to write on this blog about what I don’t like, and I feel a bit bad, I must admit, about writing this particular post: the tradition of Shakespearean performance remains very strong in Britain, and I have no wish to join the ranks of trendy detractors who seem hostile to the very idea of “tradition”. But I do have a genuine respect for Jonathan Miller, admire much of his work as director, and really was looking forward to a production that I was hoping would open up, for me at any rate, new ways of looking at this endlessly fascinating play. But in the event, for reasons best known to himself, Jonathan Miller really has killed the thing he loves. He has killed it stone dead, and I don’t have the faintest idea why.

“On the Eve” by Ivan Turgenev

“On the Eve” by Ivan Turgenev, translated by Gilbert Gardiner, Penguin Classics


I wonder to what extent Turgenev was interested in plot. Not a lot, I’d guess, judging from his first three novels, since the central plotline in all three of them is more or less the same – a young girl with a sheltered upbringing in a provincial town awakens emotionally, and falls in love with a newcomer into the closed society she inhabits, but it all ends sadly. However, what is of interest is not so much the plot but what the author makes of it, and in these three novels, Turgenev uses this basic plotline to make quite different things. In his first full-length novel, Rudin, he had explored the character of the “superfluous man” – a man who is intelligent, articulate, and capable, but who is, nonetheless, curiously ineffective; his next novel, Home of the Gentry, is more a “pure” love story, for the most part, as far as I could see, unadulterated with political and social concerns: I got the impression reading that novel that had these concerns not been so pressing, and so weighing so heavily on Turgenev’s mind, this is the kind of novel he would have preferred to write. But these concerns could not be dismissed: in his next novel, On the Eve, the very title vibrating with social and political resonance, these issues return, as it were, with a vengeance. The dreamy melancholy of balmy evenings and singing nightingales has not gone away, but there are other matters simmering furiously below the surface.

The principal character here, Elena, is, like Liza in Home of the Gentry, pure-hearted and loving, recently grown into adulthood; but unlike Liza, hers is a restless soul, not at peace either with those around her, or, indeed, with herself. The older generation, once again, has little to offer, but where Liza’s mother had merely been foolish, Elena’s father is immoral, openly keeping a mistress while at the same time demanding respect for himself and deference to his social standing. The future this father demands for his daughter is one of unaspiring mediocrity and moral corruption, and the husband he proposes for her is every bit as uninspiring and as mediocre as himself; Elena, a somewhat less gentle soul, perhaps, than Liza in the previous novel, cannot even begin to take him seriously.

It is easy to see why Elena falls instead for Insarov, the newcomer into her society, and, to a far greater extent than the corresponding figures in the previous two novels, very much an outsider. He is not even Russian: he is a Bulgarian, committed to the cause of his country’s freedom. He is quietly heroic, undemonstrative, but of firm integrity and of unwavering principles, and it is easy to see why Elena falls for such a man: she finds in him a moral seriousness that she longs for, but which she has been starved of.

It is this sense of moral seriousness, or the lack thereof, that marks out the difference between the older generation and the newer. Turgenev was to return to this theme with quite explosive effect in his next novel, Fathers and Sons, which, in its nuanced depiction and its even-handedness managed on publication to alienate both fathers and sons, but here the depiction is more schematic. It’s not that the younger generation are all necessarily admirable: there is, after all, Elena’s proposed husband who appears to have taken on willingly all the shortcomings and absurdities of the older generation (and who is, incidentally, one of Turgenev’s rare forays into caricature, although it is perhaps fair to say that it is not in caricature that his gift primarily lies). But despite the presence of this unpleasant young suitor, all that is genuinely admirable in this novel comes from the young. There’s the talented young sculptor, Shubin, who sees through the hypocrisies of Elena’s father (although he is more amused than outraged by it all); there’s Bersyenev, the student of philosophy, who is himself in love with Elena, but, Sidney-Carton-like (though not in quite so spectacular a manner), forgoes his own happiness for hers; there’s Insarov himself, whose undemonstrative heroism and tenderness for Elena were such that I couldn’t help picturing him as the Paul Henreid character (Victor Laszlo) in Casablanca; and, of course, there’s Elena herself, determined that her own life would be free from the moral turpitude of her father’s, or the submissive acquiescence of her mother’s. The scope for action was far more limited for women than it was for men, but, given this, Elena’s determination not to succumb to what is expected of her, and her actions both before and after tragedy strikes, are every bit as heroic as Insarov’s.

(Chekhov, curiously, picked up this theme in one of his finest short stories that is variously translated as “A Marriageable Girl”, “The Fiancee”, “The Betrothed”, and “The Bride”: in this story, a young woman, in order to give herself the education that she had been denied, walks out of an engagement that promises a future merely of comfortable mediocrity.)

The story itself is simply told, with all Turgenev’s gift for gentle lyricism. Admittedly, there are fewer balmy evenings and singing nightingales here than in his previous novel: the political and social tensions simmering under the surface don’t allow too much room for that kind of thing, but, as with Home of the Gentry (although to a somewhat lesser extent), it is hard to read this without feeling that one is in the hands of a consummate lyric poet. The characterisation is deft, particularly of the minor, incidental characters: I couldn’t help feeling that the lovelorn but self-sacrificing Bersenyev would have made an interesting protagonist in his own right in another novel. And once again, Turgenev knew better than to overload so short a narrative and so slender a plotline with too many characters: the errors of judgement in Rudin are not here repeated.

It is towards the end of the novel that Turgenev offers us a major surprise: having set it all up as another novel of love in a provincial town, he suddenly switches the scene to Venice, a sophisticated European city, and, in every way, as far as can be imagined from the setting of the rest of the novel. A writer of Turgenev’s lyrical gifts could easily have given us page upon page of the most exquisite description, but the novelist takes precedence here over the lyrical poet: he gives us only as little as is required to convey a sense of changed locality – albeit a locality very dramatically changed. And here he develops a theme that had only been hinted at earlier: death. I am not sure what it is about the city of Venice that seems to suggest forebodings of mortality, but Turgenev certainly got there long before The Wings of the Dove, or Death in Venice. There is a sense here of decay and of death, but even in this there seems to be a curious beauty:

“Venice is dying, Venice is deserted” – so her inhabitants will tell you; but it may be in the past she lacked such charm as this, the charm of a city fading in the very culmination and flowing of its beauty.

Here, in the city in whose very decay is its beauty, Elena and Insarov attend a performance of Verdi’s recently composed opera, La Traviata – a work Turgenev describes (rather disconcertingly for those of us who love the work) as “in truth rather a commonplace piece”*. But whatever Turgenev may have thought of its artistic worth, he had certainly been struck by its death-haunted quality: it, too, like Venice, fades in “the very culmination and flowing of its beauty”. He gives us a fascinating account of the performance of this “commonplace piece”, and the tragedy is foreshadowed: it is no great surprise when it comes.

But tragic though the plot is, thematically, it is the quiet and undemonstrative heroism both of Insarov and of Elena that seems to me to be at the centre of the novel, and this heroism suffuses the entire work with a radiant, optimistic glow: one is left feeling that where the older generation had failed – where, indeed, they had scarcely even tried – the younger may perhaps succeed. And even if they don’t, their effort to progress morally from the state they have been left in by their fathers has about it an innate nobility. Such sense of optimism and belief in the essential nobility of humans are perhaps somewhat alien to modern sensibilities, and Turgenev himself was to revisit them; but if, indeed, such ideals are out of phase with the modern mind, a novel such as this serves to remind us of what we have lost.



* According to volume 2 of Julian Budden’s invaluable The Operas of Verdi, La Traviata was given its first performance in Venice in 1853, and, for various reasons, it was not a particular success, although Verdi may have exaggerated the extent of its failure. The performance attended by Elena and by Insarov would have been the revival in in 1854, when its qualities became more apparent, although, presumably, Turgenev remained unimpressed.

“Home of the Gentry” by Ivan Turgenev

“Home of the Gentry” by Ivan Turgenev, translated by Richard Freeborn, Penguin Classics


I wonder if it’s the general case that we respond more keenly to tender love stories in advancing middle age than we do in our younger years. Or whether I am merely projecting my own reactions on to others, mistaking what is specific in my case for what is general. Certainly when I first read Turgenev’s Home of the Gentry as a seventeen-year-old, I thought it, to be frank, a bit soppy and sentimental, but excused it on the grounds that the author had gone on to write Fathers and Sons, which dealt with matters that were, as I then thought, of far more serious import. But reading Home of the Gentry again after a gap of nearly forty years, I found myself not merely enjoying the story, but being affected by it. Now, either I have become more soppy and romantic (with a small “r”) with advancing years; or I have become more aware of the importance of private emotions, even when these emotions are not of the kind that are expressed in anguished raging on stormy heaths, but are, rather, quiet, subdued, and gentle – or, as I’d have put it in my teenage years, “soppy”.

The setting is familiar: Russian Provincial – but very different from the nightmare vision of Russian Provincial that Gogol gave us in Dead Souls and in The Government Inspector: Turgenev’s imagination was as far from the Gogolian as may be imagined. The very first sentence sets the tone:

A bright spring day was drawing towards evening; small pink clouds stood high in a clear sky and seemed not so much to float pat as to recede into the very depths of the blue. (Translated by Richard Freeborn)

We are in a world that is gentle and lyrical. There are, it is true, still people in this world who can be foolish and thoughtless and even malicious, and their foolishness and thoughtlessness and malice can certainly create pain and unhappiness; but, in this fictional environment, there is nothing even remotely close to a Gogolian inferno.

Turgenev, having had one full length novel (Rudin) behind him, now knew better than to introduce too many characters too quickly, and expect the reader to remember who they all are and how they are related to each other: he is careful also not to overload so short a novel with too many characters. Here, he introduces the characters one by one, and adopts the simple and nonetheless effective scheme of giving us a couple of pages or so on each character as they are introduced. This certainly slows down the pace, but there is no need to push the pace in this opening section, especially in a novel such as this where the overall tempo, in keeping with the content, is gentle and relaxed; and it means also that the characters are all firmly registered in the reader’s mind: in the first few chapters of Rudin, I had to keep referring to the list of characters to remind myself who was who: here, such a list is not supplied, and is not needed.

The last character to be introduced here is Lavretsky, who, alongside Liza, is the principal protagonist of the novel; and, in Lavretsky’s case, instead of a few pages of background information, we are given a few chapters that contain enough material for a whole series of novels. We are told not only of Lavretsky’s past, but of his family – of his overbearing grandfather; his father, who had defied parental authority by marrying a peasant woman, but who had subsequently lived most of his life in Europe, leaving his wife at home; of the growing and unexpected affection the grandfather develops for his peasant daughter-in-law; and so on. And surprisingly, even amidst all this personal history, a political theme of sorts emerges, though it is not one I had expected from the notoriously Westernised Turgenev: there is a clear contrast between, on the one hand, the traditional Russian values of gentleness and of quiet, uncomplaining fortitude, as exemplified by Lavretsky’s mother; and, on the other hand, the glittering but shallow European values, as exemplified by the dissipated lifestyle led in Europe by Lavretsky’s father. Of course, Turgenev was too fine a novelist to make this dichotomy over-schematic: the grandfather, Russian to his soul, is hardly a pleasant person, despite his growing affection for his daughter-in-law; and his daughter, Lavretsky’s aunt, is presented as a bitter and twisted soul; and, of course, there is still serfdom, which is, in effect, slavery. But the dichotomy is there all the same, and is reinforced in other aspects of the novel. Lavretsky’s father, for instance, when he returns, comes armed with half-digested European ideas, and imposes upon his boy a system of education based on the writings of the European writer Rousseau; as a consequence, Lavretsky’s childhood becomes a living hell. Later on,  Lavretsky’s wife,  shallow, pleasure-seeking, and mendacious, finds her natural element in the bright lights and glitter of Parisian life. Meanwhile, on the other side of the divide, we have Liza, a product of the Russian provinces, sincere, loving, and honest, and capable of great depths of feeling. In short, like Tatyana in Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, who is an obvious model, she has Russian soul.

Lavretsky’s turning away from Paris in disappointment after being deceived by his frivolous wife, and finding himself back home and attracted to Liza, a flower of Russian womanhood, clearly has political implications. Lavretsky’s homecoming is more than merely literal: it is also a sort of spiritual homecoming – a homecoming to traditional and unspoilt Russian values. This doesn’t mean that Turgenev was a Salvophile underneath all his well-publicised Western leanings, but it does indicate that, despite everything, he had a profound sentimental attachment to his homeland. If in other works he had expressed his horror for the various monstrous injustices and cruelties practised in Mother Russia, he gives expression here to his sentiment, and both are valid: our attachments are, after all, more complex than we imagine.

This contrast between imported European fripperies and the true depths of the Russian soul seems to be everywhere in Russian literature, once one starts looking for it. Its seeds are clearly present in Eugene Onegin, where Onegin, the restless Byronic hero, fails to recognise the worth of the Russian Tatyana until it is too late. It is clearly present in War and Peace, where the Pierre-Hélène-Natasha triangle (note the French name!) clearly reprises the Lavretsky-Varvara-Liza triangle of this novel. And there is another homecoming, both literal and spiritual, from the bright lights of Paris to Russian Provincial in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, although here Madame Ranevsky is unable either to reject the Parisian fripperies that had ensnared her, or, come to terms with the changing face of the home to which she has returned. But by the time Chekhov wrote The Cherry Orchard, this theme had undergone many transformations: Home of the Gentry, written nearly fifty or so years earlier in the mid nineteenth century, presents this theme in, as it were, a purer form.

The glittering frivolities of Europe and the true soul of Mother Russia; the return from one to the other, and recognition of deeper values; all these themes are here, but Turgenev, in this novel at least, does not seem very interested in exploring their political implications. This in itself is surprising: at a time when the conflict between Western-looking modernisers and traditional Slavophiles was very marked and very bitter, to introduce such themes without delving into their political implications does seem a trifle odd. It is hard not to get the feeling that Turgenev, whose commitment to Western liberal and democratic values was later to make him so controversial, was drawn into political themes only unwillingly – that, had he had the choice, he would have preferred to have focussed not on big political themes at all, but, rather, on personal emotions; that he would have preferred, in short, to have continued to write delicate and melancholy love stories. Commentators impatient with such matters may focus on those themes that hint at least at a political dimension, but this is not – much to the disappointment of my teenage self – what Turgenev himself seems particularly interested in.

And what he focuses on instead I did not, this time round, find trivial: it is after all the accumulation of all our personal joys and sorrows that make up the full teeming canvas of human life, and to concentrate on one particular corner of that canvas, and depict it with such loving tenderness, does not seem to me an unworthy task even for a great novelist. Well, perhaps not a great novelist quite yet: Fathers and Sons was still to come; but nonetheless, a novelist who, after the partial success of Rudin, now had greater control over his technique, who could create both mood and explore psychological depth, and who could, above all, convey as few other novelists could the sheer sadness of our disappointed and disappointing lives.

In his next novels – On the Eve, and, especially, Fathers and Sons – the political aspects of his themes become more apparent: but the quietly elegiac tone of Home of the Gentry demands to be taken on its own terms. Ad on its own terms, it is as touching and as affecting a love story I think I have encountered. Turgenev was particularly good, I think, at communicating what it feels like to be in love, and, slight though some readers may think it, I found it an unmitigated delight from beginning to end. Turgenev’s authorial presence, civilised and refined, was one I found particularly congenial to my temperament. In his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition, translator Richard Freeborn writes of the novel:

To present-day tastes its treatment of love may seem low-toned, even a trifle mawkish; perhaps the nightingales have a way of singing a little too appropriately and the stars shine just a little too sweetly for our neon-dazzled eyes.

Perhaps I find myself welcoming the soft, gentle light of Turgenev’s novel precisely because I am tired of the incessant neon-dazzling. But this is not, I think, to imply that that this novel is a sort of escapism, a refuge from an unattractive reality: rather, it depicts, with consummate delicacy of feeling and a mastery of craft, those regions of our human experience that we are perhaps a bit too quick to dismiss as “mawkish”, but which are nonetheless as real as anything lit garishly in neon.