Archive for September, 2016

Tony Harrison’s “Oresteia”

Some verse dramas hold the stage in translation, but others don’t, and I am not entirely sure why that should be. Ibsen’s Brand and Peer Gynt, though both written to be read rather than performed, hold the stage magnificently in any number of translations; Shakespeare’s plays, too, even when separated from Shakespeare’s English, are successfully performed around the world in just about every language there is. And yet, despite many years of theatre-going, I have yet to see a performance in English of plays by Racine or Corneille, by Goethe or Schiller, or by Pushkin, that I would describe as dramatically compelling. It’s tempting to say that the fault lies with the translations, but I don’t think that’s the case: John Cairncross’ translations of Racine, for example, are, I think, magnificent; but while they compel the reader’s attention in the study, they seem to me less effective when it comes to compelling the audience’s attention in the theatre. These plays, in English translation, are often wonderful dramatic poems, but I remain unconvinced about their qualities as poetic dramas, and would hazard the guess that Racine and Corneille, Goethe and Schiller, Pushkin, etc., whose works are among the undisputed peaks of the western canon, were, unlike Shakespeare or Ibsen, greater poets, perhaps, than they were dramatists. But this is just a guess: unable as I am to read any of these writers in the original, I can’t, and don’t, insist upon it.

When it comes to ancient Greek drama, we have a further complication: not only do we have to negotiate translation into another language, we have to deal with dramatic conventions that are very alien to modern conceptions of drama. Once again, these works are compelling when I read them in the study, but less so when I see them in the theatre. In all these years, I have seen only one production of a Greek play that worked in performance – a thrilling production of Sophocles’ Electra, featuring Fiona Shaw in the title role, and directed by Deborah Warner: I saw this some quarter of a century ago now, and I still remember coming out of the theatre at the end, genuinely shaken by what I had experienced: it had the same sort of effect on me as I get from seeing a good production of King Lear. But as for all the other productions I have seen of Greek drama, they have generally fallen pretty flat. Maybe I have just been unlucky: maybe there have been many other productions as powerful as that production I’d seen of Electra, and I just happened to miss out on them; but, having been disappointed by so many productions over so many years, I can’t help feeling that these Greek tragedies, without dispute among the greatest of literary masterpieces, are best treated as closet dramas, to be read, much as we’d read, say, Milton’s Samson Agonistes.

Friends of mine who know Greek tell me that no translation comes close to matching the originals, but then again, they would say that, wouldn’t they? When one puts in effort into something, one wants to have something to show for it; and who, having put so much effort into learning Greek to the level where they can read Aeschylus or Euripides, would care to concede that plebs like me, who haven’t put in that effort, could appreciate these writers to the same level? I don’t dispute them, of course: I have no doubt they are right. However, I will insist that these works, even in translation, are profound experiences. I have, over the years, not only amassed but have even read a wide range of translations, explaining to guests who scan my bookshelves and wonder why I have a dozen or so translations of Sophocles that a man must have a hobby. And, since each translation is necessarily an interpretation, I find it fascinating comparing them, and trying to piece together from the different perspectives of the various translators something of what the original vision may have been like.

My most recent reading of Greek tragedies was The Oresteia of Aeschylus, in the translation by the poet Tony Harrison. Perhaps “translation” is not the right word for it: I argued in a recent post that the successful translator of poetry cannot afford to be too literal, since the literal meaning is but one of many things – and not necessarily the most important thing – that a translator needs to convey. And it can be argued that, beyond a point, so far is the translated version from the original in terms of literal accuracy, that it can no longer be regarded as a translation as such. Whether Tony Harrison’s version is too far from the original to be still considered a “translation”, I do not know: comparing with the other translations I have, he obviously takes far more liberties with the literal meaning. But it may be that he is closer to Aeschylus than the more literalist translators in some other aspects – the sound, say, or the nature of the impact made on the reader or the hearer. I cannot tell. What I can tell, though, is that his is by far the most striking version of these three plays that I have encountered. I do not mean that as a criticism of the others, but where the others are eloquent, polished, fluent, Harrison is rugged, abrasive, uncompromising, often relying on sound to convey the sense.

This may be demonstrated by a few examples. Take, for instance, the repeated refrain in the first great chorus. Michael Ewans (Everyman) renders it:

Cry sorrow, sorrow – yet may good prevail!

Robert Fagles (Penguin Classics) translates this as:

Cry, cry for death, but good win out in glory in the end.

Hugh Lloyd-Jones (university of California Press) has:

Sing sorrow, sorrow, but may the good prevail.

While Frederic Raphael and Kenneth McLeish (Methuen) go for:

Sing songs of sorrow, but let the good prevail.

Richmond Lattimore (University of Chicago Press), meanwhile, has:

Sing sorrow, sorrow: but good win out in the end.

Ted Hughes (Faber & Faber), like Harrison, himself a poet, does away with the repeated refrain altogether, rephrasing the essence of it in different ways each time it appears. And I think, comparing the different versions, we can see the essence: the line is in two halves – the first an expression of lament, the second of hope. But all too often in the translations, the expression of sorrow appears more potent than the expression of hope, leaving us with a slight sense of anti-climax. Presumably this is why Fagles has expanded the latter half of that line – to give it a greater weight. Harrison’s version, however, is very different from any of the above:

Batter, batter the doom-drum, but believe there’ll be better!

The differences are striking. Clearly, Harrison’s is not a literal reading, but what we get is by far the most forceful. “Batter[ing] the doom-drum” sounds far more active and energetic than merely crying or singing of sorrow, while “believe there’ll be better” strikes a note of defiance that I cannot find in any of the other translations. The preponderance of the hard “b” and “d” sounds gives the line a greater muscularity, and the near-rhyme of “batter/better” – the two words that that open and end the line – knits the two halves together. Whether all this brings the line closer – at least in spirit – to the original, I do not know, but it is certainly more striking than any of the others.

Throughout Harrison’s version, he uses alliterative clusters, compound words (as in German), words forced together almost with a violence, with the impact of the sounds and rhythms compensating for the lack of a clear syntax. For instance:

Calchas the clanseer saw into the storm-cause –
Artemis she-god goaded to godgrudge

The clans and the clanchiefs clamour for sea-calm
The god-sop that gets it makes their guts sicken

The cure for the stormblast makes strong men craven


A surge of choler and grudge sweeps over my spirit,
spitted on pain like a stabwound or spearthrust.
Drops like the spindrift spat off a seaswell
break from my eyes like the sight of this curl.


so men get gulled get hauled into evil
recklessness starts it then there’s no stopping

so a Father can take his own she-child take her
and kill her his she-child his own flesh and blood

The war-effort wants it the war-effort gets it
the war for one woman the whore-war the whore-war

a virgin’s blood launches the ships off to Troy

It is tempting to fill this post with further examples, but let us not try the reader’s patience more than is absolutely necessary. Suffice to say that all other translations I have read seem, in comparison, too refined, too polite.

In his illuminating introduction, Tony Harrison describes his attempt to find a poetic style and diction that could form an equivalent in English to Aeschylus’ verse, that would achieve, as he puts it, “both the weight and the momentum”, and mentions, significantly, Gerard Manley Hopkins, “a Professor of Greek, who achieves both the sweep and the grandeur I have always found in Aeschylus”. And he quotes two lines by Hopkins:

Wiry and white-fiery and whirlwind-swivelled snow
Spins to the widow-making unchilding unfathering deep

The critic D. S. Carne-Ross had asked “Does this not read like an inspired translation of some unknown fragment by Aeschylus?” To which Harrison replies:

Indeed it does, like an inspired Victorian translation, and I have always felt that Hopkins, with his clotted but never clogged or cumbersome line, and his thorough knowledge of Greek, had everything necessary to render a great translation of Aeschylus, except, perhaps … a feeling for the theatre …

Harrison himself was clearly aiming himself for the “clotted but never clogged or cumbersome line”, and I think he succeeded magnificently. As for how this will work in the theatre, I really do not know. This translation was commissioned by the National Theatre, and was performed there, under the direction of Peter Hall, in the early 1980s. I would have loved to have seen it, but I was back then a student in the north of England, and certainly didn’t have the finances in those days to come down to London. But something such as this demands to be read as well: without getting into that debate yet again on whether or not a play is better seen or read, experiencing it on the printed page was spellbinding. As with Christopher Logue’ magnificent version of The Iliad, this is great poetry in its own right.

With this translation, the work itself seemed, as it were, renewed: it was like seeing something familiar from a completely new perspective. (Which, after all, is the whole point of reading different translations.) I must admit, though, that I still find the first play of the trilogy, Agamemnon, the most compelling. Perhaps it’s the old story of Hell being more interesting than Heaven: the whole trilogy represents a journey from darkness to light, from Hell to Heaven (at least, a Heaven of sorts), and, as with Dante, it is Hell that makes the greater impact. (Milton, too, struggled to make God as interesting as Satan.) And the Hell that is presented in Agamemnon, once etched on the mind, is hard to erase. That long narration by the chorus of the sacrifice of Iphigenia; Agamemnon’s homecoming – where he is persuaded to trample the blood-red tapestries into his palace; Cassandra’s prophetic terror before the doors of the Argos, before she walks in to meet her death; Clytemnestra’s narration of how she killed her husband and his slave, and her imagining the dead spirit of Iphigenia in the underworld, greeting with a kiss her father who had killed her … these have long haunted my imagination, and will continue to do so.

In comparison, I find little in the subsequent plays that affects me anywhere near so powerfully. This is not a criticism of the work: it is, rather, a reflection of my own sensibilities, and expectations. In the second part, Aeschylus narrates how Orestes returns, and, with the help of his sister Electra, kills his mother, Clytemnestra, and her lover Aegisthus. This same story is told both by Sophocles and by Euripides in their plays, both titled Electra, but where the younger dramatists were more interested in the psychologies of the participants of the drama, Aeschylus seems to draw back from the individual characters, and focuses on the larger moral pattern. And similarly in the last part, The Eumenides: the focus is not so much on the individual characters, but on the broader question of how we humans, blinded though we are with rage and maddened with blood, can emerge from darkness into light. This is clearly what Aeschylus intended, and this is, indeed, what lies at the heart of the trilogy as a whole, and it is but a reflection of my own personal preference that the psychological approach of Sophocles and of Euripides attracts me more.

But the larger moral pattern that emerges is, nonetheless, fascinating. Aeschylus dramatises the emergence of light in the darkness: from a Hell in which our passions and our instincts reign supreme, and lawless revenge but feeds upon itself, so that each act of vengeance is but a new crime that also cries out for blood, we are presented, by the goddess Athena, with a new way of ordering our lives – a new way rooted in civil discourse, legal institutions, consensus and compromise. In short, civilisation. But, however desirable that civilisation is, however preferable to the horrors of our instinctive bloodlust, it is simply not, for me at any rate, as dramatically interesting.

However, there is of course more, far more, than my crude summary above suggests. The emergence of civic institutions from the darkness of lawless primal urges should not, I think, be seen as something happening in time – i.e. it is not the case that one replaces the other over time: rather, the two co-exist, and will go on co-existing within our divided minds. The final acquittal of Orestes, and the subsequent torchlit procession of triumph, do not cancel out the slaughter of the helpless Iphigenia, or the elemental terror of Cassandra: such terror cannot be cancelled out, or banished, for they live with us still. And neither can the Furies be banished: Athena herself, at the end, incorporates them into the newly-formed legal system: no matter how civilised we may be, no matter how many curbs and restraints we may put upon our primal urges for the sake of being able to live together with what harmony we can muster, at the bottom of it all lies a terror than cannot be wished away – not even by a goddess.

But a step has been taken, an important step: the gods, who used to order mortals to commit acts of revenge – which themselves are crimes calling out for further revenge – have now delegated their powers and responsibilities to humans: it is now up to us to shape our morality, to determine for ourselves, through discourse and consensus, guilt and innocence, and treat both accordingly. But at the bottom of it all lies terror. We cannot do without terror. Even through the triumphant songs at the end, there sound the screams of Cassandra as she walks into the palace of Argos to meet her doom.




Lionel Shriver on identity

Membership of a larger group is not an identity.

“Not identity politics again!” I hear you all moan.

Sadly, yes. But I won’t rant on about it this time. I merely wish to point any reader who may be interested in these matters towards certain things that have been said and written recently.

The quote above is from a talk given recently by American novelist Lionel Shriver at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival. It’s not that identity does not matter, but, rather, it is not something that is conferred on one merely by membership of a larger group. The implications of this seem to me important: one’s identity describes who one is as an individual; it is something that one forges for oneself. It is not mere membership of a tribe.

The whole speech was intelligent and eloquent, and, I think, well worth reading. However, not everyone thought so. Yassmin Abdel-Magied is amongst those who took offence. She makes the devastating observation that “Shriver’s real targets were cultural appropriation, identity politics and political correctness”, and explains here why she therefore felt compelled to heroically walk out:

As my heels thudded against the grey plastic of the flooring, harmonising with the beat of the adrenaline pumping through my veins

Frankly, I am not so convinced that walking out is always seen as a political statement. If I am at a lecture and see someone walking out, I usually assume they’re going for a pee. But now that I know this was indeed a heroic political gesture, I suppose I should take it a bit more seriously.

For Abdel-Magied was by no means the only one who took exception to Lionel Shriver’s speech. From the opening line of this article, it seems there were others who also heroically walked out. So serious was the fall-out, indeed, that, “as a result of the backlash, Brisbane Writers Festival organised a ‘right of reply’ event”. Which is fair enough. People must always have the right to reply. Especially if they feel, as Abdel-Magied does, that

The kind of disrespect for others infused in Lionel Shriver’s keynote [speech] is … the kind of attitude that lays the foundation for prejudice, for hate, for genocide.


Then, yesterday, an article by Nasrine Malik appeared on this matter in The Guardian. The headline (not written by Nasrine Malik) tells us that “identity politics doesn’t deserve Lionel Shriver’s contempt”. The article itself, however, is somewhat more nuanced than the headline would suggest, although Malik is quite vehement in distancing herself from Shriver, and insists, as Abdel-Magied had done, that “cultural appropriation” is very much “a thing”:

It is very much a thing. It is, in fact, one of the most frustrating and complicated things to explain and justify to those who have the luxury … of living a life that no one, in the present or historically, has plundered.

I’ll leave the reader to determine what Malik means by having one’s life “plundered”, either “in the present or historically”. I can’t really make much sense of it myself.

Having distanced herself from Shriver, Malik goes on to make many of the points that Shriver herself had made. Her only point of contention with Shriver, as far as I can see, is that Shriver is not very “respectful”. The question of why culture – one’s own, or others’ – should automatically be entitled to respect is one Malik does not address. I’m afraid repeated insistence on “respect” reminds me of nothing so much as The Godfather films.

So there it is. I won’t repeat my own thoughts on the matter: I have previously banged on at length about literature and identity politics, and about the concept of cultural appropriation; and, since I am not a paid columnist, there seems little point in recycling old material when I have no new thoughts to add. I have also, fairly recently, commented on this crazy idea that literature is about “telling one’s story”, or of “giving voice to one’s experience”, or that the story one tells, the experience one “gives one’s voice to”, is necessarily representative of one’s group. In any case, if Lionel Shriver’s eloquence doesn’t convince people, I doubt mine will.

But does any of this actually matter? Could not all this merely be a storm in a teacup? May one not, in these matters, take the imperious view of Edmund Burke?

Because half a dozen grasshoppers under a fern make the field ring with their importunate chink, whilst thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak, chew the cud and are silent, pray do not imagine that those who make the noise are the only inhabitants of the field; that, of course, they are many in number, or that, after all, they are other than the little, shrivelled, meagre, hopping, though loud and troublesome, insects of the hour.

Sadly, no, I don’t think so. Thoughts that are prevalent make an impact on the real world. If we believe that we are defined primarily or even solely by our race, our religion, our gender, our sexuality, and all those other things that seem so essential to proponents of  identity politics; if we believe that we cannot grow and develop, and move away, should we so want, from the various features allegedly pre-determined for us by the circumstances of our birth; if we feel it wrong to absorb other cultures, or for people from other cultures to absorb ours; then the walls we build around ourselves are more than merely walls of the mind.

Last year, I was troubled when a diversity officer (sic) at a students’ union in Britain organized an event which white people were told not to attend. Now, I read that California State University in Los Angeles is offering racially segregated accommodation to its students.

Racial segregation. In the name of liberalism.

I fear we ain’t seen nuthin’ yet.



POSTSCRIPT (added 14th September, 2016, 17:15 BST)

I just read a post on this matter on Kenan Malik’s blog Pandemonium. Amongst other things, he says:

The Festival organisers removed from their website links to Shriver’s talk, while also organising a ‘right to reply ‘session with, among others Abdel-Magied and the Korean-American author Suki Kim.  Lionel Shriver was not at this session because it was deliberately organised at the same time as Shriver was speaking, promoting her new novel The Mandibles. There is something more than a little ironic for a festival of writers to remove from their website the keynote speech at the festival because some objected to it, and to organise a ‘right to reply’ while both ensuring that the speaker being replied to cannot attend and removing the speech which is being replied to. The Festival seemed less concerned with opening up debate than with assuaging hurt feelings.

I had not known these details when I wrote my post above, and decided to add this postscript, as I felt these details are of interest. I’d like to add also that the whole of Mr Malik’s post is well worth reading.

POST-POSTSCRIPT (added 16th September, 2016, 15:35 BST)

The links to Lionel Shriver’s speech have now been restored, and the Festival Organisers blamed their temporary unavailability on a technical glitch. The New York Times have corrected their article to reflect this, so it is only right that I do the same.


Future reading plans: Wagner, Ibsen, “The Mahabharata”, and other matters

I am not at all sure why I make plans for reading. I never stick to them anyway. Something always pops along that takes my fancy, and, like the best laid schemes of mice and men, all my calculations gang aft agley. Which reminds me: I have never actually bothered looking up what “aft agley” literally means. But whatever it means, that’s where my best-laid schemes invariably gang.

I realise also that the time for making plans is at the start of a new year, but I have always thought that a bad custom, as, quite apart from anything else, the gentle inebriation that is so salient a feature of the festive season is hardly conducive to sensible planning: whatever plans are made at such a time are likely to gang very much aft agley much more quickly than plans made in a more sober frame of mind.

In any case, some reading plans do need to be made now. I have just finished La Regenta by Leopoldo Alas (of which more in a later post) – a deeply impressive novel, but, at seven hundred and more pages of sight-destroyingly small print, it took me over three months to read. (I never was a particularly fast reader, and I seem to be slowing up in my old age.) Now that it is finished, I can’t help but feel a sense of freedom. This is not to disparage Alas’ novel, which really is magnificent, but, rather like the ageing roué whose eyes wander even while engaged in a fulfilling monogamous relationship, I couldn’t help looking longingly at all those unread titles, both on my bookshelf and in bookshops, as well as at various old flames whose charms I find myself keen to revisit.

Not that the relationship with La Regenta had been strictly monogamous: there were, as ever, clandestine assignations with various poems and short stories, and, between the two parts of the Alas’ novel, a serious fling with Tony Harrison’s version of Aeschylus’ Oresteia (of which, too, there will be more in a later post). And now that I have parted company with La Regenta, I am currently engrossed in Roger Scruton’s new book on Wagner’s Ring Cycle, which, despite its somewhat cheesy title (The Ring of Truth – whose bright idea was that?), is a fascinating read. I am not sure yet whether I should write a post on this: the themes of the Ring Cycle, and Scruton’s interpretations of them, though lucidly explicated, are so complex, and lead to so many areas of thought that are to me relatively new, that I don’t know I could express very much in a post beyond merely a partial understanding. But perhaps it’s worth recording even my puzzlement: sometimes, the very act of posing questions to which I do not know the answers can lead to a better understanding.

One may certainly argue that, like any major work of art, the Ring Cycle, at least to an extent, is intended to puzzle: life, after all, is puzzling, and any work of art that seeks to address life seriously has to convey something of its profound mysteries. One understands such works not by plucking out the heart of their mysteries – even if such a thing were to be possible – but, rather, by coming to some sort of understanding of, and a settlement with, the nature of the mysteries depicted. As I read about the profound mysteries addressed by Wagner, I cannot help but make connections. The connections with The Oresteia are obvious: I have long been aware of (though I haven’t yet read) Michael Ewans’ thesis (referred to in Scruton’s book) that the Ring Cycle is a sort of inverted Oresteia – that where The Oresteia consists of three tragic dramas followed by a satyr play (now lost), the Ring Cycle consists of a satyr play followed by three tragic dramas; and where Aeschylus depicts the emergence of civic society and the concept of law from the primeval murk of our unreasoning instincts, Wagner depicts the very fabric of law and of civic society collapsing under the weight of its internal contradictions. (It’s all very complex, and perhaps I should allow these ideas to settle in my mind for a while before exhibiting my ignorance and lack of understanding for all to see on this blog.) And there are two other connections as well that Scruton doesn’t mention, but which, since my own mind is already saturated with certain things, I could not help making. One was with the novels of Dostoyevsky; the other, with the plays of Ibsen.

Now, Dostoyevsky I have waffled about a few times on this blog, but, in all the six and more years this blog has been going, I have rarely touched on Ibsen. I am not sure why, since Ibsen is within the foremost circle of writers whom I most value. Not his early plays, which are conventional and rather stiff and boring historic dramas, and which would be utterly forgotten now had he not gone on to write greater stuff; but, say, from The Pretenders onwards. The Pretenders is the last and by far the best of those early plays, and, while I don’t think it matches some other historic dramas such as, say, Georg Büchner’s Danton’s Death, it is, nonetheless, a play not unworthy of a great dramatist. But then, something strange happened. Ibsen, freed by a government grant from hack-work in the theatre, wrote two masterpieces – Brand, and Peer Gynt. Heaven only knows where these plays came from: nothing he had written earlier would have led one to believe that he was capable of this. These two plays were written to be read rather than performed – they are both way too long for a single evening in the theatre, and need to be cut for performance – but Ibsen seemed to have the theatre in his blood: even when not writing specifically for the stage, he couldn’t help but write works that were thrillingly theatrical. Despite some notable later attempts to revive verse drama (by Yeats and Eliot, for instance), these were the last great verse dramas. Things were changing, and Ibsen was at the forefront of these changes. But if these plays do indeed mark the end of verse drama (and I realise that some may disagree with my contention), then the genre died with a bang rather than a whimper: I personally do not think there has been drama so powerful since Shakespeare.

Then, curiously, Ibsen devoted several years of his life writing a very exotic two-part drama Emperor and Galilean, about the Byzantine emperor Julian the Apostate. Ibsen himself felt – at least at the time – that this was his most important work, and I have never been able to figure out whether this indeed is a key work in his oeuvre, or whether it is a mistake, an aberration – a wrong turning that he afterwards rectified. I really ned to revisit these plays, and read them carefully: they seem such an anomaly in the context of his other work – but it could be that I have not yet come to an adequate understanding of them.

But other things were brewing in Ibsen’s mind. And while these other things were brewing, Ibsen kept the pot boiling with a comparatively light work – the comedy The League of Youth. But then followed those twelve great prose dramas, from The Pillars of Society to When We Dead Awaken, that Brian Johnstone – not entirely convincingly, to my mind – describes as “The Ibsen Cycle”. Ibsen himself, towards the end of his life, referred to these plays as a cycle, but it seems to me highly unlikely that they were initially conceived as such, and, other than these works being linked by similar themes, I cannot really detect much of a unity. But the thematic unities across these plays are themselves of interest, and, cycle or not, reading them in chronological order – and keeping in mind Brand and Peer Gynt, which are in many ways harbingers of these late plays (although they are much more than that also) – should, I think, be rewarding. For if we do regard these twelve plays as a single unified cycle (and I am prepared to be convinced that they are), then they may well challenge Wagner’s Ring Cycle as the most insanely ambitious artistic achievement of the nineteenth century.

So that is what I intend to do: over the course of next year, I shall read, in various translations, all the plays of Ibsen in chronological order, starting with The Pretenders, and hopefully, in the process, come to a better understanding of Ibsen’s developing artistic vision. And, of course, record my thoughts here for anyone who cares to read them. If, after all, this blog is primarily about those things that are dear to me, it seems crazy giving such short shrift to Ibsen.

But Ibsen is for next year. I have another scheme that I most certainly hope won’t gang aft agley, and which should keep me busy between now and the end of the year. I want to read The Mahabharata.

I don’t think there has ever been a time within the reaches of my memory when I haven’t been at least aware of the stories of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata: growing up as I did in an Indian Hindu family, these are things that enter the bloodstream at a very early age. I remember the comic strip books I had retelling some of the stories from these two national epics: I was introduced them at so early an age that I did not even bat an eye when Draupadi simultaneously married five brothers. But these stories did not enter the bloodstream fully: when I was five years of age, I left India and came to Britain, and exchanged the stories from The Ramayana and The Mahabharata with Greek myths, Arthurian legends, Bible stories. Inevitably, a residue from early childhood remains, but I now want to come to a better understanding of all this. A few years ago, I read Ashia Sattar’s abridged translation of TheRamayana, and was surprised by the extent to which Valmiki’s original version deviated from the stories I had taken in. I suspect it will be much the same with The Mahabharata.

Not that I am going to read the whole thing. Unlike The Iliad or The Odyssey, The Mahabharata is not a unified work: Sanskrit scholar Wendy Doniger refers to it as a sort of Wikipedia of the ancient world, with various voices adding to it over time. What we have now is, effectively, a series of accretions overlaying whatever may originally have been the core, and, as is to be expected, not all the accretions are equally of interest – at least, not to a casual reader such as myself. Under the circumstances, abridged editions in which the wheat is sorted from the chaff by expert hands are to be welcomed rather than regretted. So, to this end, I have got myself the single volume edition in Penguin Classics, translated by John Smith (an appropriate name for the translator of a work created by anonymous writers); a much-acclaimed verse retelling by Carole Satyamurthi, published by Norton (if what Carole Satyamurthi has done for The Mahabharata is in any way comparable to what Christopher Logue did for The Iliad, it would certainly be worth pursuing); and, finally, W. J. Johnson’s translation of the eleventh book of The Mahabharata, published by Oxford University Press – one of the shortest, but, I gather, among the most significant books of the massive epic. I doubt I’ll ever be a scholar of The Mahabharata, but reading this books will, at least, acquaint me with one of the major works of world literature – one that should be, but isn’t quite, in my bloodstream.

But before I leap into all that, I may as well continue my Turgenev project, and not let that gang aft agley with all the other schemes. After my encounter with the massive La Regenta, a few novellas may not, perhaps, go amiss. First Love I read many years ago, and don’t remember very well; and Spring Torrents and King Lear of the Steppes I don’t know at all. So, the plan is as follows: once I’ve finished reading about the Ring Cycle, I’ll move on to the three Turgenev novellas, and then tackle The Mahabharata. And if that takes me to the end of this year, I can embark at the start of next year on my Ibsen project.

And, anyone who has stayed with my ramblings so far may be pleased to know, I shall record my thoughts here on this blog, both the worthy and the unworthy, the perspicacious and the downright idiotic. But before I do all that, I had perhaps best find out what “gang aft agley” actually means.

The Makropoulos Thingummy

The title of Leoš Janáček’s penultimate opera, Věc Makropulos, has proved a bit difficult to translate. It literally means The Makropulos Thing, but, rather understandably, that hasn’t quite caught on, while alternatives such as The Makropulos Affair or The Makropulos Case aren’t entirely satisfactory either. Perhaps it’s best just to retain the original Czech title: those who are interested will soon figure out what it means, and for those who aren’t particularly interested, I guess it doesn’t matter. But, whatever one chooses to call it, it’s a wonderful work, albeit not quite as well-known as it should be:  it is rarely performed, and, of the major operas by Janáček, this is the one I am least acquainted with. So when I saw a concert performance scheduled in the current BBC Proms season, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jiří Bělohlávek, and featuring Karita Mattila, one of the great singers of our time, in the central role, it was hard to resist.

The trajectory of Janáček’s artistic career is a strange one. Had he died around 1920, say, when in his mid-60s, I suspect he’d have been remembered as a one-hit wonder – that one hit being Jenůfa, one of the most gut-wrenching of all stage works, and a towering masterpiece. He had composed as well some other works of note – some lovely piano pieces, and a couple more operas that are well worth hearing (Osud and The Excursions of Mr Broucek) – but nothing approaching the quality of Jenůfa. And then, in the last seven or eight years of his life, in his late sixties and early seventies, when most artists’ creativity tend to wind down, something strange happened: he produced a string of masterpieces – two string quartets of startling originality, the Sinfonietta, the mind-blowing Glagolitic Mass, and four operas that rank with the finest – Káťa Kabanová, Příhody lišky Bystroušky  (rather unfortunately – and inaccurately – rendered in English as The Cunning Little Vixen), Věc Makropulos, and, finally, The House of the Dead, based on Dostoyevsky’s autobiographical novel set in Siberian labour camps.

What strikes one about these works – quite apart, of course, from their obvious quality – is their dissimilarity from each other in terms of theme; and, Káťa Kabanová apart, their seemingly unoperatic subject matter. Káťa Kabanová, based on the play The Storm by Russian dramatist Alexandr Ostrovsky, has a plotline that virtually cries out for operatic treatment; but the Vixen opera is based on a cartoon strip in a newspaper, is virtually plotless, and features as its characters both humans and forest animals; while his last opera, based on Dostoyevsky, depicts day-to-day life in a labour camp, and is punctuated by long monologues in which various convicts relate the events that had brought them to the dead-house. And the subject of Věc Makropulos, based on a play by Karel Čapek, seems the least operatic of them all. The libretto – adapted by Janáček himself from Čapek’s play – does not read like something intended for an opera house: it is all dialogue, in prose, with little scope for arias or for monologues, or for ensembles: it seems like a conversation piece more than anything else. And the subject appears to be a complex legal case, concerning a disputed inheritance, that has been dragging on for some hundred years – a sort of Czech version of Dedlock vs Dedlock. There is indeed quite a long scene in the first act where the details of this case are spelled out. It’s hard to imagine material less likely for operatic treatment.

Janáček had, no doubt, condensed Čapek’s play – since singing a line takes longer than speaking it, opera libretti must necessarily be shorter than plays – but even after the condensing, it reads like a play rather than as a libretto. And it’s all in prose: no rhymes, no regular pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables – merely spoken dialogue.  Janáček was, apparently, fascinated by speech rhythms and intonations, had developed his own notation of recording them, and had incorporated his expertise in these matters into his music; but I fear this aspect of his work is lost on a non-Czech speaker such as myself: what emerges, for me, at least, is something decidedly prosaic. For much of the opera, what we hear are very brief musical motifs that refuse to combine – either in the vocal lines or in the orchestral parts – to create melody, or even recognisable melodic fragments. It makes Strauss’ Elektra – that uncompromisingly jagged piece of modernism I heard at the same venue a couple of years ago – seem almost like a feast of melody.

I mean this as an observation rather than as a criticism: I do not necessarily look for melody, and am not disappointed when I don’t find it. And in any case, Janáček was at the top of his game at the time of writing this, and what he produced was, quite clearly, what he intended to produce, no matter how much it may puzzle. For there’s no denying that by the time we reach the final act, it is mesmeric. And this final act is not merely stuck on to the first two: it is an integral part of the dramatic arc. In other words, no matter how much the earlier parts of the opera may puzzle with its seemingly un-operatic material, and, some might say, its equally un-operatic musical style (in the sense that there are no long musical lines that both singers and listeners so often delight in), it leads inexorably to a finale that is like no other I have experienced.

I do not know how this is achieved: I am not qualified to comment on the musical side of it. Dramatically, the libretto is not without its faults. In the first scene, Vitek, a lawyer’s clerk and a political radical, recites from a speech by Danton to himself when he thinks no-one is hearing. Presumably, this is taken from Čapek’s play, and leads to something there, but in the opera, it seems utterly gratuitous: indeed, Vitek himself, a minor character, virtually disappears from the action soon afterwards. If Janáček had indeed condensed the play, a bit more condensation may perhaps have not gone amiss.

Unfortunately, I have not been able to track down a translation of Čapek’s play, and am not even sure that a translation exists. In the notes in the booklet accompanying the recording conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras, Janáček expert and biographer John Tyrrell quotes Čapek biographer William Harkins:

… the intensity of Čapek ‘s ideas is never matched by a corresponding intensity of language.

and goes on to say that, in effect, Janáček had improved on the original material, providing a solemn tragic dimension to a comedy that, if not entirely light-hearted, was not too substantial either. That may be so, but I would love to read the play for myself, and would be grateful if anyone could point me in the direction of a good translation. Certainly the ideas that animate the drama, whether or not they are matched by a corresponding intensity of language, are immensely striking.

For what emerges through all the ordinary, prosaic stuff about legal cases and disputed wills is a quite extraordinary and, indeed, poetic story. It concerns Emilia Marty, a beautiful and gifted opera singer, who, for reasons not immediately divulged, takes an interest in this seemingly dull legal case, and appears, mysteriously, to know about the private affairs of various people who had been alive a hundred years ago. She refuses to answer any questions on how she came to know such things, and treats everyone and everything with a cold, undisguised contempt. What she is interested in is a certain document that, she knows, is in the same place as a will that is as yet unseen. It is this document that is, specifically, the “Makropulos Thing” of the title. To get her hands on this document, she agrees, with seeming indifference, without either desire or distaste, to spend a night with Baron Prus; but when they emerge from the hotel bedroom in the third act, the Baron describes the encounter as like “making love to a corpse”.

The secret finally emerges: Emilia Marty is 337 years old: her real name – that is, the name she had been born with – is Elina Makropulos. Her father, an alchemist of the sixteenth century, and created an elixir for eternal life, and had been ordered to test it first on his own daughter. She, having taken it, had fallen into a coma, and her father was imprisoned as a fraud. But he was no fraud: the daughter had emerged from the coma free from the shadow of death: she had, indeed, eternal life. And over the centuries, she had perfected her art as a singer, and had emerged under different names in different eras. Now, she needs her father’s formula – contained in the “Makropulos Thing” she so desperately wants to get her hands on – to renew her eternal youth.

But there is a price to be extracted for eternity:  life, for her, is empty. She had loved, but those she had loved – such as the man who had written the disputed will, and to whom she bore an illegitimate child – are now long dead; and now, even love has come to seem a pointless rigmarole.

In the prelude that opens the opera, the music turns and churns: brass motifs heard offstage seem to echo down from somewhere far distant in time itself. Once the action begins, we seem to be in a very ordinary world of lawyers’ offices, hotel rooms, backstage after performance; but through this ordinariness emerges the extraordinary. And by the end, without my realising quite how I got there, I found myself in the grips of one of the most mesmerising of all operatic tragedies, as Elina Makropulos concedes the sheer pointlessness of eternity.

I am not qualified to comment on the musical performance, except to say that, to my ears at least, it was magnificent. The BBC Symphony Orchestra played like the world class orchestra it is, and Karita Mattila projected not merely her undoubted vocal prowess, but all the charisma and personality such a role requires. To see so great a singer and actress, still in her artistic prime despite having been at the top of her career now for several decades, is in itself a privilege.

As for the opera itself, I came out of the Royal Albert Hall as shaken as I had been (albeit for different reasons) when I had come out having seen Strauss’ Elektra there some two years ago. The two operas, despite both being tragedies, are very different: with Elektra, one has no doubt from the very opening chords that one is in a mythic world darkened by blood and by a violence that is both mental and physical; but here, despite the foreboding music of the prelude, one seems very much in a world of the mundane, the ordinary. What is striking here is the emergence of the extraordinary from the ordinary, of the tragic from the mundane.

In many ways, I couldn’t help thinking, this opera is the diametric opposite of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Wagner liked his operas long, and constructed them so that, when listening, we lose the sense of time passing, while Janáček preferred his operas short (between 90 and 120 minutes, at most), and here, made the passage of time his very theme; Wagner’s opera virtually strips out all external action, so that what we experience seems to be taking place somewhere deep within our unconscious, whereas Janáček sets his work with an almost dogged determination in a very real world; Wagner shows us a world in which human love is given meaning and significance by the presence of death, whereas Janáček shows us a world in which everything that is of value, even love itself, is rendered pointless by the absence of death. For, as Wagner and Janáček both knew – and, I’d imagine, Karel Čapek too – love is only possible between dying things. Eternity is not for the likes of us.