Archive for April, 2017

Penny-in-the-slot criticisms

TRIGGER ALERT: This post contains some intemperate views, and expresses no small degree of irritation on my part regarding various comments I have seen online over the years. If such things trigger you, then I would advise giving this one a miss.

There is a kind of criticism that I have heard referred to as “penny-in-the-slot criticisms”. Which means that these criticisms are automatic reactions, instinctive and unthinking – reflexive rather than reflective.

When it comes to literature, and to books in general, there is a set of criticisms that, I think, could come under this category. Perhaps the worst thing about these criticisms is that they are immutable: no matter how vehemently you may argue against them, you won’t change anyone’s mind, because your argument will not be engaged with. Not that your argument was necessarily right: one is – or, at least I am – grateful when one’s argument is shown to be flawed, and one is forced either to refine one’s ideas, or to rethink them, or even to withdraw them altogether. But no, in an environment in which even to questions someone’s opinion is viewed as an act of aggression, that kind of thing doesn’t happen. It’s not even a case of one’s argument not being countered: it’s simply not engaged with. But nonetheless, as sure as night follows day, that penny-in-the-slot criticism you had argued against will re-appear, as if you’d never said anything at all to counter it.

Here are a few such criticisms I’ve picked up over the years (in bold), along with brief arguments against them (in italics) that are regularly ignored.

“People don’t really enjoy reading difficult books: they only read books such as Ulysses to show off.”

If it were true that it is not possible to enjoy anything that is difficult, it’s hard to explain why so many are attracted to chess, say, or to difficult cryptic crossword puzzles.

And show off to whom? We do not live in a world where erudition is much valued. Reading something like Ulysses in order to “show off” seems like an awful lot of hard work for very little in return.

“People who write difficult books – again, like Ulysses – are just showing off how clever they are.”

Once again, showing off to whom? And why?

And if you don’t like “clever” writers, do you really prefer stupid ones?

“Male authors couldn’t/can’t create convincing female characters.”

Odd, isn’t it? Good writers of fiction can imagine themselves into the minds of all sorts of people different from themselves – children, old people, people from different walks of life, people from different social class, and all the rest of it. But the one barrier that is, seemingly, insurmountable is the barrier of gender. Not sure why: no-one has bothered explaining.

And in any case, how do you know that men writers cannot create women? Do all women think and feel in the same way? And are you privy to all their thoughts and feelings?

A good many of these penny-in-the-slot criticisms refer to Dickens. Some do lead to a bit of an exchange, but they never really get anywhere:

“Dickens really couldn’t create women.”

Miss Havisham, Betsey Trotwood, Sarah Gamp –

“Yes, but those are caricatures.”

But caricatures are not failed attempts at portraiture. You did not specify –

“You know what I meant. Dickens could not depict real women.”

Esther Summerson, Lady Dedlock, Harriet Beadle, Rosa Dartle, Lizzie Hexam…

“Dickens could only create caricatures.”

As said previously, a caricature is not a failed attempt at portraiture. It takes skill to create a memorable caricature. And as for Dickensian characters who are complex people and most definitely not caricatures, we have Steerforth, John Jarndyce, William Dorrit, Pip, Miss Wade …

“But Dickens’ heroines are awful”.

Some of Dickens’ romantic heroines, especially in his early novels, are certainly bland and colourless. But so are his romantic heroes. Nicholas Nickleby is as colourless as Madeleine Bray, the adult David Copperfield as colourless as Agnes Wickfield, Martin Chuzzlewit as colourless as – and so on. It’s not just his heroines. The convention that romantic heroes and heroines had both to be spotless created all sorts of problems for writers. Dickens later overcame this and created heroes and heroines who are genuinely interesting – Pip and Estella, Bella Wilfer, Louisa Gradgrind, etc.

Silence. No response. And then, soon after:

“Dickens couldn’t create female characters, and all his characters are merely caricatures anyway.”

And also, for good measure:

“Dickens was just soap opera of his day”.

Just for clarity, could you define what you mean by “soap opera”, and specify how it differs from other (and presumably superior) forms of drama?

No, of course they can’t. At least, they don’t. The whole point of these criticisms is that you don’t need to follow them up.

And then you get the killer one:

“Dickens is sentimental.”

Sentimentality is a difficult thing to define adequately. Yes, in many of his works – especially the early ones – he can be genuinely mawkish. But that is by no means the full story: there is also much in his novels that has real emotional depth and complexity. For instance …

And you put together a long, detailed catalogue of examples, but no-one is listening. They have demonstrated how superior their taste is to yours by proclaiming that they are above Dickens and you aren’t, and that’s the end of the matter. They may even add, for good measure:

“I don’t have to like something just because the critics say I must.”

The implication is that I am blinded by the authority of these “critics” (whoever these mustachio-twirling pantomime villains may be), but they, being more independent in their thought, aren’t. And you might as well stop there, unless you want to create a scene.

Dickens certainly gets more than his fair share of penny-in-the-slot criticisms, but other writers aren’t exempt either:

“The Brontës were the bodice-rippers of their day.”q

“Austen was the chick-lit of her day.”

You can write entire essays trying to refute these claims, safe in the knowledge that no-one will engage with anything you may have to say. Well, some might, I guess – but you know that the same comments will come up again, and from the same people.

And then, on Shakespeare, there is that old bugbear of mine:

“Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be seen, not read.”

How do you know this? Are you privy to what Shakespeare intended? And even if that is what Shakespeare had intended, why deny ourselves the experience of reading these plays when reading them can be so enriching?

Then there is that perennial one:

“I read to enjoy myself.”

My protestations that I, too, read to enjoy myself pass unnoticed.

“At the end of the day, it’s all just a matter of personal opinion.”

This is the point where you decide you’ve had enough of book boards, and create your own blog where you can let off steam to your heart’s content. As I have done here.

(If anyone has been triggered by any of this, please do bear in mind that I had placed a Trigger Warning at the start of this post, and I don’t think I can be held responsible for any distress or trauma caused.)

My Answers to Author Questions

I don’t normally do these memes on this blog, but I have been enjoined to do so by the redoubtable Di Nguyen of The Little White Attic blog. (Her own answers to these questions may be found here.) So here goes.

1/ Who are your favourite writers? Restricting myself to ten (or we’ll be here for ever), Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Ibsen, Tolstoy, Tagore, Conan Doyle (and not just for the Sherlock Holmes stories), M. R. James (I’ve always loved creepy ghost stories), and, finally, P. G. Wodehouse, who makes me laugh more than any other author.

A few more? OK – Gerard Manley Hopkins, Eugene O’Neill, William Butler Yeats, Flannery O’Connor, Emily Brontë, William Faulkner, Franz Kafka, George Eliot, Alexander Pushkin, Anton Chekhov, John Keats, Carson McCullers, Sophocles, Nikolai Leskov, Robert Louis Stevenson, Boris Pasternak, Benito Pérez Galdós, Raymond Chandler, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Homer, R. K. Narayan, Thomas Mann, Seamus Heaney, Cervantes, Elizabeth Bishop, James Joyce, Nikolai Gogol, James M. Cain, Muriel Spark, Thucydides, Alexandre Dumas, Vasily Grossman, Harold Pinter, Joseph Conrad, Eudora Welty, Gustave Flaubert, Bertolt Brecht …

Can I stop now?

2/ Who were your favourite writers when you were a teenager? Which of them do you still like? I was an overly serious teenager, and my teenage reading was, on the whole, fairly heavy duty stuff. Shakespeare I discovered early, and has remained a constant companion. I also discovered the 19th century Russians – Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, etc. I was a great admirer of Bernard Shaw for a while, but the major influence on my political thinking was Orwell – not so much his two well-known novels, but, rather, his essays, reviews, and journalism.

I continued my childhood love of reading creepy ghost stories in bed at night: other than M. R. James, writers such as Algernon Blackwood, A. M. Burrage, E. F. Benson, and various other writers who will only be known to aficionados, were (and remain) huge favourites. And, of course, there were the Sherlock Holmes stories. And various other stories by Conan Doyle: it’s a shame that the Holmes and Watson stories, wonderful though they are, overshadow, for instance, the Brigadier Gerard stories.

For some reason, when I entered my teens, I felt adventure stories – which I enjoyed in my pre-teenage years – were now beneath me. So I gave up on the likes of Stevenson, Rider Haggard, John Buchan, Anthony Hope, etc. It was very foolish of me.

3/ Which writers have most influenced you? In terms of my political views, Orwell, certainly – although, as I said, his essays and journalism were more important to me than Animal Farm or Nineteen Eighty Four.

My literary mentor was Anthony Burgess. I did not know anyone sufficiently knowledgeable or interested in literature to discuss it with me, or to guide me, and Burgess filled that position admirably.

As for the rest, just about every writer whose works I value has, in some way or other, influenced the way I think, and the way I see the world.

4/ Which writers do you wish had not influenced you? None that I can think of, really. For a time, I was something of a Shavian, but I soon got over that, although I still admire him as a comic dramatist. Sadly, I don’t think he was anywhere near as profound a thinker as he imagined himself.

5/ Which writers are you embarrassed you used to like? Once again, none I can think of. In my early childhood, I used to love Enid Blyton’s adventure stories, and I know I am supposed to find that embarrassing now, but I don’t. I enjoyed her stories, and they gave me the confidence to read in English (which was, of course, not my mother tongue).

6/ Which writers did you not expect to like, but did? I find that the older I get, the broader my range of sympathies become. I used to find Austen, for instance, very alien to my sensibilities. Similarly Henry James, or Edith Wharton. I much preferred the irregularities of a Dostoyevsky to the smooth and immaculately polished surfaces of a Henry James; the vast, mysterious vision of late Ibsen to the seeming ordinariness of Kathrine Mansfield; Gogol’s streaks of madness, or the exuberance and eccentricity of Dickens, to the eminent sanity of Austen. I now admire (and even like) all those sane, immaculate polishers who used previously to bore me.

And, of course, Tagore. I grew up in a very Tagorean household: he was, effectively, an extra member of the family. His music and poetry were all around me, and I think I absorbed Tagore virtually through the pores of my skin. I turned against him in my teenage years, only to return to him later, in middle age.

7/ Which writers do you think you will still read, and like, for the rest of your life? I’ll be sixty in a few years time, and I can’t really see myself turning against any of those writers I have loved now for decades.

8/ Who are your favourite prose stylists? Or your favourite writers on the sentence level? I don’t think I know of any prose writer in English who had greater command over the language than James Joyce. Dickens had a magnificent ear for the rhythms and sonorities of the English language: no matter how long his sentences, he never lost his way. I enjoy also the grace and the elegance of Austen, Wharton, and R. K. Narayan.

And, for all his repetitive clumsiness (and, it must be said, occasional gibberish), the prose of D. H. Lawrence could, at its best, communicate states of mind and levels of consciousness that one might have thought were beyond the power of words.

9/ Who are your favourite writers of characters? Shakespeare and Tolstoy.

10/ Which writers, alive or dead, would you invite to dinner? I’d invite renowned conversationalists, such as Mark Twain or R. L. Stevenson.

11/ Which writers, alive or dead, would you like to know personally? And think you could be friends with? See answer to previous question. I also like to think I’d have got on quite well with Carson McCullers.

12/ Do you personally know any published author? Yes, one or two, but this is not the place for name-dropping.

13/ Which writers do you like/ admire but generally avoid, for some reason? Nabokov comes to mind. Not entirely sure why I tend to avoid him: it’s something I haven’t analysed.

14/ Which writers do you like as critics/ essayists but not as novelists? I do like Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty Four, but I rate Orwell more highly as an essayist. Also, I find the novels of Virginia Woolf very alien to my sensibilities, but her critical judgements tend to be sound. (Except her views on Ulysses: like so many others, she was shocked by it, but didn’t really want to admit being shocked.)

15/ Which writers have changed you as a reader? Just about every writer who has meant anything to me.

16/ Who do you think are overrated? On the understanding that “overrated” doesn’t mean “inferior”, I’d nominate John Steinbeck and Harper Lee. It’s not their fault: it’s just that, in UK schools at least, everyone (and I mean everyone) has to read Of Mice and Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, or both; and as a consequence, these two novels, which are both pretty good, are often regarded as representing the highest peaks of literature.

I’m also genuinely puzzled by the reverence in which F. Scott Fitzgerald is held, but that’s probably just me. I really don’t know. The high status of Evelyn Waugh and E. M. Forster also continues to puzzle me.

17/ Who do you think are underrated and should be more widely read? R. K. Narayan, definitely. And Aldous Huxley should be known for more than just Brave New World: his early novels especially – Crome Yellow, Antic Hay, Point Counter Point – are intelligent, endlessly witty and inventive, and a sheer joy to read.

18/ Who do you think are the best living writers? My reading of contemporary literature amounts to so little, I’d be embarrassed even to try to answer this question.

19/ Which writers do you go to for comfort? Conan Doyle, M. R. James, P. G. Wodehouse, R. L. Stevenson, Alexandre Dumas. And many writers of creepy ghost stories.

20/ Which writers do you go to for mere amusement? I’ve never thought of “amusement” as “mere” (the ability to provide high quality amusement is a skill to be respected) but P. G. Wodehouse I think fits the bill here. And, possibly, the Flashman novels of George Mcdonald Frazer, although, once again, it is doing these books a disservice by applying to them the rather insulting adjective “mere”.

21/ Who are the greatest writers that you don’t personally like/ that you just don’t warm to? See answer to Question 13.

22/ Which writers do you hate/ strongly dislike? When I dislike a writer who is generally well regarded, I put it down to shortcomings on my part rather than on the writer’s. The whole point of reading is to come across perspectives and sensibilities very different to my own, and to absorb them into mine; but some perspectives and sensibilities are so very different to my own, that taking them in becomes virtually impossible. One just has to shrug one’s shoulders, accept that there are limits to what one can take in, and move on.

I confess as well that I have a strong antipathy to the fantasy genre, and to science fiction. Once again, that’s a comment on myself, and not on the accomplished writers within these genres. But I generally try to avoid people who push a copy of The Lord of the Rings into my hands and tell me I really must read it.

There are many writers I’m sure I’d dislike if I were to read them, but who are not even on my radar, so there’s little point my mentioning them.

23/ Which writers are you prejudiced against? Writers in the science fiction and fantasy genres (see answer to question above).

24/ Which writers do you feel you should have read by now? Montaigne (I’m reading his essays now); the mythical Valmiki and Vyasa (reputedly authors of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata), and the anonymous authors of the Icelandic sagas; the great poets of Persian literature; Dante and Proust (I’ve only dipped my toes into their works, and don’t claim to know them adequately); Lady Murasaki; Ezra Pound (I’ll get round to the Cantos some day, I’m sure); … and so on, and so forth. In the immortal words of Stan Laurel, life’s not short enough.

25/ Which writers from your country would you recommend to a foreigner? I’m not entirely sure what “my country” is. Bengal? India? Scotland? England? UK? Assuming it’s Bengal (or India), I’d recommend the two magnificent novels Pather Panchali and Aparajito by Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay. (Tagore was a towering figure, but his poetry is very difficult to translate. However, the existing translations have garnered much praise.) Assuming it’s Scotland, I’d recommend Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg.

And assuming it’s England, I’d recommend Shakespeare. (For those who insist that these plays were “meant to be seen, not read”, I refuse to discuss the matter further.)

26/ Which writers do you recommend to everyone? Every serious reader? I love talking about the books I value, but these days, I never recommend anything to anyone, We all have our own priorities, and we all have too little time.

27/ Which writers do you wish you could write like? R. K. Narayan. I wish I had that seemingly effortless grace and elegance, and that natural charm.

28/ What is your favourite language to read in? English. It’s not my mother tongue, but it’s the language I know best.

29/ Which foreign-language writers make you wish to learn their language in order to read them in the original? Russian. My enthusiasm for Russian literature is still as strong as it ever was.

30/ Who is the best writer you’ve just discovered recently? I recently found the short stories of Giovanni Verga quite revelatory. And I am currently enjoying rediscovering Molière, whom I had previously underrated.

If any other blogger would like to address these questions on their own blog, please do go ahead, and put a link to it in the Comments section below.

Dostoyevsky in Europe

Winter Notes on Summer Impressions by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, translated by Kyrill Fitzlyon, published by Alma Classics. All quotes in the post below are taken from this translation.

 

Among the many things in life I find myself utterly at a loss to account for is the tremendous attraction I feel for the writings of Dostoyevsky. When his many faults are listed to me, I can do little but nod away in agreement. Yes, his novels are hysterical, irrational – indeed, he seemed to laud irrationality; they are loosely structured baggy monsters. He was also a fervent Slavophile, while I despise nationalism. He was politically conservative, and hated liberalism and liberals with a vengeance, whereas I tend to describe my politics as “liberal”. (Indeed, I was amused to find recently that I had described my politics on my Facebook profile as “Turgenevian liberal”. I don’t remember writing this, and suspect I was drunk at the time and not entirely serious; but I did laugh at what was presumably my own joke, and decided not to change it.) Dostoyevsky hated those Russians such as Turgenev who had adopted the values of Western liberalism, and I can’t help but see my own adherence to these same Western liberal values, despite my Indian background, as a sort of parallel (even though I have, I suppose, the excuse of having lived most of my life in the West). I suspect that if Dostoyevsky had known me personally, he would have despised me, and my values. And, by rights, I should also be repelled by Dostoyevsky, who stood for so much that I do not, and who loathed so much that I do. And yet, I find myself irresistibly drawn to Dostoyevsky. Which, I suppose, demonstrates Dostoyevsky’s dictum that we are far from being the rational creatures we like to imagine ourselves.

Dostoyevsky had not always been a right-wing Slavophile, of course. In his youth, he had been very left-wing indeed. He had been member of a revolutionary group, had narrowly avoided the death sentence (he had, famously, been led out to be executed before it was announced that his sentence had been commuted), and had served many years in a labour camp. His early works had been of a somewhat sentimental nature, focussing on “poor folk”, on the “insulted and the injured”, and lamenting the social injustice that cause so much suffering. But then, in the early 1860s, a very profound change took place in his outlook. As translator Kyrill Fitzlyon says in his preface to Winter Notes on Summer Impressions:

His earlier novels aim at the entertainment of the reader; undeterred by considerations of verisimilitude or psychological probability, they glide over the surface of life without stopping to take soundings of what goes on underneath; they shun deep analysis and they lack the later Dostoyevskian eagerness to reconcile the actions of men with their consciences, conceived in terms of spiritual anguish.

It was in the summer of 1862, at what we may see as the turning point between Dostoyevsky’s earlier viewpoints and his later, that Dostoyevsky visited Europe for a few weeks. That winter, he wrote of his travels in Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, and here we may see quite clearly his mature thoughts and ideas taking shape.

The West was what liberals, such as the hated Turgenev, pointed towards: it was in the liberal values of the West that Russia must seek salvation; by looking West, and adopting its values, Russia, so far from the major centres of civilisation, could, at long last, civilise itself. But Dostoyevsky was not having any of this. This is not necessarily because of his Slavophilism: what he saw in the few weeks he spent in Paris, and the week he spent in London, did not suggest to him a Heaven to be aimed for. That Russia was no Heaven he already knew: but salvation did not lie in emulating the West.

Before he goes into all this, he writes a preface, to which he gives the title “Instead of a Preface”. This sense of playfulness is apparent throughout the book. Dostoyevsky tells us right away that he is not a reliable narrator. He has spent only a few weeks in London and in Paris, he tells us, and his views are not only based on limited exposure, but are also, no doubt, biased and jaundiced in all sorts of ways. As he goes on to expand on this, he seems to create an authorial persona that may or may not be himself. At times, he seems almost to present himself as of those Gogolian grotesques who can’t stop digressing into all sorts of irrelevancies. The narrator he presents is, in short, a comic character, the first of the many weird and unreliable voices who come and go in the narration of his later novels. Giving the authorial voice such a persona allows Dostoyevsky to pursue his ideas into unexpected areas, and explore thoughts and concepts that may appear eccentric or whimsical, but without necessarily giving these ideas the seal of authorial approval.

He spends some time in London, and presents it in almost apocalyptic terms. He is shocked by the level of extreme poverty and vice. This may be surprising: as is apparent from his own novels, extreme poverty and vice aren’t exactly unknown in Russia. But perhaps he had expected better from London. What shocked him, I think, was the open acceptance of these things. He gives a description of a pathetic half-starved young girl, a child, openly trading herself in Haymarket, right in the centre of fashionable London. The English are often chided for their hypocrisy, but it seems to be the lack of hypocrisy, the openness of such moral depths, that seemed particularly to strike Dostoyevsky.

He has more to say about France, and, rather interestingly, he seems shocked by the very aspects of Russia that had shocked Europeans of that age – the lack of freedom, adulation of the Emperor, police informers, and the like. And he considers especially the middle classes, the bourgeoisie. The inspiring slogans of the French Revolution – liberty, equality, fraternity – are, he feels, an immense sham: all that has happened is that the middle classes have now taken on the power to exploit the lower classes. All ideals, all morals that people pretend to live by, are sham:

Paris has an unquenchable thirst for virtue. Nowadays the Frenchman is a serious and reliable man, often tender-hearted, so that I cannot understand why he is so afraid of something even now, and is afraid of it in spite of all the gloire militaire which flourishes in France and which Jacques Bonhomie pays so much for. The Parisian dearly loves to trade, but even as he trades and fleeces you in his shop, he fleeces you not for the sake of profit, as in the old days, but in the name of virtue, out of some sacred necessity. To amass a fortune and possess as many things as possible – this has become the Parisian’s main moral code, to be equated with religious observance.

Dostoyevsky keeps probing: what, exactly, are the bourgeoisie afraid of?

Whom should he fear then? The workers? But the workers are all of them capitalists too, in their heart of hearts: their one ideal is to become capitalists and amass as many things as possible.

This is not the solution, Dostoyevsky felt, for Russia. Rational precepts, and noble sentiments – liberté, égalité, fraternité – end up meaning nothing, and not merely because humans are not rational creatures: as he goes on to examine in Notes From Underground (which was written shortly after this book), humans are, if anything, anti-rational creatures, who, far from accepting ideas because they are shown to be rational, would choose, rather, deliberately to reject them in order to proclaim their freedom from the tyranny of reason. All he can see in the great cities of Europe are “anthills”: any attempt from above to bind humans into a unity is bound to fail disastrously, because they misunderstand the essentially paradoxical nature of humanity.

I can understand Dostoyevsky’s argument – at least, up to a point. Our lives have, if anything, become worse in certain respects: they have become “atomised” – to use the word popularised by the title of Michel Houellebecq’s novel – as never before. Not only do we not have fraternité between the classes, solidarity even within the social classes is becoming more problematic. But I don’t really understand what Dostoyevsky’s own solution is. Are we to expect a mystical fraternité to spring up spontaneously?

Of course, Dostoyevsky was not so foolish as to think that. His novels are not didactic novels: they are multi-voiced works, in which many of the voices rebel against their author and speak out against him, unanswered; and where, furthermore, many of the voices articulating some of Dostoyevsky’s own most deeply held beliefs are presented in a ridiculous light. Those great novels are seething cauldrons of ideas and counter-ideas, endlessly contesting and intermingling with each other, never resolving; but never are these ideas presented as something abstract: they are, as Kyrill Fitzlyon says in his preface, “conceived in terms of spiritual anguish”.

I still do not know why I am so drawn to the writings of Dostoyevsky, when, all things considered, I shouldn’t be. But there is something about these very strange books of his that has about it the air of prophecy.

“Madama Butterfly” revisited

There are times when one should reconsider some point of view one had previously expressed with great confidence, and concede, much though it may pain one to do so, that one may, perhaps, have been a trifle over-hasty. To switch now to the first person, I have to admit I’ve been talking shite.

The last time I wrote about the operas of Puccini, I had characterised him as, essentially, a purveyor of schmaltz – a splendid craftsman who, far from hiding his craftsmanship, put it on display, and who knew better than anyone how to pull at the heartstrings. And while it is certainly very enjoyable stuff, it is not, I implied, to be taken too seriously. You have a good cry as you’re watching it, and afterwards, if not actually forget about it, smile at the thought of having been so affected at the time. It’s showmanship of a very high standard, admittedly, but showmanship all the same, and nothing more.

But now, a full week after seeing a live broadcast into the cinemas of Royal Opera’s superb performance of Madama Butterfly, and still unable to get it out of my head, I find myself questioning this. Even if it were all true; even if Puccini were a master showman, a craftsman of the highest order who knew full well how to get his audience crying; why should that imply that his works are not to be taken seriously? What is it, precisely, that should prevent me from seeing Madama Butterfly as a serious tragic drama?

The plotline is simple enough (and I guess that I should issue at this point a spoiler warning, for those who care about such things). A young Japanese girl, Cio Cio San, from a noble family now fallen upon bad times, and, aged only fifteen, very innocent and naïve about the ways of the world, enters into marriage with a young American sailor Pinkerton. She takes the marriage very seriously, going as far as to reject her religion for her future husband’s, thus earning her family’s disapproval. Pinkerton, on the other hand, does not take this “marriage” at all seriously: he is just in it for a night of sex with an attractive young Japanese girl, and he even jokes quite openly about later finding himself a “proper American wife”. After his night of passion, he sails away, and forgets all about this girl. It is not that he is a villain: he is just a thoughtless young man who is doing what he sees everyone else in his position doing. It doesn’t occur to him – or, indeed, to anyone else – that the “bride” might be taking this whole silly business seriously.

But she does. From that night of passion, she has a little boy. And she waits for Pinkerton to return, as he had said he would, and will not hear anything to the contrary. And when, after three years, he does return, he has his “proper American wife” with him. He is overcome by remorse, and he and his American wife speak of adopting the little boy from his former “marriage”. Cio Cio San, her entire life and soul now crushed, takes out of its scabbard the sword with which her father, on the Emperor’s command, had committed hara-kiri. She reads the inscription: “He who cannot live with honour must die with honour”. And she blindfolds the little by so he cannot see his mother’s final agony, both physical and spiritual.

That is the story, and, for all the talk we hear of operas having silly plots, this seems to me frighteningly realistic. But what is interesting is what Puccini makes of this story. For, as far as I can see, what he makes of it is more than just a finely crafted tear-jerker. It now seems to me that it is nothing less than a tragedy of immense proportions. Cio Cio San’s fate is every bit as tragic as that of Janáček’s Káťa Kabanová, or Berg’s Wozzeck. If we do not hesitate to describe those works as tragic (and I don’t think anyone seriously does), I really don’t see why we should withhold that status from this opera. Yes, Cio Cio San is tortured beyond human endurance, and Puccini is often criticised for what many regard as his streak of sadism, and of misogyny. But Káťa Kabanová and Wozzeck are equally tortured, and I’ve yet to hear Janáček criticised for misogyny on that score, or Berg of misandry. And neither is accused of sadism. It seems that these criticisms are made only of Puccini. Is it because he wears his heart so obviously on his sleeve, I wonder? What other reason can there be?

Also, sadism implies an enjoyment in inflicting pain. But I get no sense of that at all in Madama Butterfly. Puccini takes Cio Cio San’s sufferings very seriously. Indeed, he is perhaps the only one who does. Apart from the maidservant Suzuki, all other characters seem to see Cio Cio San as essentially disposable: she doesn’t matter, and neither do her feelings. In the first act, Pinkerton never pauses to ask himself whether Cio Cio San takes the marriage seriously, or as lightly as he obviously does. Even the American consul, Sharpless, though sympathetic, is merely uneasy at the marriage, and no more: he tells Pinkerton to be careful, but, crucially, doesn’t tell him not to proceed with his plans. Later, he expresses frustration that Cio Cio San insists on waiting for the man she still regards as her husband. In the final act, no-one questions that Pinkerton’s second marriage, with a “proper American woman”, is the one that really counts, and not his first. Pinkerton may be remorseful, and everyone may feel sorry for Cio Cio San, but no-one thinks anything of taking her child away from her. The American Mrs Pinkerton promises to Cio Cio San that she will look after the child as if he were her own: she actually thinks this is a kind thing to say. And we can all guess what will happen once the curtain drops on the dead woman and the blindfolded child: the child will be taken away, his mother never more mentioned, and, in time, she will be forgotten. A disposable person well disposed of. Move on – nothing to see here.

The only person to understand the full extent of this tragedy, to understand its earth-shaking nature, is Puccini himself. And to see this merely as a master showman pulling strings to get his audience crying does not strike me as an adequate way to view this – as it seems to me now – extraordinary work. It wrings the heart with terror and with pity, and neither is there just for theatrical effect.

The Royal Opera production, and the performances, were top notch. Conductor Antonio Pappano shapes and paces the drama to perfection, and Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho is absolutely sensational as Cio Cio San, both in terms of singing and of acting. A full week after the show, neither my wife nor I can get this opera out of our heads. The other characters on stage may no doubt see Cio Cio San as essentially a disposable human being; but Puccini has ensured that we see her as something considerably more than that. Madama Butterfly is among the great works of tragic drama.

Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell: an episode from “Man and Superman”

Years back, when we had only two television channels broadcasting in Britain (BBC and ITV), and both of them thought of television as having the potential of being a true National Theatre of the People – a national theatre to which the whole nation had access – BBC used to broadcast every month a classic play at peak viewing hour on Sunday evenings. The slot was called, appropriately enough, Play of the Month. (They had a slot for contemporary drama as well – Play For Today, which broadcast new, specially commissioned plays for television.) It was thanks to this Play of the Month slot that I became familiar at a very early age with such names as Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekhov, and so on. But Bernard Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell proved a few steps too far. I know for a fact that this was indeed broadcast at 8.20pm on a Sunday evening, because it is confirmed by online archive of past BBC programmes: but the very idea of putting out something such as this at peak viewing hours seems nowadays so bizarre, that, were it not for this confirmation, I would have been tempted to have put it all down as a figment of my imagination.

I think I sat through a full half hour or so before deciding to switch over, as I had not the first idea what they were on about. I am fairly sure, looking back, that most of those foolhardy enough to have started watching this play would have switched over to ITV well before the half hour mark. For the “play” consists of four people – three of them characters from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and the fourth the Devil himself – sitting around in Hell discussing philosophy. In short, peak-time viewing material this ain’t. Not even with the presence of Michael Redgrave, and of Christopher Plummer, a mere six years after The Sound of Music.

Don Juan in Hell, despite taking up almost two hours of the BBC schedule that night, is not the full play. It is a dream episode interpolated into a longer play, Man and Superman. In this episode, we have three characters from Don Giovanni, and the Devil, all of whom are transformed versions of four characters who appear in the longer play. I don’t know if Man and Superman has ever been played complete with this dream episode: that would be, I’d imagine, far too long to be accommodated in a single evening’s performance, and a practical man of the theatre such as Shaw must surely have known that. Certainly, when I saw Man and Superman on stage back in the early 80s (with Peter O’Toole in the principal role of Jack Tanner), the Don Juan in Hell episode was cut entirely. I’d guess Shaw had intended this long episode as a bonus for the reader – a not-so-miniature closet drama embedded in a larger play for the stage – rather than something he expected to be performed. But who knows? Maybe Shaw did expect his audience to be seated in the theatre for five hours, fascinated by his new, modern variation of the Don Juan myth: I wouldn’t put such megalomania past him.

I don’t actually mean to be rude about Shaw, although, sometimes, it is hard to resist the temptation. Several of his plays still stand up pretty well, I think – Heartbreak House, say, or Saint Joan. And Pygmalion ranks with the plays of Sheridan or with The Importance of Being Earnest as among the very finest of stage comedies in the English language. But there were other times when – to crudely anticipate what should really be the conclusion of this essay – he could be a pompous windbag. I have been fascinated by all three of the Don Juan plays I read recently (see here, here, and here): this one, I must confess, I found a trial.

It is, in outline, a light comedy. After the death of her father, the young lady Ann Whitefield, by the terms of her late father’s will, finds herself placed in the guardianship of the ageing, respectable Roebuck Ramsden, and of a much younger man, Jack Tanner, who, we are informed, holds unconventional views on all sorts of things. Ramsden, who used to be a liberal in his youth and who, not realising how very outdated his outlook now is, still considers himself a man of progressive views; but he disapproves of Jack Tanner, whose radicalism is, apparently, beyond the pale. Although this play was written in 1903, when social conventions were far more strait-laced than our own, it is quite hard to see exactly why Tanner’s views are regarded as so objectionable. After all, Shaw seems to go out of his way to assure us that he is, indeed, morally irreproachable:

Ramsden: I am glad you think so well of yourself.

Tanner: All you mean by that is that you think I should be ashamed of talking about my virtues. You don’t mean that I haven’t got them: you know perfectly well that I am as sober and honest a citizen as yourself, as truthful personally, and much more truthful politically and morally.

And, a few lines later:

Tanner: … you ask yourself, as a just and upright man, what is the worst you can fairly say of me. Thief, liar, forger, adulterer, perjurer, glutton, drunkard? Not one of these names fit me.

Since Jack Tanner is – as is made explicit in the Don Juan in Hell episode – the equivalent of Don Juan Tenorio, this does seem an odd piece of characterisation. For the most salient aspect of Don Juan, in all the previous versions I have read, is that he accepts no moral bounds on himself. I am not sure whether this taming of Don Juan is to ensure that the audience would not take sides against Jack Tanner; or whether, as I suspect, Shaw himself, for all his show of disdain for conventional morality, was himself too much attached to this same morality to allow his protagonist, whom he obviously intended to be sympathetic, to flout it. Either way, presenting this modern Don Juan as such a paragon of virtue makes it difficult for us to take him seriously as a rebel against society’s morals.

The comedy comes mainly from the pompous Ramsden becoming flustered by the irreverence of the young “rebel” Tanner; or from Octavius, who is in love with Anna, being such a timid and helpless ninny. (Octavius is clearly the equivalent of Don Ottavio in Mozart’s opera.) It is occasionally mildly amusing, but is far too obvious and formulaic to be anything much more than that. As for Tanner himself, virtuous though he may be in all respects, he has one vice that I, for one, found insufferable: he just can’t stop talking. He is like one of those tiresome people one sometimes encounters who has heard it said of himself that he is something of a character, and spends all his energies trying to live up to that reputation. Only in a conventional stage drama could someone like him be allowed to go on talking interminably without being told to shut up, for Heavens’ sake.

It wouldn’t have mattered so much if what he had to say was witty, or intelligent: but it isn’t. He has an idea, which he states explicitly – and repeatedly – that women are driven by a biological imperative to perpetuate the human race, and, to that end, their chief aim is to capture a mate; while men, on the other hand, try their best to escape their clutches. Complete unmitigated gibberish, if you ask me, but Tanner takes this seriously enough, and so, apparently, does Shaw, as this nonsense seems to be the central theme of the play. Now, one may point to works that are notable despite the bad ideas they attempt to propagate, but I don’t think even the greatest of dramatists could contrive a play that survives this level of balderdash.

However, this rather strange idea does drive the play. Where, in Mozart’s opera, Don Giovanni had chased after an unwilling Donna Anna, here, Ann Whitefield chases after an unwilling Jack Tanner. And by the end, she captures him. That, in essence, is the play. And in the midst of all this, we have a dramatic interlude – Don Juan in Hell.

Here, we have three of the characters from Mozart’s Don Giovanni – Don Juan (Don Giovanni) himself; the statue of the Commendatore who had dragged him down to Hell; and Donna Anna (who is now in Hell herself, having lived a long life); these three are joined by the Devil, who turns out to be rather a charming man, and not at all diabolic or demonic. Hell is not here a place of fire and brimstone and Dante-esque tortures: that, we are told, is all propaganda. Hell here is a place where people enjoy themselves for all eternity, and Don Juan, against expectations, is bored with all this. So bored, indeed, that he decides by the end to opt for the contemplative life offered by Heaven. But before he does so, we are treated to a long – very long – Shavian dialogue about the purpose of our human lives. We wade through a great number of Shavian jokes (none of which I found more than mildly risible) to get to the point, viz., that the biological imperative, that had been mentioned earlier, to further the human race, and of which women are the principal agents, has the aim eventually of creating the “Superman” – not the DC Comics character, sadly, but the Nietzschian Übermensch. Shaw doesn’t address the issue of how mere perpetuation of the species in itself can lead to such an end, but, given his well-known enthusiasm for eugenics, I was reluctant to enquire further.

After this scene in Hell, we return to the mode of social comedy, where the modern Donna Anna chases down and finally captures the modern Don Juan. Most lame and impotent conclusion, as Desdemona said in a somewhat different context, but no more lame or impotent than the rest of the drama, to be honest.

When I saw that BBC broadcast of Don Juan in Hell all those years ago, I did not like it because I didn’t understand it. This time, I did not like it because I did understand it, and found it too absurd to take at all seriously. Incredible how much things change in a mere forty-five years.

As for Shaw, he did write a handful of plays that are genuinely witty and sparkling and, yes, intelligent. I am afraid I could see no evidence of any of these qualities in this one.

[Edit: 3rd April 2007 – A friend has pointed out to me that Superman is a DC Comics character, and not a Marvel Comics character. I have now corrected the error.]