Archive for May, 2018

The thriller as literature: “Devices and Desires” by P. D. James

There is no universally agreed set of criteria to determine literary greatness, but I think I would advance, albeit tentatively, the principle that great literature must address great themes.  This does, I appreciate, rule out many a work that I value – Wodehouse novels, Sherlock Homes stories, and the like: these are works I value as much as I do any literature we may term “great”. But principle is principle, and once they’re formed, we shouldn’t really be messing around with them, making exceptions merely to include stuff we happen personally to like.

And if great literature must address great themes, it is easy to see why the thriller genre should so readily produce works that, even by the standards of those who are regularly berated in book blogs as “stuffy”, may be considered “great literature”. The themes of guilt, of sin, of social and moral corruption; of evil, of conscience, and even, perhaps, of redemption; all those big themes that all serious writers and thinkers have been wrestling with now for centuries; are all present, and accessible, to the writer of thrillers. Crime and Punishment, as we all know, is a thriller; so is Nostromo. Recently, Ian Rankin chose Bleak House as a favourite thriller, which seemed to me fair enough, since it is both indisputably great, and indisputably a thriller. And, by any reasonable definition of the genre, works as indisputably possessed of literary greatness as Macbeth or Electra (either the Sophocles or the Euripides version) can all claim to be thrillers. This is not to say that all thrillers are “great literature”: addressing serious themes is a necessary rather than a sufficient criterion; but it does mean, I think, that, keeping out for the moment the contentious idea of great literature, the thriller genre, by its very nature, can lend itself to serious contemplation of humanity.

That it is P.  D. James’ intention to use the thriller genre to address serious themes can hardly be in any doubt. She says so quite clearly in her preface to the novel Devices and Desires, where she describes the early stages of her literary career:

The classical detective story with its formal constraints and internal tensions, its need to balance plot, setting and character, presents a formidable challenge to an aspiring novelist. Tackling its technical problems would, I thought, be an excellent apprenticeship to someone setting out to be eventually regarded as a serious writer. Then, as I advanced in my craft, I came to believe that it was possible to remain within the conventions of the traditional mystery and yet say something true and important about men and women and the society in which we live and die.

Indeed. To be a serious writer, one needs to address serious themes, to say something “true and important”. True, the thriller is not obliged to accommodate such things: but the point is, it can.

But Devices and Desires, a hefty novel of nearly 600 pages, is a particular kind of thriller: it is a whodunit. And I must confess that when I started the novel, I had my doubts about the suitability of this sub-genre to say “something true and important”. For the idea of the “whodunit” is to hold back an important element of the plot – that is, who the criminal is; to tease the reader into forming various different hypotheses on what that missing element of the plot may be; and to surprise the reader at the end by imparting that missing piece of information. All of this throws a great emphasis upon the plot – upon the mere sequence of events. And, further, it means that, far from addressing the “true and important” openly, the author must deliberately hold back certain elements of it until the end, so as not to spoil that surprise, which, in every whodunit, constitutes the pay-off. None of this a problem when the plot is of the essence, as it is in Agatha Christie novels; but where there are other elements important to the whole – where there are “true and important” matters to be addressed – such a leaning towards he plot makes it very difficult to achieve a satisfactory balance. In addition, when the minds of the various characters are explored in detail – as is the case here – the identity of the murderer must be credible not merely in terms of plot (i.e. all the circumstantial details of the plot must fit together to form a credible and coherent whole), but, unless we are to believe that any person, regardless of personality, is capable of committing murder, the psychology must be credible also. In other words, not only must we believe that the murderer had the opportunity and the means and the motive to commit murder, we must also believe that their act is consistent with their psychology. This means that either the author presents a range of suspects each psychologically capable of committing murder; or, alternatively, that a number of possible subjects can be ruled out entirely, thus lessening the sense of surprise when the eventual revelation comes.

All of this P.  D. James is aware of, and, in a long and distinguished career as practioner of the genre, has obviously given it far deeper consideration that I, mere casual reader, can have done. And I must say, she steers the various obstacles with admirable skill. The setting is the Norfolk coast, fairly sparsely populated (most of the principal characters seem to live in remote cottages); it is haunted both by history (Agnes Poley, a former inhabitant, had been burnt at the stake), and by modernity (looming above the landscape is a nuclear power station). Both the past and the present are held together in a precarious balance. There is a serial killer at loose, but this soon  turns out not to be a serial-killer-thriller: a murder, very much in the manner of the serial killer, is committed, but the serial killer himself had committed suicide hours earlier: the latest murder is a “copycat” killing – someone killing for their own reasons, for their own motives.

Among those present in the locality is Adam Dalgleish, a senior detective inspector; but this is not his beat, and he is not officially on the case. As such, he becomes almost a peripheral character in the proceedings. James takes adopts the voice of an omniscient narrator: this is surprising, since the very nature of a whodunit demands that the author holds back from the reader certain pieces of information, and one can but wonder why an omniscient writer should hold anything back at all. But once one accepts this conceit, it becomes a minor consideration. James moves the narrative at will from one character to another, establishing various links between them, giving us glimpses of their past, bringing to life their mental traumas, their unhealed wounds, that these lacerated souls carry around with them. And she gives is glimpses also of the various devices and desires (the title is taken from the Book of Common Prayer) of their hearts.

The pace is stately.  I have seen it described by some online as “plodding”, but I don’t accept that: there is no reason why a thriller shouldn’t be paced slowly. In tracing the interconnected lives of these people inhabiting the same locality, James seems at times to evoke some of the great English novelists of the previous century whom she knew and loved so well – Jane Austen, perhaps, or George Eliot. But the mood here is, naturally, given the genre, much darker.  It is true that this thriller doesn’t, perhaps, thrill, but there is, nonetheless, a tension present – a tension that comes not from any sense of imminent danger, but from the interaction between the various characters.

By the end, I was very impressed, though not, perhaps, entirely convinced. Despite all the undoubted skill apparent – not least a very polished prose style, and a quite superb evocation of place – a whodunit still stands or falls by the ingenuity of the plotting, and any element other than the plot is, inevitably, additional to it, rather than integral. And then, there is the sense of closure: the themes broached in this novel – the unhealed psychological wounds we carry around with us, the questions of personal morality, and so on – can never have closure: these are things that we, as humans, must continue to live with. But the whodunit genre is such, that the revelation of the murderer imparts to the reader a sense of finality: we’ve been presented with a mystery, and now it’s solved. Once again, James is clearly aware of this problem, but I remain unconvinced that she has solved it here. The final chapters convey – inevitably, I think, given the nature of the whodunit genre – a sense of finality; and, given the themes broached, this should not really have been the case.

I am not really a great reader of whodunits, and I am not sure how this novel will settle into my mind. For novels have a way of settling into one’s mind over time:  as one reflects upon what one as read, it can, over time, acquire new resonance, new shades of meanings. Or, conversely, its impact may simply fade. Right now, a full week after having finished it, Devices and Desires seems to me an extremely impressive work, written by a master craftsman. But whether the whodunit genre itself is a suitable vehicle for conveying matters “true and important”, I must say I continue to have my doubts.


Ode to Joy

When, towards the end of Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, the fictional composer Adrian Leverkühn, staring full into the abyss, declares he will take back the 9th symphony, we don’t need to ask whose 9th symphony he is referring to – Schubert’s, Dvořák’s, Bruckner’s, or Mahler’s. And neither do we need to ask what Leverkühn means by saying that he wants to take it back. Beethoven’s 9th symphony stood then, as it stands now, for all those ideals and values that, for all the lessons of history, still stir the blood – freedom, liberty, love, brotherhood, comradeship, joy.

Ibsen had warned us, in Brand and in The Wild Duck, against the Claims of the Ideal. No matter how noble the ideal, no matter how heroic and self-sacrificing the idealist, “out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made”. (That quote, a quick Google search tells me, is from Kant. It was a favourite of Isaiah Berlin’s, who titled one of his collections of essays The Crooked Timber of Humanity: the undesirability of even trying to attain Utopia here on earth was a theme that much exercised him.) Dostoyevsky too had known that straightening crooked humanity to make it fit for a utopia can only be achieved through violence: the Grand Inquisitor may indeed be correcting Christ’s work for the greater happiness of mankind, but burning heretics in an autoda is, presumably, a price that needs to be paid for that universal utopian happiness.

All this the history of the last centuries has taught us, all this we know. Or, at least, should know. And yet, even knowing this, Beethoven’s 9th symphony continues to thrill. And it thrills not merely by the power of the music, but also by the message it explicitly gives us – that of universal love and brotherhood, of ideals, out of which, some still believe, a Utopia may still be built, right here on earth. How can we remain still in thrall to this message? Could it be that even with the knowledge of the dangers of Utopia, even with all the bitter experience of history, we cannot still inside us that longing for a heaven here on earth? And could the message of Beethoven’s 9th symphony, and the great, noble feelings it still arouses in us, actually be dangerous?

At this point, it’s as well to pause a while to reflect. Did Beethoven, whom we often tend to refer to as a “visionary”, really lack the vision to perceive what is now so obvious to us all? Lewis Lockwood, in his splendid book on Beethoven, reminds us that when he was composing the 9th symphony, these ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity had already failed, and were in retreat: Beethoven had lived through the times when these lofty ideals had given way to the Terror; he had seen Napoleon (whom he had initially admired, and about whom he continued to harbour conflicting and ambivalent feelings) unleash the most horrific warfare across Europe; and, most recently, he had seen the settlements reached in the Congress of Vienna plunge Europe back again to the most ruthless reactionary despotisms. Beethoven’s assertion of the ideals of freedom and of brotherly love, far from being triumphalist, is better seen as a sort of rearguard action.

So, maybe, he wasn’t advocating a utopia; maybe he wasn’t advocating building Jerusalem on England’s or anyone else’s green and pleasant land. The lines he set of Schiller nowhere imply – as Blake’s famous lines do – striving to build anything at all: it is an assertion, a celebration, of human love for its own sake. And I think it is right that this very idea is something that should thrill us, fill us with joy. I can speak from personal experience on this: it’s over a decade now that I came out of the Usher Hall in Edinburgh, having heard Sir Charles Mackerras conduct this symphony with the Philharmonia Orchestra (a recording of this remarkable live performance is, happily, still available), my head spinning with … well, spinning with joy, I suppose. To this day I have never heard anything quite so joyful, quite so thrilling. This symphony does what it says on the label.

Deine Zauber binden wieder
Was die Mode streng geteilt;
Alle Menschen werden Brüder
Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt.

Your magic binds again
What convention strictly divides;
All people become brothers,
Where your gentle wing abides.

(Anonymous translation copied & pasted from Wikipedia.)

“What conventions strictly divides” – all those divisions of wealth and of social status, and also of ethnicity and of gender and of sexuality, all those divisions that so many modern strands of thought passing themselves off as “liberal” seek to reinforce rather than overcome… Beethoven’s symphony is, amongst other things, an ecstatic rejection of such pettiness: it urges us all to look higher.

In a conversation book of 1820, Beethoven had written: “The moral law within us, the starry skies above us.” This is a simplified version of a passage from Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason:

Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.

(Translated by Lewis White Beck)

Both the moral law and the starry skies seem to find their place in the great finale of the 9th symphony. This finale opens with a depiction of chaos, with a wild and discordant cascade of notes. This is followed by a sort of orchestral recitative, which appears to be searching for something. Each of the previous three movements is briefly reprised, and each rejected: no, this is not what we are searching for. Only when the now well-known “Ode to Joy” theme emerges does the recitative seem to express approval. And then the orchestra plays it, first low in the bass, then in a higher register, and finally, triumphantly, with the full orchestra. So when the initial music of chaos re-enters, it can be rejected once and  for all. This is where the human voice enters: “No more of these sounds!” it declares. And we move into what we all know now as the Ode to Joy – three verses from Schiller’s poem, sung by the soloists. It may be argued that the tune itself is rather banal, and the truth is, yes, it is [but see addendum below]: the point is to create an anthem that may be sung by all. After the third verse, the music becomes, possibly, more banal still, with a tenor solo above a “Turkish march”. But, even as the music is in danger of sinking into triviality, Beethoven introduces a quite fabulous fugal passage, followed by an ecstatic choral restatement, supported  by the full orchestra, of the Ode to Joy theme. What Beethoven could achieve with a merely banal theme still defies belief.

This is where the symphony may well have ended. The noise of chaos is banished, and human voices have declared that joy has bound all that custom had separated. What more can there be to say? But what follows is, for me, perhaps the most extraordinary thing in the symphony: we may have heard the joyful expression of the moral law within us, but Beethoven wants us also to wonder at the starry skies above. And if the Ode to Joy we had heard was intended to be so simple that anyone could sing it, what follows taxes even the finest of solo singers and choirs. No music I know fills me with such a sense of wonder, of awe. Even after all these years of familiarity, a good performance, like the one I heard in Edinburgh all those years ago, can still leave me enraptured. And towards the end of this symphony, a variation of the Ode to Joy theme returns, and combines with the music that expresses this sense of wonder.  For, in Beethoven’s vision, the moral law within and the starry skies above are not two separate entities, divorced from each other: our place in the vast, incomprehensible universe does not render us insignificant, for what is within us is as glorious and as mysterious as what is without.

This, at least, is what this symphony means to me; and that we are still capable of responding to such a vision fills me, despite everything, with hope. For Adrian Leverkühn didn’t really need to take back the 9th: Gustav Mahler had done that already with his 6th, symphony, which is the antithesis of everything that Beethoven’s 9th expresses. (And I have heard also a very great performance of Mahler’s 6th symphony at the Edinburgh Festival once, this time with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pierre Boulez – but that’s another story.) But even with the knowledge of something so implacably nihilistic as Mahler’s 6th, somehow, beyond anything that could be reasonably expressed, we continue to respond to Beethoven’s 9th. And that in itself is something of a wonder.


ADDENDUM (added 16th May, 2018)
The perils of writing about things one knows nothing about is that one is likely to get pulled up by someone who is, shall we say, a bit more knowledgeable.

I had described the “Ode to Joy” theme as “banal”. A good friend of mine, who, unlike me, actually has a good understanding of music, kindly wrote to disabuse me. I quote from his e-mail, with permission:

The theme is certainly deceptively simple, but that, to coin a phrase, is simply deceptive. Over 24 bars it makes do with just five notes, encompassing a fifth, (as does the mysterious opening of the first movement, which is a bare fifth).  Be that as it may, the theme, ostensibly in D Major, starts on the third note of the triad, F sharp, and that note (and not the tonic D) remains the centre of the theme, constantly and immensely subtly repeated and reaffirmed. Indeed, around a quarter of the theme is nothing but the note F sharp. If you sing the theme through, you will easily hear how it revolves around that opening F sharp, and not the tonic D.

Now the effect that Beethoven achieves comes about because the F sharp is treated as a leading note, leading to the G a semitone higher, followed in turn by the A. In other words, the opening of the theme could easily be in the Phrygian mode (there is no tonal certainty as the theme is unisono and so initially has no harmonic foundation), and the D, when it eventually arrives in bar 3, sounds less like the tonic and more like the sixth note of the Phrygian mode. Even when in bar 8 the tonic D is more firmly sounded, it then acts as a kind of elastic buffer, pushing on the flow of the music, rather than acting as a caesura, as the tonic is mostly expected to.

The entire theme is 24 (3 x 8) bars long, not the 32 one might expect, two lots of 2 x 8, and thus, as it were, dispenses with eight bars by cleverly nesting the ‘missing’ bars in the central section of the theme. And all this using precisely and merely five consecutive notes, mostly in scalar form, plus an octave A, over said 24 bars.

The effect of this ‘leading note as quasi-tonic’ F sharp which is resolved upwards, as one would expect of a leading note, but then continuing to the dominant A (not stopping at the tonic) and then back again, gives the theme a sense of, as Everton football club claims, onwards and upwards. The theme is restless, constantly moving forwards, while yet revolving around itself, and it is the working out of these thematic characteristics (there are plenty more, but more technical) which makes up the tremendous variations which are the rest of the movement. The Turkish march, far from being banal, is of a visceral excitement.

I could actually follow that analysis since I can still give a mean performance of that tune on a descant recorder.

I have made, as Bertie Wooster would say, a “bloomer”. But if after each bloomer comes such enlightenment, may I carry on making yet more such bloomers!