Changes

Like wines or whiskies, we all age differently. As we alter physically with age, so our perceptions also change, the way we view the world alters – imperceptibly, but, over the course of years, often quite dramatically. And it leaves one wondering whether there is any unity underneath it all – whether there is an underlying me that has remained constant through all the alterations; and if so, what that me really is.

And if not, whether there is a me at all.

O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,
Are you leaf, the blossom, or the bole?

Some time back, I ruminated here on my loving the symphonies of Bruckner a few decades ago (I am at an age where I think of these matters in units of decades rather than merely of years), but finding them frankly rather boring these days. I hastened to add, as I do now, that this does not indicate that Bruckner’s music is not worth liking, or that my tastes have necessarily changed for the better: it is not so much a critique of my changing tastes that nowadays occupies my mind, but, rather, a fascination with the fact of the change itself.

What the changes betoken, I do not know, but the changes themselves I can at least record. Perhaps I should begin with that which is constant – those works of literature (let us restrict ourselves to literature here: otherwise this post will degenerate very quickly into a tedious series of lists) that I loved in my youth, and which I continue to value: King Lear, L’Education Sentimentale, Anna Karenina, “The Wreck of the Deutschland”, and so on. Even here, I find, I value these works now for reasons different from the ones that swayed my judgement all those years ago. I first read L’Education Sentimentale when I was eighteen, I remember, and was much affected by the disappointments and disillusions of its protagonist Frédéric Moreau; now, in my sixtieth year, I see in the dashing of Frédéric’s youthful illusions not merely the specific disappointments of one specific individual – the sort of individual I was then determined not to be – but, rather, a reflection of the general sadness of life, in which, however great one’s achievements, or delightful one’s joys, there remains in the midst of it all a lingering sense of emptiness. The novel still strikes in me a powerful chord: but the chord is different. Or, more accurately, the chord is the same, but I now hear certain notes in that chord more clearly than I used to. And, no doubt, there are certain other notes that I used to hear prominently that have now receded into the background.

Back then, I loved the novels of Zola. I read as many as I could that were then available in (what were then) modern translations, since the older translations, I was reliably informed, were often bowdlerised. By my count, I read eight of those novels, and much regretted that all twenty titles of the Rougon-Macquart series were not then available in reliable English translations. Now, they are, and, as I understand from Twitter, many book-bloggers are embarking on a group-read of Zola. Some twenty or so years ago, I would have been enthusiastic, but I cannot, I’m afraid, summon up much enthusiasm for this now. I do not mean, of course, that Zola is an inferior writer: quite clearly, he isn’t. It is just that the riches he has to offer do not mean as much to me as they used to. His strengths – his descriptive powers, his keen awareness of social and economic trends, his skill in organising vast amounts of material into coherent structures, the extraordinary vividness of his narratives – are as impressive now as ever they were. Are my tastes merely jaded with age? I don’t think so, as there is still much that I love and value dearly. It is just that what Zola has to offer, wonderful though it still is, is no longer something that attracts me: the focus of my interests has become narrower.

And at the same time, I find myself being called back to works that continue to resonate in my memory – works that I know I will see from different perspectives were I to revisit them now. I have recently been re-reading – and writing about on this blog at no doubt tedious length – the plays of Ibsen, and, recently, I have been immersing myself in the very late plays. And they strike me with an intensity even greater than what I had experienced in previous readings. They strike me as the works of a visionary. That, I realise, is a vague term, but I do not know how else to put it. His piercing vision in these works seemed to look through the solidities of the everyday, and penetrate into regions of the mind and of the spirit in ways that resist summary, and make a mockery even of any attempt at explication. Which leaves me in a quandary: how the hell do I write about them? What should I write? I have already written long posts on several plays by Ibsen, and I suppose I really should finish this series of posts, little read though they undoubtedly are  – I am writing for myself, I keep saying – I would like to finish the series as best I can. But the world of late Ibsen is one that is difficult to penetrate, and perhaps impossible completely to understand. I suppose I am at a stage where I feel that, in the immortal words of the late Magnus Magnusson, I have started so I’ll finish: I can but try my best, safe in the knowledge that, after all, not too many people will read these posts and witness my inadequacy.

And there are some other works toothat seem to beckon. I have long given up any hope of being well read: better, I now feel, to know a few works well, then many works superficially. So while I have not given up entirely on further broadening my horizons, I find myself more frequently attracted to re-reading what I have read before, from my now inevitably older perspective. And what I find beckoning particularly strongly these days are the late novels of Henry James – The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, and The Golden Bowl – the last of these, especially, possibly the most elusive and enigmatic novel I think I have encountered. As with the late plays of Ibsen, the late novels of Henry James are also works that I would describe – for want of a better word at my disposal – as “visionary”. Given the extreme difficulty of these novels, and given also the slow pace of my reading, it may well take me a year or so to read them: but surely, it would be a year well spent.

In the meantime, I suppose I should gird my loins – however one girds one’s loins: I never quite understood what that meant – and get started on writing something on Ibsen’s The Master Builder. These late plays of Ibsen are, after all, more or less permanent fixtures of my mind, so I might as well examine them more thoroughly, if only to try to understand why they mean so much to me.

10 responses to this post.

  1. Similar to a post I wrote to a friend yesterday in an email. I keep returning to that master psychologist, Shakespeare, and finding different things in his works at (my) different ages.

    Reply

  2. Posted by martin johnson on April 2, 2019 at 6:21 pm

    Interesting! I was a huge admirer of Scott Fitzgerald as a young man. Recently re-reading Tender Is The Night, I found it overblown, pretentious and superficial. On the other hand, re-reading The Tin Man with the same literary group, I loved it as much as when I first read it fifty years ago.

    Reply

  3. I’ve never quite worked out how our love of some works of art stays, and we outgrow others. But it happens to me too – certain authors I would never go back to and others I’d take to the grave!

    Reply

  4. Posted by Janet on April 2, 2019 at 11:06 pm

    Well, Hamadri, after you’ve escorted us through the Ibsen woods I wish you would take up the James thicket. I like his short stories but Wings of the Dove just made me want to murder people. I feel I need a proper introduction and a trustworthy guide. You know, I stumbled into your blog looking for insight into Ulysses. I found nothing useful anywhere else, so ruminate away. It’s good for the world.

    Reply

    • Thanks for that, Janet, but I think it best only to post about what I think I understand adequately. I can only hope that I understand the late James novels adequately this time round: otherwise, all I can put up is, I’m afraid, a record of my incomprehension! 😀

      Reply

  5. I adored James’s The Wings of the Dove but the his greatest is surely The Golden Bowl. The former is a relatively easy read with plenty of action: the convoluted latter is all in the mind!

    Reply

    • Posted by alokranj on April 3, 2019 at 8:31 am

      Wings of the Dove easy? Must be coming from a hard core fan! 😉 I gave up after 300 pages thoroughly exhausted, though I do acknowledge the artistry and the brilliance of the work.

      I would love a guide to James’s late work too. Your post on Portrait of a Lady was eye-opening and one of the best essays on the novel I have read.

      Reply

      • As for the late novels of Henry James, I found “The Ambassadors” rather heavy-going but “The Awkward Age”, written a few years earlier, is near impenetrable.

        For a thoroughly enjoyable read, I recommend the much shorter “What Maisie Knew”.

      • “The Awkward Age” is one James novel I could not make to the end. James, having greatly admired Ibsen, tried his hand at writing plays, but flopped badly. I have not tried his play, but I think “The Awkward Age” gives an indication as to why he failed, as this novel – or, at least, the opening chapters of this novel – is narrated almost purely in terms of dialogue. Without the narrative voice, it just didn’t seem to work. Not for me, at any rate, but I probably need to give it another try.

        I’m not sure “late Janes” and “easy” go together, but yes, “The Golden Bowl” I found even more obscure than the others. But it’s a challenge I’d like to take up again. Maybe the ambition of writing something coherent about it afterwards may focus my mind a bit!

  6. Posted by alokranj on April 3, 2019 at 8:34 am

    and great job on that short summary of Zola’s artistic achievement. I love him precisely because of whatever you outlined.

    Reply

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