Archive for October, 2019

A bit of literary fun

This post is a bit of fun. Yes, fun. I do that sometimes.

The Guardian, a paper that often publishes cultural commentary that I find myself taking issue with, regularly runs a rather diverting feature, in which various writers are set a literary questionnaire. The questions are fairly general, and the respondent seems free to use these questions as springboards, as it were, to talk about various literary matters of interest to them. Here is an example of what I mean.

Now, I thought to myself, why should only established writers have all the fun? Just because they are distinguished, and have achievements to their name! So I thought I’d have a go at this myself. Some of the questions have been modified, since they ask about the respondent’s writings, and, apart from some blog posts and some technical documents at work, I don’t really have any writing to boast about. But as I said, this is just for fun. And if any other blogger out there wishes to join me in doing this, please do go ahead!


The book I am currently reading
I am currently immersed in Dante – one of the undisputed pillars of western culture who has, so far, eluded me. I have been reading, with great pleasure and profit, Reading Dante by Prue Shaw. In this book, she elucidates most eloquently the historic and theological background of the Commedia (and both, I think, are essential for an adequate understanding); and also traces the various themes, demonstrating how these themes interact, and are developed across the span of this vast, multi-faceted work At the same time, I am reading through, as carefully as I can, the Purgatorio in Robin Kirkpatrick’s admirable translation. (His copious notes and annotations are also most valuable.)

In short, I am determined to crack this bugger! I flatter myself that I am, at long last, making some headway. The Cambridge Companion to Dante (edited by Rachel Jacoff) and Eric Griffiths’ Dante in English are both on order.

The book that changed my life
I don’t think any single book has had such a dramatic effect on me, but, in a sense, each and every book that has made an impact on me has changed my life in some way. One is the product of one’s experiences, after all, and what one finds in books can be an experiences as powerful as anything that happens outside. This applies not merely to books with depth: I doubt too many people will ascribe any great profundity to, say, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and yet the dark untamed moors and the Hound from Hell have been permanently etched in my mind for nearly 50 years now.

I guess the books that most dramatically changed my life were the books I read in my teenage years. Between the ages of about 5 and 12, I was really familiarising myself with the English language (not having known a word of it in my first five years). But it was in the next 6 years – my teens – that my literary tastes and values, such as they are, developed. The writers I came to love then – Shakespeare, Dickens, Flaubert, the 19th century Russian novelists, and that lone novel so far out on a branch that it still has no near literary relative – Wuthering Heights – remain still at the centre of my literary consciousness, although, I guess, I love them now for reasons somewhat different from those that inspired my early enthusiasm.

But since this question enjoins me to nominate just one book, I think I shall nominate The New Oxford Book of English Verse, edited by Helen Gardner. This was the volume that opened for me the doors to English poetry. I won’t give a history here of my long relationship with this book, since I have already done so in an earlier post.

The book I wish I’d written
I wish I had written King Lear. Or The Iliad. Or Don Quixote, perhaps? War and Peace? The odes of Keats?

All right, I’ll be serious.

Since I am not in the business of writing novels or poems or plays, but, rather, dashing off short (and sometimes not so short) pieces for this blog, I really wish I had the writing skills of Howard Jacobson. He is, of course, an eminent novelist, but I am referring to the short pieces he used to write regularly, and still writes occasionally, for various papers and journals. He could be light-hearted or deadly serious, funny or grave; and he had a distinctive authorial presence that carries the reader (this reader, at least) along, even when I do not agree with him. He couldn’t write an inelegant sentence even if he wanted to; and, at times, he raised the writing of a newspaper column to the level of art.

There are two collections of pieces he wrote weekly on Independent on Sunday. And I wish I could write like that.

The book that had the greatest influence on my writing
I had better rephrase that question, since I am not a writer. Let me consider instead the book that has had the greatest influence on my thinking.

I haven’t really read much philosophy, or political polemics – or religious polemics either, for that matter. Most of my reading has been prose fiction, drama, and poetry. What political or religious views I have, I have acquired through reading newspapers and journals, articles by political commentators, and the like.

My outlook on life, such as it is, has mainly been garnered from the writers who have meant most to me – Shakespeare, Cervantes, Wordsworth, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Ibsen, Tolstoy, Hopkins, Tagore, Yeats. It’s not that I accept everything they have to offer: in some cases – Dostoyevsky and Yeats especially, though not exclusively – I dissent vehemently with what they have to say. But one doesn’t read merely to be able to nod away in agreement. Sometimes, a good fight with an author can be quite invigorating.

The book I think is most under/overrated
I am really not very comfortable with the term “overrated” in this context, as to declare something to be “overrated” – that is, to say that a certain book has received more praise than it deserves – is to imply that I know precisely how much praise it deserves, and that those many who praise it don’t. That strikes me as extraordinarily arrogant. Better surely to concede that no single person’s perceptions and receptivities can encompass the vast range of literature that has been created across the ages, and that there are bound to be some, at least, that lie outside the range of what we may take in.

Which is not to say that one cannot criticise. No book is above criticism, though many, no doubt, are beneath it.

(I might as well confess that the epigram above is most probably not my own: however, I honestly cannot remember where I encountered it, and, until such a time as someone points out to me its source, I am happy to claim it as mine. At all events, it is far too good not to recycle.)

As for underrated books, just about the entire literature of India that is written in Indian languages is underrated in the West. I have ranted about this before, and since I am in a genial mood right now, would prefer not to engage in another angry rant. So let me suggest two novels by Bibhuthibhushan Banerji (or Bandopadhyay: there are two forms of his surname): Pather Panchali and Aparajito. The trilogy of films made by Satyajit Ray from these two novels (the “Apu Trilogy”) is rightly famous, but these films are very different from the novels. I should add that these novels are by no means underrated in the Bengali-speaking world, but in the Western world, they remain virtually unknown. And they shouldn’t.

The book that changed my mind
I said earlier that I don’t often read polemics. But one of the few I did read, and which I think has made a profound impact on me, was Political Emotions by philosopher Martha Nussbaum. I had long maintained, and still do to a great extent, that when it comes to politics, we must keep as far from us as we can our emotions, which all too often cloud our powers of ratiocination. But , in this extremely erudite and eloquent polemic, Nussbaum proposes that human emotions are not that simple; that while some may no doubt be dark and destructive, there are other emotions too that can and should be harnessed for a better and a more just society. That is an inadequate summary of Nussbaum’s thesis, but since any brief description of so rich a book is necessarily inadequate, I think I’ll leave it as it is.

The last book that made me cry
Long Day’s Journey Into Night, by Eugene O’Neill.

I am not really an admirer of O’Neill’s other plays, but this one is different. I suppose I have something of an obsession with it. It is a very long and very gruelling play, emotionally draining, about a family, four people who are closely bound to each other, and who seem to love and hate each other at the same time. I have often tried to work out just why it is this play means so much to me, and I have never quite managed to find an answer. I don’t know how many times I have read it, or seen it – the film adaptation, various stage productions … And I even have a recording on audio! Why do I put myself through this gruelling emotional experience repeatedly? Am I some sort of masochist? Maybe. I just know that it moves me intensely each time.

The last book that made me laugh
Wodehouse would be too obvious a choice, wouldn’t it? OK, I won’t nominate Wodehouse then.

Not a book, I know, but Viz makes me laugh out loud, consistently. For those who don’t know, it is a British “adult” comic – by which I mean it is extremely rude, and frequently quite obscene. It’s not really the kind of thing you’d leave lying around when you have guests coming; and you certainly wouldn’t want your maiden aunts to read them. Or even to know that you read them.

But their combination of obscenity, mad flights of surrealism, and sheer childishness, I find an endless source of delight. As well as a regular cast of comic grotesques – Johnny Fartpants, Sid the Sexist, Roger Mellie (the Man on the Telly), the Fat Slags, etc. – there are frequently some quite inspired one-offs. One that still makes me laugh just thinking about it was called “Fireman Fritter – he’s got Twitter up his Shitter”. (“Fireman Fritter was no ordinary fireman,” it goes on to explain, “he had a social networking site up his jacksy.”) If you do not find that funny, I wouldn’t recommend Viz.

The book I couldn’t finish
The Canterbury Tales. I started with the best intentions. I had read the Neville Coghill translation into modern English, and I thought I would venture into Chaucer’s original (I have a lovely dual language edition). But I really am unfamiliar with Chaucer’s English, and while, with effort, I could piece it out, the spontaneity was lost. There were other issues too. I started on a story about a man who lived in “Surrye”. That’s fine, I thought, this chap lives in Surrey. Then I glanced over at the modern English version, and it turned out he lived in Syria. Well, how was I to know?

I read about half the stories, and promised myself to come back later for the rest. But I must admit, I haven’t yet. And worse, I’m in no hurry.

The book I’m most ashamed not to have read
I am quite ashamed of having read so little outside the western tradition. The Shahnameh, The Tale of Genji … you name it, I am ignorant of it. Even within the western culture, I am painfully aware that I haven’t yet read the whole of the Bible. But I suppose the must-read book I am most ashamed of not having read is Boswell’s Life of Johnson.

My earliest reading memory
This was back in India, which I left aged 5. Abol Tabol, a book of the most delicious nonsense poms by Sukumar Ray. I still love that book, and I need only look at those illustrations (by Sukumar Ray himself, and by his perhaps more famous son, Satyajit) to be carried away into that wonderful mad world. By the  time I left India, I remember, I knew most of these poems by heart,

I tried translating one of those poems here.

My comfort read
I’d like to say that I do not read for “comfort”. That I read to be stimulated, to discover new ways of looking at things. That I read to be disturbed, to expand my horizons into new and unfamiliar territory.

I’d like to say all that, but it isn’t quite true. Indeed, it isn’t true at all. There are all sorts of books I read for comfort – simply because I feel good entering the world they create: the Sherlock Holmes stories and the Brigadier Gerard stories by Conan Doyle; the sunlit comedies of Wodehouse; creepy ghost stories for late night in bed; Dumas’ swashbucklers; Stevenson’s adventure stories; and the like. I am not claiming any profundity for any of these books, but they are products of a craftsmanship so fine and imaginations so fertile that the question of whether they constitute literary art become irrelevant. (But just in case that question is asked, the answer is yes.)

The book I give as a gift
I tend not to give books as gifts, as, in circles I mix in, books as gifts wouldn’t be anywhere near as much appreciated as a good bottle of booze. But I did present someone with a volume of Wodehouse once simply because she was quite unbearably miserable and I wanted to cheer her up a bit.

(I don’t think it worked, by the way.)

The book I’d most like to be remembered for
The great novel that I know I’ll never write. It’s hard enough writing decent blog posts, for heavens’ sake! Why do you think I’m filling up this blog writing easy pieces like this one?

Impressions of Florence, and of Michelangelo

It is difficult to be in Florence and not have one’s head full of lofty thoughts: it’s the city of Dante and Michelangelo, after all. And it is equally difficult to be in Florence and not get fleeced, for it is also, traditionally, a banking city, a city for making money. You have paid to see the Medici Chapel at San Lorenzo? Yes, of course you have. You don’t come all the way to Florence without seeing some of Michelangelo’s most astounding sculptures. But if you think that ticket entitles you to walk into the basilica, then think again. Well, I thought again, and, since I was there, I figured I might as well pay a bit more to enter the basilica. That library in the San Lorenzo is of Michelangelo’s design, and is reputed to be very beautiful, and naturally, I was keen to see that. So I bought my ticket, and headed for the library. But no – my ticket is for the basilica only: you need to get another ticket for the library, sir. And so on.

Sorry, I didn’t mean to carp about the money. Although, I do admit I couldn’t help thinking of Rome which we had visited about three years ago, and where entry to all the various churches, even the St Peter’s, was actually free. Admittedly, you paid to see the Sistine Chapel, but if you wanted to see Michelangelo’s Pietà, say, or the great Caravaggio paintings in the San Luigi dei Francesi, you just walked in. Perhaps I should be praising Roman generosity rather than moaning about Florentine commerce. For, after all, those extra euros did not inhibit the loftiness of thought to which the rightly fabled Florentine art all too easily gives rise. Well, perhaps they did a little, but only a little: I like to think, at least, that I am not as mean and as petty as my opening paragraph may perhaps have suggested.


For how can one stand before Michelangelo’s statue of David, graceful and noble and suffused with what I can only describe as a sort of radiance, and not have Hamlet’s paean to mankind going round one’s head? What a piece of work is Man, indeed! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, and all the rest of it. In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a God. But then, afterwards, intoxicated with such lofty thoughts, I find myself in one of the many tourist tat shops (which, despite my loftiness, I love), and spy a postcard picturing a close-up of the genitals of this same noble David, with dark glasses sketched in at the base of the penis, and the upturned mouth of a smiley face drawn across the scrotum. I doubt that even as a sniggering dirty-minded schoolboy I would have found this particularly funny. All that loftiness seemed suddenly deflated, and not in a manner I found myself comfortable with – although, I suppose, those of a more cynical frame of mind than mine may perhaps differ on this point. How was it Hamlet’s speech ended again? Ah yes – Man delights not me. No, nor woman neither.

That afternoon, I was sitting outside a café, reading a book. (Yes, it was Dante, since you ask.) A middle-aged man and an elderly lady walked up to the café, and he asked her, in English, if she would like to sit outside. “No,” I heard her reply, “it smells too much of people.” I am sure I didn’t mishear her. There was no reason to think the remark was directed specifically at me: I was not the only one sitting outside, and neither was I the one nearest them, so there was no reason to take offence personally. Naturally, I tried to construct a story to go with this lady’s rather extraordinary comment. Of course, she could simply have been very eccentric and very rude. But I pictured to myself a much younger lady, with a formidable mind and a keen aesthetic sense; she had loved art, and had always promised herself a visit to Italy, to see some of the great masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance; but the years passed by, as they do, and now, in what is merely early old age – her mid-sixties, perhaps, only a few years older than I am now – she has been diagnosed with an early onset of dementia. And, in the shadow of this impending tragedy, her dutiful son is fulfilling her lifetime’s dream, showing her around Florence while her weakening mind is still capable of taking it in.

Of course, I could have got a few details wrong. Indeed, my entire story could be utter nonsense. I do not insist on it. But I was, I admit, rather moved by my own construction. And that strange line she spoke – “it smells too much of people” – kept resonating in my mind. Let me kiss that hand: let me wipe it first, it smells of mortality.


The next day, we were at the Medici Chapel. I wasn’t thinking about the expense, honestly: I was grateful just to be there. At the altar of this chapel was a Madonna and child, with the upper part of the child’s torso turned towards the Madonna – contrapposto, as I believe such twisting of the body is known – and the Madonna herself wearing an expression of infinite sadness. This Madonna seems already to be anticipating her part in the Pietà, when the twisting baby now upon her knee would become so cruelly transformed. Of course, foreknowledge of tragedy in depictions of Madonna and child is fairly commonplace, but this sculpture seems drenched in a sorrow that appears to overwhelm everything else. To my eyes, anyway. But maybe that lady I had encountered the previous day was still in my mind.

On two opposite walls of the chapel, facing each other, are the two Medici tombs, for Lorenzo and Giuliano, two relatively minor figures (historically speaking, that is) of that famous family. In niches on the wall above the two tombs are highly stylised and idealised sculptures of Lorenzo and Giuliano. But it’s the monumental figures immediately on top of the tombs that take one’s breath away. On Giuliano’s tomb, there are figures representing Night and Day; on Lorenzo’s, there are similarly two figures, this time representing Dawn and Dusk. Four times of the day, four phases of our existence: birth, life, old age, death. There is about Michelangelo’s work an intense ingrained seriousness. In his younger days, he had sculpted a Bacchus (now in the Bargello Museum in Florence), depicting a young man holding a cup of wine, with a glazed, vacant expression on his face, and, quite clearly, unsteady on his feet. It remains a quite delightful celebration of inebriation, one with which, I admit, I can readily identify. But such youthful frivolity was far behind Michelangelo now (as I fear it also is with me): his mind had now moved on to other regions – regions that ordinary mortals such as I cannot perhaps inhabit too long without feeling a bit giddy.


Night is a sleeping woman – but whether she is sleeping serenely or uneasily, it is hard to say. On the one hand, she leans her head rather precariously upon her hand; but then again, the expression on her face appears undisturbed. Her body is not that of the fresh and young maiden: this is the body of someone who has borne children. And yet, there is also a certain beauty to the body – not the untouched beauty of youth and its vacancy of expectation, but the beauty of one who has lived, of one who has experienced life’s fitful fever.


Day is frankly terrifying. He is a giant, titanic in strength. The legs are crossed, the upper part of his torso turned away from us towards his left, and the head turned back again to his right over his shoulder – the entire form twisted in a sort of double contrapposto. (I don’t know if that is a proper term, but since I have now written it, it might as well stay.) The head is unfinished, whether deliberately or otherwise I do not know, and its rough, inchoate texture seems to heighten a sense of menace. And throughout that body, the muscles are taut, tense, stretched to the utmost, straining at the very limits of what is possible. His left arm is folded behind his back, with veins on his forearm bulging prominently. There is nothing here of the grace and the radiance of David: what we have instead is a sense of raw concentrated strength, and also, I think, a fury – a fury at having reached the limits of the physical, and of striving vainly but defiantly to transcend them.


All passion seems spent in Dusk. This is a man who had once been as strong and as powerful as Day, but those muscles are now sagging. As with Day, the legs are crossed, but now, there is a sense of resignation in the posture. His flaccid penis lies almost apologetically upon his thigh, and the head, also in a somewhat unfinished state, seems held up with effort. The battle has been fought and lost, and there is little dignity in defeat, except, perhaps, what dignity there is in a weary acceptance.


And there’s Dawn, a nude woman, graceful in posture, but with an expression of intense sorrow upon her hauntingly beautiful face, recalling the sorrow on the face of the Madonna with the infant Christ upon her knee. This is Dawn born with the foreknowledge of what is to come: vain gaiety, vain battle, vain repose – themes of an embittered heart, or so it seems.

But I don’t know that Michelangelo’s heart was embittered, as such. Certainly the Michelangelo who sculpted these figures was a very different Michelangelo from the young man who had sculpted David, and who, in the Vatican Pietà, had found a transcendent beauty even in death and in grief. These astounding figures in the Medici Chapel seem to me the work of a deeply troubled man, a man disturbed by the smell of mortality, but not a man who turns away from that smell in disgust.

In his old age, Michelangelo turned back to the theme of his first great triumph – the Pietà. There are three late Pietàs, all unfinished, one disfigured (by himself, in a fit of divine dissatisfaction), and another of doubtful provenance. This last, known as The Palestrina Pietà, is in the Accademia in Florence, and, whoever the sculptor may have been, it is a moving work: in contrast to the youthful Pietà in the Vatican, Christ’s body here is vertical, and Mary, standing behind him, is striving  to hold up the weighty, inert mass. The very last Pietà, known as The Rondanini Pietà, is in Milan, and I have only seen it in reproduction: once again, the thrust is vertical, with Mary standing behind Christ, striving to hold up the body. But individual features are removed, and the two bodies seem almost to merge into one. Michelangelo here seems intent upon removing anything that is not essential, leaving behind only the essence, a sort of abstraction, of those themes of death and of grief that appear to have haunted him so.  Seemingly, he was working on this right up to the day of his death, aged 89.

Michelangelo Pietà Bandini

And there is a there is a third unfinished Pietà, known as The Bandini Pietà, in the Museo del Opera del Duomo in Florence. Michelangelo had worked on this for some eight years in his 70s, but, for reasons still subject to scholarly debate, in 1555, aged 80, he took a hammer to it. Much of it has been reconstructed from the broken fragments, but Christ’s left leg, presumably beyond repair, is missing. And the figure of the Magdalene, under Christ’s right arm, was finished by another hand. It shows: competent though the Magdalene is, compared to the intense expressivity of the rest of the group, it is, frankly, rather bland.

Here, once again, the figure of Christ is vertical, and Mary, here crouching, is trying desperately to hold up the inert mass of his body. Her face is close to his, and the propinquity is more than merely physical. Christ’s right leg zigzags across the lower part of the group, while his left arm, reconstructed from the broken fragments, hangs loose and twisted, its once powerful muscles now incapable. Above these two figures is the hooded figure of Nicodemus (possibly a self-portrait of the artist), leaning forward, and looking down upon this desolate scene with the utmost compassion. I do not think I have seen a visual depiction of mortality and of mourning that is quite so powerfully affecting as this.

One cannot, as I say, remain on these heights for any length of time without beginning to feel giddy. This may have been an emotional world that Michelangelo no doubt inhabited every day, but ordinary mortals like myself need to climb down after a while to the lower slopes. Maybe go into a café, and not mind that it smells too much of people.

Of course, there is much, much more to see in Florence. We were there for five days, but that’s hardly adequate. Merely looking at a painting or a sculpture for a few seconds, or even for a minute or two, and then passing on, is like listening to music in the background while doing something else: it’s not quite taking it in. One really needs a lifetime to truly absorb all the riches. But we all have our lives to get on with: one takes in what one can in the time one has, and is grateful for the opportunity of doing so. Yes, I had my head filled with lofty thoughts; and some very troubling ones too.  But then, I need that glass of Chianti. And – I won’t hide it – something a bit lighter, perhaps, than Dante.

Colons and semi-colons

Apparently, there’s debate raging right now on whether we should use colons and semi-colons in writing.

Of course we should use them! When you want the reader to pause longer than they would for a comma, but shorter than they would for a full-stop, you use a colon or a semi-colon. And that’s all there is to it. Bugger the rules of grammar!

And when you want the authorial voice to fade away into silence …