Archive for November, 2020



Take heed of perjury; thou art on thy deathbed.


Ay, but not yet to die.


Yes, presently

When Othello says Desdemona is to die “presently”, he doesn’t mean “in a while” he means now – immediately. This ideally needs a gloss in printed versions of the play, to prevent misunderstanding: the meaning of the word has clearly changed considerably since Shakespeare’s day. How and why this change has come about, I do not know, but it’s a fair guess, I think, that it changed not because someone somewhere decreed the change, but because people who spoke and wrote in English began to use the word differently (possibly out of ignorance); and because this different usage soon caught on, and the older meaning of the word became obsolete. This may or may not be a loss to the English language: I would say it isn’t, but wouldn’t argue too strongly with those who claim it is. But, even if is a loss, and even if the change came about due to mass ignorance, the fact remains that any modern speaker of the English language who uses the word “presently” to mean “immediately” is likely not to be understood; and that any dictionary that defines “presently” as “immediately”, without indicating that this meaning is archaic, would be frankly worthless. For dictionaries and grammar books have to describe the language as it is currently used. Otherwise, what is the point of having them? And if usage changes (as it invariably does), the dictionaries and grammar books have to keep pace with the changes; for if they don’t, it will be the dictionaries and grammar books that will become useless, not the language.

The above represents a fairly radical change in my thoughts on the matter. I used to be – and, to be honest, still am – a bit of a stickler for correctness. But it is worth asking what correctness is. Is it adherence to a set of rules that have been decreed from on high, ex cathedra, and to which we must adhere? If so, why? Who made up these rules, and what authority do they have? Or does the concept of correctness lie, rather, in a grammar that is an accurate and systematic description of the way language is actually used? – a formal codification of the various ways in which we concatenate individual words together to make sense to the listener?

To say I opt for the latter is not to say that I now think that “anything goes”. Good heavens! – when I see the levels of illiteracy online, not from people who have been denied an education but from those who have spent many years at school at great cost to the taxpayer – I find my inner pedant returning with a vengeance. I become a furious gammon-like reactionary, even calling (when I am sure that no-one except close family is around to hear me) for these people to return to the taxpayer the money that has been wasted on attempting to educating them. “As long as you know what they’re saying” cuts no ice with me either, because, quite frequently, I can’t tell what they’re saying in their mad jumble of words, innocent as they are of any meaningful punctuation, or, indeed, quite often, of any punctuation at all. But, once I return to sanity, I find myself more liberal than pedantic in these matters: a grammar book that does not describe how the English language is currently used is pretty worthless – for what possible purpose can it serve?

And current usage is changing, as it always does. Recently, I found myself involved in a Twitter thread on the usage of the word “whom”. It is a word I have always used in my writing (though less punctiliously in my speech) when I have felt it to be correct, but a great many people, including some literary luminaries, said in this Twitter thread that the word “whom” had already become obsolete, and that to use this word is to risk appearing quaint, or even affected. Oh dear, I thought. I don’t mind appearing quaint once in a while – that’s part of my authorial persona, I like to think – but affected?  Surely not!

Of course, if a significant proportion of English users do use “who” rather than “whom”, then dictionaries and grammar books have to mark that usage as “also acceptable”. And when virtually no-one uses “whom”, then the word “whom” will have to be marked in square brackets as [archaic], or [now obsolete]. We haven’t reached that point yet, but I think we’re getting there. In the meantime, till we do get there, whether one chooses to use “whom” rather than “who” remains a matter of one’s individual stylistic preference.

Of course, when I speak about using “whom”, I refer to its correct usage. For the concept of correctness hasn’t yet gone out of the window. The word “whom” can also be (and, indeed, often is) used incorrectly. If I am to speak of, say, Joyce Cary, whom I think is a somewhat underrated writer these days, I’d be wrong – not necessarily in my literary estimation, but in my incorrect use of the word “whom”. This is not stylistic preference: it is just plain wrong. And it is an error that would display, rather comically, a desire to be correct without understanding what correctness is. (There should be, and probably is, a word to describe this, but I cannot think what that word is, and would be grateful for suggestions.)

But, while I appreciate that I cannot hold back the tide, I would personally be sorry to see the word “whom” disappear. “For who the bell tolls” doesn’t sound at all right. And when the word following “whom” is “I” or “he”, then replacing “whom” with “who” strikes me as very awkward:

“… Dickens, who I love…”

“…Mozart, who he worships…”

These successions of vowel sounds unbroken by any consonant (other than the aspirate “h”) sound very awkward to me. “Whom” should, at the very least, be a valid choice here, if only for euphony if not for correctness.

But, whether I like it or not, if usage continues in the direction it has been treading in so far, and the word “whom” really does become archaic, we have no option but to accept that. Just as we’re now happy to accept the modern meaning of the word “presently”. For what other choice do we have? But while the choice remains, “whom”, (when used correctly, that is), does remain my personal preference.

(Re)-Reading Pushkin

Every now and then, out of sheer boredom and lassitude, I guess, I look at one of those tedious “How Many of These Classics Have You Read?” quizzes you get online. Madame Bovary? Yes, been there, done that. Huckleberry Finn? Yes, that’s a tick too. To Kill a Mockingbird? Eh? Oh, of course, that’s one everyone has heard of because they’ve had to read it at school. And it’s a decent enough book too, so fair enough. The Lord of the Rings? Yes, but only if I’m lying. Atlas Shrugged? Oh, for heavens’ sake! – why am I even doing this? I’m out of here!

It’s a great temptation to tot up numbers. The number of books you have on your shelves, the number of books you’ve bought recently, the number of books you’ve read. I suppose talking about numbers saves us the immense trouble of talking about the books themselves. I used to think all this was a fairly harmless distraction, but I am increasingly unsure of this. Is not this focus on numbers – on the amount we read – distracting us from absorbing more fully what we read? When we have finished a book, shouldn’t we, perhaps, spend some time – a few days, a week perhaps – just thinking about what we’ve just read, contemplating it, letting it sink into our consciousness a bit more deeply, rather than merely ticking it off the list and rushing on to the next one?

If any of these “How Many of These Classics Have You Read” lists were to include, say, Pushkin’s The Captain’s Daughter (not that they would, of course, since, unlike something like To Kill a Mockingbird, it’s not one of the approved classics that many people will at least have heard of), I would have answered “yes”, and ticked it off, since, as a teenager, I had undoubtedly read it. But, as I reported in my last post on this blog, I had as a teenager missed just about everything that made it so remarkable a work. In short, the fact that I had actually read it didn’t really mean much: I could tick it off the list, sure, and increment my score, but really, I might as well not have read it.

This applies to many other books I have read too, especially in my younger days. Stendhal? Yes, sure, I’ve read Le Rouge et le Noir and La Chartreuse de Parme. But, truth to tell, I don’t remember them very well. I doubt I took in any more of those books at the time than I did of The Captain’s Daughter. The novels of Flaubert I have revisited several times over the years, because they fascinated me (and still do), but the novels of Stendhal I haven’t. That in itself may say something about my own sensibilities, but the fact remains that even if Le Rouge et le Noir or La Chartreuse de Parme pops up in these quizzes, I would not really be justified in ticking either of them, as even the little I took in when I read them hasn’t stayed with me. Can I, in that sense, claim honestly to have read these books at all?

In recent weeks, I have been reading quite a bit of Pushkin. I should say re-reading, but, as with The Captain’s Daughter, I had taken in so little in my first reading (and had retained so little of the little I had taken in), I think it’s best just to stick with “reading” rather than “re-reading”. Take “The Queen of Spades”. I remembered it being a straightforward ghost story: now, it didn’t seem anywhere near so straightforward (indeed, my older self finds myself a bit puzzled by what my younger self had taken in its stride), and even its claim to be a ghost story seems to me to be in some doubt. Near the start of the tale, we are led to believe that the old Countess had had some sort of diabolical visitation, and that the secret knowledge she had gained from it had saved her from financial ruin. But this is, after all, just a story that we hear at second hand. Had the Countess really had dealings with the other world? If so, the other world had not left any otherworldly marks on her. When she appears, we see someone who seems very much this-worldly – a rather petty, mean-spirited, and frankly nasty old woman, almost like one of those grotesque characters that appear in Goya’s Black Paintings – a hideous, vain creature dressing absurdly in fashionable costumes intended for younger women, and tyrannising her young ward Lisa.

Hermann, though, believes the story he hears about her other-worldly past, and ingratiates himself with Lisa to gain access to her. There is a parallel drawn – self-consciously absurd – between Hermann and Napoleon: Hermann even looks a bit like Napoleon, we are told, and he wishes to raise himself with his own will, as Napoleon had done. But the absurdity lies in the fact that whereas Napoleon had done this by commanding armies and winning battles, Hermann’s act of will is no more than threatening an old woman with a gun. There is a clear foreshadowing here of Raskolnikov in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment: he too, had compared himself to Napoleon, and had questioned whether Napoleon would have allowed the life of a worthless old woman to stand in his way; but, as with Hermann, Raskolnikov’s comparison is absurd; Napoleon had no more murdered old women with an axe than he had threatened them with a gun, demanding they reveal to him their diabolical secrets.

In Tchaikovsky’s much romanticised opera based on this story, Lisa, on discovering Hermann had merely been using her, commits suicide in despair. And Hermann himself, after being defeated in his attempt to become Napoleon, kills himself, asking for forgiveness in his final bars. But all this heavy-duty Romanticism is very far from Pushkin’s story. There, Hermann ends up in an insane asylum, and Lisa ends up marrying someone else and lives a contented life: would-be Napoleons like Hermann don’t really leave waves behind in Pushkin’s world, or even much of a ripple.

Would this rather un-Romantic world, I wonder, really accommodate dealings with the other world? What of the story about the old Countess really were but a story? In short, is it only at the end of the story that Hermann goes mad? If we pursue this tack of thought, we find that it isn’t a ghost story at all. But then, what is it? How do we characterise it? Suddenly, what had seemed a straight-forward ghost story when I read it in my teenage years seems to become something else, something quite different – though what it is remains, despite its clarity of narrative, deeply enigmatic: I cannot quite put my finger on it. “The Queen of Spades indicates some covert malice”, says the epigraph of the story (in Alan Myers’ translation); this epigraph, Pushkin tells us (not very seriously, I presume) is taken from “the latest fortune-telling manual”. But what malice? Whose malice? The more one looks at this seemingly straightforward tale – this tale that had caused me no problem over forty years ago – the more puzzling it all seems to be.

But sometimes, it’s worth spending one’s time being puzzled. Life is puzzling, and one shouldn’t expect anything that holds up a mirror to life to be any less so. It’s worth spending time contemplating the work, not to solve the puzzle, as such, but rather, getting to know the puzzle a bit better, and understanding that any resolution one might reach is but provisional, and awaiting merely one’s next encounter.

So I’m afraid that at the end of all that, I have no theory to offer on what “The Queen of Spades” is actually about. But that, I tell myself, is all right. Grappling with literature, I tell myself, is not about solving things, any more than it is about totting up scores. And more recently, I read (re-read?) Tom Beck’s translation of Eugene Onegin. But let’s leave that one for a later post.