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Holmes’ final problems

As is well known, Conan Doyle killed off his creation Sherlock Holmes in the story “The Final Problem” in 1893, but, due, it is claimed, to public pressure, but more, I suspect, because he missed writing these stories, brought him back to life again ten years later in “The Empty House”. The resurrection isn’t s ingenious as is often claimed: there was, after all, no body recovered from the Reichenbach Falls, into which Holmes was supposed to have fallen, locked in deadly combat with Professor Moriarty; and this makes me wonder whether Conan Doyle wanted all along to keep up his sleeve the option of bringing Holmes back at some later date. He tested out the waters, as it were, two years before “The Empty House” with The Hound of the Baskervilles – a story that had presumably taken place before the incident at the Reichenbach Falls – and its spectacular success indicated there was still a strong public appetite for Holmes & Watson. And so, in 1903, back to life Holmes came – not in stories that had taken place before his presumed death, but in the here-and-now. And to the delight of Holmesians both then and now, “The Empty House” was followed in the Strand magazine by twelve others, and afterwards published together in The Return of Sherlock Holmes.

There are those, it must be said, who feel that Holmes wasn’t quite the same after the resurrection – that the earlier stories are superior to what followed. I think this is palpable nonsense. The best stories in this collection are among the finest in the entire canon – “The Priory School”, “The Six Napoleons”, “The Abbey Grange”, etc.; and, looking through the thirteen titles, there doesn’t seem to me to be a single weak link – certainly nothing as weak as, say “A Case of Identity” (in the first collection The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes), or “The Stockbroker’s Clerk” (which is effectively an inferior re-run of “The Red-Headed League”) in the second collection, The Memoirs. Indeed, The Return of Sherlock Holmes may well be the finest and most consistently inspired of the five collections.

However, it is much harder, it seems to me, to defend the fifth ad final collection, The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes. After The Return, instead of publishing planned sets, Conan Doyle wrote and published these stories more sporadically – much as fancy took him. His Last Bow, published in 1917, is a collection of seven of these stories, along with the earlier story “The Cardboard Box”, one of the very finest of the entire canon. (This story had been published in the Strand magazine as early as January 1893, but Conan Doyle had omitted it from the collection The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, deeming it unsuitable for younger readers.) With the possible exception of “The Dying Detective”, every single story in His Last Bow seems to me a masterpiece, and two of them – “The Devil’s Foot” and “The Bruce-Partington Plans” – seem to me quite exceptional. The collection wraps up with the title story, “His Last Bow”, a tale of Holmes, now approaching old age, lending his talents to the British secret services, and foiling an espionage attempt on the eve of the First World War.

But despite the title of the last story, Conan Doyle, it seems, couldn’t stop writing about Holmes and Watson. Between 1921 and 1927, twelve more stories were published in Strand, and these, collected together in The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, gave us, most finally and most definitively, his last last bow. And this final collection, it must be admitted, is harder to defend than the earlier collections had been. However, when you’re a fan, you’re a fan, and even the least of these stories is of interest. And, reading them over recently, I found them far more interesting than I had remembered.

Let us admit first of all – and get it over with – that there are a number of weak stories here. There are two stories here narrated by Holmes himself (“The Blanched Soldier” and “The Lion’s Mane”), and neither of these can be counted great successes. Holmes being the narrator isn’t really new: in two of the stories in The Memoirs (“The Gloria Scott” and “The Musgrave Ritual”), while Watson had provided the narrative framework, it was Holmes who had narrated the bulk of the story, and his storytelling there was certainly better than it is here. Furthermore, the two cases here are solved not by detection, but by Holmes having retained some esoteric facts at the back of his encyclopaedic mind.

“The Mazarin Stone” too, is weak. Conan Doyle was, it seems, attempting to emulate stage productions, so the whole thing emerges as a conversation piece, with the entire exposition, development and denouement all taking place in the same set (Holmes’ front room in 221b Baker Street), and in the time it takes to read the story. It doesn’t really come off, I’m afraid.

“The Three Garridebs” is an inferior re-hash of “The Stockbroker’s Clerk”, which is itself an inferior re-hash of “The Red-Headed League”; but it’s hard to regret this story, especially given the rare moment of tenderness Holmes displays for Watson when his friend is wounded by a gunshot. And while “The Veiled Lodger” doesn’t really display any detection work, it is redeemed by a genuinely interesting and thrilling backstory. And also by this delicious passage:

The discretion and high sense of professional honour which have always distinguished my friend are still at work in the choice of these memoirs, and no confidence will be abused. I deprecate, however, in the strongest way the attempts which have been made lately to get at and to destroy these papers. The source of these outrages is known, and if they are repeated, I have Mr Holmes’s authority for saying that the whole story concerning the politician, the lighthouse, and the trained cormorant will be given to the public. There is at least one reader who will understand.

Throughout this collection, there are tantalising references to other cases – most memorably near the start of “The Sussex Vampire”, where we are told of the case of the Giant Rat of Sumatra – “a story for which the world is not yet prepared”. Heard melodies are sweet, as the poet said, but those unheard are sweeter.

The one story in this collection I find hard to defend is “The Three Gables”. The story itself is pretty thin; and while we are accustomed to Holmes taking the law into his hands and letting the criminal off, it is hard to see why he does so in this case. And it is harder still to defend some of the comments made by Holmes to Steve Dixie – comments which, certainly by modern standards, can only be regarded as racist. (And the fact that Steve Dixie is a vicious thug hardly excuses Holmes’ comments.) Of course, they were different times, and the standards of what is acceptable have changed, but it’s nonetheless disappointing, especially given how warmly appreciative both Holmes and Watson had been of racial tolerance and of racial integration in the earlier (and rather touching) story “The Yellow Face”. If I had to lose just one story in the canon, this, I fear, would be it.

But the other stories in this collection I would strongly defend. “The Retired Colourman” and “Shoscombe Old Place” may not be Holmes and Watson at their best, but they are fine stories nonetheless. (In “Shoscombe Old Place”, Conan Doyle leads Holmes and Watson, quite successfully, I think, into the regions of Gothic horror.) And the much reviled “The Creeping Man” seems to me a splendid science fiction story: it is quite clearly a nod towards Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and, while the science in the story may not exactly be watertight (any more than in Stevenson’s story), it is worth it if only for Holmes’ rather melancholy observation “When one tries to rise above Nature, one is liable to fall beneath it”.

But I’ve kept the three best ones till the last. If “The Creeping Man” is Conan Doyle’s riff on Jekyll and Hyde, “The Sussex Vampire” is clearly a response to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. And it’s a superb story. As in some other stories that hint at the supernatural (The Hound of the Baskervilles, “The Devil’s Foot”), the truth is entirely rational: Holmes (unlike his creator) will not have it any other way:

“Rubbish, Watson, rubbish! What have we to do with walking corpses who can only be held in their grave by stakes driven through their hearts? It’s pure lunacy.”

But even without the supernatural, Conan Doyle communicates powerfully an atmosphere of fear and of mystery, and this story would not have been out of place in any of the earlier collections. Neither would “The Illustrious Client”, in which Holmes is up against a truly formidable opponent, and which has one of the most thrilling denouements in the entire canon. But best of all, probably, is “Thor Bridge”: reading this intriguing story, with its ingenious solution, it’s like being back in old times again. Place this story in any of the earlier collections, and it would still stand out as one of the best.

So a mixed bag, all in all, and even though, overall, it doesn’t quite match up to the earlier collections, no self-respecting Holmesian would be without it.

There were no more comebacks after this one: this was, most definitely, the final curtain. We needn’t repine: this was the right place to stop. With the possible exception of “The Three Gables” – and even that I think I’d be sorry to lose – there’s not a single one of these fifty-six short stories (and four novels) that I would want to be without. Why? Oh, I don’t know … There are certain things that defy explanation.

“Three Years” by Anton Chekhov … fourteen years on

Recently, Di Nguyen wrote a post in her blog on a work that is particularly close to my heart – Three Years, a novella (it’s way too long to be classed as a short story) by Anton Chekhov. And I was reminded that, many years ago (14 years ago, to be exact) I had myself written something about it on a book board I used to frequent. So I dug it up, and found myself cringing – as I so often do when I read my earlier writings. It is unstructured – jumping almost at random from one point to another, with little attempt at continuity, and sometimes returning to points that should have been dealt with earlier; it makes assertions without argument, and without illustrative excerpts; it uses expressions like “superbly depicted” which could mean anything, really (what’s superb about the depiction? Either explain or shut up!); is often repetitive; and uses vaguely defined terms like “sentimentalist” without bothering to explain what it means in the context. In short, it’s pretty amateurish stuff.

However, for all that, it does communicate what I still feel about this wonderful story, and so, if you have the patience to wade through this, here it is for what it’s worth.

***

The narrative seems to start at a more or less random point. We are introduced to a group of characters, and, as the narrative proceeds, we meet a few more. We follow these characters over three years. Nothing dramatic happens. There is a marriage, a death, a baby dies of diphtheria, and a relatively minor character has a mental breakdown. And after these three years, the narrative stops at an apparently random point, with nothing resolved. On the face of it, it doesn’t really seem very promising.

It is tempting to describe this as a “slice of life”, but that’s precisely what it isn’t. We get a powerful sense of these characters having lived before the start of this story, and we get a sense of them going on living and developing after the end. A “slice” implies something that is cut off from the main body, but that is not the sense we get here.

Chekhov, like Tolstoy, was fascinated by the constant flux that is life: we always change, and yet, somehow, we remain the same. How is this mystery accomplished? The central characters in this story are Alexei Laptev and Yulia Sergeyevna, and the development in their characters is depicted in great detail.

Laptev is intellectual by nature, but, like the “superfluous man” of Turgenev, is ineffectual. He is haunted by the brutality that he, his brother and his mother had faced during his childhood years. He is decent and kindly, and has in effect washed his hands of the family business – a concern ruled over by his tyrannical father – where he knows, terrible things happen. However, as his brother reminds him, he has not washed his hands to the extent of refusing to draw from this business a handsome allowance for himself. Laptev himself is intelligent enough to be aware of this, but too weak as a personality to do anything about it, but this awareness fills him with a self-loathing. He says that life has not prepared him to do anything, but this is not true: he had been to university. His friends include a lawyer and a research chemist. And even Polina earns her own living by giving music lessons. And his charity work is no more than throwing his money around: he certainly does not involve himself in any organising or with any administrative work. The truth is that, for all his innate decency and goodness, Laptev is a weak character, and he knows it.

(At one point, Laptev claims that he was born weak because by the time his mother had conceived him, she was living in terror of her husband; but this is, of course, nonsensical: Laptev, as an intelligent and educated man, would surely have known that acquired characteristics cannot be passed on.)

The start of the story is very lyrical. Here, Laptev, middle-aged and aware not only of the weakness of his character but also of his physical unattractiveness, finds himself in love with the young daughter of a provincial doctor. His infatuation is depicted with the utmost conviction: every single detail tells. When, at the end of the story, Yulia’s parasol pops up again, we remember precisely what it had signified to Laptev at the start of the story.

Yulia, at the start, is stuck in the middle of nowhere with her infuriatingly eccentric father (a character who could have come straight out of Gogol). As becomes quickly apparent, it is impossible even to hold a reasonable conversation with him. When the proposal comes out of the blue, Yulia is surprised: not only is she not attracted to Laptev, she feels a sort of repulsion. But the alternative would have been to rot away in the provinces. And after all, Laptev is a good man…. She could easily have a worse match….

The marriage, of course, is, to start with, a disaster. Yulia’s distaste for Laptev turns to something resembling hate. And Laptev himself is tortured by the thought that she had agreed to marry him only because he was wealthy. Both of them are deeply unhappy. And Chekhov, as ever, refuses to take sides, sympathising quietly with both.

Change is a rule of life: the very act of living involves change – usually infinitesimally small changes, but which, over time, accumulate into something significant. And this is what Chekhov depicts. But Chekhov was not a dogged pessimist: life may be tragic, but all change is not necessarily for the worse. With the most delicate of artistry, Chekhov depicts this apparently hopeless marriage slowly metamorphosing over time. Laptev soon becomes resigned, and Yulia convinces herself that one may live without love. And then, a sort of respect grows in her. And by the end, there is an awakening of something very much like love. It is a wonderful journey, all the more wonderful for being rooted at each step in the reality of everyday life. And when, towards the end, Yulia recognises her old parasol, we do not need to be told the significance of this symbol: it is a magical moment.

Yulia started the story as essentially an immature schoolgirl. Her initial reaction to Laptev’s proposal is an instinctive refusal. And it isn’t clear, even to herself, why she changed her mind. There is the fear of being stuck for ever in a backwater, of wasting her life away; there is also the fear of wronging Laptev, who is, of course, a decent man. But whatever the reason, she is not mercenary, and feels affronted when that charge is made. After the marriage, she finds herself getting on well with her husband’s friends, though not with her husband himself. The chapter where she returns to her village could almost be a short story in itself: she suddenly realises the extent to which she had outgrown her old surroundings. And once she receives that telegram from her husband’s friends, she realises where her true home is. And it is, to her surprise, a joyful realisation.

Towards the end, this once immature schoolgirl, having undergone loss and grief, is now sufficiently mature to lead her husband: it is she who encourages Laptev to face his demons, and accept his responsibilities; it is she who re-establishes relations with her difficult father-in-law.

Although Yulia and Laptev are at the centre of this novel, it is, nonetheless, an ensemble piece. Each of its many characters is individually characterised, whether they are Gogolian grotesques like Yulia’s father or the various people at the Laptevs’ warehouse, or whether they are real, three-dimensional figures such as Laptev’s sister and her irresponsible husband. One of the most striking of these figures is the embittered Polina, who makes a show of her struggles as a badge of defiance. And what a wonderful moment that is towards the end when Polina thinks Yulia is eavesdropping, and Laptev, who had once confessed to Polina how unhappy he is with his marriage, feels offended on his wife’s behalf.

Even characters we think are merely incidental take on unexpected prominence. As with Tolstoy, Chekhov found all his characters interesting. The scene where the mistress of Laptev’s brother-in-law comes to him in desperation I find particularly poignant.

Each milieu is depicted with such economy and such artistry, that one hardly notices the technique. There aren’t any extended descriptions of the village, for instance, and yet I can picture it perfectly. The family business and the various goings-on in the warehouse are depicted with a few bold strokes. The depiction of Laptev’s father is particularly striking: he is a tyrannical patriarch, a tremendously powerful personality who is now becoming increasingly frail with age. He only appears in a couple of scenes or so, and yet the strength of his personality is apparent throughout.

And there’s Laptev’s brother Fyodor, with his exaggerated pietistic ways. He is someone who has had the same upbringing as Laptev, with all the neglect and the beatings. But he clearly isn’t as intelligent as his brother. But unlike Alexei, he has become involved in the family business; and, given his lack of intelligence, he is, we may guess, not very good at it. He has found a refuge from all this in a sort of sentimental religiosity, devoid of any real thought: the pamphlet he reads to Laptev is a mere litany of sentimental clichés. It isn’t really surprising that a mind as weak as his, under all the pressures, begins to crack.

He annoys Laptev, who can see in his ugliness an image of his own. And I think the climactic point of the story comes in that almost unbearable scene where Laptev’s brother has a breakdown. Even on repeated readings, I find quite shocking that scene where he asks for water, and bites off a bit from his glass.

Chekhov’s writing is unconventional in many ways. It seems extraordinary that such detailed development of so many characters could be squeezed into a mere hundred pages, but no character seems under-written, and the pace never appears too fast. There are times when Chekhov spends time on what may appear trivial – e.g. a long description of a nocturnal walk back to Moscow. There are other times when a dramatic event is merely summarised in a few lines – such as the death of Laptevs’ child, and the grief that follows. One page that remains puzzling to me is that passage where Chekhov presents a vision of marauding barbarians laying the land to waste. Curiously, we get no indication of whether this is a vision of the past, or of the future. Suddenly, for a brief moment, the everyday lives of these characters are seen in a wider context, a historical context of rise and fall of civilisations. It is a haunting moment.

The ending is open-ended. We have seen these characters develop over three years: how they will continue developing, we do not know. Will Laptev get to grips with the family business, or will he return to type? How will their marriage progress now? We do not know. The future of these characters, as with our own future, is open-ended.

There is a sort of tenderness about Chekhov, and yet, it’s completely unsentimental. And it can be very funny as well. I loved that man at the warehouse who, to emphasise what he is saying, would bark out the word “Notwithstanding!” without understanding what the word means, but imagining that saying the word somehow makes his point. It’s all too silly for words, but it’s funny in a rather weird way.

I first read Three Years as a teenager, and at that age, big sentimental lump that I was, I was falling madly in love with virtually every young lady I met. I remember identifying very strongly then with Laptev. Now that I am much older (though not necessarily much wiser), I can still identify with his feelings. The way Laptev feels at the start of the story is exactly how people do feel when they fall in love, and the fact that Laptev is no longer young possibly doesn’t really make much difference to these feelings. The only difference made by age is that one now knows that one is making oneself ridiculous. And Laptev knows this. But nonetheless, he can’t help the way he feels for Yulia. I do find this very believable. Indeed, I think this is superbly depicted.

But of course, Chekhov was no sentimentalist. Laptev marries because he is in love – whatever that means – but even as he marries, he is intelligent enough to realise that he is doing the wrong thing. But humans aren’t completely rational creatures: sometimes, we make mistakes knowingly, or, perhaps, half-knowingly, because we cannot help the way we feel. It is no surprise therefore, either to the reader or to Laptev, that the marriage is so unhappy. But for Chekhov, this is merely the starting point. While most other authors would merely have depicted the marriage breaking up, Chekhov depicts something altogether more subtle and complex.

Laptev certainly disapproves of the way the family business is run. Indeed, it repels and horrifies him. The tyranny with which that business is run the same tyranny he had experienced as a child, and the very thought of it revolts him. And when he is compelled (by Yulia, of all people!) to face his responsibilities, he seeks to run the business in a very different way. But whether or not he’ll be successful at it is another matter: that’s yet another issue that is left open at the end.

My own guess is that he won’t be successful. It’s not merely that he hadn’t shown interest in the family business: he hadn’t shown interest in any type of business, or in any type of work. He had washed his hands of the business: he didn’t have the initiative or the energy to attempt to reform it. This is not the sort of thing he is cut out for. Yes, Yulia makes him go back to all this, and yes, no doubt he would try to reform it: but I remain dubious. I do not think Laptev has the ability to run a business. I suspect that after a while, he would employ some professional managers and hand the running of the business over to them. But, as with much else, Chekhov leaves all that open.

I find this story tremendously moving. In these apparently insignificant events in the lives of insignificant people, Chekhov seems to capture the very mystery and wonder of life itself. I read of these people of a background so very different from my own, and I nod and think: “Yes, this is indeed how life is.”

Goethe’s Faust, Part 2, with lemurs

A few weeks ago, Tom (from the Wuthering Expectations blog) and I decided to read Part 2 of Goethe’s Faust at the same time, hoping that our joint efforts could throw more light on a difficult work. Tom’s posts on this poem may be found here, and here.

The extracts from Goethe’s “Faust”, Parts 1 and 2, in this post are taken from the translation by David Luke, published by Oxford University Press.

It’s the lemurs that got me. In Act 5 of the Second Part of Faust, Mephistopheles enters with, we are told, “lemurs”. Translator David Luke explains in an endnote:

Lemurs (Lat. lemures): restless souls of the dead. Goethe had seen an ancient tomb near Naples on which they were portrayed as skeletons wit still enough muscles and sinews to enable them to move.

Pretty sinister and gruesome, in other words. However, I found it difficult to remove from my mind an image of Mephistopheles accompanied by ring-tailed lemurs – not quite what Goethe perhaps had intended. But then again, what had he intended? Is the grotesquely comic image lodged in my mind really so out of place when this entire epic second part is infused with the grotesquely comic? The image I have of Goethe is that of a lofty and Olympian seriousness, and while I don’t doubt that Goethe’s artistic intentions are very serious indeed, the general tenor of this second part of Faust is that of the bizarre, the outlandish, the preposterous. This second part, written mainly in the last few years of his long life (and some twenty years and more after the publication of the first), Goethe gave free rein to a very strange and uninhibited poetic imagination, and produced a work that is as puzzling and as enigmatic as it was, no doubt, meant to be.

Faust had occupied Goethe for, on and off, some 60 years of his life. It was some time in the early- to mid-1770s that he first conceived of it, and the First Part was published in 1808. He had always planned a continuation, and had worked at one – again, on and off – over many years. In 1827 he published a dramatic poem Helena, which was later to form the bulk of the third act of this Second Part. But it was only in the last six years of his life that he focused hard on this, and, in July 1831, he declared it finished, and put his seal on the work. It was, at his own request, published only after his death in 1832. In short, Faust is, quite self-consciously, the major life’s work of a poet who is generally reckoned to be one of the towering figures of the western literary tradition: the two parts, taken together, form one of the greatest and most monumental peaks of western literary culture. Which makes things somewhat difficult for the humble blogger – especially one who, despite a couple of earlier readings of the work, finds himself very much in unfamiliar territory.

True, I have written posts before on such great literary monuments: there are many posts in this blog on the plays of Shakespeare, or on Don Quixote.  But these are works I have lived with: although I do not pretend to be a scholar, these works are now part of my mental furniture, as it were, in a way that Goethe’s Faust isn’t. There is also a mountain of critical writings on Goethe that I haven’t even set foot upon. But, proceeding on the reasonable assumption that no poet wrote to be read only by experts, perhaps it isn’t entirely a waste of time to record what this lay reader made of it all.

In brief, I was dazzled. This second part is very different from the first in a number of ways. The first is a play, and, with a few cuts (it seems too long to be accommodated in a single evening’s performance), can easily hold its own on the stage. The second part, despite being set out like a play in five acts, isn’t dramatic at all: at no point is there any dramatic tension or dramatic momentum; the dramatic continuity between the five acts seems questionable; and, most importantly, it lacks human interest. Never does the reader (or the audience, should it be staged) wonder what is going to happen next. Every scene, every character, seems allegorical: each element of the work seems like a symbol of something else, though what those something elses may be isn’t at all clear. Often, I got the feeling that Goethe, in his old age, wasn’t really writing for any readership, as such: he was writing for himself. We know from his conversations, for instance, that the character of Euphorion in the third act represents Byron, but I could find nothing in the text to indicate this: this was simply Goethe’s private association that, in the text at least, he preferred to keep private. I imagine there are many more such private associations scattered throughout the work, but since Goethe chose not to reveal them to us, I don’t know that it serves much purpose to look outside the text to discover what they might have been.

(This second part too has been staged, I gather, but reading it in my study, I could not imagine it in the theatre. In any case, there must have been quite extensive cuts to get it to fit in a single evening’s performance.)

But it’s dazzling. I do not know whether Goethe’s imagination has always been this weird, but it seems quite demented here, in this product of his old age. But a question arises: if a work of art is to have both a diversity and a unity, is there really a unity here? Is there some unifying factor binding together all the wild exuberance? One answer could be that it is held together by the story of Faust itself: the scholar, dissatisfied with his life, makes a pact with the Devil, gets what he wants for a limited time, but then, at the end of the allotted time, forfeits his soul. However, between the making of the pact at the start of the First Part, and its resolution in the last act of the Second, there seems little (if any) reference to it. The famous pact-making scene in Part One is worth recalling:

FAUST:

If ever to the moment I shall say:

Beautiful moment: do not pass away!

Then you may forge your chains to bind me,

Then I will put my life behind me,

Then let them hear my death-knell toll,

Then from your labours you’ll be free,

The clock may stop, the clock hands fall,

And time come to an end for me!

MEPHISTOPHELES:

We shall remember this; think well what you are doing.

But do we remember this? This pact is not referred to, directly or indirectly, till the very last act of the second part. All through the famous tragic tale of Gretchen that occupies the rest of Part One, through the phantasmagoric episodes that make up most of Part Two, this entire episode seems, as it were, set to one side. But it does lay out what may be the central theme of the work. Faust is only damned if he is ever satisfied with the way things are at any given moment; and its corollary is that he is saved if he strives, and continues to strive, in search of that satisfaction that his earthly moments cannot give. And it is this eternal striving that is could be, perhaps, the work’s central theme. But striving for what, exactly? There can be no direct answer to this: it is perhaps inevitable that Goethe is drawn into a world of symbols and abstractions.

Part Two opens with a scene of the utmost lyricism: even in translation, it is exquisitely beautiful (and of course, translator David Luke has to take the credit for that). Faust is asleep, and spirits around him sing of a new beginning. Part One had told us the traumatic tale of Gretchen, and if Faust were simply to forget about her, he would appear merely heartless, which he is not; and if he were to carry with him the emotional scars of that tragedy, that would get in the way of Goethe’s artistic purpose. The only way out is to have the whole thing erased from Faust’s mind, so he could start anew. When Faust awakes, he speaks, surprisingly, in terza rima. This Dantean reference cannot be accidental: here too, as in the Commedia, we are concerned about the progress of the soul. Except, as David Luke tells us in his introduction, Goethe did not like the use of the word “soul”, (possibly, I’d guess, because of its religious associations): he preferred a term derived from Aristotle’s metaphysics – “entelechy”, which Luke describes as “the unit or monad of discarnate force which survives the death of the body and precedes physical existence”.

This opening scene of Part Two is a sort of prologue leading into the main action of Act One: we are now at the court of an emperor, whose financial means are straitened. Faust and Mephistopheles solve the problem with the introduction of paper money (and hence, inflation), but there are two things along the way that don’t seem to be part of what is, in essence, a comic story. Firstly, there is a long scene featuring a carnival masque, in which all sorts of figures appear – figures who may just be carnival revellers in costume, but, then again, who may really be as they seem. This scene is remarkable in that it is long but doesn’t lead anywhere: it throws no further light on the dramatic situation, or on the characters; it dissipates rather than enhances what dramatic tension may have existed. It is there purely for its own sake, and the effect it creates – that of a mad jumble, a wild exuberance and a colourful zest – serves no purpose in the wider scheme of things. What matters here is the texture of the scene itself. The other feature in this act that seems extraneous to the essentially comic tale presented is Faust’s descent into the underworld to visit some mysterious, primeval beings called the “mothers” (and much scholarly ink has been spilt on what exactly they are, and what they signify), and his subsequent glimpse of the pure ideal of beauty – Helen.

His longing for Helen, for pure beauty, is met in the third act: here, Goethe takes us into what is ostensibly classical Greece, but is, rather, a fantasy world suspended seemingly both geographically and in time. Here, he marries Helen, and fathers a child with her – Euphorion. This Euphorion (a representation of Byron, as we gather from Goethe’s conversation) is a spirit of Romanticism, and falls and dies by trying to reach too high; and Helen, more mirage than person, does not so much die as will her passage into the afterlife. It is a very strange act – a sort of play within a play – that, in presenting a marriage between Faust and Helen, presets also on a symbolic level a marriage between the medieval Gothic and the classical, the Christian and the pagan. Euripides (whom Goethe had described as the most tragic of the Athenian tragedians) is very much to the fore here: Goethe makes use of the legend Euripides himself had used in his play Helen, in which the true Helen is spirited away, and only her double is abducted by Paris. In metrical terms, too, Euripides is evoked. All very fascinating, but nonetheless deeply enigmatic. There is no point asking what this is all leading to: as with so much else in this work, it appears to serve no end but its own. But what is its own end? I don’t know that I could even try to answer that without delving deep into Goethe scholarship.

Similarly enigmatic, though for different reasons, is the Second Act that had preceded it. Here, we have another mad Walpurgis Nacht, as we had in Part One of Faust, but this time, the figures that appear are all from the classical world. (And even those reasonably versed in classical mythology would be well advised to read an edition with copious notes.) And this time, the Walpurgis Nacht scenes are bigger, longer, and even madder than they had been in Part One. We find ourselves in a very surreal world, where anything can happen. Figures seem to appear and disappear at will. Inanimate objects speak. Philosophers Thales and Anaxagoras argue over what is the most potent force in shaping the world – water or fire. A seismic eruption causes a mountain suddenly to appear, and new life forms inhabit it. And, perhaps strangest of all, there is the Homunculus. The name, I take it, is derived from the early chapters of Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, where it refers to the spermatozoa – life awaiting creation; but while Sterne’s comedy is bawdy, Goethe’s seems to me merely grotesque. His Homunculus is also life awaiting creation: it is a creation of an alchemist – a life still in a glass retort, waiting to be embodied into earthly life. This glass retort containing life not-yet-born also travels through the Aegean during this classical Walpurgis Nacht, also speaking lines of poetry.

What are we to make of this mad disorder – this maximum entropy, as it were? It has certainly been very influential: one can see its influence quite clearly in, say, Ibsen’s Peer Gynt (although Ibsen’s dramatic focus, unlike Goethe’s, was always on the human), or in the “Circe” chapter of Joyce’s Ulysses. It seems to stand outside time, and, despite the stage directions speaking of the Peneus or the rocky inlets of the Aegean, it seems to stand outside space too. Is it simply a wild burst of exuberance, and nothing more? It’s certainly a lot of fun, but once again, I suspect I’d have to delve deep into Goethe scholarship to understand something of Goethe’s symbols, and what exactly this allegory is allegorising. But even without any of that, it is easy to enjoy the fantastic, uninhibited nature of Goethe’s imagination.

We are with the Emperor again in the fourth act, this time in a military campaign; and in the final act, there is the reckoning. The pact made early in Part One, and which had seemingly been forgotten since, now reappears. In Faust’s last speech, he refers back explicitly to the terms of the pact:

Only that man earns freedom, merits life,

Who must reconquer both in constant daily strife,

In such a place, by danger still surrounded,

Youth, manhood, age, their brave new world has founded.

I long to see such multitude, and stand

With a free people on free land!

Then to the moment, I might say:

Beautiful moment, do not pass away!

Faust might say that, but he doesn’t; and he hasn’t. He has kept his side of the bargain. He says he will wish the moment to stay when all mankind has earned its freedom, but not till then. Instead of ever being satisfied with the moment, he has always striven, and so, his soul – his “entelechy”, the essence of what he is – is saved. But striven for what? In this last act, we see him an old man, but an active an, involved in all sort of improving projects, such as reclaiming land from the sea. But in his way stands the cottage of an elderly couple – Philemon and Baucis, the gentle, hospitable couple from Ovid’s Metamorphosis. And, in the process of carrying out Faust’s orders, their cottage is burned, and they are killed. He had not meant them to die, any more than he had wished Gretchen’s tragedy in Part One, but their deaths, nonetheless, are a direct consequence of his striving: “Well, do it – clear them from my path!” When Faust hears of their deaths, he proclaims that this was not what he had wanted, which certainly is true; but is this the striving to be rewarded with salvation? Nothing seems straight-forward.

In Goethe’s version, Faust is saved – either because he has kept his side of the bargain (he has never asked for any moment to stay); or, perhaps, he is saved through the grace of God. The former seems to me more likely, as God has been curiously absent from this story of salvation and damnation (except in the Prologue in Heaven before Part One). Christ has been strangely absent too: no blood of Christ streaming through the firmament here, as in Marlowe’s play. But for all that, the final scene, titled “Mountain Gorges”, is surprisingly religious in feeling. “Surprising” because I could find no evidence elsewhere in the text of a Christian underpinning, or any adherence to Christian doctrine.

However, the imagery Goethe uses in this final scene is very Christian (though, once again, Christ is curiously absent). Though neither God nor Christ appears, the Virgin Mary does – perhaps rather surprisingly so given Goethe’s Protestant background. But it isn’t clear to me whether this final scene is explicitly Christian, or whether Goethe is, rather, using imagery from the Christian religion as symbols for his own different ends – just as he had used classical imagery as symbols towards his own ends earlier in the work.

Disembodied voices declaim ecstatically as Faust’s soul is saved: even Gretchen, whom Faust had wronged (albeit unwittingly), joins in what is essentially a vast song of praise:

Virgin and mother, thou

Lady beyond compare, oh thou

Who art full of glory, bow

Thy face in mercy to my great joy now!

This explicitly echoes Gretchen’s prayer from the first part:

O Virgin Mother, thou

Who are full of sorrows, bow

Thy face in mercy to my anguish now!

There, she had been pleading for mercy for her own sake; now, she is rejoicing in the mercy shown to another, even to another who, in earthly life, had wronged her. In her earthly life, she had sinned, but now, as a penitent in the afterlife, she too has been saved. But saved in what sense? Given this work has not been a Christian work, can these tropes of salvation and damnation be seen in Christian terms? Or are these, once again, symbols for something else? And here again, we are left trying to interpret – trying, perhaps, to put into words that which can not be put into words – not even by Goethe.

The knots in this complex work are too intricate for me to untie. This seems one of those works that need to be lived with, so that, over the years, it seeps into the brain, and becomes part of one’s consciousness. Me – I have only dipped my toes in. But even doing that has proved a most enjoyable experience, mainly because of the wild exuberance of Goethe’s poetic imagination. After all, though much has eluded me, I’ll always treasure the image of Mephistopheles with the lemurs.

“Eugene Onegin” by Alexander Pushkin

The extracts from Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin” given in this post are taken from the translation by Tom Beck, published by Dedalus.

In Chapter 6 of Pushkin’s verse novel Eugene Onegin, the young poet Lenski is killed in a duel (and no, I am not prefacing this post with one of those tedious “spoiler warnings”: the effect made by this poem does not depend on discovering “what happens next”). It is, possibly, the most famous duel in all literature. Lenski goes into the duel with presentiments of his own death, and, the night before, writes a poem lamenting his lost youth and his possibly shortened life, and imagining that Olga, to whom he is betrothed, will mourn for him afterwards, and remember him. It is, inevitably under the circumstances, a deeply felt poem. But immediately after giving us this poem, the narrator mocks it:

That’s how he wrote, “obscurely”, “limply”,

(“Romanticism”, I believe,

though what’s romantic here I simply

am quite unable to perceive!

but then, who cares?) As dawn approaches …

This seems cruel and insensitive. Lenski may not have been a great poet, as Pushkin undoubtedly was. He possibly wasn’t even a very good poet. But given the situation, this is hardly, one might feel, the right time for literary criticism, and Pushkin’s scathing lines do seem harsh and insensitive. But here’s the point: a poet as harsh and as insensitive as these lines suggest would not have been capable of writing a poem so delicate and so sensitive as Eugene Onegin. We must, I think, in this of all books with its various different levels of irony, learn to distinguish between Alexander Pushkin the narrator, and Alexander Pushkin the author: the author Pushkin has created the narrator Pushkin as a sort of alter ego of himself – not entirely separate from himself, but not entirely the same either.

Of course, Cervantes had played with this sort of thing quite spectacularly in Don Quixote (especially in that dazzling second part), and Nabokov, a fervent admirer of Eugene Onegin, also made use of this technique: in Pnin, for instance, there is a remarkable passage where the eponymous Pnin breaks down in despair, and the narrator, who presents himself as a Russian émigré named Vladimir Nabokov, pokes fun at him mercilessly. But we must, at points such as this, learn to see beyond what this narrator is telling us. The real author Nabokov (as distinct from the Nabokov who is the narrator) is no more mocking Pnin than the real author Pushkin is belittling Lenski’s deeply felt emotions: the narrator’s mockery enlists our sympathy for the subject of the mockery.

But it remains a fact nonetheless that Lenski’s poetry is pretty poor stuff, and, however much sympathy we may feel for him, neither the author Pushkin nor the narrator Pushkin is going to pretend otherwise.

Those of a more romantic disposition have begged to differ. In Tchaikovsky’s operatic version of Eugene Onegin, Lenski’s poem forms the basis of an exquisitely beautiful and passionate tenor aria: the Lensky in the opera really is a poet, and, indeed, a great poet, for only a great poet could sing an aria so heart-stoppingly lovely. And the tragedy in the opera is that so great a poet should be cut down in his prime. But the tragedy in Pushkin’s poem is subtly different: here, for all Lenski’s depth of feeling, he never would really have amounted to much as a poet even had he lived. And he doesn’t even leave behind much of a memory: after his death, even his beloved Olga quickly forgets about him and marries someone else. The tragedy here is that Lensky’s death is as inconsequential as his life had been, and, most likely, would continue to have been had he lived. The tragedy here is that his fate isn’t even perceived as tragic.

When Pushkin comes to describe he duel itself, he adopts for a while a quite objective stance, almost as if he was writing a technical handbook on how to load a pistol:

The pistols gleam, the priming hammer

resounds against the ramrod head;

the bullets drop, pushed by the rammer,

The lever clicks, the powder’s fed

in little greyish streams to trickle

into the pan; the rough and brittle,

securely fastened flint is raised

again …

The duel takes place, and the expected happens: Lenski is killed. And then, Pushkin gives us an unforgettable poetic image that is way beyond anything that Lenski himself might have come up with – an empty house, bereft of people:

… but here, as in a house, unlightened

And bare, where all is empty, chill,

The heart forever remains still,

The shutters closed, the windows whitened …

This, one suspects, is Pushkin the author of the poem rather than Pushkin the narrator. But it isn’t always easy to distinguish.

The plot, such as it is, is built around what are, in effect, two non-events. The young, naïve Tatyana falls in love with Eugene, and writes him a love letter: nothing comes of it. And towards the end, it’s the other way round: Eugene this time falls in love with Tatyana, and writes her a love letter, but nothing comes of that either. In between, Tatyana has a very weird and surreal nightmare that seems to take us into the world of folklore and of mythical monsters; a duel is fought and the poet Lenski is killed by his erstwhile friend Onegin; and then, Tatyana visits a real empty house – that of Onegin’s, who, full of remorse and self-disgust after killing Lensky, has left the place.

This empty house is clearly a metaphor for Onegin himself, the man she still loves despite his having rejected her. But what the metaphor reveals about him is not entirely clear. Tatyana goes into his library, and finds an image of the almost stereotypical Romantic. There is a portrait of Byron, and a bust of Napoleon. The books are of Romantic literature. Tatyana herself has been moulded by literature of a pre-Romantic era (“… she read and then stayed staunchly loyal / to Richardson and to Rousseau …”), and by the traditional folklore she had taken in from her peasant nanny, and which had informed her strange dream. We are all moulded by our experiences, after all, and what we read is part of our experience: the relationship between fiction and reality, of how the former affects the latter, and, in particular, our perception of the latter, is, as in Don Quixote, one of the major themes of this work. Tatyana is still very much a simple and rather naïve village girl, and Onegin, as Tatyana discovers here, is a Petersburg sophisticate, a dashing dandy, almost a stereotypical restless Romantic. But also, perhaps, like the now empty house, Onegin is a frame without a soul. Perhaps. It is dangerous to impose so apparent and so fixed an interpretation on this most subtle and elusive of works, a work that so consistently pulls the rug from under our feet.

It is the titular character Onegin whom we meet first in this poem. He lives a dissipated life amidst the sparkling ballrooms and salons and theatres of Petersburg, and he is bored. He has a friend who is the poet Alexander Pushkin, the narrator of what we are reading. Onegin has to go out into the sticks to look after his ailing uncle, and that makes him even more bored. But it is worth it: the uncle dies, and Eugene becomes a man of property as well as the man of idle leisure he has always been. But the country life doesn’t suit our man about town. He is terminally bored. His friend in the country is the local landowner Lenski, and this Lenski introduces him to the Larins – the mother, a somewhat foolish widow, and her two daughters, Olga and Tatyana. Olga is betrothed to Lenski, and Tatyana, to whom we are now introduced, is a naïve and sensitive girl, and she soon has her head turned by the dashing Onegin. But the love letter she rashly writes him earns her only a stern and cold lecture from its recipient: she is well put in her place. Later, Tatyana has a strange dream in which she is at first lost in a fearful tumultuous winter night, but then a bear who at first frightens her leads her into a cottage, which is inhabited by all sorts of weird and wonderful monsters; and among these strange monsters is Onegin himself. One could have lots of fun trying to analyse the dream: Pushkin himself refuses to do so.

It is then that the duel takes place. Motivations are not clear: Pushkin refuses to spell anything out. Onegin is unhappy to be there among these uncouth country people who are so clearly far beneath him; and he is annoyed with Lenski for having brought him here. But why he should start flirting with Olga deliberately to make his friend Lenski jealous remains obscure. But there appears to be a sort of inevitability about it all – about little things leading to bigger things, until the sequence of events acquires such momentum that it becomes impossible to stop. Here, what starts off as no more than little annoyances lead to tragedy.

The last of the eight chapters forms a sort of epilogue. Once again, the central event of this chapter is in essence a non-event: a love letter is written, but nothing comes of it. But it rounds off with an almost formal symmetry the events that had occurred earlier. This time, it is Onegin who finds himself attracted to Tatyana. He has returned from his wanderings, and finds Tatyana no longer the naïve village girl, but a married woman, and a society hostess. And this time, it’s her turn to reject him. Her rejection isn’t cold and unfeeling, however, as Onegin’s had been: she freely admits she still loves him; she insists that she has not changed, and that the sophisticated front she now puts on is but a front. But nonetheless, she will not stoop to becoming Onegin’s mistress.

As ever, Pushkin does not delve into the psychology of these characters: he lets us do that. Why exactly does Tatyana reject Onegin? We have to piece that together. Why exactly does Onegin now fall in love with the country girl he had once rejected? Has he now changed, and become capable of loving that country girl that Tatyana insists she still is? Or does he now love the sophisticated society hostess he now sees, and which Tatyana says is but a front? Can we actually believe Tatyana when she says she hasn’t really changed? Would the Tatyana we had first seen have been capable of carrying out such a role? These are all questions we, the reader, can puzzle over, just as we puzzle over the imponderable questions of life itself.

Pushkin ends the poem leaving Onegin thus stranded, but not before he has given us an understated climax which, on repeated reading, strikes me as among the most moving things I’ve encountered in literature. As he is reading in his room, “between the lines there kept appearing / quite different lines …”

And then a kind of slow stagnation

Comes over him and dulls his thoughts,

And to his mind Imagination

Deals out a hand of cards … of sorts:

He either sees, as if reposing

Upon a melting snow and dozing

A youth, and then he hears with dread

A voice remark, “Well, well, he’s dead.”

Or else he finds long-gone detractors,

Base cowards and old enemies,

Young ladies famed for treacheries,

Departed, charming malefactors,

Or he espies a country place

And at a window sees … her face.

I remember well that sense of exaltation I felt when I had first read that scene in War and Peace in which the wounded Andrei is in the surgical tent at Borodino, and, in his delirium, seems to relive all sorts of feelings and sensations from his past; and finally, just before he passes out, he sees in his mind’s eye Natasha’s face. It remains one of the most wondrous chapters in fiction, but I hadn’t realised at the time just how much Tolstoy had taken from Pushkin. Having now read Pushkin’s novel in verse, I find echoes of it resounding through the entire range of Russian literature. Take, for instance, that scene in the final act of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, where Tusenbach, before going to the duel where he knows he will be killed, meets with Irina, but, not receiving any encouragement from her, fails to say anything of what he wants to say, and, after a few inconsequential words, leaves: this is Lensky meeting with Olga the night before his duel. This is not to say that either Tolstoy or Chekhov (or any other Russian writer) stole from Pushkin: it means that Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin was a permanent presence in their minds, a presence from which none of them could escape

For the poem itself is a marvel. It seems at times a series of contradictions: the narrative tone often appears casual, but the whole thing is very carefully structured; and it is written as a sequence of sonnets (only the two love letters escape the strict sonnet form). Each sonnet follows the same formal pattern, consisting of three quatrains followed by a concluding couplet. The rhyming scheme is abab ccdd effe gg. Each line is an iambic tetrameter, although the lines denoted above as a, c, and e have an extra unstressed syllable at the end. This form is applied strictly, and, for all the apparent looseness of the narrative, is never varied.

It is a product of Romanticism, but not really in itself Romantic: Pushkin was satisfied seeing the world for what it is, and wasn’t interested in the Romantic sense of striving for the transcendent, for something beyond. He plays all sorts of games with the narrative, and includes long rambling digressions – all in the manner of Byron’s Don Juan, or (an even greater influence, I think) Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. But Eugene Onegin is very different from either Don Juan or Tristram Shandy: alongside all the playfulness, and all the verve and gaiety and even the seeming mockery, there lies a sadness – a sadness all the more effective for not being stressed or pointed out. And it’s not a case of there being passages of gaiety and passages of melancholy: they all seem, somehow, to co-exist. The touch is of the lightest, but its impact, especially on repeated reading (this is one of those works that need to be lived with rather than read just once) is immense. The three principal characters, – Onegin, Tatyana, Lensky – haunt the reader’s imagination just as, clearly, they have haunted the imaginations of all Russian writers since. Indeed, Pushkin himself, in the course of the poem, often refers to these characters as “my Onegin”, “my Tatyana”, “my Lensky” – and one may suspect this is Pushkin the Author just as much as it is Pushkin the Narrator. It is a taffeta-like work, changing tints every time one looks at it, thus making it impossible to pin it down. In the end, as with all great art, one can but stare and wonder.

Completing Dante’s “Commedia”

Dante in the morning, Goethe in the afternoon – that’s the way to do it! You want to be highbrow, you do it properly! No farting around!

It hadn’t been planned like that. I happened to be reading Dante when fellow blogger Tom, of the Wuthering Expectations blog, suggested on Twitter that we have a go at reading together Part 2 of Goethe’s Faust. And since Tom is a reader of vast experience and understanding (he has read, and, more impressively, has taken in what seems at times to be the entire range of western literature), it seemed too good a proposal to turn down. And in any case, I was, I admit, struggling with Dante. I found myself reading very slowly, and not really taking in too much of what I was reading. Not taking in enough to my own satisfaction, that is.

I had started on Dante several years ago now. He is, after all, one of the most monumental figures of western civilization, and I felt I needed to know at least something about him. I wanted to know why so many major poets of the western world, from Shelley to Eliot to Mandelstam, seemed so besotted with him, why they appeared to centre their entire poetic sensibilities around the Commedia.  So I embarked on the Inferno, in the translation by Robin Kirkpatrick. Well, I read it; I read also Kirkpatrick’s excellent introductory essay and his copious notes; and I tried my best to make some sense of it, really I did. My attempts to make sense I recorded here, in what is, in retrospect, an almost comically inadequate post.

I had, obviously, to work harder. I started reading all kinds of secondary literature on Dante: Reading Dante by Prue Shaw, the various essays in the Cambridge Companion to Dante, and so on. There was also a wonderful detailed essay by Eric Griffiths as an introduction to the anthology Dante in English, which traces the influence of Dante on English language poets over the centuries. And let’s not forget also the somewhat irreverent and very amusing comic strip version of the Inferno, by Hunt Emerson and Kevin Jackson. So, armed with all this, I thought to myself: “Come on then, Dante, old boy, I’m ready for you!” I returned to the Inferno (again in Kirkpatrick’s translation), this time not worrying about how a modern secular reader should interpret this account of Hell, but, rather, accepting for what it is – an extraordinarily vivid and colourful depiction of human follies and of vast, endless human suffering. Encouraged by this success, I moved on to the Purgatorio, again in Kirkpatrick’s translation. Here the theme was not so much human suffering, but human aspiration. It lacked something of the vividness and immediacy of Inferno, but I managed this one too. I didn’t, however, blog about it: I felt I hadn’t taken it in enough. I understood what the poem was about because I had read books and essays on what it was about, but were I to try to write about it, I’d end up merely regurgitating what I had taken in from secondary sources rather than what I had actually felt on reading it. For, truth to tell, I hadn’t really felt very much.

On the Paradiso, I hesitated. Even Danteans often say this is more for the specialist rather than for the general reader, and I was, to be honest, a bit intimidated. But I found myself buying Clive James’ translation of the entire Commedia recently (you know what it’s like when you walk into a bookshop and find yourself unable to resist!), and I thought I’d now give the whole thing a shot – Hell, Purgatory, Heaven – the works! And boy, was I right to have been apprehensive! There seemed to me a lack of what I’d call “human interest” – no tales of the lives these souls had led while on earth. And, perhaps rather surprisingly for a poet who had so powerful a visual imagination, neither was there much description, if any, of physical settings: we have, after all, outsoared the mere earth, and are drifting through the solar system into realms of the ethereal: no room for physicality here. Lights of different kinds play a major part, but there’s nothing solid, nothing for an earthy mind like mine to hold on to. I do not doubt its greatness: T. S. Eliot would hardly have been so ecstatic about it had it lacked greatness. But yes, I did find it extremely difficult, and – admit it I must – to my shame, I found my attention wandering.

But now I have read it. As Edmund Hilary famously said after conquering Everest, I’ve knocked the bastard off. At least I now know its contents. And the various bits of secondary literature I have read helps me understand, on a cerebral level, what it is all about. But I was far from feeling it, and poetry needs to be felt.

So, while I was struggling with the final cantos of Paradiso, I received the suggestion from Tom that we should have a go at the second part of Goethe’s Faust, and I accepted with alacrity.  I had read it before, of course, but, once again, hadn’t taken much out of it, but I did remember it possessing a vitality and an energy that the Paradiso seemed to me conspicuously to be lacking.

Now that I have finished both the Dante and the Goethe, I think I had best not blog on Dante (since I have not taken it in adequately); and as for Faust Part Two, I think I had best save that for another post. Not that I claim to have understood Goethe adequately either, but I do at least have a few things of my own to say about it – thoughts other than those gleaned from secondary literature. With Dante, I don’t.

So why did I read these books? In more general terms, why should we struggle with books where enjoyment, if it comes at all (and it doesn’t always), comes only after the expenditure of much effort? The standard answer, if online comments on these matters are anything to go by, is that we read such books merely to “show off”; but in a world in which erudition isn’t in general much valued, the expenditure of such effort to attain something which most people don’t really care about Anyway does seem remarkably pointless. No, I don’t think it’s to “show off” to a non-existent audience; I think, rather, that, having in the past experienced something, at least, of what literature at this level has to offer; and knowing just how stupendous the rewards of such literature can be; we feel that the effort put into works that have garnered so great a reputation across centuries is, to put it crudely, a good bet. These works, we tell ourselves, would hardly have garnered so immense a reputation if they didn’t have something immense to offer. Of course, it is true that we will not be able to take in everything: no-one can take in everything. But there is no reason not to try to take in what we can.

What we are capable of taking in is determined both by nature and by nurture. We have, each of us, our own individual temperament: my own temperament is such, perhaps, that it relishes more the human comedies of Shakespeare or of Cervantes than the divine comedy of Dante. But that part of our receptivity that is determined by our temperament, our nature, is not an unmovable constant: there is also nurture, and yes, we can most certainly nurture our minds – that is, to train our minds to take in, understand, and even enjoy that which previously we could not. And when we can do this, the enjoyment is immense. Unless, of course, we are to believe that only that which can be grasped immediately can truly be called enjoyment.

This seems to me something that many people I encounter online, who often describe themselves as teachers or as “educators”, seem unable (or unwilling) to understand: an education in literature is not about setting the children that to which they respond immediately: it is about nurturing their minds, so they become capable of responding to that which is more profound, more subtle, more complex – that which, for these very reasons, often resist immediate response, but which, once responded to, enrich our lives more, far more, than might initially have been thought possible. To actually campaign (as many are doing) to deprive children of such possible enrichment is deeply reprehensible. Indeed, it seems to me quite shameful.

And this, I think, is why I read Dante, despite my struggling with much of it, and despite my not getting too much out of it: I wanted to try to nurture my mind to try to get at least something of what so entrances so many other readers – readers whose intellect and whose discernment I respect. In short, I wanted some of what they are having. Even in my advanced years, as the long day wanes, ’tis not too late, I feel, to seek a newer world. I think I succeeded partially with Inferno, less partially with Purgatorio, and, I fear, not at all with Paradiso, but I am glad I made the effort. For if I hadn’t, how would I have known?

Of course, there are times when the best efforts of nurturing don’t quite succeed, and I fear my attempt with Dante is an example of that. Nature is sometimes too strong a force for nurture to overcome. But I’m not repining. When I think of all that I have absorbed (at least, up to a point); all that I have responded to (usually through having to work at it: these things are rarely spontaneous); I can only feel grateful. And grateful particularly to my schoolteachers who were happy to set me works by Shakespeare and by Keats instead of fobbing off with some vapid morality tale more “relevant”, as some ideologues nowadays may insist, to my background.

I may return to Dante some day if, now knowing what’s in the Commedia, I ever feel that I am ready to take it in. But I have the final third or so of Finnegans Wake still to read. Now, there’s a struggle! And of course, I’m continuing with the struggle purely to show off. So there.

“A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens

SPOILER WARNING: The following does not dwell upon the plot of A Tale of Two Cities, but inevitably, some elements of the plot are revealed.

It goes without saying, I know, that anyone is entitled to like whatever book they want, and for any reason they want, without having to answer to anyone for their preference; but nonetheless, I do, I admit, find it somewhat dispiriting when a writer I particularly admire is widely celebrated for a specific work that I don’t.

I last read A Tale of Two Cities in my teenage years, and, not thinking much of it at the time, haven’t returned to it since. However, I do enjoy reading a bit of Dickens around this time of the year, and, noticing that this novel is sandwiched (chronologically, that is) between Little Dorrit and Great Expectations, two novels I love deeply, thought it might be time to give it another chance. Surely a great novelist at the height of his powers would, at the very least, produce something that is not entirely without merit. So I picked it up, and started with that celebrated opening:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way …

Yes, those repeated rhythms build up a fine head of steam (“anaphora”, I believe it’s called); but they seem to serve no discernible purpose other than to start the work with an incantatory rhythm. And then, having come this far, Dickens seems to have no idea how to finish the sentence:

—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

What’s going on? Dickens normally had a splendid ear for the rhythms of the English language, but here, right in the opening sentence, having built up a rhythmic momentum, he lets it slip at the very end into bathos. Neither what he says at the end of that sentence, nor his manner of saying it, seems a fitting conclusion to the rhetoric that had come earlier.

I gather that Dickens was, personally, going through a bit of a bad time when writing this novel, but, as a reader, I don’t know that I can admit that as a mitigating factor. And anyway, whatever bad time he was going through, he seemed to have pulled himself together for Great Expectations, which was published just one year after this. But where Great Expectations seems to me among the finest examples of the novelist’s art, this, frankly, isn’t: even his rhetoric – an area in which he normally excelled – seems tired. It seems hard to avoid the conclusion that his heart just wasn’t in this one – that he was merely going through the motions.

Dickens is popularly known as a Great Storyteller, but it has long struck me that this was one of the things he wasn’t. In Oliver Twist, for instance (which I read this time a couple of years ago, and reported on here), he not only makes use of highly unlikely plot devices to move the novel on, he actually repeats them. But Oliver Twist had many elements to relish other than the plot: here, on the other hand, Dickens has up his sleeve a splendid plot, but his prodigious invention seems to have run dry: he has nothing to offer but the plot.

That wouldn’t in itself have been a problem if he had been adept at handling the plot: one imagines someone like Dumas, say, would have made a splendid job of a storyline like this. But Dickens had an imagination which soared when he didn’t have to focus on something so mundane as a storyline. Fagin has a life of his own that exists outside the demands of the plot, and he is tremendously vivid and memorable; Monks, in the same novel, is introduced purely to move the plot forward, and he is neither vivid nor memorable. In this novel, each character exists only in terms of the mechanics of the plot: none has an independent life outside that plot; and the results seem to me distinctly pallid.

In something such as, say, The Count of Monte Cristo, which, for me, is a masterpiece of pure storytelling, Dumas gives us only as much as we need to know about any character to make the plot believable (in its own terms, at least); he never gives us more, but he never gives us less either. Here, the plot depends almost entirely on Sydney Carton’s self-loathing, and on his passion for Lucie Manette. So, to make the plot believable, Dickens needs to tell us why Sydney Carton loathes himself, and why he is so passionately in love with Lucie. Dickens tells us neither. Sydney Carton is self-loathing simply because he is; Lucie inspires a passion in him simply because she does. These are brute facts that  need to be taken for given. But in the context of the story, that really doesn’t satisfy, especially as, with Lucie Manette, Dickens had returned to old habits that, in his immediately preceding novels at least, he had appeared to have left behind: she appears throughout pure and virginal (even after years of marriage), angelically good in everything, unfailingly meek and gentle, and in the habit of swooning every now and then when things get a bit rough. On the page, it becomes difficult to believe in her as a living, breathing character. And this makes Sydney Carton’s passion for her particularly unbelievable. One might as well fall in love with a ceramic doll.

Contrary to popular opinion on this matter, it isn’t as if Dickens wasn’t capable of portraying interesting female characters, or of portraying erotic obsession: in his very next novel, he does both, with a novelistic brilliance that still takes my breath away. Of course, Pip and Estella have about them an emotional complexity that would have been out of place here, but some depth of characterisation, at least enough to make the story credible, would have been more than welcome.

Even in small matters, things go wrong. For instance, consider the scene where Madame Defarge visits Lucie accompanied by a friend, and Dickens has to tell us explicitly who this friend is:

Both the women followed; the second woman being The Vengeance.

This is clumsy. The woman known as The Vengeance had been introduced earlier, and any decent storyteller would have given her at her first appearance a distinctive characteristic, and impressed that characteristic on the reader’s mind, so that when she later re-appears, the author would need only to mention that characteristic, and the reader will be able to pick up who is being referred to. This ain’t, as they say, rocket science. But even here, Dickens fails.

Similarly with the revelation of Madame Defarge’s relationship with the murdered peasants we hear of in Dr Manette’s story. Something like this should have been a climactic point in the tribunal scene, surely, rather than a passing detail revealed in a private conversation afterwards. One need not be a Master Storyteller to figure out something so obvious.

I won’t labour the point. There are many other such examples, small perhaps in themselves, but they all pile up, and point to the inescapable surmise that Dickens’ heart wasn’t in this, that he was merely going through the motions.

So are there any redeeming points? Well, I suppose the story remains good, even though it is not too well told. There is the occasional touch or two that suggests the author is capable of better, but frankly not much. And yes, the pace does pick up a bit in the third of this three act structure, but given how badly that pace had sagged in the middle act, that’s not really much of a compliment. There’s nothing here of the incidental humour, or of the gallery of colourful eccentrics and grotesques, that livens up even lesser Dickens novels. However, for all my strictures, it cannot be denied that, for Anglophone readers at least, it is this novel more than any other book, fiction or otherwise, that has fixed in the mind the image of the French Revolution. And I guess that’s no mean achievement.

But even taking that into consideration, in this instance, I think my estimate of some forty-five or so years ago remains intact: this really isn’t Dickens at his best. Or anywhere near.

But I shouldn’t complain. When you’re a completist like me, you take the misses with the hits. And Dickens did, after all, follow this up with Great Expectations, and then with Our Mutual Friend: when your favourite uncle has given you so many wonderful presents, it’s a bit churlish to complain about the odd dud or two.

It still leaves me puzzled, admittedly, on what his admirers see in this one, but to each his own, as they say!

(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.

“The Captain’s Daughter” by Alexander Pushkin

*** SPOILER WARNING: Inevitably the following will let slip a few details of the plot ***

It is generally thought that all one needs to do to get to grips with serious literature is to pick up seriously literary works and start reading. This is undoubtedly true up to a point: one must start somewhere, after all, and how does one start other than just picking up books and start reading them? But experience does make a difference: once one has read a bit, one does learn to read works with a mind more receptive to certain things. For instance, when I first read Pushkin’s The Captain’s Daughter, aged about sixteen or seventeen, and determined in my enthusiasm to gobble up everything I could find by nineteenth century Russian authors, I really didn’t make much of it. It seemed to me a rather drearily conventional story. Young man joins army, gets posted in the outposts, falls in love with his commanding officer’s daughter, and rescues her from danger once rebellion erupts and her parents are killed. Big deal, I thought. Where was Tolstoy’s epic sweep, Dostoyevsky’s anguished questionings, and all the rest of it? I put it aside respectfully: it was by the revered Pushkin, after all, and, no doubt, his greatness lay in poems which, as a non-Russian speaker, I didn’t have much access to back then. It is only now, over forty years later, that I have returned to The Captain’s Daughter, and … well, as I say, experience counts. It is still a story about young soldier in the outposts rescuing his beloved during a rebellion, but, I now find, seeing it as no more than that misses just about everything that is important.

We non-Russian-speaking enthusiasts of Russian literature do, I think, get a bit tired of being told that though we may rave about Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, it is Pushkin who is regarded as the supreme writer of the Russian literary tradition. We get a bit tired of this for a number of reasons. Firstly, what we read of Pushkin in English does not seem as thrilling or as exciting as the works of the Big Two. And secondly, we are, I think, implicitly enjoined to do something that most of us are too lazy to do – that is,  to learn Russian well enough to read their literature. And thirdly, Pushkin seems in many ways the very antithesis of all that we have come to see as typically Russian: he does not have the grotesque sense of humour of Gogol or of Dostoyevsky; he does not probe into the dark recesses of the mind as Dostoyevsky does, and explore the “big themes” of God and spirituality and the universe and all the rest of it;  he does not present us with the epic canvases of Tolstoy, seemingly peopled with the whole of humanity. In contrast to all this, there is a lightness about Pushkin’s works: his writing is clear, elegant, precise, even perhaps delicate, unencumbered with musings about the human soul; and his works are generally short. The Captain’s Daughter is more a novella than a novel, after all, taking up just a bit over a hundred pages. Great he no doubt is – we non-Russian speakers can hardly dispute the point with scholars who know the language – but it does seem a shame to hand the crown to someone who goes against all the preconceptions we have (and love) about what Russianness literature ought, at least, to be.

Certainly, The Captain’s Daughter begins fairly conventionally – the hero’s childhood on his parents’ country estate; his education (or, rather, lack of it) at the hands first of faithful family retainers, and later, of a drunken French tutor; his entry into the army and his posting in Southern Russia; his youthful extravagance and lack of judgement; and so on. And then, of course, he falls in love with the daughter of the commanding officer, the Captain’s Daughter of the title. The prose, in the translation I read (by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler), is exquisite (there is a fascinating essay towards the end of the volume in which the translators discuss the nature of Pushkin’s finely wrought prose, and the approach they had taken to find an equivalent in English); and the story moves along at a fine pace. But in terms of content, there is little to indicate anything much more than I had gleaned from my earlier reading all those years ago. But then, Pugachev’s rebellion breaks out. This was an actual historic event, which took place in the early 1770s, during the reign of Tsarina Catherine the Great: Pushkin had a particular interest in this rebellion, had done much first hand research on the topic, and had even written a history of it. In this novel, the rebellion erupts with shocking force. There is a particularly horrifying scene where a captured enemy combatant is brought in to be interrogated. Pushkin’s description of his appearance is, as ever, precise, and is unforgettable:

The Bashkir, his feet hobbled by a block of wood, stepped over the threshold with difficulty. Removing his tall hat, he stood in the doorway. I looked at him and shuddered. Never shall I forget the man. He must have been over seventy. He had no nose and no ears. His head was shaven and he had no beard, only a few grey hairs sprouting from his chin. He was short, thin and bent, but fire still gleamed in his narrow eyes.

The Captain has been presented as a mild and gentle man, kind to his subordinates and loving to his family, but duty is duty, and when the prisoner refuses to talk, he orders him to be whipped. And it is at this moment that the prisoner opens his mouth, and reveals that it was not just his ears and nose that had been cut off after the previous rebellion. It is a shocking moment

The fort is helpless against the attackers, and soon, Pugachev and his men are in charge. The Captain is hanged. His beloved wife, stripped naked, is also hanged. The daughter only escapes because she had been hidden by faithful servants. And our hero, Grinyov, survives because Pugachev, unexpectedly, spares him. We soon find out that Pugachev has recognised our hero. Earlier in the novel, when Grinyov and his faithful family retainer Savelich were making their way to their posting, they had become lost in a terrifying blizzard, and had only found refuge because a peasant had guided them to an inn; and Grinyov, in his youthful extravagance (and much to the disapproval of Savelich), had rewarded this peasant with his own hareskin coat. And this act of generosity Pugachev had not forgotten.

Not that Pugachev is by any means noble by nature: he is cruel and savage, as any warlord is. But the picture Pushkin presents of him, is just a few economical strokes of the brush, is exquisite. Pugachev, despite being a peasant, claims to be the rightful Tsar: he claims to be Peter III, husband of the Tsarina Catherine, whom Catherine had deposed (he was murdered soon after his deposition by Catherine’s men). He knows, of course, that his claim to be Tsar Peter isn’t true, but in the areas under his control, denying it is treason, and a hangable offence. He tells Grinyov a fable at one point of a raven and an eagle: the raven lives much longer than the eagle, but the eagle, after trying to live like a raven, decides that he prefers a shorter life living off live flesh than a longer life feeding off carrion. In brief, Pugachev probably knows that he will eventually be defeated; but rather that than live his entire life a peasant.

To Grinyov, Pugachev is what is known in the trade as a deus ex machina – a man who sets things right because he has the power to do so. But what is interesting here is not that he does this, but, rather, why he does this. To Grinyov he is effectively a second father, first sparing his life, then letting him return to his own side, and, later, when Grinyov returns to rescue his beloved, the captain’s daughter, setting her free himself, and uniting her with him. And he does this not because he is by nature kind and compassionate (we have seen for ourselves the atrocities he has committed), but because he has genuinely developed an affection for this young couple, and also, we suspect, because he is flattered by the image of himself as a kind and compassionate man – a father, as a Tsar should be, to his childlike subjects. And of course, we know all along that the captain’s daughter, Maria Ivanovna, is an orphan only because Pugachev himself had killed her parents.

The story could have ended with the eventual suppression of the rebellion, but Pushkin has an extra turn of the screw up his sleeve for the final chapter. This extra turn I had completely misread in my earlier reading: I had thought that the final chapter was only there to present the Tsarina Catherine in a good light. I couldn’t have been further from the truth. Grinyov, after a miscarriage of justice, is deemed to have been a collaborator with Pugachev, and is exiled; and now, it is the turn of the captain’s daughter, now his wife, to become the saviour. And she does not save him directly, any more than Grinyov had saved her directly: she appeals to the Tsarina Catherine, and it she who saves Grinyov by graciously overturning the sentence. Another deus ex machina. But we may look a bit more deeply into this. If Pugachev’s earlier role as the deus ex machina was morally ambiguous, should we take this one at face value? Although Pushkin doesn’t mention it in his narrative, Catherine had become Tsarina only after deposing her husband, who was later murdered, possibly on Catherine’s own instructions. Is her claim to the throne, to power, any more secure than Pugachev’s? Pugachev, of course, was cruel and brutal, but was the side he was fighting against any less so? We remember, after all, the old man who had had his ears, nose and tongue ripped off. And if Pugachev had been flattered by the image of himself as a gracious father to his subjects, could something similar not be, at least in part, Catherine’s motivation also? The parallels between Pugachev and Catherine seemed to me so obvious on this reading that I am astonished this novel had got past the censors. But maybe I am looking for things that aren’t really there, and maybe Pushkin’s ending is, as I had thought all those years ago, merely decorative, intended to highlight the graciousness and mercy of a great Empress, and nothing more. Maybe.  

This is an adventure story where there really is no adventure; while the hero Grinyov is certainly brave, he doesn’t have to do anything, as such, to rescue his damsel in distress: Pugachev does all that for him. And the resolution in the final chapter also comes about not because the hero or heroine had to do much, but because the Empress sorts everything out for the better. As an adventure story, it is, in truth, pretty lame. But with experience, one learns to look a bit further, and what one then sees is a work of art of considerable moral and psychological complexity, but executed with an ease – or, at least, an apparent ease – that belies its depths.

Some reflections on “Rebecca”, “Jane Eyre”, and Meatloaf

I’ll do anything for love – but I won’t do that.
– Meatloaf

I tend to find “spoiler warnings” a bit silly. If I am going to talk about a work of fiction, then of course I’ll be mentioning certain elements of the plot! But still, given the complaints I get when I don’t issue such a warning, I prefer to err on the side of safety in these matters. Even when I am writing about Ibsen plays. Who, for heaven’s sake, would watch (or read) an Ibsen play for the sake of the “plot”? As if it mattered! But clearly, some do. And there are certain works where the plot really does matter, and for these, it is as well to issue a Spoiler Warning – as I do here. Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca is one such work. And Jane Eyre too, I think. So if you haven’t read Jane Eyre or Rebecca, or not seen any of the various adaptations, it would probably be best to give this post a miss. There! Now the obligatory throat-clearing is done, we can get started on the post proper.

Rebecca, like Jane Eyre, to which it is consciously a homage, is a sort of mash-up of two well-known fairy tales, “Cinderella” and “Bluebeard’s Castle”, and each poses the rather uncomfortable question “What if Prince Charming turned out to be Bluebeard?” Addressing this question requires a rather delicate balance between Prince Charming and Bluebeard. In Jane Eyre, Mr Rochester, when Jane first meets him, has many characteristics that would be perfectly consistent with a Bluebeard: he is rough in his manners, and is blustering; his past, by his own account, has been far from blameless; and he speaks of the women in his life with a sort of disdain, as if they were no more than objects. He has, indeed, the various unpleasant characteristics that come so easily to a young man with sufficient wealth and leisure to have all worldly vices within easy reach.

Despite all this, Jane falls in love with him, thus incurring the wrath of many modern readers who like their heroines to be kickass, and to sock one to the patriarchy. However, love is blind, as we all know, and Jane falls for this big, blustering bag of patriarchal tropes. Even after they are engaged, Mr Rochester seems to treat Jane as if she were a doll for him to dress up. And then, of course, on the very day of the wedding, he really is revealed to be a Bluebeard – of sorts, at least: his secret chamber houses his former wife, still living, but insane. He pleads with Jane to remain as his unmarried mistress, and it costs Jane a tremendous effort to resist this temptation: she would do anything for love – but she won’t do that. She sacrifices her desires to placate her moral sense.

Later in the novel, Jane is presented with another temptation, very different and very subtle, when St John Rivers asks her to marry him, and accompany him to India, where he is to bring Christianity to the benighted heathens. Here, the temptation is that of sainthood – of denying her desires to serve what, in those days, would certainly have been considered morality. But Jane resists this also, and returns to Mr Rochester. Now, he is blind and helpless: he is, indeed, Samson from Milton’s poem Samson Agonistes, a man in despair, in a darkness that is more than just literal, and, furthermore, aware that it is his own sinfulness that has led him to this pass. The lines given him seem quite reminiscent of Milton:

But I always woke and found it an empty mockery; and I was desolate and abandoned—my life dark, lonely, hopeless—my soul athirst and forbidden to drink—my heart famished and never to be fed.  

And here are the closing lines of Milton’s sonnet “Methought I saw my late espoused saint”:

But O as to embrace me she enclin’d
I wak’d, she fled, and day brought back my night.

Now that the more unpleasant elements of his character have vanished, there remains a Prince Charming – albeit a very broken and very vulnerable Prince Charming – whom Jane can now accept without angering even the most censorious of ideologues: the patriarchy has been kicked well and truly into touch.

Of course, there had been indications throughout of an essentially decent man underneath it all: we are told, for instance, that Mr Rochester’s domestic staff are well paid and well treated, and that local people wanted to work at Thornfield Hall; despite Rochester’s bluster, no-one seems intimidated by him, and the housekeeper Mrs Fairfax thinks the world of hm; and, though Jane herself is in every way in a subservient position, Rochester, far from treating her like a menial, engages with her in conversation with a disarming openness. Even the revelation of the mad wife in the attic is not entirely to Rochester’s disadvantage: he could easily have deposited her into one of those unimaginable hell-holes where people considered to be out of their minds were left to rot, but, instead of doing that, he had lodged her under his own roof, and had her looked after as best he could. There is quite clearly a decent man at the core of this seemingly unattractive personality, but this decent man has to come out into the open, and the Bluebeard elements relinquished, before he could be worthy of Jane.

In Rebecca, it’s all a bit different. The first act of the novel, set in Monte Carlo, is unambiguously Cinderella, complete with a wicked stepmother. A young girl, downtrodden, presented as very ordinary in every way, attracts against the odds the attentions of a dashing and eligible aristocrat, and is swept off her feet to become the lady of a great stately home. It seems almost the epitome of every romantic story ever written: Cinderella gets her Prince Charming. But this is only the first act of a five-act drama, and once the second act starts, shades of Bluebeard start closing in upon Prince Charming. And here, the Bluebeard comparison isn’t merely figurative: he really had killed his former wife. (In Hitchcock’s film adaptation, this rather important detail had to be changed, but it is quite unambiguous in the novel: Maxim de Winter had murdered Rebecca.) And the unnamed narrator, without the slightest hesitation, without the slightest compunction, quite happily becomes an accessory after the fact. Till Maxim confesses to her his guilt, she had imagined her husband still to be in love with the dead Rebecca, the beautiful, charismatic woman with whom she cannot hope to compete; but the revelation that he had hated her, and that it is she, not Rebecca, whom he loves, lifts a great weight off her mind; and she seals this declaration of love (for that is what the confession, in effect, is) the only way she can: she shares his guilt, even guilt for a crime so terrible as this. She will do anything for love. Even that.

For the guilt is indeed terrible. Maxim had cold-bloodedly shot an unarmed woman who was not even attempting to defend herself; and he had killed also (as far as he is aware at the time) her unborn child. There wass no remorse, either immediately afterwards, nor later: he had, very deliberately and methodically, cleaned up the mess, and got rid of the body. Daphne du Maurier uses all her considerable skills as a narrator to weigh the scales in favour of Maxim and of his second wife, the unnamed narrator: Rebecca certainly had been a really nasty piece of work, and those characters ranged now against the de Winters – the sinister housekeeper Mrs Danvers, and Rebecca’s cousin and lover, the coarse and bumptious Jack Favell – are presented are horrendous, despicable people. But the fact remains: Maxim de Winter is a cold-blooded killer, and his second wife, knowing full the facts, is an accessory.

And yet, Rebecca is still widely regarded as, essentially, a romantic story – perhaps, even, as an archetypal romantic story, as the downtrodden, mousy woman (with whom we are all encouraged to empathise) gets her Prince Charming, against all odds. And in a sense, it is an archetypal romantic story. But it is the tale of Bluebeard’s Castle lurking beneath the tale of Cinderella that gives it such a powerful frisson. The novel ends with the destruction of Manderley, but also with the assurance that Cinderella and Prince Charming are very much in love with each other, and are likely to live happily ever after – the perfect end, one might have thought, to a perfect romantic story. But if we cast our minds back to the second chapter of the novel, we remember a somewhat different picture. There, we had seen the second Mrs de Winter and Maxim living out dull, dreary lives in small hotels in France, trying desperately to avoid anything that may bring back their past, and avoiding especially large hotels so as not to meet with people who may recognise them. If we bring our memories of this early chapter to the final chapters of the novel, the pieces fit in a most disconcerting manner: Maxim, at the end of the novel, is, it is true, legally cleared of any wrongdoing; but he is told by the local magistrate Colonel Julyan – who himself has possibly pieced out the truth – that he will do what he can to prevent gossip. It is certainly clear to Colonel Julyan that a legal verdict can have but limited effect, at best, on what people may think, or even, in private, may say. It is no wonder that, afterwards, Maxim and his wife live almost like fugitives, trying their best to avoid anyone who might recognise them.

None of this indicates a happy and romantic ending. Maxim and the second Mrs de Winter are indeed close to each other, but the ties between them are not merely the ties of love: they are the ties also of a terrible shared guilt.

It is to Jane Eyre we must go to for a truly romantic ending. Jane too would do anything for love – but she stops short of sharing Mr Rochester’s guilt: she wouldn’t do that. Rebecca, though written in a prose style that, in comparison with Charlotte Brontë’s, can often appear merely functional, and sometimes even bland, seems to me a more disquieting work. It is certainly not the Cinderella story that, on the surface at least, it claims to be.

“When We Dead Awaken” by Henrik Ibsen

*** SPOILER WARNING: The following post inevitably reveals some of the plot details of this play, and so, if such things are important to you (they needn’t be), it is possibly best not to read this post till you’ve read or seen the play for yourself.  

All quoted passages are taken from the translation by Barbara Haveland and Anne-Marie Stanton-Ife, published by Penguin Classics

IRENE: When we dead awaken.
RUBEK [ shakes his head sadly] Yes, and what do we see then?
IRENE: We see that we have never lived.

Ibsen subtitled his play “A Dramatic Epilogue”, but what it is an epilogue to he left unclear. As, indeed, he did so much of the play. It could be an epilogue of the series of plays he wrote after finally returning to Norway in 1891, that is, from The Master Builder onwards. It could be an epilogue to the series of twelve prose plays from The Pillars of Society onwards – the twelve plays that he had himself referred to as a cycle. Or maybe we can cast the net even further back, and include the verse plays Brand and Peer Gynt that he had written in the 1860s.

Neither is it particularly clear what precisely Ibsen had meant by “epilogue”. Did he mean a conclusion to the series? Or did he mean an addition once the series had already been completed – a sort of afterthought?

From The Pillars of Society onwards, Ibsen had published a new play every two years, regular as clockwork (the only exception being An Enemy of the People, which he had written in one year): this last play had taken him three years, and, shortly after completion, he had suffered a severe and debilitating stroke. The internal evidence of the text suggests that what we have is an unfinished play: the last of the three acts is surprisingly short, and while it wraps up the two strands of the plot, this third act, very uncharacteristically for Ibsen, takes us thematically no further than where we had been at the end of the second.  It isn’t hard to infer that Ibsen could sense his health failing, and finished it as best he could.

To my mind, this final play, unfinished as it probably is, is an epilogue in the sense that it is the conclusion of a long series, and, indeed, of a long journey.  If we think of this journey as starting with The Pillars of Society, we may see it as a passage from the hurly-burly of day-to-day life to the mysterious and elusive regions of death. But if we cast our nets back further, and see Brand and Peer Gynt as the starting point of that journey, we may see this epilogue as returning to where he had started: for much of the time here, we are not in the real, material world, but, as in his verse plays, in a world of poetry and of symbols. (Michael Meyer said that, as a translator, he would have preferred this play to have been written in verse, as so much of its content seemed to him to lend itself to poetic metre). And as in Brand, this play too ends with a seemingly divine voice of forgiveness as the protagonist is overwhelmed by an avalanche high in the mountains: it is hard to believe that this striking similarity is merely accidental.

But no matter how we may choose to view this play, it has never found much acclaim. It is rarely revived, and, as late as 1980, Michael Meyer was complaining (in the preface to his translation) that “it has never been adequately staged in London”. It wasn’t much admired at the time either: after publication in 1899, Ibsen’s English translator, William Archer, wrote in a private letter that “it is scabrous to a degree – if it weren’t like deserting the Old Man, ’pon my soul, I’d let someone else translate it”. He also said, again privately, that it seemed like evidence of senility on Ibsen’s part.

The play was, admittedly, admired at the time by Bernard Shaw, who found in it “no decay of Ibsen’s highest qualities” (although it is interesting that he felt compelled specifically to reject that criticism); and also by a young James Joyce, who thought it among Ibsen’s greatest works, “if not, indeed, the greatest”. But generally, it is a play that tends only dutifully to be admitted to the canon, a somewhat disappointing finale to whatever it is that it’s an epilogue to. It is granted almost a grudging acknowledgement as the last work of a great writer, but it seems not to have stirred the imagination as the earlier plays have done. While there is a stream of actors and actresses queuing to play Stockmann and Solness and Borkman, Nora and Rebecca and Hedda, Rubek and Irene remain, in contrast, barely known.

Perhaps it is not too hard to discern why this play is so unloved. There is, about this play, a curious lack of solidity. Even other difficult plays, such as, say, The Master Builder, for all their poetic imagery and the symbolism, are very recognisably set in a real world, and the characters are beset by real worldly concerns. But here, for much of the time, especially in the dialogues between Rubek and Irene, the dialogue is barely intelligible at all in terms of reality. Throughout the series from The Pillars of Society onwards, Ibsen had been moving steadily from a real world to one that was more poetic, more mythic, but reality had never completely disappeared: but here, that is just what it seems to do. In writing about the previous play, John Gabriel Borkman, I had suggested that in the final act, the three protagonists are already dead, and what we see played out on stage is a sort of dream of spirits set in some vague hinterland beyond life. However, it is still possible to see it as real action in a real world. But in this play, even that possibility seems to disappear – and it is perhaps not surprising that the most disappointed reactions to this play tend to come from those who try to see it primarily in realistic terms. We are in a shadowland here: Irene specifically describes herself as dead, and it is not clear that she means it merely as a metaphor; Rubek, too, is most likely dead; indeed, the very title of the play tells us they are dead. There is about the play an ethereal, rarefied, fleshless quality that seems to hold both the audience and the reader at a distance. No wonder Ibsen referred to this play as an “epilogue”: where, after all, was it possible to go beyond this?

The scene locations are always important in Ibsen’s plays. In Hedda Gabler, for instance, it is important that all four of its claustrophobic acts are set in Hedda’s drawing room. But generally, in the later plays of the series, we tend to break out of the bourgeois drawing room. In the three plays previous to this one – The Master Builder, Little Eyolf, John Gabriel Borkman – the action had moved, significantly, from the confines of the drawing room to the open, unconfined spaces outside. In Little Eyolf, there had also been a vertical movement – first, from the drawing room down to the shore of the fjord, and then, for the final act, up high above the fjord, and above the house. This descent, and then the ascent, had reflected the mental states prevalent in each of the three acts. In When We Dead Awaken, all three acts are set outside, and, once again, we have a vertical movement, but this time, we are constantly ascending. In the first act, we are, as the stage directions tell us, “outside a spa hotel”. In the second, we are “at a sanatorium high up in the mountain”. In the third and final act, spa hotel and sanatorium both disappear:

Wild, high mountain ravine with sheer precipices in the background. Snow-capped peaks rise to the right and are lost in the floating mist high above.

We are very far here from the stuffy drawing room bourgeois drama that Ibsen is still associated with. The physical movement of the drama, as implied by the stage directions, takes us away from everyday life into something far more elemental. And one wonders to what extent these stage directions describe not so much what we may see on stage, but, rather, landscapes of the mind. For, as Peter Watts points out in the introduction to his translation (in the older Penguin Classics edition), Ibsen, as a practical man of the theatre, must surely have known it would be impossible to depict on stage a stream upon which characters float leaves or flowers, or children playing in the distance. Neither could he have expected he stage directions at the end of the play to be realised in performance:

The clouds of mist sink more densely over the landscape. Rubek, holding Irene’s hand, climbs up over the snowfield to the right and soon disappears among the lower clouds. Biting stormblasts thrust and howl to the air … Suddenly, a thunderous roar is heard up in the snowfield, which slides and hurtles down at furious speed. Rubek and Irene are indistinctly glimpsed as they are hurled along in the mass of snow, and are buried by it.

Perhaps modern stagecraft can handle all this, but certainly in Ibsen’s own time, it was a tall order. Which seems rather to suggest that Ibsen was not writing with the theatre in mind, but, as with Brand and Peer Gynt, he was intent more upon creating a theatre of the mind – something to be imagined rather than realised in actuality. It’s not that he necessarily intended this to be closet drama: rather, he wanted us to imagine, to play over in our minds, that which could not be realised in reality. And it is much the same with the drama itself: it demands that we imaginatively enter Ibsen’s poetic world. If we insist on tying it down to reality, we are bound to be disappointed.

And yet, the opening scene would not be out of place in any of the earlier realistic plays. The whole thing starts off with a scene that promises a drama rather different from what subsequently unfolds. In the grounds of the spa hotel, sits Rubek, an elderly and distinguished sculptor, and his much younger wife Maja. And, in the course of what is really quite a short and naturalistic dialogue between them, the entire story of the marriage is laid out. One can understand why Shaw, no stranger himself to the art of drama, declared that this play “shews no decay” in Ibsen’s artistry: had Ibsen wanted to write a strictly realistic drama, he was still more than capable of doing so.

And yet, we don’t need to look too far into this apparently realistic dialogue to catch intimations of deeper matters. Almost he first words spoken by Maja are: “Just listen to how silent it is here!” She finds the silence “overwhelming”. Soon, their relationship is laid bare. They have been married for “four or five years” now. He is a distinguished man, honoured and feted – a sculptor, internationally renowned. She, much younger, is, in effect, almost a sort of “trophy wife”. Although there is no acrimony between the two, there is not much evidence of warmth either. They have a villa somewhere in the foothills of the Alps – which Maja insists on referring to as a “house” rather than as a “home”; and whatever it is they had been looking for in the marriage, neither has found it. The history of their marriage is laid out in symbolic terms as they speak in realistic terms of their train journey into Norway, back “home”:

RUBEK: I noticed how silent it became when we stopped at all the little stations – . I heard the silence – just like you, Maja –
MAJA: Hm – yes, just like me.
RUBEK: – and then I realized we’d crossed the border. That we really were home. Because the train would stop and wait at all the little stations, even though there were no passengers.
MAJA: Why did it wait for so long? When there was nothing there?
RUBEK: Don’t know. No passengers left the train, no-one boarded.

Four or five years of marriage, of uneventful monotony, no-one coming or going, and hearing only the overwhelming silence.

Maja is bored. She had not wanted to come “traipsing” up here, she says, and has to be reminded that it was she who had wanted to make this trip. And she has noticed that Rubek is restless, and can no longer settle his mind on his work.

As a sculptor, he had made his name with a piece he called Resurrection Day. On that, he had worked day and night. And it is a masterpiece, he insists, with a vehemence that doesn’t quite suggest confidence:

… because Resurrection Day is a masterpiece! Or was, at first. No, it still is. And it shall, shall, shall be a masterpiece!

It is acclaimed by the whole world, but the “whole world”, Rubek insists, “knows nothing! Understands nothing!” They are but the mob and the masses. Since that work, Rubek has settled for sculpting portrait busts for wealthy clients. But what they do not know is that, despite the strictly realist exteriors, Rubek had, for his own satisfaction, worked in, “under the skin”, features of animals.

The picture that emerges of Rubek is not a very attractive one. He is a man utterly immersed in his own ego, contemptuous of humanity around him, seeing others as mere beasts. And, despite the fame and fortune he has won, he is uncertain of his own worth: both his fame and fortune, after all, derives from the “mob” that he despises – that knows and understands nothing – mere beasts.

When he had married Maja, he had, she reminds him, promised to take her to the top of a mountain, and show her “the glory of the world”. He is now surprised he had said that to her, and confesses, quite unashamedly, that it was merely an old catchphrase of his, one that he had said that before to others: whatever glory of the world he had believed in, it means nothing to him now. Perhaps he had never quite believed it himself.

All this Maja hears, and, so the stage directions tell us, she looks at him bitterly. But she is far from distraught. Rubek’s honesty in admitting all this is brutal; that he can admit this so openly to Maja suggests that, in his all-consuming egotism, he doesn’t really care what she may feel. And she, having lived with him for four or five years, isn’t really surprised. When he asks her teasingly if she is offended, she (“coldly, not looking up”) answers “No, not in the least”. Why should she be?

It is at this point that the drama, somewhat abruptly, moves to a different plane. A new element is introduced almost as if it were a ghost story – and, as we soon find out, it is, in a sense, a ghost story. The previous night, Rubek had seen, or thought he had seen, at a distance, passing through the grounds of the hotel, a pale lady dressed in white, and a small dark figure behind her. The manager of the spa solves this apparition easily: it is one of the guests, accompanied by a “Diakonisse” (which as is explained in the notes of the latest Penguin edition, is “a woman in charge of the social work of a Lutheran parish”). Michael Meyer and Peter Watts refer to her as a “nun” in theor traslations, but this suggests the Catholic rather than a Lutheran church; Barbara Haveland and Anne-Marie Stanton-Ife, translators of the new Penguin edition, refer to her, no doubt more accurately though perhaps a bit more awkwardly, as a Sister of Mercy. As soon as the manager has explained the apparitions, we see them ourselves, walking across the back of the stage, crossing across the park towards the pavilion. Almost immediately, another figure enters, a figure as earthy and as physical as the pale lady had been ghostly – Ulfheim, a somewhat brash and bumptious squire, who is out bear-hunting. His presence injects into the play a rough vitality that had, till now, been missing, and Maja, fascinated by his bear-hunting stories, is instantly attracted. Soon, Rubek is left alone on stage (Maja having most happily left with the bear-hunter Ulfheim), and he is joined by the pale lady in white. The two had recognised each other.

The introduction of Ulfheim so soon after the appearance of the ghostly pale lady brings to the proceedings a somewhat schematic symmetry that warns us not to take what we see too literally: this is not a naturalistic drama. And soon, once Rubek is left on his own, the mysterious lady joins him. They had known each other before. And whatever indication of realism we had been given till now vanishes in the scene that now unfolds.

This scene, which takes up most of the latter part of the first act, is impossible to summarise: in dramatic terms, it couldn’t be more different from the realistic scene we had had seen earlier between Rubek and Maja. This lady’s name is Irene: it was she who had modelled for Rubek’s Resurrection Day, the masterpiece that had made his name, and which, he vehemently insists, is, and must be, a masterpiece. But she states quite explicitly, right at the start of the scene, that she is dead, and I am not sure we shouldn’t take her literally: she may indeed be a ghost. Since she had known Rubek, she says, she had married twice: she had driven her first husband mad, and had murdered the second (“with a fine, sharp dagger I always take to bed with me”). She had had many children, she tells us, but she had murdered them too. She had stood naked on a revolving stage in variety shows, in tableaux vivants; she had been committed to a lunatic asylum, bound in a strait-jacket. And now, she insists, she is dead.

How much of this are we to take literally? Ibsen doesn’t help us. But at this point of the play, after the naturalistic opening scene, we feel the ground very noticeably shifting beneath us, and we aren’t sure quite where we stand. Or, indeed, if we stand at all.

And, as Hilde had done to Solness, and Ella Rentheim to Borkman, Irene accuses Rubek. The love she had offered him then, when she had posed for him and let him gaze upon her naked form, he had never returned. He had never so much as acknowledged that love. He used here merely for what he needed.

RUBEK [defensively]: I never committed any sin against you! Never, Irene!
IRENE: Yes, you did! You sinned against my innermost being!

We may be remined here of Ella Rentheim’s accusing Borkman of the sin for which there is no forgiveness.

In a realistic drama, we would have expected Rubek simply to have dismissed Irene as some sort of madwoman: after all, he was an artist and she a model, and that’s all there is to it. But, for reasons we may only guess at, Rubek doesn’t dismiss her. He, like Solness, is stricken with guilt. We have seen Rubek consumed by his own ego, and locked in a loveless marriage; the humanity around him he holds in contempt – depicting others merely as beasts; in his calling, he had not so much brought stones to life, but had turned the warmth of humanity itself into stone – into something less than human. The charge he now faces, of having rejected a love hat had been offered him, of – as Ella Rentheim had put it in the previous play – killing the love in another being, he cannot now dismiss. None of this may make much sense on a strictly realistic level, but we are in a dream play now.

As the curtain goes down on Act One, we may feel somewhat disoriented: what kind of play is this, really? It seems a play divided: the realism with which it opens doesn’t so much modulate into a dream: rather, the realistic element and the dreamlike element are almost brutally juxtaposed right next to each other.

And the second act doesn’t really clarify matter either. The stage directions tell us that there are children playing in the distance, and throughout this act, we can hear their happy laughter. It seems almost like a vision of a prelapsarian paradise, or maybe the Elysian fields we may go to once we too, like Irene, are dead. We are, admittedly, a bit higher up the mountain, but are we still in the real world? The opening scene of this second act may suggest that we are (as before, the first part of this act is dominated by a realistic scene between Rubek and Maja); but the second part consists of a scene between Rubek and Irene, and here, all semblance to reality seems to vanish. We have to take this as a sort of dream play: it makes little sense to consider it otherwise.

The scene between Rubek and Maja is, however, in a realist mode, and it serves but to confirm the impression we had received of Rubek as a narcissist. He had, as we know, told Maja that he would take her to the top of a mountain and show her “the glory of the world”, but, as he had admitted, without any embarrassment at all, that was just a pat formula he had been in the habit of using: he had not meant it seriously. He had married her, effectively, to be served by her. But Maja is no mere cipher in the play: she refuses the task allotted her:

RUBEK [somewhat uncertain]: What I now feel so vividly – and so painfully – that I need, is to have someone around me who is genuinely close to me –
MAJA [interrupts him tensely]: Aren’t I, Rubek?
RUBEK [dismissively]: Not in that sense. I need to live with another human being who can complement me – complete me – be one with me in everything I do.
MAJA [slowly]: Yes, I wouldn’t be much help to you in those difficult things.
RUBEK: No, you’d make sure you weren’t, Maja.
MAJA [in an outburst]: God knows, I wouldn’t really want to be!

Rubek, self-absorbed, can see Maja only insofar as she serves him, or is capable of serving him, but Maja is having none of that. She can sense that Rubek has more of a relationship with the mysterious pale lady than he does with her, and she doesn’t in the least resent it, any more than Rubek resents Maja being attracted to Ulfheim, the bear-hunter. They are both honest about where they are: it is too late in the day for jealousy.

Rubek is aware of some deficiency in his own self, of some vast, empty chasm. His Resurrection Day sculpture had bought him fame and wealth and public acclaim, but by then, he no longer loved his own work. “Those public homages and those bouquets left me,” he says, “left me nauseated and desperate, and nearly drove me deep into the darkest forests.” But Maja has had some four or five years of hearing Rubek talk about himself: she doesn’t even pretend to be interested.

And then, as in the first act, the very realistic scene between Rubek and Maja is followed b a scene between Rubek and the ghost-like Irene, and, once again, we are in a different world, where the rules of everyday life seem no longer to apply. They speak again, as they must, of the time when Irene had posed for him, and had been his inspiration. That sculpture, Resurrection Day, Irene refers to as their “child”, just as, in Hedda Gabler, Thea had referred to Loevborg’s writing as their “child”. But this child did not turn out as Irene had thought. What she had posed for was a figure of a girl, bright and young and fresh, awakening to a new day, with a “transfiguring joy of light” upon her face: this was the Resurrection Day that she had thought of as her child: it was a sculpture of hope, of idealism. But then, afterwards, Rubek had coldly thanked her, and referred to their entire relationship as an “episode”. Which, in a realistic world, it is, but we aren’t in a realistic world any more, and we are asked to accept that in this dream world, Rubek’s cold indifference to her had sucked out her very soul, and left her spiritually dead.

We cannot be sure what exactly had occurred between the two in the real world. Ibsen is concerned here with poetic imagery, not with the mere mechanics of the plot. But whatever had happened, Irene had offered him love, and life, and he had turned them down. And after she had left, Rubek had turned against the idealism that he had initially depicted: he had enlarged the plinth, and had moved to the background the figure of the young girl  awakening to a new day with the transfigured light of joy on her face; and around this figure, he had placed others – other people, with “animal faces  concealed beneath the skin”. And in the front of what is now a group, he had placed himself, “a guilt-marked man who cannot quite free himself from the earth’s crust”.

It is at this point that Irene draws a knife, and is about to strike – to kill him as she had, so she says, killed her second husband, and all her children. And if that was metaphorical, then, perhaps, this is too: there seems no ground rules whereby we may interpret the dramatic action. But she puts her knife away. Back then, she remembers, Rubek had promised her too that he would take her to the top of a mountain, and show her the glory of the world. Perhaps, back then, before it had become but an empty catchphrase, he really had believed that. But now, Irene reminds him of that old promise, and they decide to do just that. When we dead awaken, Irene says, we shall find we have never lived.

One wonders how Ibsen had intended to write to third act. What we have now is but a few almost perfunctory pages that complete the plot, such as it is.  The second act had ended with Maja, now determined to leave Rubek for Ulfheim, singing like some Ariel of her new-found freedom. But Rubek and Irene, who are now both dead (maybe Irene did kill him after all!), head for the mountain-top, perhaps to Resurrection Day, and perhaps to see the glory of all the world.

Most of the third act, as it currently is, concerns Maja and her new partner Ulfheim. Maja has at last found the freedom she wants, and, in the brief scene between them, she shows herself more than capable of holding her own with her new chosen partner. One suspects that Ibsen had planned after this a long scene between Rubek and Irene, before they head willingly to their deaths – or, perhaps, to their resurrection, since they are already dead. But this scene is now cut to only a few lines. Although they know there is a storm coming, they head upwards, to the mountain top. And as they are inevitably overcome by the avalanche, the Sister of Mercy who had accompanied Irene speaks over their deaths a Latin benediction – “Pax vobiscum” (“peace be upon you”); and meanwhile, in the background, we hear Maja sing her song of freedom.

***

It is not hard to see why this very strange play has not won the acclaim of Ibsen’s earlier plays. This strange mix of the realism and the dream play, with the abrupt swings between the two modes, gives it, as it were, two dramatic centres of gravity, and the two remain in contention with each other to the very end, as the pax vobiscum blends with Maja’s singing from below. At one level, we are, with Maja and Ulfheim, very much in the land of the living; at the other, we are, even more certainly than in the final act of John Gabriel Borkman, in the company of those who are already dead. And yet, this contention between these two worlds is surely what Ibsen had intended.

More puzzling still is the content. Put simply and crudely, it concerns a man who is, in the eyes of the world, a great success, but who feels an emptiness inside, because, despite having been offered both life and love, he had rejected them; and who is finally persuaded by her whom he had rejected that he is as dead as she is, and that he may only redeem himself by looking towards a resurrection. All this is fine and dandy till we ask ourselves what all this actually means. What would have happened had Rubek not rejected Irene? A life of happy domesticity? Once we dead awaken, we find out that we have never lived; but what does it mean to truly live? For Maja and for Ulfheim, the answer is simple enough: but could such an answer have sufficed for Rubek or for Irene? In The Ambassadors, another late masterpiece by another Henry, and published only some four years after When We Dead Awaken, the middle-aged Strether, approaching old age, tells the young people around him simply “to live”, but he never quite articulates what he means by that – most certainly because he does not know himself. All he knows, and all we can know as we get older, is that there is inside us an emptiness, and a vague sense that there is something we have missed, something we have left undone, and which we cannot rectify even if we had the chance to go back and live our lives all over again, because we wouldn’t even know how to rectify it.

And what is it that Irene and Rubek so joyfully go to at the end? They speak of Resurrection. The entire play speaks of Resurrection, and is awash with religious imagery. And yet, there is no mention of God: the play had begun with an overwhelming silence, and, once the roar of the avalanche has passed, we are left again with that vast silence. Is it really redemption these two head towards? – a redemption that may finally fill that emptiness that we have carried within us? Or is it merely annihilation? The Sister of Mercy pronounces pax on them, but it is unclear whether this is the pax that follows redemption, or merely the pax of nothingness.

Perhaps even more than Rosmersholm or The Master Builder, When We Dead Awaken remains Ibsen’s most difficult and most elusive play. Despite the pax vobiscum of the Sister of Mercy, his “dramatic epilogue” does not end in peace or in harmony: it ends instead with more questions than we could possibly answer – more, perhaps, than we could even articulate.