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“Ghosts” 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, 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 Deborah Dawkin and Erik Skuggevik, published by Penguin Classics

 

The stage directions for the first of the three acts tell us:

Through the conservatory windows a gloomy fjord landscape can be seen, veiled by steady rain.

We’re in the same location for the second act, and the stage directions tell us:

A rainy mist still lies heavily over the landscape.

The location remains unchanged in the third and final act also, and now, we are in the depths of night:

The lamp is still burning on the table. It is dark outside apart from a faint glow to the left in the background.

The sun does begin to rise in the final moments of the play, but what we see on stage as the sun rises is a scene of unmitigated horror: the rising of the sun brings with it no renewal. Quite the opposite.

It is hard to think of another play quite so unremittingly bleak and sombre as Ghosts. Even Long Day’s Journey into Night had begun in the light of day. The English title, Ghosts, is evocative, but Ibsen’s original Norwegian title is perhaps even more powerful: Gengangere means – so the notes to my Penguin Classics edition tell me – “something that or someone who walks again”. It is about the Past that refuses to stay in the past, that poisons the Present, and crushes the joy out of our lives.

This crushing of the Joy of Life is here a major theme. It is, ironically, Pastor Manders who introduces the motif of the Joy of Life early in the play, when he thinks back on the late Captain Alving:

As a young man, he was certainly full of the joys of life.

But to Manders, this is no more than a ready-made expression: he does not think too deeply on what it may signify. But Mrs Alving’s son, Osvald, recently returned from Paris, seizes upon it:

Yes, the joy of life, Mother – no-one knows much about that here at home. I never feel it here.

The word used in the original Norwegian is livsglad, a compound word, meaning (as, once again, the notes tell me) “happy in life” or “enjoying life”. I suspect that the power of this compound word is diminished when unpacked into the somewhat weak and prosaic “joy of life”. There is, I think, no way around this: in Bengali, too, it is permissible (as it isn’t in English) to create compound words in this manner, and the poetic or dramatic force comes from the often unexpected juxtaposition of the words that are welded together; translated into speakable English, something of this power is inevitably lost. And I suspect it is similar when translating from Norwegian. But, once introduced, livsglad becomes a major motif in this play. What Ibsen presents here is not a lachrymose wallow in the misery that is life, but, rather, a yearning for livsglad that seems ever beyond our reach, and a barely suppressed anger that this should be so.

Not that there aren’t thematic continuities from Ibsen’s previous play, A Doll’s House. It has often been pointed out, for instance, that while A Doll’s House presents a woman who walks out on her husband, Ghosts presents the tragedy of a woman who didn’t. This is true enough, but this neat pattern doesn’t really take us very far, as the marriage between Nora and Torvald is very different from that of the Alvings, and the reason Nora walks out is very different from the reason Mrs Alving had, in the past, nearly walked out. If we are to focus too intently on the thematic continuities between these last twelve plays (which Ibsen himself, towards the end  of his life, referred to as a “cycle”), there is a danger, perhaps, that we fail to see each of these plays as individual entities, and that we miss out on the new themes that Ibsen introduces in each. Yes, there is a thematic continuity in that Nora had refused, Brand-like, to continue living with lies, while Mrs Alving had been persuaded to continue doing so. But what takes centre-stage now are those lies themselves, those gengangere, that do not remain suppressed, that return to poison our lives, and destroy us. Indeed, these gengangere had never really gone away in the first place. And the livsglad that is crushed by them is more than merely “joy of life”: it is, rather, an elemental power that we are born with, that should make life beautiful, but which, when crushed, turns into its very opposite, so that even the rising of the sun brings with it pain and horror.

We do not see the marriage of the Alvings: Captain Alving, when the play opens, has long been dead. But the exposition here is more than merely communicating to the audience the events of the past so that the present drama may be understood: the exposition here is an examination of the past, and much of the present drama consists of the characters re-evaluating it, and coming to a new understanding. Thus, even as late as the final act, we see the characters revisiting the past, and understanding it in a different way.

Captain Alving had been one of the “pillars of society” Ibsen had written about in an earlier play, the very image of civic respectability, but, like those pillars, there was moral rottenness inside. For, in this instance, this exemplar of respectability had been in reality a lecherous and dissipated sybarite. Mrs Alving had left him once, and had taken refuge in the house of Pastor Manders.  And there is more than enough in the dialogue of this play to indicate that, at the time,  Mrs Alving and Pastor Manders had loved each other. But, while it is all too easy to play Pastor Manders as an outrageous hypocrite, he had had denied himself for the sake of the principles he sincerely believed in, and had persuaded Mrs Alving to return to her rightful husband. For Pastor Manders does not believe that humans were created to be happy:

It is the mark of a rebellious spirit to demand happiness here in life. What right do we mortals have to happiness? No, we must do our duty, madam! And your duty was to hold firmly to the man you’d once chosen, and to whom you were tied by holy bonds.

Duty. Duty not with happiness, or livsglad, as the end, but duty for its own sake, duty as its own end. And, far from being a hypocrite, Pastor Manders sincerely believes this: he lives by this, and for this. However, Captain Alving had not, as Manders had thought, reformed after his wife’s return: he remained as dissipated as ever, and Mrs Alving had been compelled, for the sake of the family’s good name and standing in society, to live a lie. And she knows the toll it has taken:

But I almost believe we are ghosts, all of us … It’s not just the things we have inherited from our fathers and mothers that return in us. It’s all kinds of old dead opinions and all kind of old dead doctrines … They aren’t alive in us; but they are lodged there all the same, and we can never be rid of them. I have only to pick up a newspaper and read it, and it’s as though I see ghosts living throughout the entire land.

Mrs Alving has suffered because she had submitted to the conventions of society that had demanded she continue with her farce of a marriage. She had realised that the law that had condemned her to this was wrong, and  this realisation leads her on to further realisation:

Yes, when you forced me to submit to what you called my duty and obligation; when you extolled as right and proper what my whole soul rebelled against as an abomination. That was when I began to examine the stitching that held your teachings together.  Only wanted to unpick a single knot, but the instant I had loosened that, the whole thing fell apart. And then I realised it was machine sewn.

And yet, she has to go on living with these ideas, these values, that she knows destroy all the Joy of Life. The past that lives with us, in us, those dead ideas that we cannot shed off … ghosts, gengangere.

Mrs Alving had been determined there must be, for the next generation at least, a complete break from the past – that her son should inherit nothing from his father. She had sent him away from home at an early age, so he would ever find out what his father had been like. And all the wealth that had come from his father’s side, she had used to open an orphanage, to ensure that none of it ever comes to her son – that her son should be free, in all respects, from all his father had been. And as she had lived a life of lies while her husband had been alive, she continues, for form’s sake, to perpetuate lies about him after his death, preserving his public image as a man of irreproachable moral integrity, while herself burning with resentment inside at the very lie she is perpetuating.

However, despite all her efforts, the Past continues to live within her son Osvald in a most terrible way, and here, we come across a problem that Ibsen had not envisaged. In Ibsen’s time, it was believed, wrongly, that syphilis could be passed on from father to son: but that, we now know, is not true. Of course, it is possible that the father could have infected the mother, and the mother could pass it on to the child, but if that were so, Mrs Alving too would be syphilitic, and that is clearly not the case. [EDIT: Please see footnote at the bottom of this post.] (I am, I should hasten to add, no expert on these medical matters, and would be more than happy to be corrected if I am mistaken in any way.) In short, it is simply not possible that Osvald has inherited syphilis from his father.

However, this does not invalidate the credibility of the plot. Syphilis itself is never mentioned directly, and, while Mrs Alving, and, later, Osvald, accept that the disease has been inherited from the father, there is no real evidence for it presented in the play. Indeed, there is not even any evidence that Captain Alving, dissipated though he was, had been syphilitic in the first place. Osvald, when breaking the news of his illness to his mother, is at pains to say that he had “never lived a riotous life”: but that is not to say, of course, that he had necessarily been celibate. And, indeed, till he discovers that his father was not the irreproachable pillar of virtue he had always believed him to have been, Osvald blames himself. He may not have been riotous, but it is certainly possible that he had been unlucky. Of course, Ibsen had intended us to believe that Osvald’s syphilis was inherited, but medical science has overtaken Ibsen’s intentions in this respect. And while this does not invalidate the credibility of the plot, as such, it inevitably weakens somewhat the play’s dramatic power. In Ibsen’s original conception, the ghosts from the past that we cannot lay to rest were both an image, and also a reality, in that it has taken the very real form of a disease inherited by son from father; but if we can no longer believe in that physical inheritance, it remains merely an image, and Osvald’s syphilis itself is but a cruel and capricious twist of fortune rather than a tragic inevitability. The fruits of sin (as syphilis was then regarded), instead of afflicting the father, afflicts the son instead; the inheritance is metaphorical, not physical.

But though the tragic force of the drama is inevitably diminished somewhat, it is by no means obliterated, as any good production of this play will reveal: it still holds the stage, and the effect remains quite shattering. Osvald’s brain is weakening: he knows that after the next attack, he will remain utterly incapable – alive, but with a brain that is, effectively, dead. He who had in him that yearning for livsglad, that unbounded joy in the simple fact of just being alive, finds himself saying to his mother:

I didn’t ask for life! What kind of life is it you’ve given me? I don’t want it!

But he is not the first for whom the delight in living has turned into its very opposite. When, at the start of the play, Pastor Manders had referred unthinkingly to Captain Alving being “full of the joys of life”, he was simply and unthinkingly using an expression, without considering what it really meant. Since then, we have had a picture of Alving that is very far removed from the joys of life: he enjoyed merely life’s debauched pleasures. But, in an extraordinary passage towards the end of the play, Mrs Alving sees her dead husband, and, consequently, her own past, in a startlingly different light. Pastor Manders may have used the term unthinkingly when speaking of the late Captain Alving, but he had not really been mistaken:

MRS ALVING: You should have known your father when he was a young lieutenant. He was certainly filled with the joy of life!

OSVALD: Yes, I know.

MRS ALVING: It was like a sunny Sunday just looking at him. And such incredible energy and vitality he had!

OSVALD: And – ?

MRS ALVING: And then this joyous child – because he was a child back then, had to while his time away back here, in a middling-sized town that had no real joy to offer, only diversions. He was stuck here without any vocation in life, with nothing but a civil service appointment … Without one single friend capable of feeling what the joy of life might be; only layabouts and drinking companions …

The man she had, for most of her life, hated and despised now appears to her as someone whose natural exuberance and joy had, for lack of any outlet, festered, become corrupted. And she sees as well her own part in this:

MRS ALVING: Your poor father could never find any outlet for this excessive joy of life inside him. And I didn’t bring any Sunday sunshine into his home either.

OSVALD: Not even you?

MRS ALVING: They had taught me about duties and the like, things I have gone around believing in for so long. It always seemed to come down to duty – my duties and his duties and – I’m afraid I made this home unbearable for your poor father, Osvald.

As Pastor Manders may have said, why strive for joy, for happiness, in the first place? Duty, joyless duty, is what we are here for, and to think otherwise is to rebel against the Laws of God Himself. Pastor Manders’ ideas may be old and dead, but they remain with us, and they crush whatever delight, whatever joy, we may take in the very fact of living.

This theme introduced in this play of livsglad, that problematic compound word for which “joy of life” seems to me perhaps too weak a translation, returns again in later plays in the series, most notably, perhaps, in The Master Builder, in which, at a climactic point, Solness exclaims “I – who cannot live without joy!” It is the denial of this livsglad, and the terrible consequences of this denial, that seem to me to be at the centre of this darkest and most unremittingly bleak of all Ibsen’s plays.

Ghosts, after its premier in 1882, predictably, caused a huge scandal, even bigger than the one occasioned by Nora walking out on her husband and family at the end of A Doll’s House. Even years later, when Ibsen was a Grand Old Man of Letters rather than the enfant terrible, the then monarch of Norway, Oscar II, told Ibsen at some formal reception that he really shouldn’t have written Ghosts.  Ibsen had replied: “Your Majesty, I had to write Ghosts!” Unremitting as it is in its intensity, it bears throughout the marks of a play that had to be written.

 

Footnote: My friend Richard Arundel draws my attention to the following footnote by Michael Meyer in the introduction to his translation of Ghosts, published by Methuen:

In view of the oft-repeated complaint that syphilis cannot be inherited from one’s father, it is worth pointing out that it can be inherited from one’s mother, and that a woman can have syphilis without realizing it or suffering any particular discomfort.In other words, and this is a far more frightening explanation of Oswald’s illness than the usual one, Mrs Alving could have caught syphilis from her husband and passed it on  to her son. Dr Jonathan Miller has pointed out to me that Oswald could also have been infected by smoking his father’s pipe. Ibsen knew more about medicine than some of his critics.

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“A Doll’s House” by Henrik Ibsen

All quoted passages are taken from the translation by Deborah Dawkin and Erik Skuggevik, published by Penguin Classics

Ibsen once denied that A Doll’s House is a “feminist” play, claiming he did not even know what feminism meant. He was being disingenuous, of course: he knew fine well what he had written, and he meant every word of it, but I think I can understand his frustration: while his very specific intentions were eagerly seized upon, his more general themes seemed obscured: the play was seen as primarily didactic rather than as exploratory. That is probably the case even now: although we are no longer shocked by the play’s feminist manifesto – indeed, we tend nowadays to nod along in agreement with its didactic flow – we still think of it primarily as a social play, a play in which the hypocrisies of society are denounced, and social change demanded. And since the society it depicts has largely changed in the direction that Ibsen had advocated (at least in the western world), far from being perturbed by it, we may even find it comfortable, vindicating as it does our liberal values.

For A Doll’s House is surely Ibsen’s “greatest hit” (closely followed, I’d guess, by An Enemy of the People and by Hedda Gabler). Nora is still the part that our leading stage actresses queue to play. One can see why: it is a terrific part – although, I’d venture, Ibsen wrote a great many roles for leading ladies that are at least as challenging (Mrs Alving, Rebecca West, Ellida Wangel, Ella Rentheim, Gunhild Borkman, etc.) But it is this role, and Hedda Gabler, that has captured our collective imagination more than the others.

The overall plot is well-known – so much so that I don’t think I need to put up a spoiler warning” before I summarise it (and if a “spoiler warning” is required, it’s possibly best not to read on): a seemingly happily married middle-class woman, with three children, discovers that her marriage is a sham, and walks out on her family. Contemporary audiences certainly found it deeply shocking (as was intended), but perhaps we moderns should not be entirely shockproof on the matter: a parent, of either sex, walking out on parental responsibilities should rightly shock. Our failure to be shocked, or, possibly, our determination not to be shocked, can but rob that extraordinary final scene of its dramatic edge.

A Doll’s House has always been the English title of the play, although the Norwegian dukkehjem, literally translated, means “doll home”; it is Ibsen’s own coinage, and refers not to a toy house that a child may play with, but to a real home where the lady of the house is no more than a mere doll. Towards the end of the play, Nora says:

[Father] called me a doll-child, and he played with me, just as I play with my dolls. And then I came into your house … I went from Daddy’s hands over into yours.

First her father’s doll, and now her husband’s: the one person she has never belonged to, the one person she has never been, is herself, and, as a consequence, she does not even know what her true self really is. When her husband Torvald, in desperation, asks if she has moral sense, she, far from replying in the affirmative, can only say:

Oh, Torvald, that’s not easy to answer. I simply don’t know. I’m in such confusion over these things.

And yet, only a few lines later, when Torvald claims she is ill and feverish, she replies:

I’ve never been so clear and sure as I am tonight.

There’s actually no contradiction between Nora’s two statements. She does not know whether she has a moral sense or not because she does not know herself; but she is perfectly clear and sure about the fact of her own ignorance.

Peer Gynt, for different reasons, does not know himself either: always choosing to be whatever had been most convenient at the time, he finds he is like an onion, layer after accumulated layer, but with no real core. And it may be that Nora, having been what first her father and then her husband had wanted her to be, has no core either: but she is determined to find out for herself. Having been forced to be a Peer Gynt all her life, she now shows the steely, uncompromising determination of a Brand.

This famous final scene always takes me by surprise, even though I know full well what it contains. Its tonality is very different from the rest of the play. We had been led to believe that the play was essentially about blackmail: Nora, for the noblest of motives (to save her husband’s life, and not to worry her dying father) had imprudently forged a signature, and now, an employee in her husband’s bank on the verge of being sacked tries to blackmail her. Her desperation rises almost to fever pitch: at the end of the second act, she dances on stage a wild tarantella, and she dances with such intensity that Torvald can’t help commenting “You’re dancing as if your life depended on it”. And, without realising it, he is not far off the mark: she is indeed desparate, and has already contemplated suicide. But the crisis set up by the end of the second act isn’t really what the play is about: for the theme that was lying underneath all the while, even if we perhaps didn’t notice it at the time, was the state of Nora’s and Torvald’s marriage itself, and the terrible lie upon which that marriage had been based.

Here, we see the continuation of themes from The Pillars of Society: that play had focussed on the lies underpinning social respectability and prosperity; here, Ibsen considers the same theme, but in a domestic sphere, within the sanctified institution of marriage itself. Even that which we hold most sacred is based on lies, and we would see that for ourselves if only, with a Brand-like insistence upon truth, we determine to look upon it without equivocation, without compromise.

By the end of the play, Nora has become a sort of Brand: the absolute truth must not merely be faced, it must also be acted upon, without compromise. But this is certainly not as she had appeared at the start. When we see her first she is a scatterbrain, extravagantly spending her husband’s money (and being told off for it), eating macaroons secretly despite her husband’s wishes. And when husband and wife talk, it is not the talk of two mature adults:

TORVALD:  When did my squirrel  get home?

NORA: Just now. … Come  out Torvald, and you will see what I have bought.

TORVALD: … Has my little spending bird been out frittering money again? … we can’t be extravagant.

NORA: Oh but Torvald, we can be a little extravagant now, surely. Can’t we? Just a teeny-weeny bit. After all, you’ll have a big salary now and be earning lots and lots of money.

And so on. Nora is the scatter-brained child, to be gently admonished if need be; and he, Torvald, is the responsible adult, indulgent up to a point, but making sure, for her own good, that his wife is not too naughty. We soon see that Nora, though not conversant with the ways of the world outside (having never had the opportunity to be part of it), is far from unintelligent. So why does she speak to her husband in that manner? She speaks to no-one else like that. Why does she behave like a child? Why does she allow herself to be reprimanded?

The answer is surely that she is playing a role. She is wearing a mask that gives her an appearance that is acceptable in society. She plays the child to allow her husband to play the adult. To enable him to play the protector, she must play the part of the creature who needs protecting. She wears this mask not because, like Peer Gynt, it is necessarily a convenient mask to wear, but because, in her position in society, this is the mask she is expected to wear. And, at this point of the play at any rate, she sees no reason not to wear it. And if she wears the mask expected of her, so does Torvald: he is the man, the protector. And Nora takes this at face value. And we have to wait till the very final scene for this issue to be dramatically resolved.

But until then, Ibsen adroitly directs our attention elsewhere. He introduces the blackmail theme. Nora is terrified – not so much because her husband will discover her secret, but because she is so utterly convinced that when he does, he, her protector, will protect her, and take the blame upon himself; that he will accept shame and disgrace and ruin, all for her sake. The thought that he will do so almost drives her mad: Nora believes in the mask her husband wears: she thinks it his real face.

But the resolution of the play is not the resolution of the blackmail plot; that is resolved quite unexpectedly, and with surprising ease. And then the real theme, which had been introduced in the very first scene between husband and wife, and which has been simmering beneath the surface while Nora’s attention (and ours) had been distracted by other things, establishes itself again centre stage. And when it does take centre stage, we realise that it had been there all along. For when the crisis does break, Torvald’s mask falls: he is no protector. He cannot even think of such a thing. The idea of protecting his wife by sacrificing himself does not even occur to him. Instead, he turns on her, and speaks the cruellest, most hurtful things a wife could ever expect to hear from a husband.

But then, suddenly, everything is all right: the crisis has passed, and the threat of blackmail no longer hangs over them. And, as far as Torvald is concerned, they can go back to being as they were. But Nora had seen the mask fall, and she cannot believe in it any more. And, far from the baby talk she had put on for his benefit, she speaks clearly, adult to adult: there is, as she says, a “reckoning” to be made.

We have been married now for eight years. Doesn’t it occur to you that this is the first time the two of us, you and I, man and wife, are talking seriously together?

No, it hadn’t occurred to him. It occurs to her, for she is the more intelligent of the two, despite her having acted otherwise. Once his mask is off,  there’s no putting it back on again, and she must unmask herself also.

Torvald, in this final scene, is, of course, shocked, but he does accept what she says. For, like Nora, he too has been wearing a mask that had not suited him, and he too does not know who or what he really is. After eight years of marriage, after eight years of living on lies, lies about their marriage, lies about their own selves, they, for the very first time, speak to each other. And it is deeply moving. So used have they become to the masks they wore, now that these masks are off, neither knows who they really are.

Some productions make Torvald the villain of the piece. This is wrong. He is simply an ordinary man, not too bright perhaps, but a man who, like, perhaps, most of us, does not question the values of the society he lives in. He is no villain. In one production I have seen, Torvald, when he loses his head, actually strikes his wife. This is a grotesque misjudgement. Nora is leaving not because of domestic violence: she is leaving for reasons far more complex, and the introduction of physical violence is not only uncalled for in Ibsen’s text, it detracts from the true motivations. Nora leaves not because she has been physically abused (she hasn’t): she leaves because she has to know the truth. As with Brand, living a life based upon lies is not an option, and, no matter whom she hurts in the process – her husband, her children, even her own self – it is the Truth that has to take precedence. In that final, solemn scene, there is no room for further subterfuge.

It has perhaps become too easy nowadays to nod away in agreement with Nora in the final scene. That was the way society used to be, but we are so much more enlightened now. We may even congratulate ourselves on it. But Ibsen had intended that scene to be uncomfortable, and the production would fail badly if this scene serves but to reassure us in our modern certainties.

For that final scene, even in our more enlightened times, genuinely is shocking. The masks we nowadays find ourselves wearing may not be the ones worn by Nora and Torvald, but it is not possible to live in any sort of society without wearing some mask or other, and allowing our faces to grow into them. Inevitably, all our lives are based on lies or deceptions of some sort or other: we wouldn’t be able to live in peace with our fellow human beings if we were to be uncompromisingly our own selves: like Brand, we would have no choice but to exile ourselves from society, and, perhaps, find our own pristine Ice Church, untouched by human corruption.  To live amongst our fellow humans is to compromise, that is, to lie, to deceive – at least up to a point. And what becomes of our true selves then? Is it then even reasonable to talk of such things?

This is not to say that Ibsen had not written a social drama, a feminist drama advocating – indeed, insisting upon – independence and autonomy for women. Despite anything he may have said to the contrary, this is an accurate description of A Doll’s House.  But if we see no more than this, we tame the play, as it were, we domesticate and make palatable that which, I think, retains still its power to disturb.

Perhaps thankfully, most of us are not Brand. We aren’t Nora either. We do not insist on the Truth at all costs, however much we may like to think we do: we compromise ourselves as individuals to be able to live in peace with our fellow humans; and, since we have to compromise, since we have to deceive ourselves a bit in  the process, we find ways of justifying it to ourselves. (That is, if we notice  it at all.) Perhaps that is the sensible thing to do. But Ibsen couldn’t allow matters to rest there: in his very next play, Ghosts, published just two years after A Doll’s House, he presents an unflinching look at the consequences of living our lives upon convenient deceptions. The vehement slamming of the door as Nora walks out on her husband and children at the end of A Doll’s House marks the end of one story, but there are many others still to be told.

Down the rabbit hole, through the looking glass

I can’t honestly remember whether I have read Lewis Carroll’s Alice novels before. I think I may have read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland when I was about ten or so, but I have never returned to it: it wasn’t among my childhood favourites, as were, say, Treasure Island or The Hound of the Baskervilles. And Through the Looking Glass, I don’t think I have read at all. But these are books one thinks one has read, even when one hasn’t. One recognises the scenes and characters – the Cheshire Cat whose grin remains after it has disappeared; the Mad Hatter’s tea party; Humpty Dumpty explaining the meaning of “portmanteau words”; and so on: these are all iconic. The poems – “Jabberwocky”, “The White Knight’s Song” – are standards in just about every anthology of English verse, and rightly so. One even recognises the allusions: when Eliot writes of “the door we never opened into the rose garden”, it is inevitably Lewis Carroll who comes to mind. (Well, my mid, at least.) When so much about these books is so well known, we frankly can’t help wondering whether they need to be read at all.

Well, in the recent heat, with the mind too hot and bothered to be focussing on books that stretch the brain further than it is willing to be stretched these days, I thought I’d give them a try. And I am glad I did. They did not surprise: I found them every bit as charming, as funny, and as delightful as their reputation would suggest. I was surprised also at the depiction of Alice herself: stereotypes might suggest that a seven-year-old girl, intended to be delightful in English novels written in the 1860s and 70s, would be sweet, gentle, well-mannered, and respectful of her elders and betters; but Carroll presents instead a girl with a mind very much of her own, who is capable of losing her temper, who can at times be obstinate, who has not always paid the greatest of attention to her lessons, and who is prepared to talk back … in brief, a girl well short of the standards of what a Good Well-Behaved Girl should be. And best of all, while she finds what she sees distinctly odd, she never seems unduly put out by anything: she takes it all within her confident stride.

And yes, it is very funny. At least, I laughed a lot. Carroll was himself a mathematician, and well versed, presumably, in the rules of logic, and the ingenuity with which logic is constantly turned on its head is delightful. When the Red Queen speaks of having seen hills “compared to which that is a valley”, we know there is something not quite rational about this, but it is not entirely easy to explain where precisely the absurdity lies.

Carroll touches on a great many philosophical conundrums, but he is careful always to remain playful: never is the narrative in any danger of becoming heavy-handed. For, whatever delight an adult reader may take in these books, they are written for children, and Carroll never forgets this. But can a descriptive feature of a subject exist independently of the subject itself? The Cheshire Cat’s grin remains for a while when the Cat itself has gone, and the fact of a grin, Carroll insists, remains meaningful even in the absence of the grinner. In Through a Looking Glass, Alice at one point wanders into a wood in which she forgets the name of things – including her own name. And with this forgetting of names, she forgets what everything is – her own self included. Does existence itself depend upon our ability to identify, and to classify?

And so on. I am sure those versed in philosophy would have a whale of a time identifying all those allusions to various philosophical problems. But those of us who, like myself, are not versed in these matters, can still find themselves intrigued by the subtle questions implicit in all the absurdity and the nonsense. And never for a moment does Carroll lose his lightness of touch: these books are primarily intended for children, and whatever delight generations of adults may have taken in them, it is by its ability to delight children that they stand or fall.

Like every great comic writer, Carroll has a fine ear for the rhythms of language. A stand-up comedian can get laughs with the timing, but in writing, the timing is more up to the reader than the writer: what a comic writer must have is mastery over the rhythms of prose. All great comic writers – Austen, Dickens, Wodehouse – had this mastery, and Carroll certainly does not disappoint. For instance:

`Once upon a time there were three little sisters,’ the Dormouse began in a great hurry; `and their names were Elsie, Lacie, and Tillie; and they lived at the bottom of a well–‘

`What did they live on?’ said Alice, who always took a great interest in questions of eating and drinking.

`They lived on treacle,’ said the Dormouse, after thinking a minute or two.

`They couldn’t have done that, you know,’ Alice gently remarked; `they’d have been ill.’

`So they were,’ said the Dormouse; `very ill.’

Now, there’s nothing particularly comic about the content of that: three sisters live down a well, they eat only treacle, and are very ill: not, frankly, the greatest flight of comic fancy. But Carroll’s phrasing is so perfect, his ear for the rhythm of the language so sharp, that he gets a laugh even where, one might have thought, there isn’t one.

Throughout these books, we are challenged to interpret, but even to make the attempt is folly. Carroll’s primary interest seems to me language, and what it signifies. There are games with language throughout. Words are signifiers: they exist as labels for things that are not words. A “chair” is, after all, simply a monosyllabic sound, consisting of five letters when written: but we use this sound to signify the piece of furniture we sit on. The word itself is a symbol for something other than itself, and we are happy with this kind of symbolism, because it works, and serves our purpose. But Carroll was neither the first nor the last to detect something slippery about words, and, throughout, he exploits this slippery quality, forcing words to signify all kinds of unexpected things. In the famous virtuoso poem “Jabberwocky”, he uses nonsense words – word that are utter gibberish – to tell a story that we can nonetheless understand.

Humpty Dumpty knows all about words: he explains at one point the various possible meanings of the word “impenetrability”, and when Alice comments “That’s a great deal to make one word mean”, the words suddenly become real entities in themselves:

“When I make a word do a lot of work like that,” said Humpty Dumpty, “I pay it extra.”

And soon, he is describing words coming round to him on Saturday night to get paid.

He then proceeds to interpret the opening lines of the poem “Jabberwocky”, and it makes sense … of sorts. And that in itself is worrying …

I am not sure why it took me so long to get round to reading these iconic books (if, indeed, I haven’t read them before: I can’t quite remember), but it was a sheer pleasure. And part of the pleasure too were John Tenniel’s illustrations: others have illustrated these books since, and often very well, but none has superseded Tenniel.

Possibly, Carroll runs out of steam a bit towards the end of Through the Looking Glass: the chapter about the Lion and the Unicorn isn’t among the most memorable, and while the White Knight’s Song is a masterpiece, the running gag about the White Knight constantly falling off his horse seems a bit forced and uninspired given the brilliant flights of comic fantasy in the rest of this work. But it’s wrong to cavil. These two books deserve all the praise that has been heaped on them over the years.

“The Optimist’s Daughter” by Eudora Welty

What can we do but enumerate old themes? Love, loss, death, remembrance, and the passage of time that allows us fresh glimpses into these familiar things … It is hard to imagine a time when serious artists won’t want to address such matters. No hankering for novelty can remove these things from the centre of our lives. What is there to be said on these matters that is new? Has not all that can be said already been said?

Perhaps the answer to that question is that it is not a matter of saying anything new about them. Or, indeed, a matter of saying anything at all. For no-one addressing these themes do so because they wish to impart some sort of message: any message capable of being expressed on these matters is, almost inevitably, too superficial. But we can contemplate. Not contemplate to arrive at some sort of answer, or even to arrive at some sort of resolution, but contemplate simply because we cannot help ourselves. And each contemplation is new, because each perspective is personal, individual. We live, we love, and then we die, and those remaining remember. We know ‘tis common – all that lives must die, passing through nature to eternity – but there is little point asking why it seems so particular with us. We know not “seems”.

These old themes are unapologetically at the centre of The Optimist’s Daughter, a short novel, and Eudora Welty’s last, published in the 1970s in her old age. In its concentration, it is almost a short story. Its principal character, Laurel, now living in Chicago, returns to her homeland in the South: her aged father is ill. At first, it does not seem very serious: a standard eye operation. But he fails to recover. His second wife, the vulgar, frivolous, and self-obsessed Fay, much younger than her frail husband, has little sympathy with death; but although she may think that she is on the side of life, she isn’t: life can mean but little if the significance of death fails to inspire awe, or even, as in this instance, adequate acknowledgement. She urges her husband to live – not for his own sake, but for her own. Possibly, she is responsible, in her thoughtlessness, for hastening her husband’s end. But it all means little to her: she is incapable of contemplation, and cannot even begin to understand why it all seems so particular with others. However, for Laurel, the last link with her past is now gone. Her mother had died years earlier; and her husband had died in the war. Though but middle-aged, no-one is now left alive with whom she retains any strong emotional tie: all whom she had loved are now dead. What can she do but remember?

Her remembering is largely left till the closing parts of the novel. The earlier parts of the novel describe, with all the economy of a great writer of short stories, Laurel’s father’s last illness, and the network of relationships between the old man and his young wife, and between father and daughter. The events move swiftly, as the old man fails to recover from what had appeared initially a routine operation; and as the wife, impatient with thoughts of death, and resentful that her feelings (she had felt the operation unnecessary) were being ignored, unwittingly and thoughtlessly hastens his end. At the funeral, Laurel meets again with her old neighbours, and old family friends, but finds herself feeling distant from it all. Her childhood home will now be passing on to Fay. The past is receding quickly. And, unexpectedly, Fay’s redneck family, turn up. She had said previously that she had no family, and it is not hard to conjecture why: even with her limited intelligence, she knew that they would not be approved of.

The resolution of the novel comes when, towards the end, Laurel is left on her own for a while in the old house that she knows she must soon leave for ever. And it is here that all that had gone previously, all that may have seemed fragmentary, fall into place, and we see them in proper focus. Here, at last, Laurel can think about a past that has left nothing behind, that can now exist only in her memory. Now she can re-evaluate.

Re-evaluation of the past, contemplating on why things have turned out as they have, understanding the ground we have occupied in relation to those whom we have loved, are the themes also of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night; but the past there had been turbulent. The past here seems, in contrast, placid and happy. But, as in O’Neill’s play, love and hatred are not mutually exclusive. Perhaps all loves contain some element of hatred.

A new character, only mentioned in passing earlier in the novel, now emerges in the foreground: Laurel’s dead mother. As Laurel’s mind shifts back and forth between the present and various times from the past, she remembers how she had reacted to her mother’s long illness and eventual death; and she remembers also how her mother had reacted to her parents’ death. A chain emerges, a human chain, of departing and of remembering, stretching back over time, across generations.

Her mother, like her father, had also lost her sight towards the end (vision, and lack of it, are among the recurring images of this novel), but, unlike her father’s, her mother’s illness had been a long one. She had, one suspects, never quite managed to tear herself away emotionally from her strong attachment to her family home in West Virginia – “up home”: for all her closeness to her husband, the home he offered in Mississippi never quite matched up to what she left behind, and the breaking, one by one, of her ties with her past – the death of her father, of her mother – had been for her particularly traumatic. And during her own long, final illness, her mind had deteriorated – or, as Fay puts it, “she died a crazy”. Laurel’s mother had been, towards the end, in despair, and her husband, though loving her, could not acknowledge the nature of the tragedy they were living through:

He loved his wife. Whatever she did that she couldn’t help doing was all right. Whatever she was driven to say was all right. But it was not all right! Her trouble was that very desperation. And no-one had any power to cause that except the one she desperately loved, who refused to consider that she was desperate. It was betrayal on betrayal.

Her loving husband, Laurel’s loving father, is an “optimist”: his nature is such that he cannot even bring himself to believe that certain things are beyond the reach merely of our loving; he could not bring himself to acknowledge the essential tragedy of our lives – the losses, the pains, the passing through nature to eternity.

As Laurel goes through her mother’s things, destroying all which she does not wish to come into Fay’s possession, her mind travels back and forth in time, remembering, interpreting, trying to understand. All the while, a storm is coming; and a bird that has flown down the chimney is trapped inside the house. Symbols, certainly, but to try to pin down these symbols is reductive: better, I think, to take these pieces of imagery at face value, and allow them to resonate in our minds. The course of Laurel’s thoughts may seem random, but they are carefully structured. And finally, her mind turns to her husband, Phil, killed at war:

If Phil could have lived –

But Phil was lost. Nothing of their life together remained except in her own memory; love was sealed away into its perfection, and had remained there.

What might have been, what might have emerged from their love, cannot disrupt that perfection in which it is now sealed.

There remains only a final confrontation with Fay before Laurel leaves for ever her childhood home. Laurel had wanted to hurt Fay, but when the time comes, it doesn’t seem worth it:

She had been ready to hurt Fay. She had wanted to hurt her, and had known herself capable of doing it. But such is the strangeness of her mind, it had been the memory of the child Wendell that had prevented her.

Wendell was a child who had been with Fay’s ghastly family that had descended so unexpectedly on the funeral. And he, at least, was blameless. Laurel does not know why the memory of that child should now prevent her from hurting Fay: she puts it down vaguely to “strangeness of her mind”.

Fay ends, as she thinks, triumphant: “I belong to the future,” she declares. And Laurel lets her have her moment of triumph because she knows this is not true.

Memory lived not in initial possession, but in the freed hands, pardoned and freed, in the heart that can empty but fill again, in the patterns restored by dreams.

These are all old, old themes. Welty’s perspective is quiet and unassuming. She meditates, as Laurel does, on the nature of loss, and of memory, that fragile and delicate thing that is nonetheless the sole remaining link to that which has been lost. But Welty is also utterly unsentimental: she is well aware of the deep resentment and hatred that can reside even within the most selfless and devoted love; and how even the most buoyant of optimism can be a denial of our lives’ tragedies – a denial almost of life itself. Love does not conquer all, and it is mere foolishness imagining otherwise.

This is a quite exquisite novel from one of the century’s finest writers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The “nunnery scene”

In a recent post, I found myself focussing on what seems to me one of the most complex scene in the entire Shakespearean canon – Act 3, Scene1 of Hamlet. I barely scratched the surface: there is such complexity in this scene that I rarely read it the same way twice. Everything seems to be happening at the same time, and it becomes virtually impossible to keep track. No performance, not even the finest, could hope to capture all the subtleties and nuances.

This scene is often known as the “nunnery scene”. It starts with a bit of scene-setting with Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius and Ophelia (Ophelia is to be the bait, as it were, to get Hamlet talking, while Claudius and Polonius spy on him); then Hamlet comes in, and delivers the famous soliloquy that we can all reel off, word for word; and then he sees Ophelia, rants and raves at her for a bit; and then he storms off. And during all that ranting and raving, he tells her to go to a “nunnery”. At which point we all snigger like schoolkids because a “nunnery”, as we all know, was slang for “brothel”.

But does Hamlet tell Ophelia to go to a brothel? Yes, “nunnery” was sometimes used ironically to refer to a brothel, and this secondary meaning may well have added a bitter undercurrent to the proceedings. But even if it were a widespread piece of slang in Shakespeare’s day (and I honestly have no idea how widespread it was), the brothel is still a secondary meaning, not the primary one. And I do get the impression that we are so taken with this secondary meaning, we allow it to drown out the significance of the primary one. As a consequence, we lose much not only of the subtlety of this scene, but also the pathos, and the deep poignancy.

The context is clear. Hamlet, in his soliloquy, questions why we go on living when life is so full of suffering and pain, and concludes that we only do so because we are too frightened of death. It is a natural step to move from this to thinking that it is best not to have been born in the first place. Why bring yet more people into the world?

Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?

Hamlet is here telling Ophelia not to bear children, not to bring yet more people into this life, in which all any of us can do is merely sin and suffer. And as he says this, he expresses a quite startling degree of self-disgust:

I am myself indifferent honest; but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me: I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offences at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in. What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven? We are arrant knaves, all; believe none of us.

And this is why Ophelia should go to a nunnery. We owe it to our unborn children not to bring them into life.

By allowing a possible secondary meaning to swamp what is undoubtedly the primary meaning is to do this extraordinarily tragic and moving scene a great disservice. It is to replace a profound lament for life with merely a cynical guffaw.

“Peer Gynt” by Henrik Ibsen

[All excerpts below, except where otherwise stated, are taken from the translation by Geoffrey Hill, published by Penguin Classics]

Despite all the fantasy, the surrealism, the dream sequences, the weird forays into the realms of folklore, the plot, such as it is, of Peer Gynt, isn’t hard to follow. At least, not for the first four acts. Peer, when we first see him, is a madcap young man much given to mischief-making and to spinning fabulous yarns. He has been brought up by his long-suffering widowed mother, who is constantly upbraiding him, and who is, at the same time, fiercely protective of him. In the first act, Peer gate-crashes a wedding, and runs off with the bride. Later, he abandons her. He appears to have a few more sexual encounters, but refuses to take responsibility for any of them. In the course of all this, he fathers an illegitimate child, and, once again, refuses to accept responsibility, retreating from the child, and from the child’s mother, in a kind of horror. After his own mother’s death – the death scene, where Peer spins one final yarn for her, one of the loveliest and most tender in all dramatic literature – he goes abroad, and becomes a successful and international businessman, though completely unscrupulous, trading, amongst other things, in slaves. He is cheated of his wealth by other businessmen as unscrupulous as himself, and eventually finds himself an inmate of a madhouse in Egypt. And then, after all this, comes the fifth act, which is even stranger than all that had gone before.

Translator and biographer Michael Meyer suggests that Peer either dies in the madhouse at the end of the fourth act (although his death is not explicitly depicted); or he dies in the shipwreck off the coast of Norway at the start of the final act (although, once again, his death is not explicitly depicted). And all that follows is a sort of phantasmagoric unwinding of his life at the moment of his death, in which he is challenged to discover what significance his life may have had. This makes sense to me. All the fantasies and surrealism and dream sequences of the first four acts may be seen as reflections, however distorted, of reality; but even that model breaks down when we come to the last act.

Although the outline of the plot is clear in the first four acts, the details aren’t. Sometimes, even some very significant plot details are left maddeningly stranded in some no man’s land between reality and fantasy. That which is real and that which isn’t become so inextricably entwined, it becomes impossible to separate them out. We may take the trolls, for instance, to be fantasy, but how are we to take Solveig? If we insist on taking everything in this play at face value, Solveig is a vision of purity, the good and beautiful woman whom Peer really loves (even as he frolics with other girls); and she, in turn, returns his love, and eventually seeks him out. But before they can even begin to live their life together, Peer, horrified by the sight of the brutal child he has fathered, leaves her, departing in shame. And, throughout Peer’s life, Solveig patiently waits for him. And at the very end of the play, she reclaims him. Now, clearly, Solveig is neither conceived nor presented as a real person, but it is impossible to tell whether Solveig is an idealised version of a real woman, or whether, indeed, she exists at all anywhere except in Peer’s mind. It is certainly possible to see Solveig as a pure fantasy – a vision of idealised womanhood that Peer, despite everything, harbours in some corner of his mind, but which he felt he felt he had to abandon when shamed by his own actions. But it is possible also that Solveig is a real person, although presented in the drama in a way Peer would like her to be, rather than the way she really is. We do not know, we cannot tell. And in this confusion of reality and fantasy, the impossibility of ever separating the two is very much the intended effect.

Similarly with Peer’s desert adventures in the fourth act. After the other businessmen have cheated him out of his wealth, Peer travels the desert; comes accidentally in possession of riches; is mistaken for a prophet; and takes for himself as mistress the slave Anitra, who declares she has no soul, and who goes on to cheat Peer of his new-found wealth. Did all this really happen, or is this again one of Peer’s tall tales? Could it be that he really did have a mistress in North Africa who had robbed him and left him, and that all the rest is merely an extravagant product of Peer’s teeming imagination? Once again, we cannot tell. Maybe Peer was cheated of his wealth on separate occasions both by the other businessmen, and by his mistress Anitra; maybe he was cheated just once, and his imagination accounts for the rest. As with so much in this play, we cannot tell.

The repetition of a theme – in this instance, of being cheated of his wealth – we see also in other parts of the pay. In the first act, for instance, the theme of Peer seducing and then deserting a woman is presented twice – the first time, in a more or less realistic mode (when Peer runs off with, and later rejects, Ingrid, the bride at the wedding); and then, the entire scene of seduction and desertion is replayed in a mode of pure fantasy. Here we first see Peer frolicking with three girls who are trolls – those strange goblin-like creatures of Norwegian folklore. Then, Peer, having seduced one of the troll girls (who happens to be the daughter of the troll-king), has to face her father in the Hall of the Mountain King. (He is called the “Dovre King” in Geoffrey Hill’s translation.) It is one of those scenes of mad, wild fantasy, as dark and sinister as it is playful and exuberant, that this play is so full of, and bears little resemblance to the playful scherzo Grieg composed as incidental music. In this scene, Peer agrees at first to become a troll himself and marry the Troll-king’s daughter, but changes his mind when he realises that a surgical operation must first be performed on his eyes, so he can see the world as a troll. He is saved – in true folklore tradition – by the church bells ringing, at the very sound of which the trolls scatter in confusion, and the entire Hall of the Mountain King collapses.

Immediately there follows perhaps the strangest scene of all in this very strange play. It is set completely in the dark. Peer is trying to walk forward, but something is blocking his way. Whatever it is that is blocking his way identifies itself as the “Boyg”. It tells him to “go round”. Peer is determined to walk through, but it is no good: he cannot pass through – he has to “go round”. And once again, he is rescued, as in the previous scene, by the church bells. “He was too strong for us,” says the voice of the Boyg, “the prayers of good women were keeping him safe.” What are we to make of all this? We may no doubt take the scene with the trolls as a fantastic reflection of real events, but what do we make of the Boyg, and of the injunction to “go round”? What do we make of the repetition, within a mere two pages, of Peer being saved by the church bells? What do we make of that curious reference to the “prayers of good women”?

Fantasies though they may be, but neither the encounter with the trolls nor that with the Boyg is wasted on Peer. He may have refused the surgical operation on his eyes, but he certainly takes to heart the injunction given him by the Dovre King:

Out there – remember? – under the sky’s high-gleaming vault
‘be thyelf, be thyself, even to thy most inward fault’
is the great injunction. Down here, with the race of trolls,
‘be to thyself sufficient’ is the motto that appeals.

“To thyself be sufficient.” I’d guess that the original Norwegian resists easy translation. Peter Watts (Penguin) translates this as “To thyself be – enough!”,  with an interpolated dash and italics; James Kirkup and Christopher Fry (Oxford) make a reference to Polonius, translating this as “To thine own self be – all-sufficient!” – again with an interpolated dash, but no italics; and Michael Meyer (Methuen) gives us “Man, be thyself – and to Hell with the rest of the world!” The basic idea, made explicit in Meyer’s rendition, is one of solipsism: one’s own self is the only thing that matters. Whatever else of the troll-world Peer might reject, this injunction he follows.

And he follows too the Boyg’s injunction to “go round”. He never faces anything: he always takes whatever happens to be the easiest way, the path of least resistance – he always goes round. When he is horrified by the child he has fathered, when  he is too ashamed to face Solveig, he goes round – rather than face it, he simply walks away.

This makes the character of Peer Gynt in many ways the diametric opposite to that of Brand. (The two plays of which Brand and Peer Gynt are eponymous heroes were published only a year apart, in 1866 and 1867). Brand was always fanatically true to his fanatic self, but Peer “goes round” so often, one wonders whether he has a self to be true to. While these two verse dramas may be seen as mighty opposites, and their respective eponymous characters equally contrasted to each other – the one rigid and austere, the other exuberant and prodigal – the contrast between the two is too obvious, perhaps, too simple, to cast much light on either. Nonetheless, it may be said, I think, that, whatever misgivings we may have about the person of Brand, he was great of soul; with Peer Gynt, we wonder whether he has a soul at all. And this is the theme that comes to the fore in the final act: what, at the end of it all, is Peer? Is he really anyone at all?

The fourth act had ended in a madhouse in Egypt. The scene was nightmarish, frenetic: it had about it a sense of wild, uncontrolled frenzy. Maybe this is where Peer dies: we cannot tell. At the start of the fifth act, without explanation, we see Peer as an older man, on a ship back to his native Norway. Maybe he had escaped the asylum, and had made some sort of life for himself; maybe what we see is yet another fantasy, this time happening at the moment of his death. We do not know.

On this ship, Peer meets a ghostly passenger (referred to in the Dramatis Personae in Michael Meyer’s translation as the “Strange Passenger”). The crew tells Peer that he is the only passenger, but, by this stage of the play, we are not surprised to encounter someone who doesn’t exist. This strange passenger is perfectly courteous, and he politely informs Peer that he wants Peer’s body when he dies.

Off the coast of Norway, the ship is wrecked in a storm. The strange passenger re-appears, and, in modern parlance, breaks through the fourth wall by telling Peer not to worry, because the hero of a play doesn’t die at the start of the fifth act. But here, maybe, he does.

Then Peer is on dry land, and finds himself at a funeral. His own funeral, we wonder? No, it is the funeral of a man Peer had seen earlier in the play chopping off his own fingers to avoid military conscription. From the long funeral oration, we find he had been a good man: he had had a family, and had looked after them. In short, he had been what Peer hadn’t. As Peer dies, so does his alter ego. And while we ponder the significance, if any, of the chopped fingers, we move on.

Peer now encounters a character who could have come straight out of folklore – the Button Moulder. He has been sent to melt Peer down, for Peer had not actually been anyone. Peer has no soul, nothing that could either be saved or damned. He is a blank, a nothing, worthy merely to be melted down. Even evil had eluded him. True, he had paid no attention to morals, and had even traded in slaves, but he had done all this not out of any attachment to evil as such, but simply because it had been the easiest way: he had, as ever, “gone round”. It is not a question of Good and Evil: it is a question of Being. What has Peer been?

Earlier, he had tried to describe his “Gyntian self”:

The Gyntian self – that iron brigade
of wishes, passions and desires,
a massive flood that knows no shores,
vortex of impulse, need and claim,
the world that I entirely am.

To his own self, in other words, he is sufficient. But can “a massive flood that knows no shores”, a mere “vortex of impulse”, really be anything at all? Is a shoreless flood an object? Does it have shape?

Peer asks to Button Moulder to give him time to prove himself, and they agree to meet at the next crossroads. In the meantime, Peer searches desperately for some meaning, some significance, his life must, he feels, have had. It is here we have the famous scene where Peer peels an onion, and finds merely layer upon accumulated layer, with no real core. In another scene, balls of yarn speak, as do withered leaves, and drops of dew, and broken straws. They tell us  they are the thoughts Peer hadn’t thought, songs he hadn’t sung, deeds he had never delivered, tears he hadn’t shed. Peer meets the Dovre King again, now come down in the world; and he meets a thin man in a priest’s cassock, who turns out to be the Devil himself. Neither can vouch for his being. At one point, Peer comes close to the cabin where he had left Solveig so many years ago: she sits there waiting for him still, singing, and once again, Peer turns away in shame.

But it is Solveig who nonetheless claims him in the end. How are we to read this? That he is saved by a vision of an ideal, which he had turned away from in shame but which had never quite disappeared from his heart? That Eternal Woman leads him on ever upward, as it had Faust?

Das Ewig-Weibliche
Zieht uns hinan.

These famous lines of Goethe’s had been quoted earlier in Peer Gynt, but in a mocking tone. Are we to take them seriously now? I suppose there’s no reason why we shouldn’t. But there’s no reason why we should either. In this play, where it has proved consistently impossible to separate out the different levels of reality and fantasy, this could be yet another fantasy. For even as Solveig claims Peer, having waited for him all her life, we hear the Button Moulder’s ominous lines:

Last crossroads, Peer? Our final meeting?
We’ll see. Till then, I shall say nothing.

Nothing is settled.

***

Peer Gynt is a huge, vast piece – like its predecessor Brand, far too long to be performed uncut in a single evening. But unlike Brand, it is wild, it is exuberant, it is overflowing with mad, extravagant, phantasmagoric visions. What it must be like reading it in the original Norwegian, I can only imagine, but all four of the translations I have read – by Michael Meyer, Peter Watts, James Kirkup & Christopher Fry, and the most recent translation in Penguin Classics, by Geoffrey Hill – convey a sense of almost of abandon, of reckless energy and vigour and  irrepressible ebullience.

As with his translation of Brand, Geoffrey Hill, not knowing Norwegian, had worked from a literal (and annotated) translation, this time by Janet Garton. It does not seem to me to be the ideal way to translate, but the results, it must be admitted, are very persuasive. Hill’s verse flows freely, with rhymes at the end of lines, and, more often than not half-rhymes, or simply words that vaguely echo each other. He varies the length of the lines far more than he had done in Brand, sometimes using alexandrines, or lines even longer, of fifteen or sixteen syllables. Sometimes he uses internal rhymes. But in all this, he achieves a wonderful fluency. The technique, as is to be expected from so distinguished a poet, is formidable, but it never slows the verse down: much of the time, it seems to rush forward like a torrent, a “massive flood that knows no shores”. I don’t think it displaces the earlier translations, but is certainly a most welcome addition to them. And by the end, I was left breathless.

***

I don’t think anything in Ibsen’s earlier work could prepare us for that sudden explosion of creativity that resulted Brand and Peer Gynt in, respectively, 1866 and 1867. He had been writing for some fifteen years, but, to my mind at least (I realise others may differ on this point), he had never really been much more than a journeyman dramatist. Even the best of his earlier work – The Vikings at Helgeland, Love’s Comedy, The Pretenders – could not have led anyone to expect what followed. But then, he was awarded a grant from the Norwegian government, and the freedom not to have to write for the stage seemed suddenly to release his creative energies.

The 1860s were a remarkable decade in European literature. It started with the publication of Great Expectations, and soon  afterwards, Dickens started serialisation of his last complete novel, Our Mutual Friend. (It was published in  1865.) Turgenev wrote what is often regarded as his finest novel, Fathers and Sons; and meanwhile, Dostoyevsky announced himself with From the House of the Dead and Notes From Underground, and followed them up with Crime and Punishment and The Idiot. Meanwhile, in France, Baudelaire published the third and final edition of Les Fleurs du Mal, containing several new poems; and Flaubert weighed in  with L’Education Sentimentale, and  George Eliot with, amongst other, The Mill on the Floss. And meanwhile, in Russia, there was the trifling matter of War and Peace. There was more than enough written and published in just those ten years to keep any reader occupied for an entire lifetime. And Ibsen’s Brand and Peer Gynt are among the major achievements even in this company. He may have started the decade merely as a journeyman, but after these two monumental achievements, everything was changed.

Brand and Peer Gynt were written  to be read rather than to be acted, but Ibsen’s instinct for the theatre never deserted him: judiciously trimmed versions still hold the stage triumphantly, even in  translation. (This is not something that can be said for all verse drama.) But curiously, Ibsen never wrote in verse again. Why he turned away from verse drama, after having written two of the very finest – possibly the last great plays to be written  in verse – is a matter of considerable conjecture: perhaps he felt he had exhausted all he could achieve in the form. His next play turned out to be the very exotic epic Emperor and Galilean, a vast work in two parts: Ibsen spent several years on this, and thought them, at the time, to be his best work, but I have never understood them, and a recent reading has left me as puzzled as I ever have been. And then came the decisive break: realistic plays, in realistic settings, with people from ordinary walks of life speaking the kind of language the audience spoke. No more Vikings at Helgeland, no more emperors and Galileans, and, above all, no more verse. It was a very unexpected turn for Ibsen to take, given what he had written before, but the themes broached in Brand and in Peer Gynt were to echo, I think, even here. They may not be verse, but the hand of the poet is apparent throughout.

But let us not anticipate…