Archive for the ‘books’ Category

Penny-in-the-slot criticisms

TRIGGER ALERT: This post contains some intemperate views, and expresses no small degree of irritation on my part regarding various comments I have seen online over the years. If such things trigger you, then I would advise giving this one a miss.

There is a kind of criticism that I have heard referred to as “penny-in-the-slot criticisms”. Which means that these criticisms are automatic reactions, instinctive and unthinking – reflexive rather than reflective.

When it comes to literature, and to books in general, there is a set of criticisms that, I think, could come under this category. Perhaps the worst thing about these criticisms is that they are immutable: no matter how vehemently you may argue against them, you won’t change anyone’s mind, because your argument will not be engaged with. Not that your argument was necessarily right: one is – or, at least I am – grateful when one’s argument is shown to be flawed, and one is forced either to refine one’s ideas, or to rethink them, or even to withdraw them altogether. But no, in an environment in which even to questions someone’s opinion is viewed as an act of aggression, that kind of thing doesn’t happen. It’s not even a case of one’s argument not being countered: it’s simply not engaged with. But nonetheless, as sure as night follows day, that penny-in-the-slot criticism you had argued against will re-appear, as if you’d never said anything at all to counter it.

Here are a few such criticisms I’ve picked up over the years (in bold), along with brief arguments against them (in italics) that are regularly ignored.

“People don’t really enjoy reading difficult books: they only read books such as Ulysses to show off.”

If it were true that it is not possible to enjoy anything that is difficult, it’s hard to explain why so many are attracted to chess, say, or to difficult cryptic crossword puzzles.

And show off to whom? We do not live in a world where erudition is much valued. Reading something like Ulysses in order to “show off” seems like an awful lot of hard work for very little in return.

“People who write difficult books – again, like Ulysses – are just showing off how clever they are.”

Once again, showing off to whom? And why?

And if you don’t like “clever” writers, do you really prefer stupid ones?

“Male authors couldn’t/can’t create convincing female characters.”

Odd, isn’t it? Good writers of fiction can imagine themselves into the minds of all sorts of people different from themselves – children, old people, people from different walks of life, people from different social class, and all the rest of it. But the one barrier that is, seemingly, insurmountable is the barrier of gender. Not sure why: no-one has bothered explaining.

And in any case, how do you know that men writers cannot create women? Do all women think and feel in the same way? And are you privy to all their thoughts and feelings?

A good many of these penny-in-the-slot criticisms refer to Dickens. Some do lead to a bit of an exchange, but they never really get anywhere:

“Dickens really couldn’t create women.”

Miss Havisham, Betsey Trotwood, Sarah Gamp –

“Yes, but those are caricatures.”

But caricatures are not failed attempts at portraiture. You did not specify –

“You know what I meant. Dickens could not depict real women.”

Esther Summerson, Lady Dedlock, Harriet Beadle, Rosa Dartle, Lizzie Hexam…

“Dickens could only create caricatures.”

As said previously, a caricature is not a failed attempt at portraiture. It takes skill to create a memorable caricature. And as for Dickensian characters who are complex people and most definitely not caricatures, we have Steerforth, John Jarndyce, William Dorrit, Pip, Miss Wade …

“But Dickens’ heroines are awful”.

Some of Dickens’ romantic heroines, especially in his early novels, are certainly bland and colourless. But so are his romantic heroes. Nicholas Nickleby is as colourless as Madeleine Bray, the adult David Copperfield as colourless as Agnes Wickfield, Martin Chuzzlewit as colourless as – and so on. It’s not just his heroines. The convention that romantic heroes and heroines had both to be spotless created all sorts of problems for writers. Dickens later overcame this and created heroes and heroines who are genuinely interesting – Pip and Estella, Bella Wilfer, Louisa Gradgrind, etc.

Silence. No response. And then, soon after:

“Dickens couldn’t create female characters, and all his characters are merely caricatures anyway.”

And also, for good measure:

“Dickens was just soap opera of his day”.

Just for clarity, could you define what you mean by “soap opera”, and specify how it differs from other (and presumably superior) forms of drama?

No, of course they can’t. At least, they don’t. The whole point of these criticisms is that you don’t need to follow them up.

And then you get the killer one:

“Dickens is sentimental.”

Sentimentality is a difficult thing to define adequately. Yes, in many of his works – especially the early ones – he can be genuinely mawkish. But that is by no means the full story: there is also much in his novels that has real emotional depth and complexity. For instance …

And you put together a long, detailed catalogue of examples, but no-one is listening. They have demonstrated how superior their taste is to yours by proclaiming that they are above Dickens and you aren’t, and that’s the end of the matter. They may even add, for good measure:

“I don’t have to like something just because the critics say I must.”

The implication is that I am blinded by the authority of these “critics” (whoever these mustachio-twirling pantomime villains may be), but they, being more independent in their thought, aren’t. And you might as well stop there, unless you want to create a scene.

Dickens certainly gets more than his fair share of penny-in-the-slot criticisms, but other writers aren’t exempt either:

“The Brontës were the bodice-rippers of their day.”q

“Austen was the chick-lit of her day.”

You can write entire essays trying to refute these claims, safe in the knowledge that no-one will engage with anything you may have to say. Well, some might, I guess – but you know that the same comments will come up again, and from the same people.

And then, on Shakespeare, there is that old bugbear of mine:

“Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be seen, not read.”

How do you know this? Are you privy to what Shakespeare intended? And even if that is what Shakespeare had intended, why deny ourselves the experience of reading these plays when reading them can be so enriching?

Then there is that perennial one:

“I read to enjoy myself.”

My protestations that I, too, read to enjoy myself pass unnoticed.

“At the end of the day, it’s all just a matter of personal opinion.”

This is the point where you decide you’ve had enough of book boards, and create your own blog where you can let off steam to your heart’s content. As I have done here.

(If anyone has been triggered by any of this, please do bear in mind that I had placed a Trigger Warning at the start of this post, and I don’t think I can be held responsible for any distress or trauma caused.)

Dostoyevsky in Europe

Winter Notes on Summer Impressions by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, translated by Kyrill Fitzlyon, published by Alma Classics. All quotes in the post below are taken from this translation.


Among the many things in life I find myself utterly at a loss to account for is the tremendous attraction I feel for the writings of Dostoyevsky. When his many faults are listed to me, I can do little but nod away in agreement. Yes, his novels are hysterical, irrational – indeed, he seemed to laud irrationality; they are loosely structured baggy monsters. He was also a fervent Slavophile, while I despise nationalism. He was politically conservative, and hated liberalism and liberals with a vengeance, whereas I tend to describe my politics as “liberal”. (Indeed, I was amused to find recently that I had described my politics on my Facebook profile as “Turgenevian liberal”. I don’t remember writing this, and suspect I was drunk at the time and not entirely serious; but I did laugh at what was presumably my own joke, and decided not to change it.) Dostoyevsky hated those Russians such as Turgenev who had adopted the values of Western liberalism, and I can’t help but see my own adherence to these same Western liberal values, despite my Indian background, as a sort of parallel (even though I have, I suppose, the excuse of having lived most of my life in the West). I suspect that if Dostoyevsky had known me personally, he would have despised me, and my values. And, by rights, I should also be repelled by Dostoyevsky, who stood for so much that I do not, and who loathed so much that I do. And yet, I find myself irresistibly drawn to Dostoyevsky. Which, I suppose, demonstrates Dostoyevsky’s dictum that we are far from being the rational creatures we like to imagine ourselves.

Dostoyevsky had not always been a ring-wing Slavophile, of course. In his youth, he had been very left-wing indeed. He had been member of a revolutionary group, had narrowly avoided the death sentence (he had, famously, been led out to be executed before it was announced that his sentence had been commuted), and had served many years in a labour camp. His early works had been of a somewhat sentimental nature, focussing on “poor folk”, on the “insulted and the injured”, and lamenting the social injustice that cause so much suffering. But then, in the early 1860s, a very profound change took place in his outlook. As translator Kyrill Fitzlyon says in his preface to Winter Notes on Summer Impressions:

His earlier novels aim at the entertainment of the reader; undeterred by considerations of verisimilitude or psychological probability, they glide over the surface of life without stopping to take soundings of what goes on underneath; they shun deep analysis and they lack the later Dostoyevskian eagerness to reconcile the actions of men with their consciences, conceived in terms of spiritual anguish.

It was in the summer of 1862, at what we may see as the turning point between Dostoyevsky’s earlier viewpoints and his later, that Dostoyevsky visited Europe for a few weeks. That winter, he wrote of his travels in Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, and here we may see quite clearly his mature thoughts and ideas taking shape.

The West was what liberals, such as the hated Turgenev, pointed towards: it was in the liberal values of the West that Russia must seek salvation; by looking West, and adopting its values, Russia, so far from the major centres of civilisation, could, at long last, civilise itself. But Dostoyevsky was not having any of this. This is not necessarily because of his Slavophilism: what he saw in the few weeks he spent in Paris, and the week he spent in London, did not suggest to him a Heaven to be aimed for. That Russia was no Heaven he already knew: but salvation did not lie in emulating the West.

Before he goes into all this, he writes a preface, to which he gives the title “Instead of a Preface”. This sense of playfulness is apparent throughout the book. Dostoyevsky tells us right away that he is not a reliable narrator. He has spent only a few weeks in London and in Paris, he tells us, and his views are not only based on limited exposure, but are also, no doubt, biased and jaundiced in all sorts of ways. As he goes on to expand on this, he seems to create an authorial persona that may or may not be himself. At times, he seems almost to present himself as of those Gogolian grotesques who can’t stop digressing into all sorts of irrelevancies. The narrator he presents is, in short, a comic character, the first of the many weird and unreliable voices who come and go in the narration of his later novels. Giving the authorial voice such a persona allows Dostoyevsky to pursue his ideas into unexpected areas, and explore thoughts and concepts that may appear eccentric or whimsical, but without necessarily giving these ideas the seal of authorial approval.

He spends some time in London, and presents it in almost apocalyptic terms. He is shocked by the level of extreme poverty and vice. This may be surprising: as is apparent from his own novels, extreme poverty and vice aren’t exactly unknown in Russia. But perhaps he had expected better from London. What shocked him, I think, was the open acceptance of these things. He gives a description of a pathetic half-starved young girl, a child, openly trading herself in Haymarket, right in the centre of fashionable London. The English are often chided for their hypocrisy, but it seems to be the lack of hypocrisy, the openness of such moral depths, that seemed particularly to strike Dostoyevsky.

He has more to say about France, and, rather interestingly, he seems shocked by the very aspects of Russia that had shocked Europeans of that age – the lack of freedom, adulation of the Emperor, police informers, and the like. And he considers especially the middle classes, the bourgeoisie. The inspiring slogans of the French Revolution – liberty, equality, fraternity – are, he feels, an immense sham: all that has happened is that the middle classes have now taken on the power to exploit the lower classes. All ideals, all morals that people pretend to live by, are sham:

Paris has an unquenchable thirst for virtue. Nowadays the Frenchman is a serious and reliable man, often tender-hearted, so that I cannot understand why he is so afraid of something even now, and is afraid of it in spite of all the gloire militaire which flourishes in France and which Jacques Bonhomie pays so much for. The Parisian dearly loves to trade, but even as he trades and fleeces you in his shop, he fleeces you not for the sake of profit, as in the old days, but in the name of virtue, out of some sacred necessity. To amass a fortune and possess as many things as possible – this has become the Parisian’s main moral code, to be equated with religious observance.

Dostoyevsky keeps probing: what, exactly, are the bourgeoisie afraid of?

Whom should he fear then? The workers? But the workers are all of them capitalists too, in their heart of hearts: their one ideal is to become capitalists and amass as many things as possible.

This is not the solution, Dostoyevsky felt, for Russia. Rational precepts, and noble sentiments – liberté, égalité, fraternité – end up meaning nothing, and not merely because humans are not rational creatures: as he goes on to examine in Notes From Underground (which was written shortly after this book), humans are, if anything, anti-rational creatures, who, far from accepting ideas because they are shown to be rational, would choose, rather, deliberately to reject them in order to proclaim their freedom from the tyranny of reason. All he can see in the great cities of Europe are “anthills”: any attempt from above to bind humans into a unity is bound to fail disastrously, because they misunderstand the essentially paradoxical nature of humanity.

I can understand Dostoyevsky’s argument – at least, up to a point. Our lives have, if anything, become worse in certain respects: they have become “atomised” – to use the word popularised by the title of Michel Houellebecq’s novel – as never before. Not only do we not have fraternité between the classes, solidarity even within the social classes is becoming more problematic. But I don’t really understand what Dostoyevsky’s own solution is. Are we to expect a mystical fraternité to spring up spontaneously?

Of course, Dostoyevsky was not so foolish as to think that. His novels are not didactic novels: they are multi-voiced works, in which many of the voices rebel against their author and speak out against him, unanswered; and where, furthermore, many of the voices articulating some of Dostoyevsky’s own most deeply held beliefs are presented in a ridiculous light. Those great novels are seething cauldrons of ideas and counter-ideas, endlessly contesting and intermingling with each other, never resolving; but never are these ideas presented as something abstract: they are, as Kyrill Fitzlyon says in his preface, “conceived in terms of spiritual anguish”.

I still do not know why I am so drawn to the writings of Dostoyevsky, when, all things considered, I shouldn’t be. But there is something about these very strange books of his that has about it the air of prophecy.

Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell: an episode from “Man and Superman”

Years back, when we had only two television channels broadcasting in Britain (BBC and ITV), and both of them thought of television as having the potential of being a true National Theatre of the People – a national theatre to which the whole nation had access – BBC used to broadcast every month a classic play at peak viewing hour on Sunday evenings. The slot was called, appropriately enough, Play of the Month. (They had a slot for contemporary drama as well – Play For Today, which broadcast new, specially commissioned plays for television.) It was thanks to this Play of the Month slot that I became familiar at a very early age with such names as Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekhov, and so on. But Bernard Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell proved a few steps too far. I know for a fact that this was indeed broadcast at 8.20pm on a Sunday evening, because it is confirmed by online archive of past BBC programmes: but the very idea of putting out something such as this at peak viewing hours seems nowadays so bizarre, that, were it not for this confirmation, I would have been tempted to have put it all down as a figment of my imagination.

I think I sat through a full half hour or so before deciding to switch over, as I had not the first idea what they were on about. I am fairly sure, looking back, that most of those foolhardy enough to have started watching this play would have switched over to ITV well before the half hour mark. For the “play” consists of four people – three of them characters from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and the fourth the Devil himself – sitting around in Hell discussing philosophy. In short, peak-time viewing material this ain’t. Not even with the presence of Michael Redgrave, and of Christopher Plummer, a mere six years after The Sound of Music.

Don Juan in Hell, despite taking up almost two hours of the BBC schedule that night, is not the full play. It is a dream episode interpolated into a longer play, Man and Superman. In this episode, we have three characters from Don Giovanni, and the Devil, all of whom are transformed versions of four characters who appear in the longer play. I don’t know if Man and Superman has ever been played complete with this dream episode: that would be, I’d imagine, far too long to be accommodated in a single evening’s performance, and a practical man of the theatre such as Shaw must surely have known that. Certainly, when I saw Man and Superman on stage back in the early 80s (with Peter O’Toole in the principal role of Jack Tanner), the Don Juan in Hell episode was cut entirely. I’d guess Shaw had intended this long episode as a bonus for the reader – a not-so-miniature closet drama embedded in a larger play for the stage – rather than something he expected to be performed. But who knows? Maybe Shaw did expect his audience to be seated in the theatre for five hours, fascinated by his new, modern variation of the Don Juan myth: I wouldn’t put such megalomania past him.

I don’t actually mean to be rude about Shaw, although, sometimes, it is hard to resist the temptation. Several of his plays still stand up pretty well, I think – Heartbreak House, say, or Saint Joan. And Pygmalion ranks with the plays of Sheridan or with The Importance of Being Earnest as among the very finest of stage comedies in the English language. But there were other times when – to crudely anticipate what should really be the conclusion of this essay – he could be a pompous windbag. I have been fascinated by all three of the Don Juan plays I read recently (see here, here, and here): this one, I must confess, I found a trial.

It is, in outline, a light comedy. After the death of her father, the young lady Ann Whitefield, by the terms of her late father’s will, finds herself placed in the guardianship of the ageing, respectable Roebuck Ramsden, and of a much younger man, Jack Tanner, who, we are informed, holds unconventional views on all sorts of things. Ramsden, who used to be a liberal in his youth and who, not realising how very outdated his outlook now is, still considers himself a man of progressive views; but he disapproves of Jack Tanner, whose radicalism is, apparently, beyond the pale. Although this play was written in 1903, when social conventions were far more strait-laced than our own, it is quite hard to see exactly why Tanner’s views are regarded as so objectionable. After all, Shaw seems to go out of his way to assure us that he is, indeed, morally irreproachable:

Ramsden: I am glad you think so well of yourself.

Tanner: All you mean by that is that you think I should be ashamed of talking about my virtues. You don’t mean that I haven’t got them: you know perfectly well that I am as sober and honest a citizen as yourself, as truthful personally, and much more truthful politically and morally.

And, a few lines later:

Tanner: … you ask yourself, as a just and upright man, what is the worst you can fairly say of me. Thief, liar, forger, adulterer, perjurer, glutton, drunkard? Not one of these names fit me.

Since Jack Tanner is – as is made explicit in the Don Juan in Hell episode – the equivalent of Don Juan Tenorio, this does seem an odd piece of characterisation. For the most salient aspect of Don Juan, in all the previous versions I have read, is that he accepts no moral bounds on himself. I am not sure whether this taming of Don Juan is to ensure that the audience would not take sides against Jack Tanner; or whether, as I suspect, Shaw himself, for all his show of disdain for conventional morality, was himself too much attached to this same morality to allow his protagonist, whom he obviously intended to be sympathetic, to flout it. Either way, presenting this modern Don Juan as such a paragon of virtue makes it difficult for us to take him seriously as a rebel against society’s morals.

The comedy comes mainly from the pompous Ramsden becoming flustered by the irreverence of the young “rebel” Tanner; or from Octavius, who is in love with Anna, being such a timid and helpless ninny. (Octavius is clearly the equivalent of Don Ottavio in Mozart’s opera.) It is occasionally mildly amusing, but is far too obvious and formulaic to be anything much more than that. As for Tanner himself, virtuous though he may be in all respects, he has one vice that I, for one, found insufferable: he just can’t stop talking. He is like one of those tiresome people one sometimes encounters who has heard it said of himself that he is something of a character, and spends all his energies trying to live up to that reputation. Only in a conventional stage drama could someone like him be allowed to go on talking interminably without being told to shut up, for Heavens’ sake.

It wouldn’t have mattered so much if what he had to say was witty, or intelligent: but it isn’t. He has an idea, which he states explicitly – and repeatedly – that women are driven by a biological imperative to perpetuate the human race, and, to that end, their chief aim is to capture a mate; while men, on the other hand, try their best to escape their clutches. Complete unmitigated gibberish, if you ask me, but Tanner takes this seriously enough, and so, apparently, does Shaw, as this nonsense seems to be the central theme of the play. Now, one may point to works that are notable despite the bad ideas they attempt to propagate, but I don’t think even the greatest of dramatists could contrive a play that survives this level of balderdash.

However, this rather strange idea does drive the play. Where, in Mozart’s opera, Don Giovanni had chased after an unwilling Donna Anna, here, Ann Whitefield chases after an unwilling Jack Tanner. And by the end, she captures him. That, in essence, is the play. And in the midst of all this, we have a dramatic interlude – Don Juan in Hell.

Here, we have three of the characters from Mozart’s Don Giovanni – Don Juan (Don Giovanni) himself; the statue of the Commendatore who had dragged him down to Hell; and Donna Anna (who is now in Hell herself, having lived a long life); these three are joined by the Devil, who turns out to be rather a charming man, and not at all diabolic or demonic. Hell is not here a place of fire and brimstone and Dante-esque tortures: that, we are told, is all propaganda. Hell here is a place where people enjoy themselves for all eternity, and Don Juan, against expectations, is bored with all this. So bored, indeed, that he decides by the end to opt for the contemplative life offered by Heaven. But before he does so, we are treated to a long – very long – Shavian dialogue about the purpose of our human lives. We wade through a great number of Shavian jokes (none of which I found more than mildly risible) to get to the point, viz., that the biological imperative, that had been mentioned earlier, to further the human race, and of which women are the principal agents, has the aim eventually of creating the “Superman” – not the DC Comics character, sadly, but the Nietzschian Übermensch. Shaw doesn’t address the issue of how mere perpetuation of the species in itself can lead to such an end, but, given his well-known enthusiasm for eugenics, I was reluctant to enquire further.

After this scene in Hell, we return to the mode of social comedy, where the modern Donna Anna chases down and finally captures the modern Don Juan. Most lame and impotent conclusion, as Desdemona said in a somewhat different context, but no more lame or impotent than the rest of the drama, to be honest.

When I saw that BBC broadcast of Don Juan in Hell all those years ago, I did not like it because I didn’t understand it. This time, I did not like it because I did understand it, and found it too absurd to take at all seriously. Incredible how much things change in a mere forty-five years.

As for Shaw, he did write a handful of plays that are genuinely witty and sparkling and, yes, intelligent. I am afraid I could see no evidence of any of these qualities in this one.

[Edit: 3rd April 2007 – A friend has pointed out to me that Superman is a DC Comics character, and not a Marvel Comics character. I have now corrected the error.]

Turgenev’s shorter fiction

I’m never quite sure what the difference is between the short story and the novel – whether the difference is merely a question of length, or whether there is something else involved. For if it is merely a question of word-count, the borderline isn’t clearly defined: where exactly is the demarcation line between the two? And if there is no clear demarcation line, how do we classify those works that seem too long for short story, and yet not long enough for a novel?

To resolve this issue, a third category was introduced – the novella. But this doesn’t really improve matters, as where, previously, there had been one undefined demarcation line, now there are two. And even if we know roughly – since all questions of taxonomy in these matters are inevitably imprecise – where these demarcation lines lie, we may question why they lie where they do, and not elsewhere. For instance, we can all agree that Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer”, say, is a short story, Heart of Darkness a novella, and Nostromo a novel. Yet, although we take the trouble to separate out these works, we lump  together Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons and Tolstoy’s War and Peace in the same category, even though the latter is some seven times as long as the former. It all seems so arbitrary that I can’t help wondering whether these classifications purely in terms of length serve any purpose at all.

So maybe it isn’t merely a question merely of length, but of scope. But if we follow this line of thought, we run into even greater problems:  length is, at least, quantifiable; heaven only knows what we mean by “scope”. And yet, it does seem reasonable to assert that War and Peace has a broader scope than Fathers and Sons: the former addresses a great many themes, and the latter only one. (Or, at best, only a few.) Tolstoy’s novel has a great many narrative strands and focal points of interest; Turgenev’s doesn’t. This is not to say that Turgenev’s novel is, for this reason a lesser work of art: a songwriter is not attempting to compose a symphony, and it would be foolish to judge a song and a symphony by the same criteria. But a distinction along these lines may, perhaps, give us an insight into why we feel it natural to distinguish between the short story (or the novella) on the one hand, from, on the other hand, the novel. The former contracts, focusing our attention on a single issue, or on a small handful of issues: the latter expands to take in more.

Such a definition does not, I fear, stand up too well to close scrutiny. Many of Chekhov’s stories, for instance, imply so much more than is directly stated, that they seem to have the scope of novels. On the other hand, a novel such as The Golden Bowl by Henry James spends its immense length focusing on the interactions of just four characters – although such is the significance that James finds in the course of his painstaking dissections, that the few focal points upon which he closes seem to imply an entire universe. In short, differentiating the short story and the novel in terms of scope is fraught with all sorts of difficulties and inconsistencies. But in discussing the short fiction of Turgenev, it is, I think, useful. For Turgenev’s literary imagination was such that it eschewed vast canvases, with its intersecting strands and multiple themes: he preferred limiting his focal points, concentrating on fewer things, and achieving, in the process, a unity and a perfection of form that is usually denied those writers whose scope is broader. Turgenev is, in short, a songwriter rather than a symphonist.

This is apparent even in his full-length novels. If many of Chekhov’s short stories seem like novels in miniature, Turgenev’s novels often give the appearance of long short stories. Indeed, I am not entirely sure why Rudin is counted as a novel, and The Torrents of Spring a novella: although I haven’t counted the words, they seem to be of similar length, and in neither is the scope particularly broad. In both, Turgenev deals with the theme of the sadness of life – of our inability, due either to fate or to the weaknesses in our characters, to seize happiness when we can, so all we are left with in the end is a regret for what might have been. This, indeed, seems to be a running theme in virtually all of Turgenev’s work, and it usually presents itself in the form of a sad love story. For Turgenev delighted in writing love stories: he had a natural gift for lyricism; he could write prose as exquisite as any nocturne by Chopin (and this lyricism survives even in translation); and he could describe with a disarming openness and poignancy the most tender and intimate of thoughts, feelings, sensations. The battlefield of Borodino may well have been beyond his range, but there aren’t many who could depict so perfectly the gentle, nocturnal musings of a pained and stricken heart.

If all this makes Turgenev sound a bit twee, perhaps, a bit precious, then yes, our modern sensibilities, hardened as they are by the abrasive and the garish, may well perceive his writings as such. But I can’t help thinking that that is our loss, and that we should, at least for a while, put the neon lights out of our minds so as better to perceive the softness of a moonlit night.

In the course of pursuing his theme of the sadness of unfulfilled lives, he strikes upon another theme that is often regarded as archetypally Turgenevian – that of the “superfluous man”, the man who, despite being intelligent and even gifted, is, nonetheless, for reasons not easy to articulate, curiously ineffective. Indeed, one of his novellas is actually titled The Diary of a Superfluous Man, and, once again, it takes the form of a love story – in this case, a rejected love. Both the title and the form recall Gogol’s “Diary of a Madman”, but the content could hardly be different. Gogol’s story is phamtasmagoric, garishly coloured, and nightmarish: Turgenev prefers pastel shades, gently probing into the seemingly unanswerable question of why a human, not noticeably deficient in any obvious way, should nonetheless be “superfluous”.

The theme of the “superfluous man” has political and social implications as well of course, but, while Turgenev explored these implications in some of his novels, I distinctly get the impression that he was drawn into political themes simply because, as an intelligent an living in those times, he could not very well avoid them; but that he was happier focusing on the personal, the intimate. In Asya, we see the narrator too indecisive to respond adequately to a love that is offered him: the narrator is ostensibly at the centre of the story, but, very subtly, it is the title character, Asya, whom we see purely through the narrator’s eyes, who is really at its centre: the focal point is not the narrator’s “superfluity”, as such, but the pain of rejection experienced by Asya.

First Love too is about unrequited love – in this case, of a teenage lad, unused to and puzzled by the sudden stirrings of the heart. It is often regarded, with good reason, as a perfect example of Turgenev’s art: the narrative line is clear, uncluttered, and elegant; the psychological depictions are acute; and, in terms of form, it is about as close to perfection as is possible. But perhaps the best of all – at least, the one that affected me most – is the late novella Torrents of Spring. This was one of Turgenev’s last works, and the narrator, like the author, is a man in his late middle age, and lonely. He tell of his youth, when he might have found the happiness that he now lacks, but which, through the weakness of his own character, he threw away even as it was within his grasp. The story itself is deeply poignant, and the storytelling is absolute perfection: the uncluttered elegance of the narrative line, and its sense of artless ease, could only have been achieved by the most refined and sophisticated artistry; and its evocation of sadness, regret, and of loneliness, continues to haunt the mind long after one has finished reading. Fathers and Sons is often held to be Turgenev’s masterpiece, partly, I suspect, because of its political and social implications, but I am not sure that his masterpiece isn’t The Torrents of Spring: here, Turgenev isn’t concerned either with politics or with society: he focuses instead on what, I think, interests him most – the vagaries of the human heart.

There are two novellas that aren’t love stories – Mumu, a heart-rending story of a mute serf (i.e. slave) forced by his unfeeling and uncaring mistress to kill his own dog, because its barking disturbs her. (By “mistress”, I don’t mean, of course, a woman with whom he is having an affair, but, rather, the woman who owns him, body and soul.) And there is King Lear of the Steppes, a late masterpiece, which tells a story the narrator had witnessed when still a young lad, and not mature enough to understand the significance of what he sees. It is a tale of a peasant family, told with Turgenev’s characteristically direct and uncluttered style. However, it lacks his usual lyricism: we have here, instead, a story of immense power. It is also bleak and pessimistic: the “Lear” of this tale, an aged peasant, does not even have the consolation of a Cordelia. Turgenev was not always the soppy romantic he is sometimes made out to be.


Turgenev is often ranked with his great contemporaries Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, but this comparison does him no favours. For trying to compare Turgenev’s fiction with that of the other two is, essentially, comparing songs with symphonies: inevitably, the song is drowned out. But Turgenev’s voice, though quieter and less powerful, and, perhaps, more difficult to appreciate in our more abrasive times, remains potent. Certainly, few writers have conveyed with such artistry and refinement the sheer sadness of our unfulfilled human lives.


The translations I read:

“First Love and Other Stories” translated by Richard Freeborn, Oxford World Classics (contains The Diary of a Superfluous Man, Mumu, Asya, First Love, King Lear of the Steppes, The Song of Triumphant  Love)

“The Torrents of Spring” translated by David Magarshack, published by Folio Society (originally published by Hamish Hamilton)

“La Regenta” by Leopoldo Alas

Late to the party, as ever. La Regenta by Leopoldo Alas, a massive novel written in the 1880s (i.e. slap bang in the middle of what is possibly my favourite era for literature – at least as far as novels are concerned), translated from the Spanish by John Rutherford (whose wonderful translation of Don Quixote I recently commented on), was nominated as a “group read” amongst various book bloggers. Now I know why I am so reluctant to take part in these group-reads: I am invariably way behind everyone else. However, undaunted by the 700 and more pages of sight-destroying print, I did dive in, and I am glad I did so. It proved an exhausting read, but sometimes, exhaustion can be a price worth paying.

Before I go on to put together my personal impressions – for that’s all these blog posts of mine are – I should direct the reader’s attention to some other very perceptive posts on this novel in other blogs. In no particular order:

A Commonplace Reader


Wuthering Expectations

Six Words for a Hat

Tredynas Days

(Please do let me know of any others I have inadvertently omitted, and I shall add them.)

I have gained much understanding from these blogs, and, in what follows, will be plagiarising without acknowledgement many of these bloggers’ ideas and insights.

Now that these preliminaries are over, let me dive in again – this time, to try to make some sense, hopefully, of this massive work. And I suppose I should add here what is known as a “spoiler alert”:

*** SPOILER ALERT: The following inevitably reveals some aspects of the plot of La Regenta ***


I once formulated a theory that characters in Russian novels have souls, but characters in French novels don’t. It seemed quite neat to me at the time, even with the modification I had almost immediately to make, to the effect that when Russian novelists do create characters without souls, they are shocked by their soullessness – in Gogol’s case, sufficiently so to draw attention to the fact in the title.

But a little more thought convinced me that I had best shelve my theory – at least, before someone brought up Andre Gide’s La Porte Étroite, or François Mauriac’s Thérèse. The problem is, I think, that I tend see Flaubert as an exemplar when it comes to French novelists, and easily forget that not all French novelists were so uncompromisingly cynical. But, for better or worse, when I think of the French novel, it’s Flaubert who comes first to mind. And although La Regenta is a Spanish rather than a French novel, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary seems to me to be stamped all over it.

This is not a very original observation. Indeed, it often seems that Alas had deliberately set out to invite comparisons with Madame Bovary. Once again, we have the central character, a woman, married to a ninny and suffocating in a provincial town; we have the townspeople – empty, vapid, pompous, shallow, trivial, self-regarding, venal, tedious, dull, corrupt – all depicted with great cynicism, and, frequently, a quite savage irony; and once again, we have a central plot involving adultery – adultery as a much sought-for release from all the frustrations of daily tedium, but which, inevitably, ends badly. The presence of Madame Bovary in the background can hardly be ignored, and Alas must, indeed, have been aware of it.

But of course, this is no mere re-run of Madame Bovary: that would have been pointless. For all the apparent similarities, there are significant differences – in the narrative technique, in the characters’ psychologies, and also, I think, thematically.

For one thing, this is a much longer novel: it is more than 700 pages in John Rutherford’s translation, and, if the print had been of a somewhat more reasonable size, I suspect it would have been nearer a thousand. This is the sort of length one would expect of epic novels – Les Misérables, say, or War and Peace; that so many pages are taken to narrate what is, in essence, a provincial and domestic story, the outline of which may easily be summarised in a few sentences, imparts to the reader – to this reader, at least – a sense almost of suffocation. We too seem, like Ana, the regenta (judge’s wife) of the novel’s title, to be inhabiting this endlessly tedious, soulless waste.

But one person, at least, does have a soul, and that is Ana. She is the only character in the entire novel whose soul is specifically referred to. In this, the novel is very different from Madame Bovary: there, Emma was as empty and as vapid as all the others, and the terrible irony was that her rebellion was every bit as shallow and stupid as that she was rebelling against. Here, in contrast, Ana really does have a soul, albeit a soul that is parched and empty; and she is in search of something – she barely knows what – that would provide her soul with sustenance.

But there seems to me to be an uncertainty here – an uncertainty that Alas carefully leaves unresolved. What really is the nature of Ana’s religious yearnings? Is it a mystical longing, or mere hysterical religiosity? Is it a search for spiritual grace? Or could it be that it is but a sublimated form merely of sexual desire? Could the cynicism of the narrator (whose voice may or may not be the voice of Alas himself – we can never be quite sure) extend so far as to see Ana’s spiritual yearning, and, by implication, all spiritual yearning, as no more than a craving for sex – an essentially animal craving that we dress up in fancy clothes to convince ourselves of our essential seriousness?

This was not, I think, among Flaubert’s concerns in Madame Bovary, but it seems to me here a major theme. This entire novel is drenched with a sense of often quite raw sensuality, which is all the more potent for being repressed: a glimpse of an ankle, the outline of a female form apparent behind a dress – the slightest thing, indeed – is enough to set off the good people of Vetusta into the most febrile imaginings, the most prurient fantasies. Don Alvaro Mesia, the local Don Juan, is celebrated and looked up to for his many conquests. In one particularly distasteful scene, Don Alvaro tells admiring members of the town’s gentlemen’s club of one of his many “seductions” – in reality, nothing short of rape. And how the assembled gentlemen of the club all lap it up! Physical sex, sensuality, is the focal point of all their aspirations, all their yearnings.

Amidst all this prurience, all this salaciousness, Ana’s spiritual yearnings and passions – generally regarded as a bit unseemly, as “overdoing it”, and, despite the example of St Teresa, as something not really appropriate for a lady, and a judge’s wife at that – may well be a yearning for something more beautiful, more uplifting. But the nagging suspicion persists that, at bottom, it may be nothing more than the same desire for physical sex that everyone else in the town seems to feel. Married to a man much older than himself, who does not sleep with her, and who treats her as a daughter rather than as a wife, Ana is, sexually, deeply frustrated; and, during that brief period when her sexual desires are satisfied, her spiritual yearnings seem altogether to disappear. But Alas – or his narrator, should the two be different – refuses to commit himself on this point. Perhaps because there can be no definite answer to this: the wellsprings of human motivation are, after all, obscure.

If it is at least possible that Ana mistakes her physical desires for spiritual yearnings, there is no doubt that Don Fermin, the canon theologian, makes the same mistake. He is introduced as proud and ambitious, strong, powerful, and virile. But he takes his calling seriously enough not to break his chastity. (At least, not with Ana: women from the lower orders- maidservants and the like – are fair game.) When he becomes Ana’s confessor, he falls head over heels in love with her: indeed, he becomes quite besotted. But he convinces himself, and convinces Ana, that theirs is a “spiritual” union. He is grossly mistaken. When Ana betrays him to form a less-than-spiritual union with Don Alvaro, the canon theologian’s reaction, too,is less than spiritual: it is, indeed, quite volcanic. Here, again, Alas’ fictional world diverges from Flaubert’s: the eruptive force of Don Fermin’s fierce passions has no place in the world of Madame Bovary.

The third member of the triangle here is, of course, the lover, in this case, the experienced “seducer” – and, indeed, rapist, as rape counted as “seduction” in this proper and moral society – Don Alvaro. He is a “man of the world”, as they say; Ana, on the other hand, has led a very sheltered life, both before and after her marriage. Once Don Alvaro gets the opportunity, he knows precisely what to do to get her into bed, to convince her that in him she would find the true object of her aspirations, her desires. She is putty in his hands. It is an expert seduction, to be sure, and how ironic it is that so high-minded a lady as Ana, so demure, so far above the salacious gossipmongering and sexual flaunting of the other ladies, should fall for someone such as Don Alvaro. But fall she does, and to Don Fermin, the sense of betrayal is earth-shattering: his entire being, which he had invested in Ana, collapses; his belief that he had with her a “spiritual union”, disintegrates. He could not have reacted more violently had he been her husband.

It is unusual to have a love triangle from which the husband is excluded, but the husband here, an elderly retired judge, seems almost completely sexless. Even when presented with evidence of his wife’s infidelity, he seems almost incapable of summoning up the passion that he knows he should, under the circumstances, feel. His interests lie elsewhere – in hunting, and in classical drama, from which he would delightedly recite the most passionate of lines, without being able to feel any of that passion himself in his real life. It would have been easy to have turned him into a mere comic figure, but, despite the unremitting cynicism of the narrative, he emerges – to me, at least – as curiously sympathetic: he is a man so immersed in his own little world, and so unthinkingly happy in it, and so utterly blind to anything outside it, that when that outside world intrudes into his own, he is lost. A nincompoop he may be, but this judge, so helpless because he is so incapable of judgement, does, I think, arouse more pity than disdain.

So this, then, is the story, and a fairly simple story it is too. And yet, it is of epic length. Indeed, I can think of many a novel whose content may be described as “epic” that are, nonetheless, much shorter than this.

The length is accounted for, I think, by the meticulousness of Alas’ approach. Not for him to give a rough impression of the town Vetusta (a fictionalised Orvieto), or to drop suggestions into the reader’s mind and leave it there: he has, meticulously, to bring the entire town to life, detailing its streets, its social institutions, its citizens, and give them all weight and solidity. And he delves into his characters’ minds – what they think, what they feel, how they view themselves and each other. Even minor characters do not escape his detailed scrutiny.

Of course, he knew that he was risking writing a very boring novel: it cannot be an easy thing, after all, to depict tedium without being tedious oneself. And in his constant use of irony – it is impossible to ignore the influence of Flaubert here – he further risks alienating the reader from the characters: irony, after all, invariably distances. But, although the novel is (or, at least, seemed to me) frequently suffocating, it is never dull. The sense of suffocation is, I think, deliberate: it is not enough to be told of the sense of suffocation felt by Ana – we have to experience it also. But tedium is kept at bay by the sheer polish of the writing, and by the vitality he manages to inject into even the most insignificant of the characters. Flaubert managed to make his readers interested in even someone such as Félicité (“Un Coeur Simple”), a character whom, in real life, we’d probably find too dull to want to spend much time with; Alas has the same ability to arouse interest in characters who, in real life, are likely to arouse in us little but a sense of tedium. And, to be entirely honest, I’m not quite sure how either Flaubert or Alas pulls this off. But it is fascinating to see them do it.

The first of the two halves into which the novel is split is virtually all expository. The exposition is what we need to know for the story to make sense, and most writers try to get it out of the way as soon as possible, but not Alas: for him, the exposition is not merely there to make the story intelligible – it is for him as integral and as important a part of the novel as is the central drama. For his interest here is not merely in the principal figures of the drama, but also in the environment they live in, and in others who share that environment. These three hundred and fifty pages of the first part take us through only three days, but Alas has no interest here in giving an impression of time moving forward: what momentum there is comes from a sense of mass rather than of velocity. What matters here is not a sense of the story moving forward, but of the realisation of an entire town, of an entire body of people inhabiting that town. Even at the end of that first half, at a point where a great many novels would already have run their course and ended, we are given a detailed flashback telling us of Don Firmin’s mother, his birth, and his childhood: we are still, in other words, in the exposition.

As I finished the first part, I couldn’t help wondering how the novel would progress in the second. Tchaikovsky once said of Brahms’ violin concerto that Brahms had built a good, solid plinth, but, instead of placing a sculpture on it, he had merely gone on to create yet another plinth. Although I have the temerity to disagree with Tchaikovsky on this point, that does seem to me as striking image. In the first part of the novel, Alas has, indeed, created an immensely strong expository plinth; but what was he going to put on top of it? Would his focus still be on mass rather than on velocity?

The focus does indeed alter in the second part, but Alas was too fine a writer to change gears too suddenly. But slowly, almost imperceptibly, the central characters and their drama become increasingly prominent, increasingly take centre stage. We find, to start with, that each new chapter, though beginning with some other set of characters, inevitably gravitates by the end towards Don Firmin, Don Alvaro, or to Ana. After a while, chapters begin with these figures, and they begin to stand out more strongly in relief from the others. The pace gathers slowly, but the cumulative effect, though still carrying more mass than speed, is tremendous. And the climactic section, prepared for so meticulously and over so long a span, does not disappoint: all the passions that had been simmering so long under the surface seem suddenly to explode. The effect is tremendous.


La Regenta would not have been possible, I think, had Madame Bovary not been written, but, despite the many parallels, Alas’ concerns are different from Flaubert’s. Where Flaubert shook his head sadly at the sheer futility of all human activities, and at the humanity’s desire to transcend the limits imposed by human stupidity, but its inability, because of that very stupidity, to do so, Alas was more concerned with spiritual aspirations in a doggedly unspiritual world, and with sexual desires in a society that, though fascinated by sex, represses these desires, so that eroticism degrades into mere prurience. And he wonders to what extent the two are indeed one and the same thing – to what extent our spiritual yearnings are but sublimated forms of our animal appetites. He is interested also in human passions that, however we try to hide them under civic structures and civilised customs, refuse to remain hidden. The result is a novel that is not, perhaps, the easiest to read, but is worthy to take its place amongst the finest products of a most illustrious literary era.

[8th October,2016: edit made to correct a misleading passage regarding the plot.]

Future reading plans: Wagner, Ibsen, “The Mahabharata”, and other matters

I am not at all sure why I make plans for reading. I never stick to them anyway. Something always pops along that takes my fancy, and, like the best laid schemes of mice and men, all my calculations gang aft agley. Which reminds me: I have never actually bothered looking up what “aft agley” literally means. But whatever it means, that’s where my best-laid schemes invariably gang.

I realise also that the time for making plans is at the start of a new year, but I have always thought that a bad custom, as, quite apart from anything else, the gentle inebriation that is so salient a feature of the festive season is hardly conducive to sensible planning: whatever plans are made at such a time are likely to gang very much aft agley much more quickly than plans made in a more sober frame of mind.

In any case, some reading plans do need to be made now. I have just finished La Regenta by Leopoldo Alas (of which more in a later post) – a deeply impressive novel, but, at seven hundred and more pages of sight-destroyingly small print, it took me over three months to read. (I never was a particularly fast reader, and I seem to be slowing up in my old age.) Now that it is finished, I can’t help but feel a sense of freedom. This is not to disparage Alas’ novel, which really is magnificent, but, rather like the ageing roué whose eyes wander even while engaged in a fulfilling monogamous relationship, I couldn’t help looking longingly at all those unread titles, both on my bookshelf and in bookshops, as well as at various old flames whose charms I find myself keen to revisit.

Not that the relationship with La Regenta had been strictly monogamous: there were, as ever, clandestine assignations with various poems and short stories, and, between the two parts of the Alas’ novel, a serious fling with Tony Harrison’s version of Aeschylus’ Oresteia (of which, too, there will be more in a later post). And now that I have parted company with La Regenta, I am currently engrossed in Roger Scruton’s new book on Wagner’s Ring Cycle, which, despite its somewhat cheesy title (The Ring of Truth – whose bright idea was that?), is a fascinating read. I am not sure yet whether I should write a post on this: the themes of the Ring Cycle, and Scruton’s interpretations of them, though lucidly explicated, are so complex, and lead to so many areas of thought that are to me relatively new, that I don’t know I could express very much in a post beyond merely a partial understanding. But perhaps it’s worth recording even my puzzlement: sometimes, the very act of posing questions to which I do not know the answers can lead to a better understanding.

One may certainly argue that, like any major work of art, the Ring Cycle, at least to an extent, is intended to puzzle: life, after all, is puzzling, and any work of art that seeks to address life seriously has to convey something of its profound mysteries. One understands such works not by plucking out the heart of their mysteries – even if such a thing were to be possible – but, rather, by coming to some sort of understanding of, and a settlement with, the nature of the mysteries depicted. As I read about the profound mysteries addressed by Wagner, I cannot help but make connections. The connections with The Oresteia are obvious: I have long been aware of (though I haven’t yet read) Michael Ewans’ thesis (referred to in Scruton’s book) that the Ring Cycle is a sort of inverted Oresteia – that where The Oresteia consists of three tragic dramas followed by a satyr play (now lost), the Ring Cycle consists of a satyr play followed by three tragic dramas; and where Aeschylus depicts the emergence of civic society and the concept of law from the primeval murk of our unreasoning instincts, Wagner depicts the very fabric of law and of civic society collapsing under the weight of its internal contradictions. (It’s all very complex, and perhaps I should allow these ideas to settle in my mind for a while before exhibiting my ignorance and lack of understanding for all to see on this blog.) And there are two other connections as well that Scruton doesn’t mention, but which, since my own mind is already saturated with certain things, I could not help making. One was with the novels of Dostoyevsky; the other, with the plays of Ibsen.

Now, Dostoyevsky I have waffled about a few times on this blog, but, in all the six and more years this blog has been going, I have rarely touched on Ibsen. I am not sure why, since Ibsen is within the foremost circle of writers whom I most value. Not his early plays, which are conventional and rather stiff and boring historic dramas, and which would be utterly forgotten now had he not gone on to write greater stuff; but, say, from The Pretenders onwards. The Pretenders is the last and by far the best of those early plays, and, while I don’t think it matches some other historic dramas such as, say, Georg Büchner’s Danton’s Death, it is, nonetheless, a play not unworthy of a great dramatist. But then, something strange happened. Ibsen, freed by a government grant from hack-work in the theatre, wrote two masterpieces – Brand, and Peer Gynt. Heaven only knows where these plays came from: nothing he had written earlier would have led one to believe that he was capable of this. These two plays were written to be read rather than performed – they are both way too long for a single evening in the theatre, and need to be cut for performance – but Ibsen seemed to have the theatre in his blood: even when not writing specifically for the stage, he couldn’t help but write works that were thrillingly theatrical. Despite some notable later attempts to revive verse drama (by Yeats and Eliot, for instance), these were the last great verse dramas. Things were changing, and Ibsen was at the forefront of these changes. But if these plays do indeed mark the end of verse drama (and I realise that some may disagree with my contention), then the genre died with a bang rather than a whimper: I personally do not think there has been drama so powerful since Shakespeare.

Then, curiously, Ibsen devoted several years of his life writing a very exotic two-part drama Emperor and Galilean, about the Byzantine emperor Julian the Apostate. Ibsen himself felt – at least at the time – that this was his most important work, and I have never been able to figure out whether this indeed is a key work in his oeuvre, or whether it is a mistake, an aberration – a wrong turning that he afterwards rectified. I really ned to revisit these plays, and read them carefully: they seem such an anomaly in the context of his other work – but it could be that I have not yet come to an adequate understanding of them.

But other things were brewing in Ibsen’s mind. And while these other things were brewing, Ibsen kept the pot boiling with a comparatively light work – the comedy The League of Youth. But then followed those twelve great prose dramas, from The Pillars of Society to When We Dead Awaken, that Brian Johnstone – not entirely convincingly, to my mind – describes as “The Ibsen Cycle”. Ibsen himself, towards the end of his life, referred to these plays as a cycle, but it seems to me highly unlikely that they were initially conceived as such, and, other than these works being linked by similar themes, I cannot really detect much of a unity. But the thematic unities across these plays are themselves of interest, and, cycle or not, reading them in chronological order – and keeping in mind Brand and Peer Gynt, which are in many ways harbingers of these late plays (although they are much more than that also) – should, I think, be rewarding. For if we do regard these twelve plays as a single unified cycle (and I am prepared to be convinced that they are), then they may well challenge Wagner’s Ring Cycle as the most insanely ambitious artistic achievement of the nineteenth century.

So that is what I intend to do: over the course of next year, I shall read, in various translations, all the plays of Ibsen in chronological order, starting with The Pretenders, and hopefully, in the process, come to a better understanding of Ibsen’s developing artistic vision. And, of course, record my thoughts here for anyone who cares to read them. If, after all, this blog is primarily about those things that are dear to me, it seems crazy giving such short shrift to Ibsen.

But Ibsen is for next year. I have another scheme that I most certainly hope won’t gang aft agley, and which should keep me busy between now and the end of the year. I want to read The Mahabharata.

I don’t think there has ever been a time within the reaches of my memory when I haven’t been at least aware of the stories of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata: growing up as I did in an Indian Hindu family, these are things that enter the bloodstream at a very early age. I remember the comic strip books I had retelling some of the stories from these two national epics: I was introduced them at so early an age that I did not even bat an eye when Draupadi simultaneously married five brothers. But these stories did not enter the bloodstream fully: when I was five years of age, I left India and came to Britain, and exchanged the stories from The Ramayana and The Mahabharata with Greek myths, Arthurian legends, Bible stories. Inevitably, a residue from early childhood remains, but I now want to come to a better understanding of all this. A few years ago, I read Ashia Sattar’s abridged translation of TheRamayana, and was surprised by the extent to which Valmiki’s original version deviated from the stories I had taken in. I suspect it will be much the same with The Mahabharata.

Not that I am going to read the whole thing. Unlike The Iliad or The Odyssey, The Mahabharata is not a unified work: Sanskrit scholar Wendy Doniger refers to it as a sort of Wikipedia of the ancient world, with various voices adding to it over time. What we have now is, effectively, a series of accretions overlaying whatever may originally have been the core, and, as is to be expected, not all the accretions are equally of interest – at least, not to a casual reader such as myself. Under the circumstances, abridged editions in which the wheat is sorted from the chaff by expert hands are to be welcomed rather than regretted. So, to this end, I have got myself the single volume edition in Penguin Classics, translated by John Smith (an appropriate name for the translator of a work created by anonymous writers); a much-acclaimed verse retelling by Carole Satyamurthi, published by Norton (if what Carole Satyamurthi has done for The Mahabharata is in any way comparable to what Christopher Logue did for The Iliad, it would certainly be worth pursuing); and, finally, W. J. Johnson’s translation of the eleventh book of The Mahabharata, published by Oxford University Press – one of the shortest, but, I gather, among the most significant books of the massive epic. I doubt I’ll ever be a scholar of The Mahabharata, but reading this books will, at least, acquaint me with one of the major works of world literature – one that should be, but isn’t quite, in my bloodstream.

But before I leap into all that, I may as well continue my Turgenev project, and not let that gang aft agley with all the other schemes. After my encounter with the massive La Regenta, a few novellas may not, perhaps, go amiss. First Love I read many years ago, and don’t remember very well; and Spring Torrents and King Lear of the Steppes I don’t know at all. So, the plan is as follows: once I’ve finished reading about the Ring Cycle, I’ll move on to the three Turgenev novellas, and then tackle The Mahabharata. And if that takes me to the end of this year, I can embark at the start of next year on my Ibsen project.

And, anyone who has stayed with my ramblings so far may be pleased to know, I shall record my thoughts here on this blog, both the worthy and the unworthy, the perspicacious and the downright idiotic. But before I do all that, I had perhaps best find out what “gang aft agley” actually means.

“A rose by any other name…”: a few thoughts on translation

Here’s a challenge:

Take a book written by Wodehouse, or by some other comic writer who appeals to your sense of humour; pick a passage that makes you laugh; and, neither adding nor subtracting anything in terms of content, rewrite that passage in your own words, and in your own sentences. Chances are, your re-write is not funny. Or, at least, nowhere near as funny as the original.

This is the problem with translation – especially translation of comic writing, or of poetry: the literal meaning of the words is so often the least of it.

Not that I don’t think that literal translations have their place: nowadays, when there are so many different translations of the acknowledged classics of Western literature, there is room for all sorts of approaches. And it is certainly interesting to know precisely what the original text says. But a translation that is slavishly literal is unlikely to be very readable, as Nabokov proved with his ultra-literal translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin: that translation tells us very accurately what Pushkin had written, but the result cannot be read as a poem in English.

Translators vary from the literalist to the interventionist, and, if one is sufficiently interested to follow such matters, one may find a great deal of heated controversy. Recently, Janet Malcolm created a bit of a storm with an article in New York Review of Books, laying into, amongst others, the very popular translations of classic Russian literature by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volkhonsky. Malcolm rather destroys her own credibility, however, by admitting that she cannot read these works in Russian: if the critic cannot compare a translation with the original, then, I’d have thought, the critic is completely disqualified from passing judgement. At best, such a critic may say how the translation reads in English; but its fidelity, either to the letter or to the spirit, is beyond this critic’s scope.

There’s a very interesting response by Erik McDonald to Janet Malcolm’s piece in which he argues that Tolstoy is, effectively, “unruinable”. I know no Russian myself, but I can readily believe that: I have now read Anna Karenina in four different translations – by Rosemary Edmonds, by Louise and Aylmer Maude, by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volkhonsky, and, most recently, by Kyrill Zinovieff and Jenny Hughes, and, despite the translators’ very different approaches to their art (for art it surely is), they all made on me impacts of comparable magnitude. If I reacted differently to these translations, that is only because I read them in different times of my life. Perhaps we can make too much of these differences in translations. Pevear and Volkhonsy’s literalism is, I think, most certainly a valid approach, though not, of course, the only valid approach.

It’s when it comes to comic writing, and to poetry, that I am not certain that the literal approach is the best one to take. Certainly, the Pevear & Volkhonsky versions of Gogol’s short stories are the only ones I have encountered that did not make me laugh, and I would hazard a guess that this is due to their literalist approach: to convey the humour of a piece of comic writing by sticking literally to what is being said is a bit like trying to paraphrase Wodehouse: when the humour is not so much in the contents of what is said, but, rather, in the author’s choice of words, in the rhythms and cadences of the prose, and, indeed, in what I would call the authorial “tone of voice”, the literalist approach seems to me to miss out on much that is essential. And, it seems to me, the translator of such works is perfectly entitled to diverge from the literal meaning in order to capture some of these other things that can be at least as important, if not more. In John Rutherford’s translation of Don Quixote, for instance, he describes Don Quixote’s niece as being “on the right side of twenty” and his housekeeper “on the wrong side of forty”: the “right side” and the “wrong side” are both, I am told, Rutherford’s invention, but if this helps establish a certain tone of voice, a certain narrative rhythm, then I, for one, welcome it, and think it much to be preferred to a more literal reading in which the authorial voice remains relatively bland.

This is particularly the case with poetry. Of course, there are many who would say that poetry cannot be translated at all, and they may well be right: literal meaning often counts for very little in a poem, and much depends on the actual sound of the thing – that one thing that cannot be replicated in languages other than that in which the poem was originally written. But good translations of poetry do nonetheless exist: if the sounds of the original are not available in the target language, then the translator has to find sounds in the target language itself – different sounds, inevitably – that convey at least something of what the original conveys. But, of course, it’s not easy. Perhaps it’s best demonstrated with an example.

There is a very well-known poem by Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore which, in its original Bengali, is very romantic – so much so that it has, through excessive repetition, become something of a cliché, like the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet. But if one can look at the lyric with fresh eyes – or with fresh ears, sinceTagore had also set this poem to music – it really is very lovely. But to convey that loveliness in English seems to me well-nigh impossible. Let us focus on the first line. A completely literal translation would read as follows:

That day, the two of us had swung together in the forest

Well, that clearly won’t do. Let’s see if we can brush it up a little, so it makes more sense in English:

That day, the two of us had sat together upon a swing in the forest

The idea of two people sitting together upon a swing may strike the Western reader as a bit odd, but, at least, it makes a bit more sense than what we previously had. However, it is still a bit wordy. Perhaps “the two of us” and “together” may be removed, as they are implied by the context:

That day, we had sat upon a swing in the forest

The rhythm still isn’t right. Let’s jig it about a bit, and remove the “had”:

That day in the forest, we’d sat upon a swing

That’s certainly much better, but hardly ideal. The original sounds mellifluous: this doesn’t. The word “sat” especially is squat and ugly, and needs to go, although I can’t honestly think what to replace it with.

Also, there’s the matter of connotations. The forest has suggestions of the dark and mysterious – and that is the case in Western culture also (e.g. the forest in which Hansel and Gretel are abandoned in The Grimm brothers’ fairy tale). But the swing, in Indian iconography, often represents the amorous, or even the erotic. So, from this very opening line, a Bengali reader or listener would have no difficulty in recognising a meltingly romantic love song.

Sadly, in English, swinging in the forest suggests merely Tarzan. It is at this point that one has to concede defeat.