Archive for the ‘books’ Category

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 he 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 subjects 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 practioner of the genre, has obviously given it far deeper consideration that I, 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 takes 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.

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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 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 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 passenger 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…

“Catriona” by Robert Louis Stevenson

I’m really not sure why it has taken me so long to get round to Catriona. Kidnapped I have loved since I was about ten or so, and have revisited it often enough since: its characters, its setting, its plot, have all entered by consciousness the way a book can only when first encountered at so impressionable a stage; and one would have thought that seeking out is sequel would be an obvious next step. But there you go – there’s no explanation for some things.

I found reading this a rather poignant experience. Meeting up with very old friends is always a bit poignant, and that is what David Balfour and Alan Breck Stewart are like for me. But equally, I could not help but picture Stevenson, in the South Seas, far from his native Scotland, writing nostalgically about the land he had left behind. Although many of his stories written in these years were indeed set in the South Sea Islands, equally, many others indicated a mind turned nostalgically homewards: these were the years that produced The Master of Ballantrae, Catriona, and the unfinished Weir of Hermiston, and, while it is not really advisable to try to guess at the author’s frame of mind from the works, it is not hard to imagine Stevenson longing for the home he had left behind. But perhaps he could see also the absurdity of such longing, such nostalgia – literally, the “ache for home”: in Catriona, Stevenson allows the rascally James More, exiled from his native Scotland, shed drunken, maudlin tears for the Land of the Heather and the Deer. I wonder how much conscious self-parody there is in this: quite a bit, I’d guess.

Catriona does not enjoy a reputation anything like that of Kidnapped, and it’s not hard to see why. Kidnapped is essentially a boys’ own adventure story, with the tense political situation – that of Jacobite Scotland in the immediate aftermath of the Jacobite rebellion – forming little more than a background. But in Catriona, the politics are very much in the forefront. Those seeking the thrills of an adventure story are bound to be a bit disappointed; and those who are prepared to forgo the adventure may well find it hard to follow the plot if they haven’t read the earlier novel.

It picks up where Kidnapped had left off. David, now a respectable laird, honest Whig and supporter of King George, wishes nonetheless to prevent what he knows will be a miscarriage of justice: James of the Glens, chieftain of the Stewart clan, will soon be on trial for the murder of Colin Campbell, the “Red Fox”, and David knows James to be innocent. So David, throwing all caution to the wind, and not even realising just how much there is to be cautious about, walks straight into the house of the Lord Advocate (Lord Prestongrange, a historic figure) to tell him what he knows.

Lord Prestongrange is presented in a very sympathetic light. He takes a liking to David, and admires his zeal for justice, his determination not to let an innocent man hang. But the country is still unstable in the wake of the failed rebellion; many clan chieftains have switched allegiances, but the Campbells must still be appeased; the danger of the country being plunged into another bloody civil war is still a very real one. Lord Prestongrange protects David from those many who feel it convenient simply to have him killed, or have him framed and hanged; and he goes so far as endangering his own self in order to ensure David’s safety. But he also ensures David is not present to testify at the trial. He allows James of the Glens, whom he knows to be innocent, to hang. The political ins and outs are very intricate, and Stevenson negotiates it all beautifully – telling us enough to let us know just how very complex and dangerous it all is, but never allowing the narrative to become bogged down with all the various details of the politics. This is a novel, after all, not a history lesson.

As drama, it is quite splendid. But Stevenson was a bit hamstrung, it seemed to me, by history itself: James of the Glens was indeed hanged – that is a known historic fact – and Stevenson couldn’t change that. So the end of this part of the novel proves slightly anti-climactic. David fails in his mission, as we all knew he would; but he finds himself grateful to the very man who has helped foil him, for, without this man’s interventions, David too would have been dead.

There are a couple of splendid chapters of adventure in the midst of all this when David briefly meets up with Alan Breck again, but this episode really doesn’t last long enough: soon, Alan is safely off to France, and we fall back again on all the political shenanigans. All very finely done, but that little taste of adventure did leave me wishing for a bit more.

The second of the novel’s two parts takes us in a very different direction. Here, we see David with Catriona, daughter of the clansman James MacGregor Drummond, also known as James More. (James More was Rob Roy’s son, and a historic figure; Catriona was Stevenson’s invention.) It’s essentially a love story, always a dangerous area for a writer of adventure stories to venture into: the brave and honest hero and the fair and spotless maid are all too often recipes for insipidity and blandness. But Stevenson manages surprisingly well, endowing both figures with character, and with minds of their own, and resisting all temptation to present Catriona merely as a helpless damsel in distress – even when she clearly is a helpless damsel in distress. There is a fire in her, and a corresponding gentleness in David, that move both the young lovers far from traditional stereotypes. I found this part of the novel rather charming, I must admit, but it is nonetheless a bit of a comedown from the high tension and drama of the earlier part of the novel. However, the temperature goes up again for the finale with the welcome reappearance of Alan Breck Stewart, and with a bit more of the kind of adventure story that we all know and love. (Well, that I, at least, know and love: I don’t mean to speak for everyone.)

I don’t think I’d recommend this book to anyone who hasn’t yet read Kidnapped; or to those who have read it, but didn’t care for it. But those who love Kidnapped really shouldn’t hesitate. No, it’s not really an adventure story; and yes, it’s really two very different novels spliced together rather uncomfortably. But it’s such a joy for fans of Kidnapped to return to this environment, and meet up again with David and Alan. I felt like a ten-year-old all over again!

[EDIT: I should have mentioned that <em>Catriona</em> was, and still is, published under the title <em>David Balfour</em> in US.]

“Virgin Soil” by Ivan Turgenev

What is to be done?

This is always a pressing question regardless of which time or place we may happen to live in, but it seemed a particularly pressing question in pre-revolutionary Russia. Chernyshevsky wrote a hugely influential polemical novel with that question as title. (Tom of the Amateur Reader blog kindly read it for us so we don’t have to*, and recorded his impressions in a series of posts starting with this one. Scott Bailey, of the Six Words for a Hat blog, also wrote about it here.)

Chernyshevsky’s perspective was that of a utopian socialist. Tolstoy wrote an essay with the same title in 1886, and his perspective was … well, Tolstoyan, I suppose: the very idiosyncratic views he developed later in his life resist categorisation with any kind of “-ism”. And in the early years of the twentieth century, Lenin too wrote a pamphlet with that title: although I haven’t read it, I think I’m on safe ground in thinking Lenin’s perspective to be Communist. And even those writers who did not use this title addressed nonetheless this vital question. However they may have disagreed with each other on the answer, on this one point they seemed to be united: something had to be done.

Russia then – and, many would argue, now too – was, up to a significant point, part of Europe, and also, up to a similarly significant point, not part of Europe. Peter the Great had forced westernisation on to the country, but had used the most barbaric of means to achieve it, and, throughout the 19th century, the intelligentsia seemed very much split on whether to look to the West for enlightenment, or to find spiritual transformation in the soul of Mother Russia itself. The social iniquities were horrendous: serfdom – essentially “slavery” by another name – was abolished only in 1861, but that act alone did little to improve the peasants’ lot. There were all sorts of social and political unrest, and the crackdowns were vicious: the sound of the lash was never too distant. Whatever one’s political stance, there seemed no two ways about it: something had to be done.

Extreme views were very common, and I suppose it may be said that Turgenev was an extreme moderate. By which I mean that he espoused moderation not out of indecisiveness or out of pusillanimity, but out of a firmly held conviction that extremism in any direction was inherently dangerous. This made him, I suppose, something of an anomaly in the intellectual climate of Russia at the time – indeed, he was severely criticised by all sides – and it is hardly surprising that he spent much of his life in Europe. And it is towards Europe he looked. As a consequence, he made himself hugely unpopular amongst the Slavophiles: Dostoyevsky, especially, took against him, although he had personal reasons as well as ideological ones. Demons, which Dostoyevsky wrote in the early 1870s, contains a particularly nasty and unfair (though, it must be admitted, very funny) caricature of Turgenev.

Demons, too, is a novel that addresses the question “What is to be done?” Dostoyevsky had long disliked the idea of turning towards Western Enlightenment: given the history and traditions of Russia, he felt, foreign ideas wouldn’t work so well. It is easy to dismiss Dostoyevsky’s hostility to western ideas as mere nationalistic pride – though no doubt there is much of that there – but what Dostoyevsky saw in Europe did not seem to him a Utopia worth striving for. In Demons, he depicted the revolutionaries either as amoral nihilists and psychopaths, or as duped followers. Once again, it is easy to dismiss all this, and say his depictions are mere reactionary hysteria, but, given the uncanny accuracy of his prediction in the same novel of the Communist totalitarianism that gripped Russia only a few decades later, perhaps we shouldn’t. Dostoyevsky’s answer to the question “What is to be done?” isn’t simple: it involved turning back to the roots of Russian spirituality, which, he felt, could save not merely Russia, but the rest of the world too. (This is, inevitably, an oversimplification of complex ideas that, I must admit, I do not claim to adequately grasp, even after several re-readings.) On what we shouldn’t do, he was clearer: we shouldn’t accept the agenda of those who sought revolution. His vision of where these agenda would lead us was remarkably far-sighted.

Turgenev wrote Virgin Soil, his final novel in the late 1870s, only a few years after the appearance of Demons, and, although he does not refer directly to that novel, it would have been surprising indeed if he had not had it in mind, especially given that he, too, was writing about revolutionaries. However, his view of revolutionaries was very different.

Not that he approved of their aims, or, indeed, of their methods: he was too committed to the path of moderation to do that. But he approved of their moral seriousness. In On the Eve, written some twenty-five years earlier, he had similarly admired the moral seriousness of the Bulgarian revolutionary Insarov, and had juxtaposed it with the moral complacency and laxity of the older generation. However, moral seriousness and good intentions are clearly not enough, and in Virgin Soil, he digs a bit deeper into these issues. In the earlier novel, Turgenev had not actually delved into what it meant to be a revolutionary, but here he does: how does one foment a revolution? What does it involve? Where does it all lead? And the conclusions he seemed to reach, while not apocalyptic as is the unforgettable closing section of Demons, are nonetheless rather pessimistic. For reasons rather different from Dostoyevsky’s, Turgenev too could not support the revolutionaries’ cause.

While a novel based on such themes is inevitably political in nature, Turgenev’s interest was primarily in the human aspect. All ideologies stand or fall by how humans implement them, how humans respond to them, how humans, with all their manifold strengths and equally manifold shortcomings, affect them, and are affected by them. And this is where Turgenev’s interest primarily lies – not so much in the ideologies themselves, but in what we may call (to anticipate the title of a rather fine Graham Greene novel from about a century later) “the human factor”.

The principal character here is Nezhdanov, an illegitimate (and disinherited) son of an aristocrat, who is drawn to the revolutionary cause. He is employed by Sipyagin to be tutor to his son, and soon finds himself in a country estate – a standard setting in Turgenev’s work. We are introduced here to the lady of the house, the beautiful but self-centred and manipulative Valentine Mikhailovna; to Sipyagin himself, who affects liberalism, but knows, as they say, which side his bread is buttered; and to a neighbouring landowner Kallomeitsev, a brutish and unthinking reactionary. We are introduced also to Sipyagin’s ward, the young but self-assured Marianna, whose independence of thought and of action mark her out as very different from the gentle submissive ingenues of many of Turgenev’s earlier works. All are characterised expertly, with a few deft but unobtrusive strokes.

The scope here is wider than usual: Nezhdanov’s revolutionary comrades are also making the journey from town to country, in an attempt to bring the revolution to the peasantry, who seem to be little better off than they had been before the Emancipation of 1861.

Nezhdanov is serious and conscientious about his revolutionary mission, but there seems to be, quite disastrously, something missing: Nezhdanov himself realises, to his immense shame, that he lacks commitment to the cause. Why, he does not know: it is a mystery even to himself. This is a theme Turgenev had long explored – the “superfluous man”, the man who may be, and, indeed, often is, intelligent and talented and capable, but who is, nonetheless, curiously ineffective. And yes, even here, amongst people consciously dedicated to action, we find this “superfluous man”.

Nezhdanov is also a poet, and on a number of occasions, he attributes his lack of effectiveness, his lack of true commitment, to his aesthetic nature. This seems highly dubious: why should an aesthetic nature inhibit commitment? Does not sensitivity to beauty render even more ugly the brute suffering visited so iniquitously on so many humans?

Nezhdanov himself does not know the answer to this, but the thought of a connection of sorts between his lack of commitment on the one hand, and his aestheticism on the other, does, nonetheless, haunt his mind. Perhaps we need to go to a novel written after the revolution, Doctor Zhivago, to find a further exploration of this. There, Pasternak’s protagonist, Zhivago, is also a poet, an aesthete. When the revolution had come, he had cautiously welcomed it: it was the cleaning of the Augean Stables that was very much needed. But as the novel progresses, Zhivago’s aestheticism seems to become, in itself, and by itself, a statement against the totalitarian nature of the revolution: a sensitivity to the beauty of life cannot reconcile itself to an ideology that sees humans as but terms in a mathematical equation. If I may be so self-centred as to quote from my earlier post on Pasternak’s novel:

Pasternak was writing in a time where even the description of the beauty of a tree was a political statement, a statement against totalitarianism.

[D]octor Zhivago is a celebration, or, if not a celebration as such, at least an affirmation, of everything that totalitarianism attempts to suppress – human feelings, human emotions, the human sense of beauty, human individuality, the apprehension of love, the need for companionship, for affection … indeed, the novel is an affirmation of everything that is human.

(I think I should add at this point that there is also much in that earlier post that I now find myself disagreeing with.)

Possibly, Turgenev was aware of all this; but Nezhdanov certainly isn’t. As he increasingly becomes aware of his lack of commitment, the more he sees himself as a “superfluous man”, a failure. As with Bazarov in Fathers and Sons, he cannot force himself into becoming what he is convinced he should, but knows he cannot.

The pages where Turgenev describes how these would-be revolutionaries attempt to bring the revolution to the peasants introduce a most uncharacteristic strain of humour (Turgenev, for all his many gifts, was not really the funniest of writers): these people may mean well, but they do not have the first clue, as they distribute pamphlets to largely illiterate and mainly indifferent (and sometimes hostile) peasants. Eventually, in one case, the peasants themselves turn the revolutionaries in to the authorities; and the authorities are merciless.

So what should be done? It is of course not the novelist’s duty to give answers, but an answer of sorts is suggested by the character Solomin, whose name sounds too close to that of the wise king Solomon to be ignored. Solomin is also part of the revolutionary movement, but, apart from providing the odd bit of assistance, he doesn’t seem too heavily involved in revolutionary activity. He is the manager of a factory, and has a reputation of running the factory well: as a consequence, he is much respected by factory owners in the region, and is much in demand. However, we hear disappointingly little of what Solomin thinks is the answer to the question “What is to be done?” Perhaps he does not have much of an answer. We do hear towards the end of the novel that he goes on to run his own factory on a co-operative basis, but we do not see any of that: what we do see of him, he is running a factory as, effectively, his own kingdom. He may refer to the other workers as “brothers”, but he is in charge, and everyone, including both the workers and the grateful factory owners, knows it. He seems, to be frank, an unlikely revolutionary.

But if we do not get much of an answer to the question “What is to be done?”, this is not really Turgenev’s focus of interest: he was interested in how humans feel, and how they behave, when faced with this question, and when they try to propound answers, and then live up to them.

Reading through Turgenev’s work (and with this, I think I have now read all of Turgenev’s major work – all that has been translated into English, at least) I often get the impression that he was writing on political matters much against his will; that he was writing on such themes because, as an intelligent man living in deeply troubled times, and as a man who believed passionately in a moderate liberalism, he had no choice but to address such matters; but that, if he had his way, he would turn his back on all the politics and write melancholy love stories instead – the sort of thing that had my younger self dismissing his work as “soppy”. (Turgenev did sometimes do just this, even late in his career, as in that exquisite novella The Torrents of Spring.) In Virgin Soil, he has much scope for “soppiness”: there’s the country setting for a start, and few writers if any could match Turgenev when it came to lyrical descriptions of nature; and there’s also a love story. But, despite this novel being by some distance considerably longer than his other works, he shuns all these temptations: the focus here is neither on the beauties of nature, nor on the lyricism of romantic love; there’s a sort of single-mindedness in his determination here not to be deflected from his principal themes. This refusal to indulge his lyrical inclinations results in what is, by his standards, almost an austere novel: there is a single-mindedness of purpose that presents with the utmost clarity and starkness the tragic course of the “superfluous man” – of a man who, though not lacking either in intelligence or in ability, becomes aware of how utterly dispensible he is in the wider scheme of things.

So whose depiction of revolutionaries, I wonder, was closer to the mark – Dostoyevsky’s in Demons, or Turgenev’s in Virgin Soil? I’d hazard a guess that both types of revolutionaries existed, and that, after the revolution, the kind of revolutionaries Turgenev depicts were liquidated by the kind Dostoyevsky depicts. Until they, too, were liquidated in turn. Possibly Turgenev did not foresee the liquidations; but Dostoyevsky did. It’s a paradoxical case of the writer who appears hysterical piercing deeper than the writer who seems more balanced and clear-sighted. But Turgenev’s depiction remains important for all that: there were revolutionaries who went in there with serious moral purpose, and with the best of intentions. They may have been misguided, they may have been wrong; they may not have consciously realised that what they were aiming for was nothing less that totalitarianism itself. They may, in the final analysis, have been superfluous. But Turgenev’s vision was humane and gentle, and for this alone, if nothing else, I find him among the most companionable of writers.

 

[The translation of “Virgin Soil” I read was by Michael Pursglove, published by Alma Classics.]

* Please Note: the gag about Tom reading Chernyshevsky so the rest of us don’t have to is shamelessly nicked from this post in Di Nguyen’s blog “The Little White Attic”.

 

Grappling with Ibsen

It was in the late ’80s, when I was in my 20s, that I developed a fascination with Ibsen. I think (although, with the passage of time, I cannot be certain on this point) it was a couple of BBC broadcasts that set off my passion – Little Eyolf, with Diana Rigg and Antony Hopkins, and The Master Builder, with Leo McKern and Miranda Richardson. The plays puzzled me. I could sense a lot going on under the surface; I could sense powerful undercurrents, of the presence of mysterious, irresistible forces; but the precise nature of these undercurrents, of these forces, eluded me. Possibly they elude me still, even after all these years of reading and re-reading, of seeing various productions. For all Ibsen’s reputation as a depicter of the bourgeois and creator of firm solidities; as one who had his finger firmly on the pulse of society and who pointed out and excoriated its various hypocrisies; Ibsen seemed to me, and seems to me still, to be looking beyond all that: he seemed to me to be plumbing mysterious depths, and exploring hidden recesses, of the human mind. Not that the social themes did not exist, of course, but these were not what fascinated me so. But what did fascinate me I found hard to articulate. I think I still do.

It is perhaps for this reason that I have generally kept away from Ibsen on my blog, but if the point of my writing this blog is for me to talk about what interests me most, and what I love best, then I really have to tackle Ibsen here some time. If only so that I can say, as Hilary famously said after conquering Everest, that I’ve “knocked the bastard off”.

I doubt whether here is any other writer of comparable stature whose literary career had so slow a start. Ibsen’s first play, Catiline, was written in 1850, and nine more plays followed in the next fifteen or so years; but had he written nothing other than these plays, it is doubtful whether he would have been remembered at all. Not that some of them do not show flashes of what was to come: The Vikings at Helgeland, especially, clearly foreshadows the later Hedda Gabler. But it’s fair to say that stodgy historical melodramas, with such creaking plot devices as overheard conversations and intercepted letters and so on, are not really to modern taste.

Ibsen himself seemed to tire of all this. Love’s Comedy, written in 1862, seemed a very conscious departure: forsaking historic romance and melodrama, Ibsen set this play in contemporary times, and wrote the whole thing in rhymed verse, rich in poetic imagery; and its principal theme – which, predictably, scandalised contemporary audiences – was the barriers set in the way of human love when institutionalised as marriage. It’s a fascinating work in many respects, but, I must admit, not one I find particularly dramatic: how much I should blame translations for this I am not entirely sure, but I do get the feeling that Ibsen was branching out into new and unexplored territory, and it shouldn’t really be too surprising if there are some shortcomings.

Ibsen turned back to historic drama again with his next play, The Pretenders, an epic work that seems to me quite clearly a great advance on his earlier historic plays. Although, even here, it must be admitted that, compared to something such as, say, Danton’s Death, written by Georg Büchner some thirty years earlier, it can seem a bit leaden.

It was at this time something remarkable happened. A government grant, for which he had applied a year earlier, freed him from the responsibility of having to write specifically for the theatre; and Ibsen left Norway for Italy (he remained an exile from Norway for the next 27 years). And here, in the southern Mediterranean climes, he wrote a verse play set in the mountains and the fjords of the home country he had turned his back on. This play – the first of his two plays written specifically to be read rather than to be performed – was Brand, and I don’t think even the finest of his earlier works could have prepared anyone for the immense stature of this: it was as if the freedom not to write for the stage had freed his imagination also.

However, the verse, even in translation, is vividly dramatic. The whole work is far too long for a single evening’s performance, but the dramatic seemed to be such an inexorable feature of Ibsen’s imagination that, even when cut down for performance, and even in translation, it holds the stage triumphantly. Here, with bold dramatic strokes, Ibsen depicts a dramatic world that is perhaps best described as “mythic” – scenes, situations, and characters of immense power, resonating in our minds as insistently as the most potent of ancient myths.

Its title character, Brand, is a preacher whose stern, unbending search for truth, the absolute truth, and his refusal to accept compromise, inflicts cruelties not only upon his flock, but also upon those he loves most, and even upon himself. It is a theme that haunts Ibsen’s work: the truth. We may all acknowledge its importance: we always have done. Tell the truth and let all else go hang. But all else can’t go hang: Ibsen was fascinated by the extent to which humans can accept the truth – the extent to which they can acknowledge it, or even, perhaps, recognise it. In the magnificent final scene of Brand, Brand, rejected by his flock, is led into a mountain crevice covered above by ice – the “ice church”. The truth is indeed holy, but it is also cold. Can humans inhabit such an ice church?

Peer Gynt appeared the very next year, 1867. As far as I have read, this, and Brand, are – for me at any rate – the last great plays in verse (although, I suppose, a case can be made for the verse plays of T. S. Eliot). In many ways, Peer Gynt is the antithesis of Brand: if Brand is unbending, Peer is only too happy to bend in whichever direction the wind blows, evading his responsibilities, compromising his morals (which he possibly never had much of to begin with), until, by the end, he is no more than an onion – layer upon accumulated layer, with no real core. If in Brand Ibsen had invented his own mythology, here, in a troll-haunted world, he invents his own folklore; and such is the reach of this astounding work – again, not written specifically for the theatre, but which works splendidly on stage even in cut-down versions – that he seems to me to anticipate virtually all the dramatic innovations of twentieth century theatre: I once saw a production of Peer Gynt by the Berliner Ensemble, directed by Peter Zadek, and, true to their Brechtian roots, they presented it in the mould of Brechtian Epic Theatre: it worked beautifully. There are also elements in this play that seem to me also to anticipate Strindberg’s dream plays, or the Theatre of the Absurd. It is an audacious achievement.

After scaling these heights of poetic drama, Ibsen seemed to turn his back on poetry. But first came a curious anomaly – Emperor and Galilean, a two-part epic drama, filled with the bizarre and the opulent and the exotic. I have read this a few times, but have failed to make sense of it, and to see where exactly in Ibsen’s work it fits. It seems like nothing Ibsen had written before or after, either stylistically or thematically. It is tempting to think that Ibsen took a wrong turn with this one, but it shouldn’t really be dismissed so glibly: he collected material for this play for over four years, and spent another two years writing it; and what’s more, he averred it to be his finest work. It is all very mysterious. I sometimes think this is Ibsen’s equivalent of Flaubert’s Salammbôsomething he had to get out of his system as an outlet before he could focus on more everyday matters. But I may well be wrong. I re-read this recently, and I was, once again, very puzzled.

There was also a comedy – yes, Ibsen did write comedies – The League of Youth, which is, to be frank, an enjoyable but comparatively slight affair. And then followed the twelve prose plays that critic Brian Johnston refers to as “The Ibsen Cycle”- plays set not in the world of the mythic, or of folklore, but in the everyday world, with characters from ordinary walks of life, speaking, naturalistically, in prose. But appearances can be deceptive. While the earlier plays in this cycle certainly seem to focus on social issues, even here, it seems to me, the undercurrents run deep. And these undercurrents become more apparent on the surface as the cycle progresses, the poetic imagery becomes ever denser and ever more resonant, until, in the last play, When We Dead Reawaken, though written in prose, we seem to be back again in the poetic world of Brand and of Peer Gynt. The adjective “visionary” does not seem misapplied.

***

Perhaps it’s the literature of the mid- to late- 19th century that attracts me most. Not exclusively: I love my Shakespeare, of course, and the Romantic poets; I have a keen interest in Greek tragedies, am entranced by Don Quixote, and so on; and I love also a great many of the achievements of modernism – Ulysses, The Four Quartets, etc. And inevitably, given my Bengali background, Tagore is important to me – I don’t have a choice on that one. But it’s perhaps the mid- to late- 19th century that I keep going back to most, for reasons I haven’t frankly bothered to analyse. And the literary figures of that era who are most important to me, who are, as it were, permanent residents of my mind (such as it is), are, I think, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Hopkins, and, most certainly, Ibsen. But I have never really understood why Ibsen exerts so powerful a hold on my imagination. So I am planning, over the course of this year, to read Ibsen’s major works – by which I mean Brand and Peer Gynt, and the twelve prose plays beginning with The Pillars of Society and ending with When We Dead Awaken – and to write here some unstructured personal musings. (I’ll give Emperor and Galilean a miss: it may well be a major work, but if I try to write about something I really don’t understand, I’m afraid I’ll end up just making an arse of myself.)

As ever, these posts will not be analyses, and certainly not “reviews”, but merely some reflections on what these works mean to me. I shall, in short, be talking to myself. But I’ll be talking out loud, so do please drop in to listen, if you feel like it; and, as ever, feel free to add your own thoughts, and let me know if you disagree. It’ll all help me sort out my own thoughts on this most fascinating of writers.

Stevenson, Conan Doyle, and Christmas reading

I’ve been reading Stevenson’s short stories lately – many for the first time – and I can’t help wondering why it has taken me so long to get to them. After all, not only has Stevenson meant much to me over the years, I find his works, when I do read them, most congenial to my temperament. As I never tire of mentioning here, Treasure Island and Kidnapped were huge childhood favourites, and I revisit them whenever I want to bask in nostalgia for my childhood years (which, in my case, is often). And there’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, of course: Nabokov’s inclusion of this work in his critical collection Lectures on Literature, alongside such acknowledged masterpieces as Madame Bovary or Metamorphosis, still raises some peoples’ eyebrows, but not mine: Jekyll and Hyde is as great a masterpiece as any Nabokov places it alongside. And those charming children’s poems in the collection A Child’s Garden of Verses I have known since my primary school years, when, in my Scottish primary school, we were required to commit many of them to memory. (And, contrary to modern wisdom on these matters, this did not put us off: we loved these poems, and I, for one, still do.) But, really, for a long time, that was about as far as it went. Even Weir of Hermiston, his late, unfinished masterpiece, I came to know only quite recently.

However, better late than never, I suppose. I have recently been catching up on some of his short stories. A couple I did know from before: “The Body Snatcher”, for instance. Although often included in anthologies of ghost stories (which is how I got to know it in the first place), it is only in the final pages that the supernatural makes its mark: till then, it had been a splendid thriller, evoking the dark gloomy lanes and wynds of old Edinburgh in the days when grave-robbers used regularly to dig up freshly made graves to sell the fresh corpses to medical research. (There was a fine film based on this story, produced by Val Lewton and directed by Robert Wise, and featuring at its centre a superbly sinister performance by Boris Karloff: well worth catching up on, if you don’t know it already.) And “Thrawn Janet” I also knew – amongst the most terrifying of all ghost stories, but less frequently anthologised, possibly because it is written in what to many is an indecipherable Scots dialect.

Earlier this year, I read, and was much impressed by, the stories published early in Stevenson’s career under the title New Arabian Nights. Looking back on what I had written, I found myself much impressed by the clarity and expressive eloquence of Stevenson’s prose; and I also noted, I see, a delight in devising intriguing situations, but a certain impatience when it came to developing them. However, Stevenson presents us with so rich a panoply of scenes that delight and fascinate, and presents them with such panache, that we find ourselves happy simply to be swept along by it all, and find ourselves not minding too much the demotion to mere background details of the narrative resolutions. Stevenson does not repeat that kind of thing in his later stories – not the ones I have read so far, that is – but he did retain that wonderful gift of setting up intriguing situations. And as a writer of adventure stories, he really was second to none: so great is his skill in creating and sustaining narrative tension that I have even found myself wishing my commuter journeys were longer.

There’s the wonderfully creepy “Olalla”, for instance. It’s not a tale of the supernatural, but it should be: it certainly has the atmosphere of one. Its themes are surprisingly Poe-like – familial decline, hereditary madness, Gothic gloom – all familiar elements in, say, “The Fall of the House of Usher”. But where Poe, to my mind at least, starts at so high a pitch of feverishness that at the climax there is nowhere further to go, Stevenson’s prose is clear and measured throughout, so that when the climax comes, it is genuinely shocking. “Olalla” is fairly long for a short story, and its pacing is immaculate. I have tried to rile some of my Poe-loving fiends by telling them that this was the kind of story Poe would have written had he been as good a writer as Stevenson, but I’ll refrain from saying that here: in the first place, I really would not wish to unleash a torrent of indignant protests in the comments section; and in the second place, it is, to be honest, an inaccurate and frankly unfair assertion. That Stevenson is more to my taste than Poe does not make Poe a lesser writer; but the fact nonetheless remains that Stevenson is, indeed, very much more to my taste.

And there’s “Markheim”, which seems to be Stevenson’s response to Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. (And no doubt those as allergic to Dostoyevsky as I am to Poe will tell me how far superior Stevenson’s treatment is of the theme.)

And there are three stories making up the late collection Island Nights Entertainment. As with New Arabian Nights, Stevenson is clearly evoking A Thousand and One Nights in the title, but even had he not done so, it would have been difficult keeping A Thousand and One Nights out of even the briefest of discussions of these tales. Although set in the South Sea Islands (where Stevenson spent the last few years of his life) rather than in the Middle East, they are saturated with a sense of magic and wonder that permeate A Thousand and One Nights. The first of the three stories, “The Bottle Imp”, borrows the idea of the genie of the lamp (with the lamp replaced by a magic bottle). This genie, or “imp”, as Stevenson calls him, will grant its owner any wish; but the owner must sell the bottle on at a lower price than he had paid for it; for if he dies with the bottle still in his possession, his soul will go to Hell.

So naturally, over time, the price of this bottle spirals lower and lower, and becomes ever more difficult to get rid of: for, eventually, a state will inevitably be reached where its price is the lowest denomination available in any monetary system, and selling it at a lower price will become impossible. It’s an intriguing set-up. The resolution this time is not shirked, nor demoted to a mere incidental detail, but nonetheless, it’s the situation one remembers more than how it all works out at the end.

Then there’s “The Isle of Voices”, which, if one had to pitch it, could be described as “Arabian Nights meets Joseph Conrad”. (Although, of course, this predates, if only by a few years, the works of Conrad.) There is much here for the students of post-colonial studies to sink their teeth into. The premise is, once again, magical in nature – a sorcerer obtains his wealth by spiriting himself, invisible, to another island, where, by burning certain leaves, he can transform shells to coins, and transport them back home.  But human greed knows no limits: by the end, there’s a sickening bloodbath, in which the native inhabitants of this island are slaughtered for the sake of further gain. It isn’t, perhaps, easy for this story to fit into any simple pattern: the sorcerer, in the first place, is not white, but is native Hawaiian; and the people so horribly massacred by the end, far from being innocent victims, are themselves cannibals. But the themes of exploitation, greed, and imperialist violence are all there.

The longest and most substantial story of the three is “The Beach of Falesa”, and, once again, we seem to be very much in Conradian territory. The narrator is a white trader in the South Seas, and, while he is hardly free from racism himself, finds himself genuinely loving the native girl he has so cynically been hitched up with in “marriage”. Prominent in this story is the theme of sexual exploitation of native girls: the girls and women are treated as so much property, to be enjoyed as objects, then ill-treated, and abandoned as and when her “husband” tires of her. At one point, the narrator speaks casually, as if in passing, of one of the traders “thrashing” his “wife”, as if it were the most natural and unremarkable thing in the world. And while the narrator, in this case, does indeed find himself loving the girl who has, effectively, been allotted to him, by the end of the story he worries about returning to Britain with his mixed-race children: he knows there is no place for them there.

But powerful though all this is, it is still, essentially, an adventure story. (As, indeed, are many of Conrad’s works.) The narrator, Wiltshire, finds himself pitted against a fellow trader, Case, who has his own very dubious set-up, and who doesn’t tolerate competition: Wiltshire realises that he must either kill Case, or be killed by him. The story takes a long time to build: Stevenson’s pacing is deliberate, but when the tension starts to grip, it doesn’t let up. And the passage where Wiltshire delves deeper and deeper into Case’s mysterious domain has about it a sense of almost hallucinatory terror: it’s hard not to feel that one is being drawn into some sort of Conradian Heart of Darkness.

I haven’t read them all Stevenson’s stories yet: there are still a few more to go, but it’s always good to have something to look forward to. I haven’t been disappointed by any of the ones I have read so far. But over the Christmas holidays, I think I’ll turn to Stevenson’s fellow Scotsman – born about a generation after Stevenson, and just a mile or so away from Stevenson’s birthplace in Central Edinburgh – Arthur Conan Doyle. Not the Sherlock Holmes stories: there’s far more to Conan Doyle than those Sherlock Holmes stories, which I keep re-reading them all the time anyway. No – this Christmas, I am planning to read through the Brigadier Gerard stories. All of them. It has been far too long since I last read them, and I am pretty sure I have not read them all.

It is incredible to think that storytellers of such brilliance were born in such close proximity to each other: I certainly cannot think of anyone – not even Dumas – who surpassed these two in terms of plotting. And I suppose that to Stevenson and Conan Doyle, one could add a third Scots writer – George Macdonald Fraser, whose Flashman novels are surely up there with the best when it comes to holding the reader’s attention purely with the plot.

Well, not purely, perhaps, with the plot: even the best of plots require immense writing skills if they are to hold the reader’s attention so fixedly. Over the last century or so, plot seems to have slipped down the list of priorities in what is loosely termed “literary fiction”, and maybe, one day, it would be interesting to analyse the skills required to hold the reader’s attention in this manner, and have them turning the pages purely to find out what happens next.

But for the moment, I am having far too much fun enjoying them to be worried about all that. Christmas holidays are approaching: it’s time to choose one’s Christmas reading – nothing too heavy, nothing to unduly tax one’s alcohol-sodden mind – but nothing to insult the reader’s intelligence either. Those wonderfully witty and exciting Brigadier Gerard stories seem to fit the bill perfectly!