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“Eugene Onegin” by Alexander Pushkin

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

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

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

(“Romanticism”, I believe,

though what’s romantic here I simply

am quite unable to perceive!

but then, who cares?) As dawn approaches …

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

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

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

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

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

The pistols gleam, the priming hammer

resounds against the ramrod head;

the bullets drop, pushed by the rammer,

The lever clicks, the powder’s fed

in little greyish streams to trickle

into the pan; the rough and brittle,

securely fastened flint is raised

again …

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

… but here, as in a house, unlightened

And bare, where all is empty, chill,

The heart forever remains still,

The shutters closed, the windows whitened …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then a kind of slow stagnation

Comes over him and dulls his thoughts,

And to his mind Imagination

Deals out a hand of cards … of sorts:

He either sees, as if reposing

Upon a melting snow and dozing

A youth, and then he hears with dread

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

Or else he finds long-gone detractors,

Base cowards and old enemies,

Young ladies famed for treacheries,

Departed, charming malefactors,

Or he espies a country place

And at a window sees … her face.

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

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

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

Completing Dante’s “Commedia”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Re)-Reading Pushkin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Captain’s Daughter” by Alexander Pushkin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“When We Dead Awaken” by Henrik Ibsen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

Inching forward with “Finnegans Wake”

Ah – the plans one makes for retirement! So many things I had wanted to do, but had told myself I would do once I was retired, when I no longer had the pressure of work to contend with, that day-to-day grind. What one doesn’t take into account when making such plans are the increasing physical tiredness that accompanies age (although, having only just turned sixty, I flatter myself I’m merely on the lower slopes of old age), and, more importantly, sheer damn laziness. Nonetheless, two ambitions have survived: the first is to learn French properly, so I could, some day, read Molière’s Le Misanthrope rather than Molière’s The Misanthrope (that project has begun, and is progressing, albeit slowly); and the other is to read Finnegans Wake. These last few months, I have been inching my way through it, and only last week, I finished the first of its four parts – which is roughly one third of he length of the book. And currently, I am taking a wee break from it, while basking in a sense of smugness and self-satisfaction.

But mention of Finnegans Wake raises eyebrows. Even when speaking to someone online, I can sense that eyebrow raised. Even more so than Ulysses, it has a reputation of being a book utterly unreadable, indeed, utterly nonsensical – a mad, meaningless joke that is not to be taken seriously, and, perhaps, best left alone. Why on earth would I want to read something like that? Something that makes no sense, and is, most likely, no more than a grotesque practical joke?

I think my answer is that I do not believe that the writer gifted enough to create Ulysses would spend seventeen years of his life just to create a meaningless practical joke. After all, had I given up in the face of difficulty, and not at least have tried to penetrate what had initially appeared impenetrable, I would never have got to know Ulysses.

Of course, I know there are some who say Ulysses isn’t difficult at all, and that they took to it right away. They may even say the same for Finnegans Wake. Well, if so, then all I can say is that their minds are very different from mine. Mine is quite slow, and I find I have to work at everything. But I like to think that what my mind lacks in agility, it compensates with a certain doggedness – in this case, a bloody-minded determination at least to understand what that mad eejit Joyce was up to. Now that I have read the first part of this volume, I ask myself if it makes sense, and the answer, I think, is “No, not really”. But, once upon a time, I did graduate in physics, and though I have forgotten much, I do remember from the lectures in quantum mechanics that certain things do not need to make sense to be nonetheless true.

So why Finnegans Wake? I blame Anthony Burgess, to be frank. In my teens and my early twenties, Mr Burgess was, in effect, my literary mentor. Not that I knew him personally, of course (although he did sign a copy of A Clockwork Orange for me after I had attended one of his lectures): but not only did I enjoy his fiction, I enjoyed also his literary non-fiction – his various books and articles and essays. I used to look forward eagerly to his articles as they appeared every Sunday in The Observer (in those days, its literary editor was Terence Kilmartin). As a science student in a university oriented towards sciences and engineering (Strathclyde), I did not personally know anyone who was interested in literature, and with whom I could share my own literary interests: Anthony Burgess, in a sense, filled that gap. It was something of a one-way conversation, of course, but it would have remained one-way even if I had known him personally: I was (and remain still, I think) more interested and enthusiastic than I was knowledgeable.

And so I followed the leads he provided. His three main literary heroes were Shakespeare, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and James Joyce. Shakespeare I was already absorbing, but the other two I knew only by reputation. And, as I read Mr Burgess’ sparkling prose about their works, I was determined to get to know them also. Of course it was difficult. One doesn’t come to “The Wreck of the Deutschland” or to Ulysses expecting plain sailing, and, lacking nimbleness of mind even then, it was a slog. But once these works did penetrate through my thick skull, they stayed there. Part of the prism through which, for better or for worse, I see the world, is constructed from these works.

And so on to Finnegans Wake. Once I had got to a stage where I could truthfully say that I have read Ulysses, and, what’s more, understood it (at least up to a point where I could love it), I obviously wanted to get on to the next one. After the magnificent Symphony of Daytime with its resplendent major key coda, what could that “next one” be but that mysterious and elusive Song of the Night, in which our unthinking and yet unsettled minds elide together all the solidities of the world, and in which all forms and shapes, and all people and all times, collide, merge, and melt into each other in a state of infinite plasticity?

I tried, I did try, but my young mind, already stretched to its limits by Ulysses (not to mention the lectures on quantum mechanics), couldn’t take it in. Not even armed with Joseph Campbell’s A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake and with Roland McHugh’s Annotations, and, of course, with Burgess’ own writings. Eventually, despite my doggedness, I admitted defeat. But only temporarily. I would come back to this once I had retired, I told myself, retirement being in those days so distant a prospect that it was not a state I could even visualise. But now that I am retired, it’s time to keep that youthful promise to myself, no matter how many eyebrows are raised in the process.

Finnegans Wake famously starts and ends mid-sentence, and the unfinished half-sentence at the end may be completed by the unstarted half-sentence at the beginning. So the structure is that of a cycle, and one can, in theory at least, read it for ever, turning back to the beginning once one has reached the end, and travelling repeatedly around the cycle. This structure is taken from Giovanni Batista Vico, who saw time itself as cyclical – first a theocratic age, then an aristocratic age, followed by democratic age, and then a ricorso, a return back to the theocratic age. Whether Joyce subscribed to all this, I do not know, but it did provide him with a structure for his myth-making: the four books of Finnegans Wake reflect the four stages described by Vico: first, corresponding to the theocratic age, there’s the Book of the Parents (consisting of eight chapters, four for the Father and four for the Mother); the next book, corresponding to the aristocratic age, is the Book of the Children, who supplant their parents; then follows, for the democratic age, the Book of the People; and finally, there is a shorter book, the Ricorso, leading back again to the opening. The parents, the creating God and the nurturing Goddess, are overthrown by a newer generation, who become the aristocracy, until they too, in turn, are replaced, this time by the people in an age of democracy; and, finally, when the democracy collapses under the strain of its plurality, the theocratic age establishes itself again. Whatever reservation we may have about such a schematic view of human history, it is holds together the massive mythopoeic contents of the book into a coherent structure.

The father is Finnegan himself, whose wake, after all, we are at. And, in a fashion that we are accustomed to from Ulysses, Joyce blends together the mythic with the everyday, thus deflating the mythic in a sense, but also, in another more important sense, elevating the everyday. For Joyce is dealing with big themes here – the nature of time, the rise and falls of generations, the history of mankind itself; but his materials remain low, and ordinary. The very title of this book, after all, is taken from a popular comic song “Finnegan’s Wake”, describing a builder, Tim Finnegan, who falls from his ladder, is thought dead, but who, at his own wake, comes back again to life when some whiskey is accidentally spilt upon him. But in the title of the book, the apostrophe is omitted: if history is indeed cyclical, there are many Finnegans, and the wake refers to their resurrections as well as to their deaths. The lowbrow comic song sets the pattern for endless human cycles of falling and rising, of deaths and resurrections.

But who is this Finnegan? He is Tim Finnegan, the builder in the song, who falls off his ladder. He is the mythical giant Finn McCool. He is the primal being, the modern man, Ibsen’s Master Builder Solness (Bygmester Solness, who fears being supplanted by a younger generation, and who falls off a ladder at the end). Finnegan can be anyone you like, really. Personal identity never stays stable here. All identities, all personages, collide and merge into each other. This book itself Joyce describes at one point as a “collideorscape”.

If all this doesn’t sound mad enough, there is the language. The language we use in our waking hours is not adequate to describe the unrestrained drifting of the sleeping mind. It’s not the syntax that is difficult: that stays quite straight-forward throughout. It’s the vocabulary. Most of the words aren’t really proper English words at all, but are composites, a colliding (or scaping) of many different words, sometimes from many different languages. So a single word here can have multiple meanings, or multiple associations, multiple references. These references can be to history, to mythology, to folklore, to popular music-hall songs, to anything and everything – there are no boundaries in a dream. Some of the words are simply nonsense words, existing for the sound alone.

At this stage, encountering a book with no fixed time or space, with no character who can keep their identity for long without being transformed into someone (or something) else, it is tempting simply to throw up one’s arms and declare the whole thing to be impossible – mere gibberish. But sometimes, one has simply to trust the author, and given my past experience with Joyce’s works, I trust Joyce. So I armed myself with Roland McHugh’s Annotations to Finnegans Wake, which, page by page, disentangles every single of these compound words, pointing out its different levels of meaning, its different references. But that didn’t really work. It slowed down my reading to an impossible pace, and whatever music, whatever momentum, whatever sense of continuity the writing had, I wasn’t getting any of it. It was merely checking each nut and each bolt, but not really understanding what the nuts and bolts are there for.

The chapters on Finnegans Wake in Anthony Burgess’ Here Comes Everybody helped in this respect, but only up to a point: if McHugh’s Annotations were at too low a level, Burgess’ writing, splendid though it is, was at too high a level. Help came eventually in the form of A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake by Joseph Campbell and by Henry Morton Robinson, and soon, I settled into a mode of reading that, at least, worked for me (I’m not suggesting this will work for everyone). I would read a passage, getting as much as I can out of it (and it is quite incredible how much can be communicated simply by the sounds and the rhythms of the prose); I’d then turn to the Skeleton Key to get a better understanding of the import of the passage; and, then, once I have a good idea of its outline, I’d return to the passage again, this time with McHugh’s Annotations, to examine at least some of the nuts and bolts. Of course, progress is excruciatingly slow, and, even with all this help, I don’t understand it all: most of it, indeed, remains mysterious and probably always will, even when I have lived with this book for a while and become more familiar with the text than I am now. But I was expecting progress to be slow; and as for understanding – how much of a dream can one reasonably expect to understand anyway?

But is it worth it? Many readers, I know, will find the very idea silly that a book can only be read with the aid of other books. Perhaps. I won’t argue with that. Each reader will have to decide this point for his or her self. Speaking for myself, I am enjoying the struggle. Once I had accustomed myself to this kind of reading, I found I could sense, sometimes even without the aid of the Skeleton Key or the Annotations, a veiled magnificence, a shadowy majesty. I could sense the presence of something behind layers of veils, something elusive that I couldn’t quite capture (dreams cannot, after all, ever be captured), but something that is, all the same, resplendent, and sublime.

Out of all this, characters, of a sort, do emerge. After the fall of Finn McCool (or Finnegan, or Bygmester Solness, or whoever), he is replaced by a foreigner, who had originally come from somewhere in Scandinavia. (There are passages referring to the influx into ancient and medieval Ireland of people from abroad.) This foreigner is, it seems, the keeper of apub in Chapelizod, and his name, it seems, is Humphrey Chimpden Earwhicker. No, don’t believe that either. But these initials, HCE, are embedded throughout the book, and refer always to various incarnations of this character. And it is he, Humphrey Chimpden Earwhicker (and I still don’t believe it) who appears throughout this book in various guises. He has his fall too: in Phoenix Park, Dublin, he had “behaved with ongentilmensky immodus opposite a pair of dainty maidservants”. We are never sure what this “ongentilmensky immodus” is, but when, later, he is asked the time by a passerby, he becomes very defensive about it all, stutters guiltily, and protests his innocence at quite considerable length. Soon, rumours start spreading, and collectively, the stories circulating about the Fall of a Man in a Park take on epic proportions. He is tried, sentenced, and is buried deep under Lough Neagh, or under “lough and neagh”. But, like the Tim Finnegan of the song, or the Finn McCool of the myth, whom he had replaced (and who, confusingly enough, is also a form of himself, HCE), he rises. You can’t keep a good Finnegan down.

His wife, known as Anna Livia Plurabelle (the initials ALP represents throughout the feminine principle as insistently as HCE represents the masculine), writes a letter in her husband’s defence, but the letter is lost, and later, it turns up in a rubbish pile, unearthed by a hen. There is much pseudo-scholarly examination of this letter, which turns out to be not unlike the Book of Kells. Anna Livia Plurabelle is also a river – the River Liffey that flows through Dublin; and, indeed, she is all the rivers of all the world, watering the land with her nurturing grace.

And there are twin sons, who, it will later turn out, are, or may be, named Kevin and Jerry, but who are, to begin with, named as Shaun and Shem – Shaun the postman and Shem the penman; or as Burrus and Caseous (Brutus and Cassius, butter and cheese); or stone and stem (the unchanging, and the developing); or space and time; or the old Irish church and the Catholic church that supplants it; or any other pair of opposites one may think of. For among the themes that emerge from the mist is that of opposites meeting, or colliding, and becoming one. This theme Joyce traces to Giordano Bruno – or Bruno the Nolan (as Bruno originated from Nola). Which is rather convenient, as there was at the time a Dublin publisher called Browne and Nolan. And these two names appear in all sorts of guises throughout the text, always signifying opposites that are essentially a single unity, and which will, eventually, merge, and be seen as such.

And there is a daughter, Izzy. Or Issy. Or maybe Isabel. Or something. One can never be too sure. Maybe she is the Iseult to whom the chapel (Chapelizod) is dedicated. Or the Isolde from Wagner’s opera (she appears at one stage as a certain Mildew Lisa – a reference to the opening line of the Liebestod in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, “mild und leise”).

There are a few minor characters as well – the elderly cleaning lady as HCE’s pub, who is, really, another version of Anna Livia herself. There’s old Joe, who also works at the pub. And there are the twelve mourners at Finnegan’s wake, who are also customers in the pub. Or maybe, they are all manifestations of HCE and ALP and their children – who knows? It’s hard to be specific about anything here.

The question remains: is it worth all this effort for this madness? For madness it is. It was madness sitting down to write it; it was madness spending seventeen years of one’s life working over it; and perhaps the greatest madness of all was expecting people to read it. I don’t know if I am yet in a position to answer this question. I do admit that there are times I have doubts – grave doubts. But the doubts are, more often than not, dispelled by the wit; by the audacity; by that glint in the eye that is, admittedly, sometimes the glint of megalomania, but is, more often, the glint of good humour; and, perhaps most importantly, by the music of the prose. In the famous recording made by Joyce himself of the concluding passage of the first book, the “Anna Livia Plurabelle” chapter, it is the musical sounds and rhythms that make their impact, even before we start looking for the meanings of the words. And this, I think, is how we should approach the book: the sound comes before the sense. Indeed, it is the sound that conveys the sense. The rest are but the nuts and bolts.

And the vague, shadowy vision that becomes apparent underneath all these layers of veils is magnificent indeed. It is nothing less than a mythologised history of the whole of mankind. And yet, as in Ulysses, the magnificence of this vision is built from often everyday materials.

In that last chapter of the first book, we have two washerwomen, standing on either side of the Liffey, washing clothes, and gossiping about Anna. As the chapter progresses, we come further downstream, and the river widens, till the two washerwomen cannot hear each other from the opposite banks. And, Ovid-like, one turns into a rock, and the other into a tree, a stem and a stone – one growing in time, the other still.

As Anthony Burgess writes in Here Comes Everybody:

The language is cosmic, yet it is the homely speech of ordinary people. We seem to see a woman who is also a river and a man who is also a city. Time dissolves; we have a glimpse of eternity. And the eternal vision is made out of muddy water, old saws, half-remembered music-hall songs, gossip, and the stain on a pair of underpants. The heart bows down.  

I shall be starting on the next part soon, but since it is thanks to the urgings of Mr Burgess that I am reading this book in the first place, I may as well let him have the last word for now. I hope to be returning here to write more of my impressions once I have read the later books.

“John Gabriel Borkman” by Henrik Ibsen

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

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

I am talking about the crime for which there is no forgiveness.

The set-up is fairly straight-forward. John Gabriel Borkman had once been an important man – a banker. But he had been caught embezzling, and, after three years in custody awaiting trial, had been found guilty, and had served another five years in prison. The action of the play takes place eight years after his release, and those eight years Borkman has spent again imprisoned, this time voluntarily: he has shut himself up in his room upstairs, endlessly pacing up and down, “like a sick wolf” as his wife puts it, never daring even to leave the house, but obsessing over how he will yet achieve the greatness he thinks he had been close to achieving those sixteen years ago.

Under the same roof, though never seeing him, lives his wife, Gunhild. Unlike Borkman, who is a miner’s son, she is from a privileged, land-owning family; and she too, like her husband, is obsessed: she is obsessed with clearing the family name, and restoring the family honour; and she is determined that it is their son, Erhart, now a young man in his early twenties, who will achieve this. It is he who will eventually redeem them by paying back all the creditors, and thus laying the matter to rest for ever. Not that she cares for the creditors: as with her husband, but for different reasons, those who have lost their livelihoods all those years ago barely enter her mind at all: what matters to her is her family name, and, more importantly (though she doesn’t openly acknowledge this), the hurt she has received from her husband.

The hurt is not merely to her family pride: it is to her personal pride also. She had loved her husband, but that love had not been returned: John Gabriel Borkman’s mind had been elsewhere. It had been obsessed, then, as now, with power – the power that, in the secular world in which they live, can come only with industry and with commerce. It is for the sake of this power that Borkman had renounced love: he had, as a young man, loved Ella, Gunhild’s twin sister, but had married Gunhild instead, for no other reason than better to pursue his dream of power. Yet, some compunction had prevented his using Ella’s money in his fraudulent schemes: she had survived the financial turmoil that Borkman’s embezzlement had occasioned, and it is her house, unaffected by the financial collapse of Borkman’s bank, in which the Borkmans now live – under the same roof, but never setting eyes on each other, year after year.

And it was Ella who, when the scandal had broken, had looked after her nephew Erhart. And now, she knows she is dying, and she wants her nephew, whom she regards as her own son, to carry on her name. But his biological mother, endlessly brooding on her hurts, and fixated on the idea of the next generation making restitution for the sins of the past, cannot allow this. So now, the twin sisters fight each other over the son, just as they had once fought over the father.

All this brings in various familiar themes – corruption in public life and betrayal in the private, the relationships between the generations, the imposition of duty upon the spontaneous joy of life, the dreams and illusions that sustain us, the renunciation of love for power, and so on. And all this promises a realistic, drawing room bourgeois drama – admittedly a turbulent one, but, nonetheless, of the kind that Ibsen is still, rather unfairly, associated with.

But this is not the play Ibsen gives us. Not by a long shot.

But what he gives us isn’t easy to describe, as not only is it unlike any other play I know of, it is also, despite certain recurrent themes, unlike any of Ibsen’s other plays either. Over these twelve plays beginning with The Pillars of Community, Ibsen had been moving way from what may be termed “realism” – that is, depictions of characters of the kind we may expect to encounter in real life, thinking and behaving in a manner that does not stretch credulity in everyday settings. In this play, he seems to take such a drastic step further away from realism, that one wonders whether, despite the realistic trappings, we should be considering it in such terms at all. The three principal characters – Gunhild, Ella, and John Gabriel – seem poised in some mysterious region between life and death: Ella knows she is dying, and, at the end, John Gabriel actually does die, but, whether they know it or not, there is no future for any of them, and the hopes they harbour about the future are, of necessity, delusional.

And these characters are much simpler, too – just as the characters in the late Shakespeare plays are simpler than their predecessors: Leontes is not as complex a character as Othello, nor Iachimo as complex as Iago, nor Miranda as complex as Ophelia; similarly, John Gabriel is not as complex as Master Builder Solness, nor Gunhild as complex as Hedda Gabler. What you see on the surface is more or less what there is: this is not a play that looks into the depths of the characters, primarily because those depths don’t really exist.

Also noticeably absent is imagery. No place here for anything like the phantom white horses of Rosmersholm, the towers of The Master Builder, or those water lilies in Little Eyolf that germinate in the depths, and then shoot suddenly to the surface. The room in which the play opens is hot and stuffy, and there is a blizzard blowing outside, and these, I suppose, could be seen as symbols, but they are quite straight-forward, and lack the resonance to be the stuff of dramatic poetry. The hot room and the snowstorm outside are introduced not to communicate those obscure matters that cannot be communicated by other means, but merely as representations of two different states of mind. Here, the characters speak directly: what they say is precisely what they mean, and we do not need to look for symbols in their words.

The handling of time is also different. Typically, an Ibsen play gives us selected scenes, as it were, with a gap of time between successive scenes (the number of these scenes determined by the number of acts in the play). Here, although there are four acts, there is no temporal gap between them – so that Act Two begins at the very point where Act One ended, Act Three at the precise point where Act Two ended, and so on. The action of the play takes up exactly the same two hours or so it takes us to watch it. This pushes the very idea of time itself into the foreground, and injects into the play a tremendous urgency: time is running out fast for all three of these characters, and, at  the edge of the grave, perhaps already in some mysterious region between life and death, there is no scope, no time, for indirectness: these characters say what they feel, what they think, without any periphrasis, any subterfuge, and with a directness that is almost brutal.

Passions are high, right from the start. The stage directions accompanying the various speeches, especially those of Gunhild, leave us in no doubt: “animated”, “tense”, “with mounting excitement”, “flares up”, and so on. Of course, acting styles have changed since then, and modern audiences probably prefer understatement, but however the actors convey this, there is clearly much passion here, and it’s not hidden.

These three characters meet for the first time after sixteen years. Gunhild and John Gabriel live in the same house, but she sits downstairs, brooding, while he paces up and down upstairs, similarly brooding (though on different matters), and never daring to leave the house. Gunhild says that sometimes she hears him come down to the hall, put on his hat and coat, but take them off and go back upstairs again. They have never spoken to each other for sixteen years – not since his embezzlement had been discovered and he was taken into custody.

Into this environment comes Gunhild’s twin sister, Ella Rentheim. Although she owns the house in which Gunhild and John Gabriel live, she herself does not live there. We discover over the course of the play why she has decided after all this time to meet her sister again: she knows she is dying, and, terrified of leaving nothing behind her, wishes her nephew to take her name. The other two, however, don’t know they’re dying: they are too wrapped in their own obsessions, and both are obsessively planning for a future that doesn’t exist.

But Ella Rentheim is right to be terrified. The death these characters face is cold and blank: there is nothing beyond it. Despite the various religious references throughout the play – not least the middle name of the titular character, that seems to speak of a power and a glory that isn’t really visible – there is no mention, nor even a hint, of a divinity. These characters may all long for something that is greater than themselves – Gunhild for her lost reputation and her pride in her self, Ella for something of her own that she may leave behind, John Gabriel for a power and a glory that was nearly his – but in each case, what they long for is of this world,  a worldfrom which they are already in the process of departing. Any hope for a future is illusory: all they have to fall back on is the past.

And they all speak of that past openly, frankly, almost as if past caring what hurt they cause in speaking of it. Neither Gunhild nor John Gabriel care about those who have lost their livelihoods. In the first act, when we hear (but don’t see) John Gabriel pacing up and down his room upstairs, “like a sick wolf”, Gunhild and Ella don’t spare each other in their recollections of the past. And in the second act, when Ella goes up to see John Gabriel, he too speaks coldly about the past, in particular about why he had sacrificed Ella whom he, as a young man, had once loved: he had his own dreams, dreams of earthly power and earthly glory, and, to achieve this, he had needed the goodwill of the lawyer Hinkel, who had also loved Ella. And so, he sacrificed his own love: he had married Ella’s sister, and had left Ella for Hinkel. And he can say all this coldly to Ella now, without the slightest pang of remorse:

ELLA RENTHEIM: But you did have what was most precious on board. Your future life –

BORKMAN: Life isn’t always what is most precious.

Borkman had been aspiring to something that was, for him, more precious even than life itself. Traditionally, that takes us into the realms of religion, but the world presented here is godless. But how can one find something even more precious than life itself in a godless world? And what does one sacrifice to achieve this? John Gabriel Borkman had sacrificed Ella, without a thought, and now, years later, He can tell her this without any remorse. Ella’s response is deeply religious:

ELLA RENTHEIM:  … at the time, I didn’t know about your great, horrific crime.

BORKMAN: What crime? What are you talking about?

ELLA RENTHEIM: I’m talking about the crime for which there is no forgiveness.

Ella goes on to explain what she means by this:

You have killed the vital capacity for love in me.

 The word used in the original, the notes of my Penguin edition tell me, is “kærlighedslivet”, a compound word joining together the words meaning “love” and “life”. Michael Meyer (Methuen) translates that line simply as “You have killed love in me”. I’d guess the Penguin translation by Haveland and Stanton-Ife possibly gets closer to what Ibsen had intended, but it is at the expense of succinctness. The meaning, I think, is fairly clear: there is no symbol or poetic imagery here to decipher. John Gabriel Borkman has destroyed in Ella the ability to love; he has compelled her to live a loveless life; and for that crime, there is no forgiveness.

The reference here is to a somewhat enigmatic verse in the Bible:

Wherefore I say unto you, All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men; but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men.

– Gospel According to Matthew 12:31

Even a charge such as this, made so directly, appears to make no impact at all upon John Gabriel. He is in grip of something that is, to him, even more powerful.

When we first see him, at the start of Act Two, a young local girl, Frida, is playing the piano to him – the Danse Macabre by Saint-Saëns. The exchange that follows – more monologue than exchange, really, since Frida does not really understand what he says, and nor does it matter to him whether she does or not – is, to put it mildly, strange:

BORKMAN: Can you guess where I hear notes like this, Miss Foldal?

FRIDA [ looks up at him]: No, Mr Borkman?

BORKMAN: It was down in the mines.

FRIDA [ does not understand]: Really? In the mines?

BORKMAN: I’m a miner’s son, as you probably know. Or perhaps you didn’t?

FRIDA: No, Mr Borkman.

BORKMAN: A miner’s son. And my father sometimes took me down the mines with him – . Down where the metal ore sings.

FRIDA: Oh, does it – sing?

BORKMAN [nods]: As it’s being loosened. The hammer strokes that loosen it are the chimes of midnight; they strike, and set it free. That’s why the ore sings – it sings with joy – in its own way.

FRIDA: why does it do that, Mr Borkman?

BORKMAN: It wants to come up to the light of day, and serve people.

Borkman’s vision of the ores under the ground longing to come up to “serve people” seems almost religious in its fervour, and, in the absence of a God, somewhat demented. But, given that absence, what can that religious fervour be directed towards? Borkman speaks of “serving the people”, and yet he never once shows any feeling or understanding of people, of their needs or their desires. The people he himself has ruined with his embezzlement he is happy to dismiss as insignificant. There is a fervour there all right, but directed towards what? The play doesn’t answer this, but it’s hard to resist the obvious answer that it is power. This is the dream that animates Borkman – the power and the glory, associated with Gabriel, but of distinctly an earthly, workmanlike variety. This is what he had sacrificed Ella to, and what he later cold-bloodedly tells Ella is more precious than life itself.

This renunciation of love for power, and this desire to master the elements of the earth with the aim of obtaining this power, bring to mind what many may regard as the single most powerful work of art of the 19th century – Wagner’s mighty Ring Cycle.  Ibsen was in nearby Munich when these operas were first performed in Bayreuth, but, despite being urged by his compatriot Edvard Grieg, he did not go to see them: he was not particularly musical, and the thought of sitting so many hours through these works put him off. No doubt he would have heard about the Ring, but it seems to me unlikely that this would have had any significant influence on him: we shouldn’t, after all, be surprised when major artists living in the same era hit upon similar themes. It is more fruitful, I think, to look for connections in Ibsen’s own earlier work.

As a young man of twenty-three, Ibsen had written a poem on precisely this theme:

Deep in the mountain’s desolate night
The rich treasure beckons me.
Diamonds and precious stones
Among the red branches of gold.

And in the darkness there is peace.
Peace and rest for eternity.
Heavy hammer, break me the way
To the heart-chamber of what lies hidden there…

[From the translation by Michael Meyer]

In The Pillars of Society, written some twenty years earlier, and the first in the series of twelve plays of what may be termed a cycle, Bernick too had dreamed of mastering the elements of the earth:


Imagine what a powerful lever [the railway will] represent for our entire community. Think of the enormous tracts of forest that’ll be made accessible; think of rich seams of ore that can be worked; think of the river with one waterfall after the other. Just imagine all the industry that can be established there.

[Translated by Deborah Dawkin and Erik Skuggevik]

And Bernick too had considered himself above the law to achieve his ends. But he lacked the quasi-mystical fervour of Borkman.

More recently, there was Master Builder Solness, who had also come from humble origins and had worked his way up, and who had also ruthlessly used those around him to gain his worldly success. He is in many ways a close match to Borkman. He too speaks of serving people (or, at least, of building houses “for people to live in”) but shows little concern for people in any other aspect of his life. Both Solness and Borkman have a self-regard that is at times blasphemous: both say of themselves, as the voice of God had said to Moses out of the burning bush, “I am what I am”.

But of course, this man who “is what he is” is also a man afraid to leave his own house. The dreams and visions that sustain him are merely rather pathetic comfort blankets. He is flattered in this by Frida’s father, a rather pathetic little man, Villem Foldal. Foldal too has his life-sustaining illusion: he is, both at home and outside, a downtrodden little man, but he had written once a tragic drama, and he is convinced that, one day, the greatness of this drama will be recognised. He had been one of those insignificant little men who had been ruined by Borkman’s fraud, but he comes to Borkman regularly, both to assure and to be assured: he assures Borkman that his dream of once again attaining power isn’t really dead; and Borkman, in turn, keeps alive Foldal’s own dream of some day being recognised as a poet. A comic pair, perhaps more suited for a play by Molière than one of Ibsen’s darkest tragedies. But their mutually supporting relationship cannot last: Foldal is injudicious enough to bring up the rather unpleasant truth that Borkman cannot have access to the financial world again given his conviction, and Borkman, stung by the ray of reality breaking in upon him, bluntly tells Foldal that he is no poet. After all, how can someone who does not recognise the poetic beauty of Borkman’s dreams be a poet? And this Molièresque scene of comedy ends, as Molière’ own scenes often do, on a surprisingly poignant note. But despite the break, both Foldal and Borkman cling on to their respective illusions.

There is one further element to the play: youth – those characters who, unlike the principal characters of this drama, do have a future. There Frida, the 15 year-old who comes over to play the piano for John Gabriel; there’s Fanny Wilton, a beautiful young lady (in her early 30s, we are told) who presents herself as widowed, but who is most likely divorced (divorce carried a huge social stigma in those days); and, of course, there’s Erhart himself, from whom so much is expected. Once again, compared to characters in Ibsen’s earlier works, these are simple characters: there is not much more to them than what one sees on the surface. What unites them – at least, the two older ones – is simply a desire, as Erhart puts it, to “live, live, live”. And there are no metaphysical complexities involved in what they mean by this: they mean the pleasure of the moment.

Fanny Wilton is an outgoing and assertive personality: it was her former husband, and not herself, who had been unfaithful, and in those days, it must have required a quite uncommonly self-assertive character in a woman to seek divorce and to accept the social stigma that went with it. It is she who decides to travel south, towards the sun (and there is an obvious symbolism here in the comparison between the sun she goes to, and the snowstorm she leaves behind). She takes with her the others of this league of youth – Erhart and Frida, in the sleigh-carriage with its tinkling bells.

The image of Youth simply walking away from the failures and unhealthy obsessions of their elders is an attractive one, but it’s not quite so straight-forward as it may seem. Fanny Wilton’s unashamed explanation for taking the 15-year-old Frida with them can, even now, or, perhaps, especially now, seem rather shocking:

Men are so fickle, Mrs Borkman. Women too. When Erhart has finished with me – and I with him – it would be good for both of us if, poor thing, he has someone to fall back on.

There is nothing moral about the rebellion of Youth. The duties and the responsibilities the older generation expect from Erhart are almost casually discarded, and the rebellion is not intellectual or philosophical in any sense. Erhart and Fanny Wilton are not even going off together because they love each other: they are going away with each other for no other reason than that they want sex – sex in the southern sun. It really is that simple.

But the departure of Youth for the southern sun is not where the play ends. We have one further act, in which are left behind not merely the dying, but, one suspects, those who are already dead. And the blizzard that has been raging outside till now comes now to the forefront: we now leave that over-heated house, and find ourselves right in the cold blankness of the snow. If we had suspected that the previous three acts weren’t quite taking place in the real world, we can have no doubts about it now. We are now in an imaginary world, a visionary world, not perhaps quite in the realms of death, but not quite in the land of the living either.

And the three protagonists in this drama go into death without any new understanding of themselves, without any conciliation with the past. Borkman finally leaves his house, and he and Ella, though as yet unreconciled, and the crime for which there is no forgiveness still unforgiven, tramp off together into the snow. But first, we are reminded of another corpse left behind: Villem Foldal, the downtrodden man who thinks himself a poet.

And in a sense, though not in the sense he had thought, he is a poet. He has been knocked down by a sleigh, has lost his spectacles, and has hurt his foot: he is more absurd and insignificant and downtrodden than ever. But when he hears that this carriage that has knocked him down had in it his own daughter, who is heading for the sun, far from being anguished, he is overjoyed. One cannot help feeling that this strange joy is the only pure ray of sunlight in the entire play: he is happy – happy that his daughter may find something of a joy that it has never been his privilege to have had. And this holy simpleton leaves the stage in a state of happiness that we fear none of the other characters in the play have ever known, or ever will know.

Certainly not the three remaining corpses. The one hope that Gunhild had nursed for some sixteen years now is shattered: her son Erhart was never the person to carry on his shoulders that great burden she had wanted to place on them, and she is in despair. Ella too now realises that, with Erhart’s departure, there will be nothing left of her; and she accepts this final defeat with grace. But as for Borkman, defeat is something he cannot even contemplate: this time, he finally plucks up the courage to come outside his house, though as deeply immersed as ever in his illusions.

Borkman and Ella together walk up through the snow, to a bench over a view of the world below: this was a place they used to come to in their younger days, but where we might expect this circumstance to awaken in Borkman’s mind the more tender feelings he once had for Ella, we see him enmired still in his dream of power. Dead men cannot develop, after all, and Borkman is already dead. And he intones what is in effect a hymn to the power and the glory he had dreamed of:

BORKMAN: Ella, can you see the mountain ranges there – far away? One behind the other. They rise. They tower up! There lies my vast, infinite, inexhaustible kingdom!

ELLA: Oh, but there’s an icy blast coming from that kingdom, John!

BORKMAN: That blast is like the breath of life to me. That blast comes over me like a greeting from my spirit subjects. I sense them, the trapped millions; I feel the veins of metal ore stretching out their arms to me, branching, beckoning, coaxing. That night when I stood in the bank vault holding the lantern in my hand, I saw them before me like shadows come to life. You all wanted to be liberated then. And I tried to do it. But I lacked the power. The treasure sank back into the depths. [with outstretched hands] But I will whisper to this in the still of the night: I love you, as you lie there in the deep of the darkness with the look of death! I love you, life-craving riches – I love you, and all your blazing retinue of power and glory! I love, love, love you!

It is in this state of religious ecstasy that Borkman dies. He gives his life to that which, to him, is more precious than life itself. At the very end, he feels a cold hand grasp his heart. Not a hand of ice, but a hand of iron. He sacrifices himself to the gods whom he had loved. And at the end, the two women, the twin sisters, themselves dead, hold hands over the dead man.

***

The late plays of Ibsen are notoriously obscure, and it is hard to know just how to interpret this. Given Borkman’s transcendent longing for power, he has been linked, naturally enough, to Nietzsche, and this play has been seen both as a Nietzschean play, and also as a play critical of Nietzschean ideas. I don’t know that either will do: these plays weren’t written, after all, to demonstrate any specific or even any general point. Rather, I see it as a bleak and ferocious and unforgiving winter landscape, a depiction – as Ibsen himself put it – of “the coldness of the heart”. It is a world balanced between life and death: often, especially in the final act, we feel as if we are already in the icy realms of Death, an icy and unforgiving region into which we carry, unrepentant, all the coldness and delusions that have lived with, all our crimes unatoned. And, especially, that crime for which there is no forgiveness, which, as Ibsen interprets it, is the murder of love within our beings.

Perhaps only a Holy Fool like Villem Foldal may escape.

“Against Nature” by Joris-Karl Huysmans

I doubt I’m the first to find it difficult to articulate my responses to Huysmans’ À Rebours. I found it engrossing, but I had first to overcome two major problems I have concerning fin-de-siècle decadence: aesthetically, I do not see its appeal; and morally, it has long struck me as an affectation that can only be indulged in by the sufficiently wealthy. Unless I was prepared to put away these prejudices, or, at least, suspend them while reading the book, I’d end up merely judging its protagonist des Esseintes unfavourably, and seeing in the book little more than a criticism of his character and of his thoughts. And mere unfavourable judgement cannot, I think, sustain a reader through an entire novel. But once I’d cleared my mind of my prejudices as best I could, I think I started to make more sense of it.

It’s hard to believe that this very strange novel was the product of a literary culture that, at the time (it was published in 1884), was dominated by Zola. The French title is untranslatable, and is usually rendered as Against Nature; however, this does not strike me as particularly felicitous, as it has about it a Shakespearean echo that’s a bit out of place here (“’Gainst nature still!” from Macbeth); and further, it isn’t just nature that des Esseintes is against: he is against modernity, society, everything – even humanity itself and human relationships. He is not just the leading character of the novel: he is the only character. A few others appear on the sidelines from time to time – servants, the doctor, and the like – but des Esseintes’ relationship with them is not touched upon. This refusal to engage with relationship between humans eliminates what is central to most novels, both in the nineteenth century, and also now: it eliminates the possibility also of conflict, and, hence, of drama.

But despite its strangeness, this novel has certain forebears. The classic novel of the solitary man creating his own world is, of course, Robinson Crusoe. Des Esseintes is, we are told, the last enervated remnant of a decayed aristocratic family, and we have met this character before in Poe’s Roderick Usher, and also in Stevenson’s marvellous Gothic tale “Olalla”. Des Esseintes’ disdain for bourgeois values and for popular taste (a disdain clearly shared by the author) is present in Flaubert; and we find in Flaubert also that studied ironic detachment of Huysmans’ narrative style – although, in Flaubert’s case, I can’t help but sense that this ironic detachment was a front for deeper feelings, whereas with Huysmans, I do not get that sense at all.

The immense erudition apparent in all the various learned references and allusions that the novel is packed with is also Flaubertian (it is very apparent in Bouvard et Pécuchet), and the idea of a man who detaches himself from a society he despises may even remind us of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man (although, admittedly, Dostoyevsky’s fictional world is a very far cry from that of Huysmans).

The structure of Huysmans’ novel is not so much symphonic, but more, as it were, a sort of “theme and variations”: the theme is stated first, and each chapter that follows is a variation on it. This structure, too, derives from Flaubert – again from Bouchard et Pécuchet.

But despite all of this, this novel is entirely original and unique, and its ability to engage the reader (for it certainly engaged me) is something I can’t quite account for.

While des Esseintes is not Huysmans (neither at the start nor at the end is he capable of writing the book we are reading), there is, I think, a considerable degree of overlap between author and protagonist: the desire to escape from this world and create one’s own is one Huysmans seems to sympathise with. He must: he would hardly have written an entire book on this theme were it otherwise. But it would be wrong, I think, to see this book merely as a vindication, or even as a commendation, of its protagonist: we should, I think, be prepared to regard des Esseintes in a critical manner. Unlike Robinson Crusoe, he cannot make his own clothes, or grow his own food. Nor, for that matter, can he decorate his dwelling to his tastes (a detailed description of des Esseintes’ interior decoration takes up an entire chapter of the novel). And he has personal servants as well. So, really, his detachment from life, from society, really is an affectation: given his inability actually to do anything, he is entirely dependent upon that same society that he so despises.

While this is not, I think, a negligible point, to see the entire novel from this perspective is to miss its richness. For des Esseintes is no mere hypocrite, and no mere poseur: his desire to detach himself from a world that is hateful to him is real. And the alienation that urges him to do this is also real. It is precisely in order to appreciate this element of the novel that I had to suspend my usual distaste for decadent aestheticism.

And it is not merely from the world of his fellow humans that he is alienated: he is alienated from nature itself. Not for him to turn to Nature to replenish the soul, in Wordsworthian fashion. He turns instead to artifice: the further from nature, the better, for the entirety of Nature is hateful to him. This is about as violent a reaction from nature-worshipping Romanticism as I think I have encountered.

But while des Esseintes assiduously cultivates the artificial, it isn’t clear – not to me, at least – what exactly he gets out of it. Possibly he doesn’t know himself. If all this is a different means of replenishing his soul, there seems no indication of that in the narrative: indeed, the very idea of a human soul that needs to be replenished seems very far from the spirit of this novel. Are his aesthetics, perhaps, no more than a gesture to demonstrate his hatred of the world outside? Or perhaps, his particular brand of aestheticism really does have some sort of positive effect on him. Or, perhaps, does it not matter either way. I couldn’t really get to the bottom of this: des Esseintes’ mindset is so very different from my own, I’m not sure I always understand it – fascinating though it was to enter it.

But his aestheticism, whatever he gets out of it, is utterly divorced from moral considerations: indeed, it seems at times to be in opposition to moral concerns. Des Esseintes is, ethically, completely disengaged. In one chapter, he pays for a young urchin to visit brothels, and, once the lad develops a taste for this sort of thing, abruptly withdraws the funding, just as an experiment to see what happens, and hoping that it all ends in criminality, and even murder. One must be extremely disengaged from all ethical concerns even to consider such an experiment with a living human, purely, as far as I could work out, to satisfy one’s aesthetic sense. But where, in any other novel, something so striking would have been developed, here, the strand just vanishes: des Esseintes loses touch with the boy, and neither he nor we know (nor care) what happens next. This wouldn’t have been possible in a symphonically constructed novel, but in a Theme and Variations format, each variation is allowed to stand independently of the others.

There is a hilarious passage where he thinks of going to England, but, after an evening in an English-style bar in Paris, decides not to go after all, as he has in that bar experienced England far better than he possibly could in England itself. This reminded me of the film critic Leslie Halliwell’s observation that the MGM backlots of Paris were far more romantic than the real Paris could ever be. What, after all, is so great about reality?

I’m still not sure why I found this strange novel so engrossing. I’m still far from being in sympathy with the aesthetics of decadence; and since this novel does not deal with human relationships, the conflict that is necessary for drama is missing. But a conflict of sorts does perhaps emerge – between, on the one hand, a desire to detach oneself from the world, and, on the other, the impossibility of doing so. And this impossibility neither negates nor makes ridiculous the desire. But in the end, the desire is defeated: reality, loathsome as it may be, has to be accepted. The theme has been stated; the variations played out; and then, it’s an inevitable return to the life that had been rejected.

These are my somewhat confused impressions of a very strange novel. I’m still not entirely sure what to make of it all. Maybe I need to give it more time to sink in.