Archive for the ‘comedy’ Category

Stan and Ollie

Given that this blog has been going for nearly nine years now, and given further that I had set this blog up primarily to talk about various things I love, it is strange that I have managed so far not even  to mention Laurel and Hardy. I suppose it’s because I find it difficult to describe what their films mean to me without gushing. But now that a new film about this duo is doing the rounds to hearteningly popular acclaim, it seems as good a time as any to write something about them on my blog. And I’ll do my best not to gush, as those who are fans will already know what I mean, and those who aren’t will merely be put off.

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Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel.

I must admit, though, that I am always somewhat shocked when anyone tells me they do not like Laurel and Hardy films. And yes, there are many who think them essentially silly, and simple-minded. And I have to ask myself whether my continued love for them is really justified in terms of their merit, or whether it is merely a leftover from a fondly remembered childhood. I think it’s the former, but I cannot, of course, demonstrate it one way or the other. I plead that, as a child, I used to laugh at Abbott and Costello films as well, but that they soon paled, and now I find them merely irritating; but Laurel and Hardy films I continue to love. That doesn’t constitute a proof, of course – nothing can constitute a proof in this context – but it does indicate, at least, that my continued enjoyment of Laurel and Hardy is due to more than mere nostalgia. Although what that more is, is difficult to identify, let alone articulate.

We can, at least, say what they aren’t. Their humour is not – despite ignorant claims to the contrary – primarily slapstick. Yes, of course they employed slapstick; but so, for that matter, did Cervantes. And yes, of course that slapstick is funny. But what we are laughing at is, I think, more than merely the slapstick, more than the pratfalls that lie in wait of them. And that more lies, I think, in these characters’ relationship with the world around them, with each other, and with us, the audience.

Oliver Hardy once said that people enjoyed watching these films because they can feel smarter than these two. (I’m sorry I can’t link to this, as I can’t find a reference to this quote anywhere:  but I’m sure I read this somewhere – though damned if I can remember where!) I’m not sure what context Oliver said this in, but whatever he meant, he was surely only partly right. Yes, of course we feel we are brighter than these two: there would be something very wrong with us if we didn’t. And yes, of course, we laugh at their stupidity, their ineptitude. But – and here’s the most important thing – we never look down on them. No matter how foolishly they act, no matter how inept they are, we’re on their side. To use that lazy cliché – we can identify with them; we can sympathise with these two essentially well-meaning people who are unequal, as, frankly, we all are, to the demands life makes of us. It is partly because the world conspires against them; it is also partly because they are not very bright, or capable. And yes, as we watch Stan and Ollie struggle with living their lives, we laugh: but we laugh not at them, but in the recognition deep down that, no doubt on a somewhat different level, we too aren’t up to meeting life’s demands.

Flaubert had pulled off this trick in Bouvard et Pécuchet (which often strikes me as Flaubert’s masterpiece): here, too, we have two genuinely well-meaning people trying to grapple with the complexities of life, and repeatedly failing. However, we do not look down on them, for we see in them, despite a comic exaggeration, an image of our own state. But Flaubert observed his creations with a studied ironic distance, whereas I don’t think even detractors of Stan and Ollie could fail to notice the genuine warmth with which these two characters are portrayed. And frankly, this is a mystery to me.  I too sense the warmth in their films; and yet, Ollie is an overbearing, pompous bully who frequently hits Stan. (And Stan occasionally hits back.) I once saw an interview with the late Richard Briers, one of the finest comic actors of his generation, who also admitted that he couldn’t explain this. We all hate pompous, self-important people, he said, we all hate bullies, and yet, we watch Oliver Hardy’s performance, and we love him. He said he watched these films repeatedly just to see how Oliver Hardy achieved this, but that he never could work it out. He thought it was simply a miracle.

But, whatever life throws at them, they never give up, or give way to despondency. They keep on failing, and not even failing better. But they carry on. Because, like the rest of us I guess, they must.

Fans of Laurel and Hardy are probably a bit cheesed off with me by now. Here I am, talking about Cervantes and Flaubert and what not, while ignoring the most salient aspect of their genius – they were funny.

Yes, they certainly were. Are.

But I challenge anyone to explain what it is about them that makes one laugh. It’s an impossible task, and I’m not even going to try. In any case, if anyone needs to ask why they are funny, they’re not going to get it anyway.

The recent film Stan and Ollie has excited much comment, especially around my neck of the net. The Laurel and Hardy fan club page on Facebook has been buzzing with excitement, with virtually everyone recommending the film, and praising Steve Coogan’s and John C. Reilly’s superbly convincing performances. I must admit I tend to steer away from showbiz biopics: if they are hagiographies, I find that boring and pointless; and if they are hatchet jobs, they are equally boring and pointless, and also somewhat repugnant. Sometimes, the middle course is taken, showing both the  virtues and the vices of the subjects, but even there, I remain dubious: we all have our character flaws – what purpose does it serve to dramatise these peoples’ personal flaws and foibles? But in this case,  I must admit I was quite pleasantly surprised.

I do not know much of the biographical details of these two: I am  generally more interested in artists’ works  rather than their lives; but I do know that the  two got on  really well together, and had for each other a great respect and affection. But the film-makers also take – as I discover from some of the posts on this Facebook page from those who know about their lives far better than I do – a few liberties. Producer Hal Roach was no money-grubbing philistine as is portrayed here; and while Stan and Ollie did have a few differences with him, it was never about pay. More significantly, Laurel and Hardy never quarrelled with each other in real life. No doubt they had some minor disagreements when filming, but it never amounted to a break in their friendly relations. In this film, Stan is somewhat resentful of Ollie going off to make a film on his own: in real life, Stan had actually congratulated Ollie. I assume that the quarrel was introduced into this film to inject some drama into the proceedings: two people getting on just fine is no doubt admirable, but frankly a bit boring. However, it was made clear that neither was at peace till they had made it up and acknowledged to each other that they had not meant the words spoken in anger; and the reconciliation scene was genuinely touching. It is impossible for us fans to think of Stan and Ollie without feeling a sense of warmth, and of generosity: both these qualities came over very strongly.

The film focuses on the tour they made of Britain in 1953, when they were both getting old, and somewhat past it (at least, on the evidence of their later films, which I frankly find a bit painful to watch). And Ollie’s health was clearly failing. The film could easily have become sentimental, but it didn’t. Even their reconciliation scene, which, fictional or not, no fan of the pair could fail to find touching, consisted of only a few words:  no more needed to be said. One thing I hadn’t realised, and which, I admit, did leave me a bit tearful, was that for the eight years Stan lived on after Ollie’s death, he continued writing gags for the two. Obviously, he knew that these gags would never be performed (and I, for one, hope they never are, not even by the excellent Coogan and Reilly): presumably, Stan wrote these gags because that was his way of keeping in touch with precious, vanished times, and with a precious, vanished friend. I’m glad the film only mentioned this in passing at the end: some things really don’t need to be dwelt upon.

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John C. Reilly as Oliver Hardy, and Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel, from the film “Stan and Ollie”, courtesy of producing companies Entertainment One BBC Films Fable Pictures Laurel and Hardy Feature Productions Sonesta Films

 

After seeing the film, I came back home, and immediately put on one of their two-reelers. (I chose Midnight Patrol at random.) And I laughed all over again, although I knew all the gags by heart. I think I just enjoy their company. Foolish, inept, pompous (on one side) and vacant (on the other), utterly unable to cope with all that life throws at them, often cruelly defeated – but however stupid we may think them, we never look down upon them: they’re still one of us.

If I had to pick a single DVD set to keep from my collection,  I would undoubtedly choose the Laurel and Hardy films.

Down the rabbit hole, through the looking glass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

… and one I’d missed

I missed this one in my previous post. Not because I had forgotten about it, but because that last post was long enough. And this one didn’t really fit in with the rest of the content. But if we are talking about quality dramatic writing and top-notch comic performances in sitcoms, it’s hard to ignore Till Death Us Do Part.

However, the BBC has been doing just that. DVDs were briefly available many years ago now of a couple of series, but they soon disappeared, and not a single episode has been available on DVD since. (Edit: this is wrong. See correction at foot of post.) Neither are there any repeats, either on any BBC channel, or on any satellite channel; and when the writer, the brilliant Johnny Speight, passed away, his passing was barely noticed.

The reason for this isn’t hard to discern: the series was regarded, and still is by many, as “racist”. This is because at its centre there’s the now legendary monster Alf Garnett, a bigoted and deeply racist blowhard, who didn’t hold back in expounding his views. These views, peppered throughout with grossly insulting racist language, are pretty vile. There have been some half-hearted attempts to defend this by claiming that his son-in-law, Mike, provides a counterbalance by articulating a more liberal perspective, but this is to miss the point quite spectacularly: for all his liberalism, Mike is as ignorant, as unintelligent, and as badly informed, as his father-in-law.

Like Steptoe and Son and Dad’s Army, this series was first aired in the 1960s, and continued into the 1970s, and it was easily the most controversial. Rather quaintly, the initial controversy was due to the frequent use of the word “bloody”, which, in those days, some fifty and more years after Shaw’s Pygmalion, was considered “bad language”. The racism on display was approved of by great sections of the audience. Warren Mitchell, the actor who played Alf Garnett, told a story where some people approached him in the street and congratulated him for poking fun at dark-skinned people (although, obviously, “dark-skinned people” was not the term they used). Warren Mitchell had replied that, actually, he had been poking fun at “idiots like you”.

This mistaking of the actor for the character he plays is surprisingly common. Even more common is to mistake what is being spoken by the character as the author’s voice. It somehow seems to escape notice that depiction of racism is not the same as endorsing it. But to claim, as some do, that the series is essentially a satire on racism, and, hence, a liberal plea for tolerance, seems to me also to be wide of the mark. For, like the best satires, this programme hits out savagely at everyone, in all directions. No-one is spared: nothing is sacred. We are presented with characters who are stupid, bigoted, ignorant, and yet utterly unaware of their stupidity, their bigotry, their ignorance; they are quite clearly unequal to the task of understanding the complex world in which they live, but are nonetheless aggressive and bullish in affirming their own beliefs, and contemptuously dismissive of those who believe otherwise. Allowing for the exaggeration without which satire cannot exist, we are invited to identify ourselves in all this: can we really claim that, at some level, we have no part in such folly? Watching this is not a comfortable experience, but then, neither is it meant to be. Satire that is comfortable is satire that has failed.

The characterisations aren’t perhaps as profound as those in Steptoe and Son, but Steptoe and Son was essentially drama, whereas this is satire. Alf Garnett is certainly a monster, but the sad fact is that even monsters are human – much like ourselves. Despite being a monster, he is also a rather pathetic human being, clinging on loyally to a conservatism that has let him down. His “liberal” son-in-law, played by Anthony Booth, is an unemployed layabout, who, despite his fraught arguments with his father-in-law, understands as little of what he is talking about as his father-in-law does. Alf’s wife, Elsie (brilliantly played by Dandy Nichols), has learnt over the years generally to ignore her husband, and to get on quietly with her own business while her husband is blowing his top again over something or other. The daughter, Rita, is played by Una Stubbs, who, I guess, will mainly be remembered in future as Mrs Hudson in the hit series Sherlock. Despite being attached to her father, she can see the absurd figure her father cuts, and is generally more sympathetic to her mother. Warren Mitchell’s Alf Garnett is certainly the “star of the show”, as it were, but it’s an ensemble piece: these four characters, living together in a small house in a deprived working class area of London’s East End, cannot avoid each other, either physically or emotionally: in the context of the drama, they are all important, and they balance each other to perfection.

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Warren Mitchell, Dandy Nichols, Una Stubbs, and Anthony Booth in “Till Death Us Do Part”, courtesy BBC

In the spectrum of comedy, I suppose this is far closer to the darker end than to the lighter, but I can’t really discern any element of the tragic here: occasionally, we see through Alf Garnett’s hateful bluster and observe the human being underneath, but on the whole, the element of pathos is kept well hidden. In one episode, for instance, Alf Garnett is genuinely perturbed by the possibility that he may be partly Jewish: even as we observe the insecurity of this pitiable figure, we find ourselves repelled by his blind bigotry. We laugh, but the laughter is far from comfortable.

The rather uncomfortable question does arise: is the BBC correct in keeping hidden this series, one of the jewels of its comic crown? It could certainly be argued that a series that is so easily and so widely misunderstood, and which provides so much ammunition to racists (and I can personally testify it does), really is best kept under wraps. But I can’t help feeling very uncomfortable about this state of affairs. There’s absolutely no chance of the BBC releasing a boxed set of these episodes, but many are available on YouTube now if you’d like to sample them. The scripts and the performances are, on the whole, top quality (though it wasn’t, to be fair, as consistently assured as was, say, Steptoe and Son), but do be prepared for a deeply uncomfortable viewing experience. We like to think of ourselves as being more sophisticated than audiences of the past, and more capable of taking in material that is “edgy”, but I remain sceptical.

Till Death Us Do Part was remade as All in the Family for American television, but once again, I won’t comment on this since I haven’t seen it: I am told (although I cannot personally vouch for it) that the sheer unmitigated savagery of Johnny Speight’s scripts was considerably toned down: if this is true, it’s entirely understandable.

I have seen Warren Mitchell live on stage, playing Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. In the absence of boxed sets of Till Death Us Do Part, for anyone wanting to see this great actor at his finest, I’d warmly recommend his performance as Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice – another controversial work in which racial differences play a major part, and which is also often regarded (wrongly, in my view) as racist.
CORRECTION: Since I posted this about an hour ago, it has been pointed out to me that a boxed set of this  is indeed now available: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Till-Death-Us-Part-DVD/dp/B01MSQSOP2.

It certainly wasn’t the last time I looked, but I really should have checked before writing this. My apologies.

The spectrum of comedy

There’s a strong case to be made for not analysing comedy. Laughter is a spontaneous thing, and as soon as one starts analysing, the very essence of what made us laugh in the first place is gone. All we know is that we have in us an impulse under certain circumstances to contort our faces into odd grimaces, and sometimes, in more extreme cases, to open our mouths and emit some peculiar noises. And that it feels good when we do. So let’s just leave it there.

But we can’t leave it there. At least, I can’t, especially when I think it gives me a good excuse for a blog post. So let me crave your indulgence for a bit while I try out a pet theory I have long held – that there are, essentially, two poles in comedy, and all that makes us laugh lies at one or other of these poles, or, more usually, at some point on the spectrum somewhere between.

At one end we have comedy that is dark, that is aware of the suffering and the misery of our common human lot. This kind of comedy can occupy the same space as tragedy: indeed, it can often be both comic and tragic at the same time. It acknowledges, as tragedy does, that life is indeed dark and comfortless, and profoundly sad; but where tragedy tries to salvage some sense of human dignity and nobility, comedy relishes the absurdity of it all – the absurdity even of trying to salvage anything. In this category I would place such works as Dead Souls, Waiting for Godot, Catch 22.

And then there’s the other extreme, where all thoughts of darkness are banished, where one is encouraged to smile at sunny cloudless skies, and to celebrate the fact, for fact it is, that even our brief existence can contain such warmth and happiness. In this category I’d place such works as The Importance of Being Earnest, The Inimitable Jeeves, Singin’ in the Rain.

Most comic works are somewhere on this spectrum, though leaning perhaps towards one end or the other. And, almost as if to illustrate my contention, two of the finest British television sitcoms – one may go as far as to say the finest, without any objection from me – exemplify these two extremes. Both started in the 1960s, and the various series continued into the 1970s. One is Steptoe and Son, which a friend tells me that he finds so grim when he watches them these days on DVD that he cannot even bring himself to laugh; and the other is Dad’s Army, which, despite being set during the dark days of WW2, manages, without the slightest hint of self-importance, to celebrate all that was worth fighting for.

Steptoe and Son was successfully remade for American television as Sanford and Son, but since I haven’t seen this, I’ll comment on the British version only. It presents a father and a son, working class rag-and-bone traders – i.e. people who collect unwanted items people wish to get rid of, and salvage what they can out of it. Scavengers, if one wishes to be unkind. They live together in a dirty and impossibly cluttered old house, eccentrically furnished with various items that have been discarded by others. The decorations in the main living room include a medical skeleton and a huge stuffed bear. The old man is a pathetic creature, aware of his approaching end, and terrified that his son may leave him to fend for his own in his last days; he uses all the emotional blackmail and manipulation he can think of to keep hold of his son. The son himself has dreams of all the things that he may one day be, but he is no longer at an age where such dreams are viable: far from being an impressionable teenager, he is in his 40s. Possibly older: old age isn’t too far away from him either. He is deeply lonely and unfulfilled, and hates his father for having held him back; but he also loves his father, and can’t leave him, no matter how much he longs to. And so the two are stuck, loving and hating each other at the same time, seemingly for eternity.

This does not seem very promising material for comedy. And indeed, many would argue that it isn’t. Scriptwriters Ray Galton and Alan Simpson skilfully weave a path balancing the various conflicting elements of this essentially tragic situation, and, aided by two peerless performances (Wilfrid Brambell as the father and Harry H. Corbett as the son), manage to get more laughs out of this than one might have thought possible. But the tragedy isn’t short-changed either. The whole thing is a masterpiece of dramatic writing. We may sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that the best dramatic writing is reserved for the stage, but we must beware of snobbery – even, or especially, unwitting snobbery: I do not think I have encountered anything in twentieth century theatre that surpasses in sheer quality, and very little that equals, these scripts by Galton and Simpson. They manage to invest these characters and the relationship between them with such depth and complexity, that there are entire episodes consisting of just these two talking to, and reacting to, each other: nothing further is needed – not even, quite frequently, a plotline.

The contrast with Dad’s Army could hardly be greater. This is set in the fictional town of Walmington-on-Sea, on the south coast of Britain, during WW2. And it focuses on the local branch of the “Home Guard”, an outfit consisting of volunteers who are either too old or too young to be called up for the forces, or who have been exempted for medical reasons, or on account of the importance of their jobs. Their task was to fight back as best they could against enemy parachutists, saboteurs, and the like; to help organise the local defence against air raids, or other enemy attacks.

Now, this premise seems no more conducive to comedy than did the premise of Steptoe and Son: the days depicted were indeed dark days; invasion by one of the most evil regimes in history seemed imminent (with the enemy themselves only a few miles away across the channel); and news of injuries and deaths from abroad, and shortages and hardships at home, were everyday things. And yet, out of this, somehow, emerged the sunniest of comedies.

It’s an ensemble piece. At the centre of it were George Mainwaring (pronounced “Mannering”), played by Arthur Lowe, the captain of the platoon, and the local bank manager; and Arthur Wilson, his underling both in the bank and in the platoon itself, where he is sergeant. Mainwaring is impossibly pompous and self-important: he is convinced that he is, by nature, a leader of men, and that his Home Guard platoon, consisting largely of doddery old men, he can mould into a mean and ruthless fighting machine. Wilson, played by John le Mesurier, is the more intelligent, and he wryly recognises the absurdity of it all. One would expect in such a situation that Mainwaring would be from an upper class family and Wilson from a lower, but the genius of the writing is that it is quite the opposite: it is Wilson who is from a privileged background, although, given his rather lackadaisical attitude to life, has risen no further in life than a senior bank clerk; and it is Mainwaring who is middle class, who has had to fight his way to get where he is, and who resents the privileges which Wilson has had, and has wasted. He resents also Wilson’s natural charm, and his popularity.

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The main players of “Dad’s Army”, picture courtesy BBC

The platoon is made up of a wonderful cast of comic grotesques, as beautifully eccentric and as vivid as if they had just stepped out fresh from the pages of Dickens. Each one is cast to perfection – Clive Dunn as the doddery old Mr Jones, the butcher, endlessly reminiscing of his younger days under Kitchener in the Sudan; John Laurie as Mr Frazer, the somewhat mad old Scottish undertaker; Arnold Ridley as Mr Godfrey, a pleasant old gentleman, as willing to please as he is physically incapable of … well, of doing much at all; Ian Lavender as Pike, the immature mummy’s boy; and James Beck as Walker, the spiv, well dodgy and – although we never get to the details – more than slightly crooked, who could get you anything you needed for a price, with no question asked. (James Beck died at a distressingly young age while they were shooting the sixth series in 1973, and although they continued for a few more series without him, the gap he left behind was never quite filled.)

These characters, especially Mainwaring and Wilson, have more complexity than may at first appear. Mainwaring may be insufferably pompous, but when the occasion demands, he could be genuinely heroic: when, in one episode, they had to form a line to clear the rubble created by an air raid, with those at the head of the line in imminent danger of being crushed by falling masonry, Mainwaring actually pretends to have drawn the short straw so that he could take the most dangerous position himself. This really is extraordinary courage, but such is the quality of the scripts (by Jimmy Perry and David Croft) and of the performances, it does not seem at all out of character. On the other hand, in another episode, he gives an absurd lecture to the platoon about the distinguishing physical characteristics of a typical Nazi, prompting the thought that had this man been born in Germany rather than in Britain, he would probably have been an enthusiastic Nazi himself.

Wilson, too, has depths that are not apparent: he may see the whole thing as a joke, but, as he concedes at one point, he is rather proud of being in the platoon, and that he even admires what Mainwaring has achieved. Underneath his general good humour there is more than a hint of sadness for an essentially failed life: we find out in one episode that his marriage had broken down, and that he only very rarely sees his now grown-up daughter, whom he never mentions, but of whom he is proud.

And there are the minor characters as well – Pike’s possessive mother Mavis (Janet Davies), with whom Wilson is obviously having an affair (Pike is the only one who seems unaware of this); the gloriously eccentric pairing of the effete vicar (Frank Williams) and his cantankerous, truculent verger (Edward Sinclair); and there’s the grocer, Mr Hodges (played by Bill Pertwee), who is also the Air Raid Warden. He is the sort of “villain” of the piece – brash, vulgar, unlikeable, and, Wilson says, “common” (“common” being just about the worst put-down in this class-ridden society). It is always a problem how to handle such characters in what is essentially a genial comedy, these Malvolios who refuse to be part of the general harmony: Wagner has been roundly criticised for his depiction of a similar character, Beckmesser, in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, who is presented without any sympathy at all, and whose ultimate humiliation Wagner appears rather to relish. There is nothing like that here: Hodges may be a bit of a fly in the ointment, but it is a fly one may live with, and he doesn’t unduly disrupt the sense of community and of gentleness that characterises the good-natured humour. At no point is the comedy allowed to turn sour.

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Harry H. Corbett and Wilfred Brambell in “Steptoe and Son”, picture courtesy BBC

Dad’s Army is always a pleasure to revisit. Steptoe and Son perhaps less so: one has to brace oneself for it. And, for me, they epitomise not merely the best that television has to offer (Steptoe and Son is great drama as well as great comedy), but also the two extremes between which, it seems to me, all comedy lies. They remind us also not to look down on the humble television sitcom: it is true that the heights these two series reached have rarely or never been followed up, but it is nonetheless good to remind oneself that such heights are indeed possible.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Talkative Man” by R. K. Narayan

There’s something very comforting about Narayan’s novels.

This does not seem like a recommendation for the works of a serious novelist. For comforting is what lesser novelists do: serious novelists, who deal with serious themes, write books that are provocative, challenging, disturbing, and so on; they examine the human condition, the angst, the pain of being alive, the failed relationships – both with others and with ourselves; the failure to understand or even to come to terms with all this unintelligible world; and so on, and so forth. Strange thing is, Narayan also deals with many of these themes. And yet, without diminishing the importance of these themes, he is comforting. And I think this is because he is happy to accept human beings as they are. He will present people who are obviously inadequate to the demands of living; he will present us with rogues, with blowhards, with fools, with imbeciles; and yet, he never looks down on them – there is never the slightest hint of malice, or of rancour. He loves his characters, whoever they are.

Talkative Man is one of his later novels, published in 1982, and is also among his shortest: indeed, he adds a postscript apologising for its being so short, and explaining that he couldn’t possibly have made it any longer without expanding into areas he would prefer not to. Of course, his tongue is well in his cheek here: he knew that the novel – or extended short story, of you prefer – was just right as it was. It’s hard not to see, either here in the postscript or in the novel itself, the twinkle in the author’s eye.

The story itself is slight, and, as so often with Narayan, gently and endearingly eccentric. The narrator is a man who lives on inherited wealth, but likes to imagine himself a freelance journalist: he rushes here and there, writes stories, and sends them to local papers; and sometimes, these stories get published. He comes into contact with a the mysterious  stranger Dr Rann, who, after arriving in Malgudi by train, promptly installs himself in the station waiting room, and refuses to leave. The station master is too timid to tell Rann he can’t stay there, while Rann quite happily berates the station-master for not looking after him properly. Then, for no apparent reason, merely to get him off the station-master’s hands, the narrator – the “talkative man”, as he describes himself – takes this Dr Rann into his own house. If all this sounds very strange, it is: but it all seems to happen so naturally in Narayan’s fictional world.

Rann says he is working on some unspecified United Nations project. He has a bee in the bonnet about some weed that is indestructible, and that will, he insists, inevitably take over the earth and prevent crops from growing; and that unless this threat is addressed urgently, mankind itself is doomed. Now, this is serious stuff: Rann is given every respect as a learned man on whom the very future of the world depends.

Then, a lady turns up who claims to be Rann’s abandoned wife, and the narrator, for no reason credible anywhere outside the confines of Narayan’s fictional world, tries to protect his house-guest from her. This house-guest, meanwhile, is planning to seduce an innocent young local girl, and that, the narrator feels, has to be stopped. And so on. You get the idea – it is all utterly mad, and yet, there seems a weird logic underlying it all.

The story, dotty though it is, is essentially about people who have to invent fictions about themselves in order to live their lives. The narrator has to pretend to himself he is an important journalist; Dr Rann has to pretend to himself he is a scientist engaged on vital research; and his abandoned wife, Sarasa, has to pretend that Rann can be domesticated, and turned into an ideal husband. They are all deluded, of course. And yes, there are a lot of laughs in all this: Narayan’s comic timing is subtle and delicious, turning often on a single beautifully worded and perfectly placed phrase. (It helps, of course, that he couldn’t write an inelegant sentence even if he wanted to.) But never, at any point, does he look down on any of these utterly absurd people he has created. If they are ridiculous and deluded, well, aren’t we all? And isn’t a warm and affectionate laughter of acceptance a better reaction to all this than angst and despair?

It would have been easy for Narayan to have used his natural charm to skate over serious themes, and there was a time when I used to think that he did just that: but I was wrong. The themes he tackles he deals with seriously – but there is always that endearing dottiness and that twinkle in the authorial eye to ensure that no matter how serious the theme, the tone remains light. In The English Teacher, Narayan had depicted first simple happiness (the most difficult thing any writer of fiction can, I think, depict), followed by the pain of bereavement, desolation, and, at the end, transcendence; in Mister Sampath the Printer of Malgudi, he had depicted a failure to engage with life, and indifference posing as a lofty detachment; in The Guide, he had depicted sexual obsession, and, by the end, an unlooked-for martyrdom. (Having read most of Narayan’s work now, I take these three novels, written in the late 1940s and early 1950s, to be his finest.) These are all serious themes; and yet, so beguiling is the writing, so apparently easy the style, that it is easy to miss the seriousness.

Talkative Man is a slighter work, perhaps, than some of his earlier novels, but, even in his old age (he was in his late 70s when this was published) he had lost none of his skill. The world he presents is utterly enchanting; Narayan himself is, as ever, charm personified. But the seriousness is there if one looks for it. And it is all presented with so good-natured a laugh, that we come away thinking that the world is not, perhaps, so bad a place after all.

A Narayan novel always makes me think: “If it really is this easy to write a novel, how come I can’t write one?” The answer is fairly obvious, I’m afraid. It takes  the greatest of skill to make novel-writing look so damn easy.

“Bartholomew Fair” by Ben Jonson

A friend of mine, who has been an avid theatre-goer for more years than I think he cares to remember (he knows who he is!) tells me that he has seen a few productions of Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair, and that it works very well indeed on stage. Which frankly surprised me: I did enjoy reading it, but it seemed to me that there was so much play on language that is likely to be lost on modern audiences; that there were so many contemporary references; that there was so much use of stock comic characters and situations that were then easily recognised, but have now fallen by the wayside; that any modern production would have to work very hard indeed to make an impact. Even as I was reading it, I had to consult the annotations frequently, and, alas, even the best of jokes lose something when they have to be explained through scholarly exegesis.

It’s a teeming, bustling play, with a vast array of characters – rogues, fools, eccentrics, madmen, conmen, bawds and whores – all thrown together in Smithfield market in London on Bartholomew Fair. It is a play that delights in colour and exuberance; and, true to the tradition of British humour from Chaucer to Dad’s Army or even the Carry On films, it delights in human eccentricity. Eccentricity is inevitably, to a lesser or greater extent, subversive in nature, since it cannot do other than disrupt a well-ordered society: the greater the divergence from the norm, the more dangerous the challenge to the authority whose purpose it is to maintain order. It is perhaps for this reason that eccentricity is so potent a force in comic tradition: order is no doubt important if we are to maintain the stability of society; but equally, cocking a snook at the guardians of order is important if we are to maintain the sanity of individuals. This, I think, has been long recognised, even by those in authority: the very day after the first performance of this play in Hope Theatre, Bankside, in 1614, it was performed at Court, without any controversy at all. Authority seemed more than happy to have a snook cocked in its direction – whatever that may literally mean.

I suppose it could be argued that this lack of controversy even when performed in court argues a lack of bite in the play itself, but I’m not sure Jonson intended the comedy to have any “bite” as such. Sure, neither of the two figures of authority in this play – the Justice of the Peace Adam Overdo, and the Puritan humbug Zeal-of-the-Land Busy – come out well: Overdo follows the time-honoured ruse of walking amongst the commonality in disguise to observe their ways, but here, meets only with a good thrashing (Jonson’s age, like Fielding’s being remarkably less squeamish than ours in these matters), is put into the stocks, and, finally, is humiliated when the prostitute he thinks he is unmasking ends up being his wife; meanwhile the splendidly named Zeal-of-the-Land Busy, surely a forerunner to Dickens’ Chadband, has the piss ripped out of him something rotten. But Jonson’s mood in this play is one of geniality rather than anger: at the end, the entire cast, bawds and whores and even Puritans, are all invited to dinner. Authority has been suitably mocked, but now that’s over, Jonson, rather than rub it in, is more concerned with celebrating a sense of community, however difficult it may be to believe that such a rag-bag of strange and weird characters could possibly cohere together to form one.

The plot is minimal, and Jonson doesn’t seem too interested in it anyway. Once the exposition in Act One is over, and we find ourselves in Smithfeld market, Jonson’s interest is not in the plot at all, but in his remarkable cast of characters: those scenes that advance the plot seem almost to be dropped in here and there casually. Some of the comic characters are, it must be conceded, tiresome: one doubts, for instance, whether Whit’s provincial accent represents any great height of comic inspiration – although, I suppose, his talk of “shitting” when he means “sitting” could raise a laugh or two. But there are many others who are presented with such tremendous exuberance and comic gusto that it perhaps doesn’t matter too much that one needs to consult the notes to fully get their jokes: good comic actors can, I suppose, get laughs out of just about everything.

After all, there’s more to comedy than mere joke-count. This is not of course to denigrate the importance of the joke-count: I’m sure Jonson himself didn’t. But at least as important as the joke-count is the creation of a comic environment, an enticing fictional milieu that can accommodate the author’s comic vision. Without the creation of such a milieu, all we’d end up with is the equivalent of a joke-book: pleasant to dip into perhaps, but tedious to read from cover to cover. And Jonson’s comic milieu is one full of colour and vigour and vitality, peopled with strange and mad characters who all share so much their creator’s love of words that none of them can bear to stop talking. Not even to get the plot moving.

Some of the comedy in Bartholomew Fair is old and time-honoured, but it’s funny nonetheless; the servant being smarter than the master is always good for a laugh (as Wodehouse well knew), and if in this instance the master, Bartholomew Cokes, is merely the traditional silly arse, his servant, the wonderfully short-tempered, irascible and waspish Humphrey Wasp, continually taking offence at everything, is a delight. Then there’s Ursula, the “Pig Woman” and keeper of the jordans for those who need to relieve themselves – a  vast, Falstaffian character dripping sweat and constantly deflating the pompous and the pretentious with her no-nonsense earthiness; there are crooked and roguish ballad-sellers, tapsters, hobby-horse-sellers, cutpurses; there’s a character named Trouble-All, wandering in and out of the action demanding that there be legal warrants for everything, and that nothing must on any account be done without one; and there’s a Punk Alice, described in the Dramatis Personae as “Mistress of the Game”. And so on. And no matter how roguish or how foolish or how plain mad they are, Jonson seems to love them: the only character he appears to dislike is the killjoy Puritan Zeal-of-the-land Busy, but even he isn’t excluded from the dinner invitation at the end. Whether he will accept or not, and how he could possibly fit into the communal celebrations even if he does, Jonson prefers not to address. The existence of those who will not, can not, fit into a general harmony causes problems for the comic writer: the likes of Malvolio or Beckmesser create uncomfortable dissonances that disturb the harmony. In Twelfth Night, the dissonance deepens the shadows in the play, without, by some miracle, distracting from the comedy; the dissonance at the end of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg remains, on the other hand, for me at any rate, somewhat uncomfortable. But Jonson allows no such dissonance at the end of this play: whatever we may feel about Zeal-of-the-Land Busy, it is swept away by the general air of geniality and good humour. After the mocking of authority, all is forgotten and forgiven: what remains is celebration.

This play is, in essence, Jonson’s love-letter to London, and to the people of London. It is not, I’d imagine, a very easy play to put on in modern times, but given that it can still hold the stage, I’d love to see it performed. I imagine, though, that the jokes would be delivered in performance somewhat more quickly than I managed to read them.

As I liked it

I’ve long had something of an uneasy relationship with As You Like It. While I recognise it to be a charming pastoral idyll, I don’t really see enough in the play to account for the reverence many feel for it. For instance, in his book 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, eminent Shakespearean James Shapiro refers to As You Like It as Shakespeare’s finest comedy, while, at the same time, he characterises Twelfth Night as relatively safe and conventional, a step backwards from the glories of the earlier work. As someone who reveres Twelfth Night, and who, admittedly to his embarrassment, has never seen much more to As You Like It than a certain charm, I found Shapiro’s evaluations of these works somewhat startling. And, since I read a Shakespeare play each month anyway – these works are, after all, to be lived with, not just read once and put away – I decided it was high time to revisit As You Like It.

Having now read it again, I must say that it seems to me still a sunlit pastoral idyll, a work of tremendous charm and delight, but with little or none of the profound darkness and melancholy that seems to me to push Twelfth Night towards the realms of the tragic. But that does not necessarily make As You Like It a lesser work – unless one were to imagine, as, I must admit, I sometimes tend to do, that the tragic gives us a more profound vision of life than the comic can.

However, all authors of sunlit idylls need to decide how much if any of the world’s darkness to depict, or even to acknowledge; and darkness is not entirely absent from As You Like It. Indeed, the opening act of the play, like the opening of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, most definitely contains at least the seeds of tragedy. But as we move from the court to the enchantment of the wilds, these seeds fail to bear fruit: the dark shadows seem, in both plays, to dissolve, and give way to something wondrous.

In order to achieve this, realism has to be suspended. Oliver, for instance, whom we see at the start of the play mistreating his brother Orlando, and who later follows Orlando into the Forest of Arden meaning to hunt him down, is transformed when this same Orlando, returning love for hate, risks his own life to save that of his murderous brother. And once this murderous brother is converted to good, there remains not the slightest taint of the evil that had previously consumed him: there remains not even an awareness of the misery that his past evil had brought on others, or any hint of remorse that would normally accompany such an awareness. Even more oddly, perhaps, this lack of remorse is not noticed: no-one, not even Orlando, holds his past against him. This evil, which had been utterly unmotivated from the start, vanishes completely, leaving not a rack behind.

Something similar happens to the usurping Duke, Celia’s father. Although he is, we are told, a usurper, he has allowed his niece, Rosalind, daughter of his exiled brother, to grow up in court with his own daughter. But suddenly, for no apparent reason, and without any motivation, a madness seems to take hold of him: he banishes Rosalind from the court on pain of death; and goes even so far as to threaten Oliver with banishment and with seizure of possessions should Oliver fail to bring back his brother Orlando, dead or alive. But by the end, this same usurping Duke is also miraculously converted to good: marching into the forest to finish off his banished brother, he is met by a hermit, and, as with Oliver, all the evil in him miraculously vanishes, as if it had never been.

Since this play is an idyll, Shakespeare does not, after the first act, focus on the evil. Indeed, he keeps it as far from the action as possible. Once we are in the Forest of Arden, we see Oliver only after he is already converted, and the danger of his evil has passed. Similarly, we hear of the Duke’s incursion into the forest at the same time as we hear of his conversion: the encroaching evil has vanished even before we get to hear of it.

It is not surprising that Shakespeare should keep the dark shadows of evil so firmly in the background in this the sunniest of all his plays; but such a vision of evil is very different from the one presented in his tragedies – in Macbeth, say. In As You Like It, evil is an external force, almost an illness, which may infect a person, but which is not an integral part of that person. In a work such as Macbeth, however, evil is not the monster out there, but, rather, the monster that resides within. In all these tragic masterpieces, the capacity for evil is presented as an innate aspect of our human condition: our ability to be evil is, in short, one of the features that make us human.

However, in his very late play, The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare seemed to return to the way he had viewed evil in As You Like It: once again, it is seen as an external force, a sort of illness that infects us, and from which it is possible to be cured. Macbeth or Lady Macbeth cannot be cured of their evil: what’s done cannot be undone; but Leontes’ case is different – his evil departs as mysteriously as it had appeared. And there seems to me in As You Like It something very Leontes-like both in the usurping duke and in Oliver: they are evil for reasons not apparent; but then they are “cured”, and the evil disappears completely. Indeed, it is hard not to see the usurping duke very much as a prototype of Leontes when we see him banishing Rosalind on the pain of death, or when he threatens Oliver: mere anarchy seems loosed upon the world.

At the end of the The Winter’s Tale, the vision is darker than in As You Like It, and the joy is subdued. Perdita, she who had been lost, is restored, and Hermione, in a prefiguring of the Resurrection itself, returns from the dead. But Mamilius remains dead; and there can be no recompense for the lost years, for all the immense suffering that the illness of evil has brought into the world, both to those it had infected, and to those it hadn’t.

All this is very far from the world of As You Like It. Here, evil is kept on the sidelines of the action, very much out of view, and when it vanishes, it does so without leaving a mark behind. And if such a vision of life does not give us quite the richness of Twelfth Night (which, I must admit, still seems to me the greater work), it communicates nonetheless a formidable charm, and, perhaps, teaches us that our life, such as it is, is more to be valued than to be lamented. All in the end are here reconciled – except Jaques, who scorns the very idea.

“The Little Demon” by Fyodor Sologub

The Little Demon by Fyodor Sologub, translated by Ronald Wilks, Penguin Classics  

 

In her introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of The Little Demon, Pamela Davidson writes:

Neither in Russian Orthodox demonology nor in folk tradition was there much emphasis on the towering figure of Satan in splendour.

Rather, she continues, Russian devils tend to be small, petty creatures, “little demons”, proliferating in a multiple of guises.

One gets this sense of the pettiness of the demonic on Russian literature also. Not for the Russians the magnificence and tragic grandeur of Milton’s Satan, nor the spectacle that is Dante’s Inferno: when Gogol set out to depict inferno, he depicted a dull, provincial town, dirty and petty and corrupt and stagnant, peopled only by souls that were morally dead. This provincial town has haunted Russian literature ever since. It is the town from which Chekhov’s three sisters long to escape to Moscow; it is the town the microcosm of which is the horrendous “Ward 6” of Chekhov’s story; it is the setting of Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, and also Demons (another work featuring petty little demons); it is the town that forms the setting of Saltykov-Schedrin’s Golovlyov Family, where, once again, it stands for Hell itself. And Russian demons are, as Pamela Davidson says, always small and petty, like the Devil who appears to Ivan Karamazov in the guise of a shabbily dressed gentleman, or the little demons Father Ferapont sees elsewhere in the same novel. And evil, too, is mean and petty and nasty: Raskolnikov imagines he is another Napoleon, when, in reality, he is simply a sordid axe-murderer in a sordid tenement. There is nothing grand or magnificent or charismatic about the Russian concept of evil: it is just mean and nasty and petty – though none the less destructive for being so.

Sologub’s The Little Demon (I believe the title may also be translated as The Petty Demon), written in the 1890s, presents a vision of evil that is very much in this tradition. The setting is once again that Gogolian provincial backwater from Dead Souls, and, once again, it is a hellish place. The principal character, the schoolmaster Perodonov, is obviously mad, and, indeed, is often recognised as such; but the rest of the town is only slightly less mad than he. Despite being, by any reasonable standard, stark raving bonkers, he is judged an eligible bachelor, and there’s an entire line of women desperate to trap him into marriage. His live-in mistress even commissions her friend to forge letters as part of an elaborate plan to marry him.

The lunacy deepens as the novel progresses. Peredonov, convinced that there is a concerted campaign to slander him, goes round the houses of various officials to convince them of his probity, and of his patriotism. He also goes round the houses of various students in his class, insisting that they had behaved badly, and encouraging the parents to have their child flogged. In one particularly grotesque sequence, the mother is ready to flog her child, but the father, much to the mother’s frustration, refuses; she then tells Peredenov that she will call him when her husband – the “tyrant”, as she calls him – is out, and that they could then flog the child together. The scene where they actually do this was cut by the author in the final published version, but is printed here as an appendix: it is among the most disgusting things I have read. After the two of them flog the boy together in turn – Peredonov taking over from the other once she has become too tired flogging him – they collapse in each other’s arms in sexual ecstasy.

Peredonov also sees a strange demonic being materialising. This is referred to by Sologub as a nedotykomka,  which, Pamela Davidson informs us in the introduction, is an obscure dialect word that “has the same meaning as nedotroga, a ‘touch-me-not’: an object that cannot be touched or a person of touchy and irritable disposition (like Peredonov)”. This creature is clearly an emanation from Peredonov’s fevered mind, and is hence an aspect of his psyche, and Ronald Wilks, perhaps rather confusingly, underlines this by translating nedotykomka as “the little demon” of the title. This nedotykomka starts appearing frequently to Peredonov, whose mind, never too stable to begin with, seems to collapse entirely. The aristocratic princess who he imagines is his benefactor he soon starts picturing as a grotesque and withered crone, but has erotic fantasies about her anyway. Then, imagining that the pack of cards is spying on him, he cuts out the eyes of the Jacks, the Kings, and the Queens. He then identifies the Princess with the Queen of Spades, and finds himself forced to burn the entire pack.

There develops also a very strange sub-pot, concerning the lad Sasha, aged about 14 or so, who has girlish good looks. Peredonov, presumably attracted to him sexually, insists that he is a girl, and tries to have him expelled from the boys’ school. Later, a young lady, Lyudmilla, develops a fixation on him – a fixation that is described with imagery of lurid eroticism – and, although they never consummate her passion, she delights in having him close to her, undressing him, getting him to put on women’s clothes. And Sasha himself, so apparently pure and innocent, finds himself strangely affected:

He wanted to do something to her, be it pleasant or painful, tender or shameful – but what? Should he kiss her feet or beat her long and hard with supple birch twigs?

It is all strikingly grotesque, but I must admit that I couldn’t help wondering what all this was leading towards. This depiction of the banality of evil – to use Hannah Arendt’s famous expression – remains, for all its strangeness, earthbound: there is none the poetic flights of fancy of Gogol, nor the humanity and melancholy of Chekhov, nor the visionary intensity of Dostoyevsky. Nor is there any trace of tragic despair that we find in Saltykov-Schedrin’s Golovlyov Family. At the end of Gogol’s Government Inspector, the mayor turns to the audience to tell them they are laughing at themselves; in a similar vein, Sologub tells us in the preface to the second edition:

It is true that people love to be loved. They are pleased if the loftier, nobler aspects of their souls are portrayed. Even in villains they wish to see some signs of goodness, the so-called “divine spark” as it was called in days of old. That is why they cannot believe it when confronted with a picture that is true, accurate, gloomy and evil. They want to say, “He’s writing about himself.”

No, my dear contemporaries, it is of you that I have written my novel…

For this is how Sologub sees humanity. Madness, sordidness, stupidity, paranoia, sadism – that’s all there is. Gogol’s dead souls were in need of redemption, and he even tried- albeit unsuccessfully – to depict that redemption; but here, redemption is not even to be thought of: the very concept is meaningless. And there isn’t even a sense of sadness that this should be so.

Much though I admired and wondered at the strangeness of Sologub’s imagination, I cannot say I was satisfied with this vision. I appreciate that in saying this, I am introducing a very personal note that has no place in objective criticism, but sometimes, a personal reaction is so strong that it becomes impossible to keep it hidden. If this is all humanity is, it isn’t worth anything; it’s certainly not worth writing novels about. If I want to see how cruel and gratuitously sadistic humans are, I need only read the news: there is evidence enough these days for cruelty and gratuitous sadism wherever one looks, and, even for eternal optimists such as myself, the temptation to believe only the worst of humanity becomes powerful indeed. This temptation needs, I think, to be resisted: the view of mankind as irredeemably wicked and debased and worthless leads but to the genocidal fury of Gulliver, and to “Exterminate all the brutes” of Colonel Kurtz.

Perhaps I was not in the right frame of mind for this book. I might, perhaps, on another day, have found myself engaged by the black humour, and capable of entertaining, if not necessarily accepting, Sologub’s unrelieved pessimism. This time, for whatever reason, I couldn’t: the novel cut a bit too close to the bone, and, by the end, I felt that the vision it presented was merely reductive. Perhaps other readers will fare better with this novel than I did.

“The Girls of Slender Means” by Muriel Spark

Has ever an author been more appropriately named, I wonder? For the novels of Muriel Spark do indeed sparkle. They sparkle and they scintillate with brilliance and high spirits. And yet, neither the brilliance nor the high spirits obscure the very serious nature of her themes. The Girls of Slender Means is, in these respects, very characteristic of Spark. Here, she is writing about very serious themes indeed – about death, about faith and the lack of it, and, I think, about the evil that lurks within the everyday; and yet, none of this diminishes the sheer ebullience of the writing. The characterisations are adroit, the milieu superbly evoked without the need of extended descriptive passages, and the plotline – jumping backwards and forwards in time so insistently that one can never tell whether the scenes set in the past are flashbacks or the scenes set in the future are flash-forwards – is organized and paced to absolute perfection. By the end, one feels like applauding the author for her virtuoso performance. For a Muriel Spark novel is a performance: hers is not an art that hides art, but, rather, an art that draws attention to its own brilliance: display of her novelistic brilliance is, indeed, part of the intended effect. And yet, even given all this, there is something about this novel, something I find difficult to account for, that leaves me vaguely dissatisfied.

***

There are certain artists whose imaginations are by nature expansive, and there are others whose imaginations contract. As with most such dichotomies, these are not the only possibilities, but, rather, two poles of a spectrum: nonetheless, they can be, I think, useful categories. When it comes to literature, modern taste tends, I think, towards concision: various books, especially those written in ages more leisurely than ours, are castigated for being “too long”, though rarely if ever is any book from any period criticised for being “too short”; and the glib though frequently made criticism “needs a good editor” is based on the hopefully mistaken assumption that a “good editor” always recommends cutting rather than expanding. But whatever modern taste may be on this or on any other matter, each work of art should be judged in terms of the artist’s aesthetics: it is as foolish to criticise a Mahler symphony for being “too long” as it is to criticise a Sibelius symphony for being “too short”.

As a novelist, Muriel Spark is towards’ Sibelius’ end of the spectrum – at least, as far as concision of material is concerned. The one novel of hers amongst those I have read that essays a larger canvas is The Mandelbaum Gate, and this I found her least convincing: having achieved all she can with her characteristic economy, she seems to find vast areas of the canvas that needed still to be filled, and she appears unsure what to fill it with. In consequence, much of the novel is filled with unnecessary and frankly rather tiresome intricacies of plot, equally tiresome knockabout comedy, and depictions of individual psychology that seem, even in a novel that is by the standards of most other writers merely of medium length, over-extended. The characteristic wit and ebullience seem missing, or, at best, diluted.

But here, in The Girls of Slender Means, she is on more familiar ground: the canvas is small, and there is no empty space that requires filling. Most of the action of this novel takes place in London in the summer of 1945, in the months immediately following VE Day. However, given the hithering-and-thithering time scheme, we know almost from the start that one of its central characters, Nicholas Farringdon, later becomes a Catholic missionary and is killed – or “martyred”, as we are told – on some far-flung shore. We see Nicholas Farringdon through most of this novel not as a Catholic missionary, nor even as a particularly religious man: but we know that he will later become a religious man; and we witness the events that change him.

The scene is a boarding house for young ladies in Kensington. The very first sentence tells us that immediately after the war, “all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions”: these were girls of very slender means, but nonetheless maintaining as best they can the gentility of their class. Each of these girls is depicted with but a few of brush-strokes: we are very far here from the intricate probing of characters’ minds that we find in the works of, say, Henry James or Edith Wharton. But these few brush-strokes are all applied with exquisite skill and assurance. And there emerges through all this a picture of evil within the mundane and everyday that is as potent as those which emerges in the much longer works of James or of Wharton – in such works as, say, The Portrait of a Lady, or The House of Mirth.

The novel never loses its lightness of touch and its delicious eccentricity, but none of that prevents the climactic sequence from being truly horrific. An unexploded bomb goes off, and the girls of slender means are trapped inside a dangerously burning building: the only way out is through a very narrow window through which only the girls of extremely physical slender means can escape. Another escape route is found, but for all the girls to escape is a race against time. And it is at this point that Nicholas Farringdon perceives the evil that changes the course of his life.

Both the conception and the execution are beyond reproach: it is not often that such seriousness of matter can be addressed with such unfailing lightness and wit. But there remains something that I continue to find unsatisfactory: why does Nicholas turn to religion after this experience?

It could be said that I find myself puzzled by this question because I do not myself adhere to a religious faith, but I don’t think that’ll do. Yes, Nicholas turns to religion because he is affected by what he sees; but, as far as I can see, what he sees could just as well have turned him into an atheist. Different people can, of course, react differently, often radically differently, to the same thing; but whatever it is in Nicholas that makes him react in this particular manner is not, I think, something that can be understood without a painstakingly detailed examination of the kind of person Nicholas was; and Spark’s novelistic aesthetic does not, I think, allow for such painstakingly detailed examination. Her brilliantly concise style and her scintillating wit and sparkle are all qualities that make this novel so wonderful; but it is also these qualities that prevent a question that seems to me to be of central Importance from being answered, or even, for that matter, addressed.

This is a problem I find myself often running into in novels by writers professing religious faith. It is not the faith that I find problematic, but, rather, the frequent reticence on the part of the author in explaining how this faith affects the characters’ thinking and their outlook. Why, for instance, does Sandy in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie become a nun? I can accept that she does; but if the author does not explain to me what goes on in her mind that prompts her to make this decision, it is something I am forced to take merely on trust. There is a point where the author seems to say to the reader: “Unless you subscribe to and understand this particular theology, you are not going to understand this.” And for me, this is unsatisfactory: it is the novelist’s job precisely to make us understand, to take us into the minds of others, even others who may be very different from ourselves: if a character subscribes to a specific faith, the novelist must show us what it is like to live with that faith, what it is like to see the world through its lens; and silence on that aspect leaves, for me at least, a great hole in the middle. There is a great deal to enjoy here, much to admire and even to applaud; but in what seems to me to be the central point of the work – not the stimulus that causes Nicholas to become religious, but, rather, how that stimulus works on him to that end – there is a most disconcerting silence.

Gogol’s “Dead Souls”: a comic inferno

A preamble
I first read Dead Souls when, as a teenager, I developed a mania for 19th century Russian literature, and determined to read everything I could lay my hands on. The version I read then was the work of an anonymous translator, and probably one of the many versions that had been so mercilessly attacked by Nabokov as “worthless”. Nabokov did, however, praise the translation by Bernard Guilbert Guerney, a revised version of which is still available. Since Nabokov’s critique, a good many well-received translations have appeared. I re-read Dead Souls a few years ago in the highly rated modern translation by Robert Maguire published by Penguin Classics. This third and latest reading was in response to a mini-group-read organized by Richard, who blogs in Caravana de Recuerdos, and by Scott, who blogs in Six Words for a Hat. I have, till now, deliberately avoided reading their posts on Dead Souls until I had put my own reactions down on paper – or, at least, on computer screen. I’ll remedy that once I have posted this.

The translation I read this time round was the older version published by Penguin Classics, by David Magarshack. All quoted passages in this post are taken from this translation.

***

Anyone familiar with 19th century literature will know the landscape. An unutterably dreary, drab little town, somewhere in the provinces, miles from anywhere, riddled with filth and poverty and decay and corruption, and stinking of moral stagnation and decay. It is the place from which any person of sensitivity longs to escape – like Chekhov’s Three Sisters; those who don’t, like Chekhov’s Ionych, become embroiled in the corruption; or, like Dr Ragin in Chekhov’s “Ward 6”, become victims of it. It is this town that forms the grey setting of Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and it is this town we see collapsing into psychopathic violence and an almost apocalyptic disorder in Dostoyevsky’s Demons; and it is this town also that is revealed in Tolstoy’s Resurrection as containing behind its shallow façades of faux-respectability the most unutterable institutionalised cruelties. Meanwhile in Saltykov-Schedrin’s The Golovlyov Family, this town seems to stand for Hell itself, from which no-one can ultimately escape. This town is as much a landscape of the mind as it is a real landscape, and it looms large in Russian literature.

The earliest appearance of this town, as far as my admittedly limited reading allows me to judge, is in Gogol’s play The Government Inspector. And it reappears in the novel Dead Souls. In the play, an ordinary man, at a loose end and unable to pay his hotel bill, is mistaken by the corrupt town officials for an inspector, and is larded with all sorts of bribes; by the time the truth is realised, he is away with his gains. And even as we’re laughing, the mayor of the town breaks the invisible fourth wall of the stage to tell us directly, the audience, that we are laughing at ourselves: we all inhabit this Town of the Mind. In Dead Souls, which Gogol referred to as a “poem” rather than as a novel, we once again have a visitor from outside, who causes consternation. But it is not the outsider, Chichikov, who seems at first to be the centre of the reader’s attention: it is the rather eccentric narrator. Chichikov is described, and yet not described, so that we, the reader, get no mental picture of him:

The gentleman in the carriage is neither too fat, nor too thin; he cannot be said to be old, but he was not too young either.

And having given us this piece of non-description, the narrator veers off for no apparent reason to tell us about two peasants speaking about Chichikov’s carriage. What they say is not quite nonsensical, but it doesn’t really seem to make much sense either:

“Lord,” said one of them to the other, “what a wheel! What do you say? Would a wheel like that, if put to it, ever get to Moscow or wouldn’t it?” “It would all right,” replied the other. “But it wouldn’t get to Kazan, would it?” “No, it wouldn’t get to Kazan,”” replied the other. That was the end of the conversation.

The narrator is in no rush to move things along. We are given a leisurely account, seemingly overloaded with utterly irrelevant detail, of the filthy inn, and of the people working there; and then, of the town itself. The details the narrator fixes upon tend towards the eccentric, or even the downright bizarre; much of what he says seems like non-sequiturs. And when the narrator uses a simile or a metaphor, the image takes on a life of its own, quite overwhelming that which it purports to describe:

As he entered the ballroom, Chichikov had for a moment to screw up his eyes, dazzled by the blaze of candles, the lamps, the ladies’ gowns. Everything was flooded in light. Black frock-coats glided and flitted about singly or in swarms here and there like so many flies on a sparkling white sugar-loaf on a hot July day when the old housekeeper chops or breaks it up into glittering lumps in front of an open window, the children gather and look on, watching with interest the movements of her rough hands raising and lowering the hammer, while the aerial squadrons of flies, borne on the light breeze, fly in boldly, just as if they owned the place and, taking advantage of the old woman’s feeble eyesight and the sunshine that dazzles her eyes, cover the dainty lumps in small groups or in swarms.

Whew! But we aren’t finished yet:

Already satiated by the abundant summer, which sets up dainty dishes for them on every step, they fly in…

And so on for another few hundred words, the reality this image has been set up to elucidate by now more or less forgotten. It is fair to say, I think, that I have never come across a narrative voice quite like this one. Dickens too loved eccentricity, and one often wonders about the sanity of some of his characters; but here, one is left wondering about the sanity of the narrator himself.

In the second chapter, Chichikov sets off to visit local landowners. The landowners and their estates are all described by that same affable but seemingly demented narrative voice. And what that voice tells us is just as bizarre as the voice itself. These elements of the bizarre are dropped in as if they were perfectly reasonable and everyday. For instance, Chichikov, having lost his way on a stormy night, and his carriage having overturned, is put up by elderly widow, who sees to his comfort:

“Take the gentleman’s coat and underwear and dry them first in front of the fire as you used to for your late master, and afterwards have them well brushed and beaten.”

“Yes, ma’am,” said Fetinya, spreading a sheet over the featherbed and laying down the pillows.

“Well, here’s your bed all ready for you, sir,” said the old lady. “Good night, sir, sleep well. Are you sure you don’t want anything else? Perhaps you’re used to having your heels tickled for the night. My late husband could not get to sleep without it.”

As the novel progresses, an extraordinarily vivid cast of characters appears – each bizarre and eccentric beyond the bounds of sanity. There’s the impossibly effusive Manilov; the bear-like, deliberate, and somewhat madly methodical Sobakevich; the disgustingly filthy and threadbare Plyushkov, surely the most grotesque and repulsive of all literary misers; and Nozdryov, the colourful braggart, bully and compulsive liar – except, of course, no-one outside a Gogol novel could lie with quite such uninhibited flamboyance and gusto. Chichikov visits these landlords to buy from them, at as cheap a price as he can, serfs (or, not to put too fine a gloss on it, slaves, which is what they were) – serfs who are dead, the “dead souls” of the title, but who are still listed from the last official census as being alive, and for whom, consequently, the landowner is continuing to pay taxes. When Chichikov’s curious business activities are known, the town is in turmoil. All sorts of strange stories start up, and are believed: it becomes common knowledge, for instance, that Chichikov had been planning to elope with the Governor’s daughter (shameless hussy that she is!) A meeting of worthies discuss who Chichikov may be. The postmaster knows: Chichikov is none other than Captain Kopeikin! And who is this Captain Kopeikin? The postmaster launches on a long story – fully reproduced, in all its Gogolian bizarreness – of a Captain Kopeikin who had lost an arm and a leg in the 1812 campaign. Only after the story has progressed through several pages does someone think of mentioning that Chichikov has both arms and both legs. The postmaster admits that he was wrong, and sits down; Kopeikin is not mentioned again. Why the postmaster had thought Kopeikin was Chichikov in the first place is not explained.

The pace of the narration is slow – for modern readers, perhaps, too slow for a comedy: but it is in the narrator’s eccentric voice that so much of the comedy resides – a voice apparently gentle and friendly and even reasonable, and yet, we suspect, utterly insane. And for that voice to establish itself, a slowness of pace is required. The narrative, such as it is, unfolds at a leisurely pace, and that leisurely pace may perhaps suggest a certain gentleness: but the sheer bizarre nature of the content, full of mad non-sequiturs and irrelevant and often grotesque details, belies any sense of the gentle. Gogol had seemingly intended this narrative to be the first part of a trilogy that was to reflect Dante’s vision of Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise: what we see here is no less than Gogol’s vision of Inferno itself. The Dead Souls of the title are not merely the dead peasants.

It is hard to imagine how these Dead Souls presented here could be redeemed, as Gogol had intended: it is hard to imagine what Gogol’s Purgatorio and Paradiso may have been like. Gogol never completed his grandiose project. Towards the end of his life (he died when still in his early 40s), he became dangerously insane, developed a sort of religious mania, and seemingly starved himself to death. And, during these last terrible days, he burnt what he had written of the second part of Dead Souls. (There exists a quite horrific painting by Ilya Repin of Gogol burning the manuscript.) Some fragments of this second part have, however, survived, and all modern English editions dutifully include these chapters, but I find them distressingly banal and uninspired. Gogol may have aspired towards redemption, but it seems to me unlikely that his imagination could conceive of anything but the hellish. The rather hellish last days of Gogol’s own life are perhaps not surprising.

What we get in this novel – or this “poem”, as Gogol insisted it to be – is a vision of Hell itself. But things are never simple with Gogol. From our viewpoint, we may think this to be the Hell of a slave-owning society; and yet, Gogol was firmly in favour of serfdom (slavery by another name), and opposed strongly liberal campaigns for emancipation. It is hard, at least for me, to imagine what really went on in that very strange mind of his. I generally try to heed the well-worn advice of “trust the book, not the writer”, but it becomes difficult here to try to put out of mind details of Gogol’s own life and opinions.

In this third reading, the sense of an Inferno seemed more apparent than had previously been the case. It’s a comic Inferno, certainly, but comedy and seriousness are by no means mutually incompatible. Somehow, the comedy renders this Inferno all the more disturbing: as with the farting devils of Dante, the comedy, if anything, intensifies the horror. Here is world that is utterly grotesque, but presented with such vividness and, despite its slow pace, animated with such vitality, that the effect it had on Russian literary culture, and, one suspects, on the Russian mind itself, is tremendous, and can hardly be over-estimated. That drab Gogolian town became for succeeding writers – for Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy and Chekhov, for Saltykov-Schedrin – the very image of Hell itself. I know of nothing quite like this outside Russian literature: in no other literature that I know of has a physical location become so firmly entrenched as also a moral and psychological landscape. But Gogol could not transcend this landscape, much though he longed to, any more than could the characters of Saltykov-Schedrin’s utterly bleak and desolate novel The Golovlyov Family. This is a Hell in which we still remain trapped.