Archive for the ‘literature’ Category

Shakespeare’s Roman plays on stage

Well, I live within reasonable travelling distance of London, so I may as well take advantage of it!

When the Royal Shakespeare Company announced they were performing all four of Shakespeare’s Roman plays in the same season, I felt like that proverbial kid in the candy-shop, unable to decide which one to go for. Should I go to see Antony and Cleopatra again? I have admittedly seen it many times before, but I love that play. Or there’s Julius Caesar, a play I was quite obsessed with as a thirteen-year-old – I used, I remember, to read it over and over again, and it is very firmly imprinted in my mind – but, for whatever reason, I had never seen it on stage before. Or there was Coriolanus, which, too, I had never seen on stage: maybe a stage production would help me appreciate better this strange play – Shakespeare’s last tragedy featuring a protagonist who, far from developing into some measure of self-awareness, seems resolutely incapable of any kind of development at all. In the end, the kid in the candy shop realised he couldn’t decide, and spent all his pocket money on all the sweets.

(Well, not perhaps all: Titus Andronicus has never really been a favourite play of mine, but I have not seen this on stage either, and I have received some very fine reports of this production.)

RomanPlays

Coriolanus came first. I have always found this a grim and rather severe play. It is one of Shakespeare’s longest, and, lacking as it does a subplot, the focus is insistently, almost oppressively, on its principal character throughout. And this character seems not to have much of an inner life: an unthinking fighting machine, seemingly incapable not merely of subtle or of profound thought, but of any thought at all. And he lacks poetry. The entire play seems to lack poetry: those wonderful lines and passages scattered throughout Shakespeare’s plays that grab you by the throat or make those hairs on the back of your neck stand up with their expressive eloquence and their irresistible verbal music seem very conspicuous here by their absence. Shakespeare obviously knew what he was doing: problem is, I don’t.

The performance didn’t really help. The text was quite severely cut, and as a consequence, lacked the sense of that almost oppressive intensity I seem to detect when I am reading it. Sope Dirisu as Coriolanus didn’t really project any strong personality, or charisma, as I think he ideally needed to. For some reason, the drama somehow failed to grip. Either that, or I just attended a bad night. (I have bad days in the office sometimes: I am sure actors are allowed the occasional bad day on the stage!)

So, basically, Coriolanus remains for me something of a puzzle. But I’ll keep trying.

Next came Antony and Cleopatra, a play I have gone on about quite a bit in various posts here, as it is a firm favourite of mine. It started very promisingly: Josette Simon was a very spirited and vivacious Cleopatra, and Antony Byrne looked just right playing his namesake – a war-hardened soldier who, now advancing in years, is losing it. I particularly liked the way Ben Allen played Octavius – a very young man who nonetheless takes his responsibilities seriously, and who, at the start, idolises Antony as a great soldier, and cannot understand why this once great soldier is no longer living up to his Roman sense of duty. This makes sense of the text. Here, the proposal that Antony marry Octavia is no mere cynical ploy on Octavius’ part: he really wants Antony in his family, and actually believes that the love of a good Roman woman would cure Antony of his Egyptian decadence. So when Antony does return to Cleopatra, Octavius can only take this as a personal insult. And at the same time, his expression of grief on hearing of Antony’s death appears heartfelt, as it was surely intended to be: in too many productions, where Octavius is played as a cynical, manipulative statesman, cold and unfeeling in all his dealings, this scene falls flat, s it is hard to believe that such a man could be capable of such heartfelt emotion. Here, it worked splendidly.

But all was not perfect here either. For one thing, the cuts. I understand that this is a long play, and some cuts are necessary, but here, they did hurt. They cut the scene on the night before the battle where the soldiers on guard duty hear mysterious music coming from under the ground. It is only a short scene, and is very atmospheric: I’m sure it could have stayed. The many battle scenes were considerably thinned out, reducing, I felt, something of the play’s epic dimension. The scene between Cleopatra and her treasurer is cut. And, most grievous of all, I thought, was the excision of that wonderful passage where Antony calls round all his sad captains:

                                            … Come,
Let’s have one other gaudy night: call to me
All my sad captains; fill our bowls once more;
Let’s mock the midnight bell.

I also couldn’t help feeling that they short-changed the poetry somewhat. Among other things, Antony and Cleopatra is full of passages of soaring lyricism: it’s almost as if Shakespeare had poured into this play all the verbal opulence that he so carefully kept out of his very next play Coriolanus. And yet, the beauty of the poetry did not really seem to register. Even Cleopatra’s heart-wrenchingly beautiful lines

Give me my robe, put on my crown; I have
Immortal longings in me

seemed  to lack solemn majesty.

It could be argued, of course, that “solemn majesty” is not how Josette Simon sees Cleopatra, and certainly, she has plenty of textual evidence on her side. Perhaps I am bringing too many of my own preconceptions to the proceedings, and that’s never a good thing.

And today, it was Julius Caesar. We read this play at school when I was thirteen, and, contrary to the oft-repeated mantra that Shakespeare in the classroom puts people off for the rest of their lives, I loved it. I think I developed a sort of obsession about it. And, rather strangely perhaps, I remember how I used to regard this play back then. Brutus was my hero, a genuine man of honour, who, quite rightly, acted to protect the Roman people from Caesar’s tyranny, and was defeated by the unscrupulous Antony. Now, while still thinking that Brutus acted with honourable motives, he seems to me something of a self-obsessed prig, continually telling everyone how very honourable he was. Cassius now seems to me more neurotic than I had then thought him. Antony is still unscrupulous, but now, I find myself admiring his extraordinary courage, and his loyalty to the dead Caesar. And Caesar himself I find myself admiring more than I used to. In short, I have grown up, and am more aware of the various ambivalences in all four of these fascinating leading characters.

And I found myself also thinking that while Antony and Cleopatra – written some seven years after Julius Caesar – was not intended as a sequel, the characters of Antony and of Octavius are consistent with what had gone before. Antony’s tiring of his responsibilities in the later play, and wishing only for a life of unthinking hedonism, takes on particularly strong resonance when one knows that Antony had spent his youth in pursuit of pleasure, and had only taken on political and soldierly duties when circumstances had compelled him to do so. The great statesman and soldier we hear of in the later play we see for ourselves in the earlier: and we see also what had driven him to such a life. And in his advancing years, it is his carefree pleasure-filled youth he wishes to return to.

The production, I thought, is tremendous. Alex Waldman plays Brutus here is a self-obsessed prig that I now see him to be, and Martin Hutson’s Cassius is overtly neurotic. Andrew Woodall is a splendid Caesar (he had been an equally splendid Enobarbus in Antony and Cleopatra) , and the whole thing is staged quite superbly. Best of all, perhaps, was James Corrigan’s dynamic Antony: that great speech scene was every bit as electric as it should be. And for once, they played the text more or less complete, with only the smallest of cuts. (But then again, this is a much shorter play than the other two.)

One thing that struck my fifty-seven-year-old self that I most certainly had not recognised as a thirteen-year-old is that the final act is surprisingly weak. A big battle scene, and a rounding off of the story – all finely executed, sure, but I get the feeling that after the long scene in Brutus’ tent in the fourth act, Shakespeare didn’t really have anything more to add. The final act, in comparison to what had gone before, is perhaps a bit routine. But no matter. Those first four acts are simply extraordinary, and this play will always have a special place in my heart. Why it took me so long to get round to seeing it on stage, I really don’t know.

So should I go and see Titus Andronicus this January? I have never really liked the play, but it is one of the fifteen plays of Shakespeare’s I haven’t yet seen on stage (I was counting them off on my fingers on the train back home), so perhaps I should make the effort. If only to tick it off the list. But something tells me that the boy in the candy-shop has had too much candy already.

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“A Month in the Country” by Ivan Turgenev

I’ve long had a theory – which will, I am sure, be quite exploded in the comments section of this post by people better read than myself – that while the novel was establishing itself in the nineteenth century as perhaps the most important literary form of the age, drama lagged significantly behind. While prose drama was seen primarily as suitable for comedy ( Sheridan, Gogol, the prose plays of Molière, etc.), tragic works were still seen to require a dignity and nobility that only verse could provide. Further, drama, unlike prose fiction, had either to be tragic or comic: there was nothing between Racine on the one hand, and Molière on the other. And while the comic could (and indeed did) accommodate figures from all walks of life, the tragic had to deal with kings and queens, nobles and bishops, princes and princesses; and, with people now reading about Emma Woodhouse or Emma Bovary, kings and queens and nobles and bishops delivering high-flown blank verse were, perhaps, starting to seem a bit old hat. So, while the novel flowered as a literary form (Austen, Stendhal, Balzac, Dickens, Hawthorne, Melville, and so on), drama, in contrast, remained relatively static, and, indeed, stultified, until some time in the late nineteenth century when Ibsen and Chekhov (and I guess I should add Strindberg, although, personally, I have never really understood his work) rescued the form by raising it to the heights that the novel, at its best, had already attained.

I suppose it would be easy enough to find exceptions to this (Büchner, for instance, although his remarkable plays weren’t know about till much later); but, whatever the reason, as a vehicle of literary expression, the drama did indeed, I think, lag behind the novel for much of the nineteenth century. But one very notable exception is a play Ivan Turgenev wrote in 1850, A Month in the Country.

At this stage in his career, Turgenev had written some wonderful short stories and sketches, but had not yet embarked on the novels on which his fame now primarily rests. A Month in the Country is not too often performed these days (at least, I cannot remember a single performance of it in London in the last few decades), but, reading it, it seems a remarkably assured work, and leaves one wondering what Turgenev might have gone on to achieve in the field of drama had he not decided to turn instead to the novel. Not that A Month in the Country is not a fine work in itself. But it also seems, in the context especially of the times, a sort of harbinger, indicating directions of development in the drama that were only really taken up by Chekhov some fifty years afterwards.

The scene should be familiar to anyone who knows Chekhov’s plays: a country estate populated by its owners (landed gentry naturally), and various hangers on (wards, ageing parents, “companions” – i.e. those who would have been destitute were it not for the landowners’ charity); tutors and governors, maids and servants; and the occasional country doctor or neighbouring landowner stopping off. It is, in short, an ensemble piece, as are all of Chekhov’s dramas. And the mode is neither comic (although there are a few jokes in it), nor explicitly tragic: it is pitched – once again, as Chekhov’s plays are – between the two extreme poles, depicting with the utmost seriousness and sensitivity the unfulfilled longings and the pains of disillusion of its principal characters, while yet placing them in a wider context in which we may see such things as, perhaps, less than cataclysmic. The register, as in Turgenev’s novels, is of a gentle sadness.

At the centre of this group is Natalya Petrovna, the lady of the house. Although she is married, she is loved by Rakitin, described in the list of characters as a “friend of the family”. The love is not returned: Natalya Petrovna is not an adulterous wife. Nonetheless, and despite knowing what Rakitin feels for her, she is on friendly terms with him, and often confides in him. This scenario would recur in Turgenev’s later novel, Smoke, with Irina and Potugin; and, as was well-known even at the time, Turgenev himself was in just such a position, in love with the famed opera singer Pauline Viardot, and hanging around hopelessly with the Viardot household. It does seem a somewhat humiliating situation to be in, and it seems surprising that Turgenev, knowing this to be his own situation, and knowing, further, that this situation was no secret, should so draw attention to it by depicting it in his own work.

In Smoke, the husband had been a pretty nondescript character. Here, the husband is off-stage for most of the play, but when he does emerge in the final acts, the way Turgenev presents his is arresting: he knows full well how his friend Rakitin feels about his wife, but has such confidence both in his wife and in his friend, he firmly believes that neither would betray him. This is quite remarkable, especially in a drama, in which an Othello-like jealousy would have created a far greater theatrical impact; and that Turgenev was prepared to forgo such a immediate theatrical impact for the sake of greater subtlety of characterisation is an indication of how seriously he took the artistic potential of what he must have known was a new kind of drama – neither broadly comic, nor yet aiming for the intensity of high tragedy.

But arresting though this situation is, Turgenev keeps it mainly in the background till the final two acts. Of greater impact in the earlier part of the play is the passion Natalya Petrovna feels for her son’s tutor, a young man barely out of childhood himself, and who is utterly taken aback when he discovers the intensity of the passion he has unwittingly unleashed. And here, although Turgenev is not aiming to write high tragedy, he is surely harking back to Racine’s Phèdre, or even to Euripides’ Hippolytus. Racine’s focus had been the older woman, and Euripides’ the younger man, but since Turgenev’s play is an ensemble piece, he can focus equally on both. The young tutor, Belyaev, finds himself having to grow up quickly, and come to some kind of understanding of the endless complexities of adult human emotions; and Natalya Petrovna, having regarded lightly Rakitin’s passion for herself, has now to understand, and, if she can, come to terms with her own unfulfilled passion, and its destructive power. And this proud lady has to cope also with the humiliation of becoming a rival to her own teenage ward.

One may, of course, read this as Turgenev “getting his own back” on Pauline Viardot, but that would seem to me a shallow reading. Quite apart from the inadvisability of interpreting a work based on what we know of the author’s own life, advancing such an interpretation is to overlook the gentle compassion with which Natalya Petrovna is depicted. If there is any sense of triumph on the author’s part, I, for one, could not detect it. The theme here is unfulfilled desire, and, however humilating it may be, either in Rakitin or in Natalya Petrovna, or, for that matter, in the teenage ward Vera, Turgenev’s treatment of this theme evinces a gentle sadness. There is no catharsis at the end. Turgenev was not writing high tragedy: people here do not die of unhappiness, but have to go on living, bearing their burdens as best they can.

The play is not, perhaps, flawless. Ibsen had once said of one of Tolstoy’s plays that there were “too many conversations and not enough scenes”: sadly, he did not go on to explain what he regarded as the distinction between the two, but we may, perhaps, guess at it: in a “conversation”, only what is explicitly said is important, whereas in a “scene”, what is said is invested with various overtones and resonances in such a way as to communicate more than what is explicitly said. That, at least, is my understanding. And here, too, I think Ibsen might have made the same criticism as he had made of Tolstoy’s plays – “too many conversations, not enough scenes”. But Ibsen himself had worked for decades to master the art of creating scenes rather than mere conversations; and while it is true that much of this play consists merely of conversations (at least by the definition I have proposed above), these conversations are never less than interesting, and are often compelling; and the “scenes”, when they come, are magnificent.

There are cases, admittedly, when characters express their thoughts through long monologues. I suppose that in a modern production, realism can be dispensed with altogether at such points, and stage time frozen as the character steps up to the footlights to deliver what we would now describe as “stream of consciousness”. Or better still, such monologues may be cut altogether: audiences are more used now to picking up subtleties of internal thought purely from what the characters say on stage.

And little passages such as this may also be cut:

ISLAEV: I’m not used to altercations of this sort. I hope they won’t often be repeated. I’ve a strong constitution, God knows, but I can’t bear this.

To our modern ears, this sounds very much like a novelist writing a play. We can easily imagine a passage such as this in a novel – for instance:

Physically, Islaev had a strong constitution, but he had been throughout his life so free of all worry, and so unused to conflict, that confrontations of all kinds upset his natural equilibrium.

But in a play, such lines seem out of place. We are asked to believe that Islaev, in a state of mental perturbation, could nonetheless analyse himself accurately, and articulate clearly the fruits of his analysis for the audience’s benefit. But these were early days for realistic drama: one can easily find such passages also in early Ibsen or in early Chekhov.

A Month in the Country was Turgenev’s last play: he had written a few earlier – mainly in a comic, Gogolian mode – but none of them are anywhere near the class of this. After this, he turned to the novel. But it’s hard not to speculate how the drama might have developed had he decided otherwise. A Month in the Country very clearly points forward to Chekhov, but even when seen purely in its own light, it seems to me a remarkable achievement.

(The translation I read and quoted from above is by Stephen Mulrine, published by Oberon Books)

“Pnin” by Vladimir Nabokov

Pnin and Lolita were written at around the same time, and it is hard not to compare the titular character of the one, the academic Timofey Pavolovich  Pnin, with the principal character of the other, Humbert Humbert.  Both are European émigrés in America, and both are highly intelligent; but in everything else, they are direct opposites. Humbert Humbert is personable and good-looking: from the description given (“ ideally bald … an infantile absence of eyebrows … apish upper lip, thick neck … a pair of spindly legs …”), Pnin isn’t. Humbert Humbert deceives his wife, Pnin is deceived by his. Humbert Humbert is a predatory paedophile, who grotesquely exploits his step-daughter: Pnin is selflessly kind and generous to his wife’s son. Humbert Humbert is a monster: Pnin is a good man. Indeed, it may not be going too far to describe him as a saint. And whereas, in Lolita, Nabokov encourages a degree of sympathy, and possibly even empathy, with his monster creation, so we, the reader, can feel shocked by where our empathy has taken us, the game Nabokov plays with Pnin is quite different: he depicts him throughout as an absurd and laughable character, so that we, the reader, find ourselves shocked that we could even think of laughing at so good and so selfless a human. He was one for games, was Nabokov.

In Lolita, Nabokov allowed the vile but deeply seductive voice of Humbert Humbert to tell us his story.  Here, the narrative voice belongs to someone else, and it is not entirely obvious to begin with who this someone else is. What this narrative voice gives voice to is highly individual: there are pot shots at various aspects of academia, for instance; there is also a dislike of fashionable psychiatric ideas (“Victor was a problem child insofar as he refused to be one”), and, frequently, a waspish sense of humour that often descends into outright sneering; and there is an openly expressed dislike of such literary figures as Stendhal, Dostoyevsky, Dreiser, Mann. And all this is expressed a razor-sharp, precise, glinting prose. It is hard, given all this, to escape the notion that this narrator is Nabokov himself. Certainly, it is the same voice I hear in my mind when I read his fascinating (though highly idiosyncratic) literary criticism. But if the narrator is Nabokov, why is he so cruel and so unfeeling to Pnin? Do we put this down to yet another of Nabokov’s games?

But it’s not that the narrative voice misleads us. What this voice depicts is so clearly at odds with its sneering tone, that we learn very quickly not to take that tone of voice at all seriously. It would take a deeply insensitive reader, after all, to share the narrator’s obvious amusement when Pnin breaks down in tears in his landlady’s presence (“I haf nofing left, nofing, nofing!”)

There isn’t really much of a plot, as such. Nor is there much continuity between chapters, with each chapter emerging as a sort of tableau, and not moving anything on noticeably. In one chapter we meet Pnin’s ex-wife, who had shamefully exploited him, and continues shamelessly to exploit; and while Pnin is heartbroken, the narrator invites us to laugh at his heartbreak, and his astonishing lack of rancour. In another chapter, Pnin looks after his wife’s son, and treats him with a greater kindness and understanding than his biological parents have ever done. This, too, the narrator seems to find rather funny. In another chapter, we see Pnin at a gathering of Russian émigrés: here, he seems a bit more at home. And so on. None of these tableaux seems to be part of any particular line of development: they simply reflect different facets of Pnin’s life, of his past, and of his miserable state of exile.

It is in the chapter relating the gathering of Russian émigrés that we learn that Pnin, in his youth, had loved a young Jewish woman, Mira Belochkin, who had later been murdered in a Nazi extermination camp. In a more conventional novel, this would have been at the centre, but here, it is dropped almost as if in passing, as if it were but an incidental detail. And  afterwards, it is never mentioned again. But the few sentences given to this apparently incidental detail gives us all that is needed for our imagination to latch on to:

Pnin had taught himself, during the last ten years, never to think of Mira Belochkin … no conscience, and hence no consciousness, could be expected to subsist in a world where such things as Mira’s death were possible.

The narrator, though at other points seemingly insensitive, goes on to say:

And since the exact form of her death had not been recorded, Mira kept dying a great number of deaths in one’s mind, and undergoing a great number of resurrections, only to die again and again, led away by a trained nurse, inoculated with filth, tetanus bacilli, broken glass, gassed in a sham shower bath with prussic acid, burnt alive in a pit on a gasoline soaked pile of beechwood.

The narration is clearly inconsistent here: if Pnin had indeed taught himself not to think of her, Mira could hardly have died and undergone resurrection “over and over again” in his mind. (The narrator does cover his back by saying “one’s mind” rather than “his mind” – my italics – but it’s hard to imagine who this “one” could be if not Pnin himself.) And the whole thing is never referred to again. A momentary mention, and that is it. It is left up to us, the reader, to take what is presented but as an incidental detail, and put it at the centre of things where it belongs. Nabokov plays games with the reader, yes, but, at the same time, he is openly asking the reader to see through his games.

After this little detail is dropped, the narration resumes as before, but the reader now must see the new events in the context of this detail, and re-evaluate everything that has gone before. If Pnin is a man hopelessly lost, a man hopelessly out of place, this is not merely because he is an émigré: it is not merely America in which he is a fish out of water – it is the world itself, a world in which no conscience or consciousness can be expected to subsist.

The comedy, however, continues. There is one delicious scene reminiscent of Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 in which it is decided not to assign Pnin to French classes because he actually knows the language. And, in the final chapter, the narrator emerges, revealing himself to be a fellow academic and fellow Russian émigré: indeed, he reveals himself to be, as we had always suspected, Nabokov himself. And the various inconsistencies in his narrative compel us to consider just why these inconsistencies have been introduced. There is possibly no definitive answer to this question: certainly, all the reams of literary theory concerning the use of the unreliable narrator is of little use to us here (one suspects that Nabokov himself would have aimed some sharp and well-aimed barbs at such theories). I rather suspect that these inconsistencies point to Nabokov’s recognition, and yet, at the same time, his inability openly to acknowledge, that human goodness, and indeed, human saintliness, can still exist in a world in which no conscience or consciousness could be expected to subsist. And Nabokov recognises quite clearly this conflict within himself: his inconsistencies are quite deliberately placed.

In the end, Pnin is relieved of his post, and he disappears. And at this point, the author, Nabokov himself, suspends his game-playing, and the razor-sharp precision of his prose gives way, if only momentarily, to a vision of another world that, somewhere, may still exist:

Then the little sedan boldly swung past the front truck and, free at last, spurted up the shining road, which one could make out narrowing to a thread of gold in the soft mist where hill after hill made beauty of distance, and where there was simply no saying what miracle may happen.

No waspish wit here, no sneering. Just for a single moment, Nabokov has let down his defences, and has given us what is perhaps as close to a religious vision as is possible in a world in which no conscience or consciousness could be expected to subsist.

Dostoyevsky’s “Fantastic stories”

I use the word “fantastic” not in the sense that it is generally used now – that is, to describe something that is spectacularly good – but in the sense that Dostoyevsky himself had used it in the subtitle of two of his late stories, The Meek One (sometimes rendered as A Gentle Creature, or A Timid Creature, or some variant thereof), and “Dream of a Ridiculous Man”, both of which he subtitled A Fantastic Story. However, while “Dream of a Ridiculous Man” is quite clearly a work of fantasy – the greater part of it relating a dream involving travel to another planet – the element of fantasy in The Meek One is harder to discern, as it appears to tell a realistic story, albeit from the perspective of a character whose grasp of reality may seem tenuous. That Dostoyevsky chose to explicitly describe both these stories as “fantastic” raises some not easily answered questions on what he considered to be “fantastic”, and where precisely he considered the boundaries of reality and fantasy to lie.

For while his major fiction cannot really be described as “realistic” – in the sense that we would describe the works of, say, Flaubert or of Tolstoy as “realistic” – nothing happens in any of them that is physically impossible. When the physically impossible is introduced – say, the hideous gigantic insect-like creature that Ippolit sees in The Idiot – it is made clear that it is seen in a dream. For all the strangeness of a Dostoyevsky novel, even an event such as a spontaneous combustion (which is famously accommodated in Dickens’ Bleak House) would have been grotesquely out of place. Yes, people act in his novels in very strange ways, or think very strange things; and quite frequently the action described seems to address some weird, rarely visited corners of our minds; but there is nothing that contravenes the laws of physics. Even in “Dream of a Ridiculous Man”, which is explicitly described as “fantastic”, that fantasy – what we would nowadays describe as “science fiction” – takes place within a dream. But in The Meek One, there isn’t even a dream sequence. In a short preface to the story, Dostoyevsky explains why he chose to describe the story as fantastic: it refers, he says to the form: the narration itself is a fantasy. It tells us what is going on in the mind of a man whose wife has just committed suicide: his thoughts, his feelings, are utterly confused, fragmented, and often contradictory, and he tries desperately to piece them all together to arrive at what may be the truth of the matter. And the fantasy, says Dostoyevsky, lies in the piecing together of all this formless confusion into the semblance, at least, of an orderly narrative.

I can’t honestly say I am entirely convinced by this explanation, and suspect that, in this preface, he is playing games with us. In describing his story as “fantastic”, and then drawing our attention to it by giving us at the outset an explanation that clearly does not satisfy, he is challenging us, the reader, to determine for ourselves where the boundaries of reality may lie. That the narrator is unreliable goes without saying; but the subject of the story is not merely the events he describes, but also the very process of his trying to fit these events all together into some sort of coherence. And it is here, we may suspect, that the element of fantasy may enter.

The story is one of immense psychological complexity. Possibly it is a story that is not possible to narrate from an objective viewpoint – not because the objective truth does not exist, but because it is so profoundly hidden from sight, so difficult to arrive at. Nothing is as it seems: even the title deceives, since “the meek one” – or the “gentle creature”, or the “timid creature” – is neither meek, nor gentle, nor timid.

The narrator is a pawnbroker, a profession not considered honourable. And he is aware of how he is regarded. Quite apart from his profession, he has in the past been regarded with derision: when in the army, he had been insulted, and had refused to defend his honour by fighting a duel. He insists to us, the reader, that his refusal had not been out of cowardice, but we cannot be entirely sure. And neither, we suspect, can he. We suspect that he is tormented by the thought that he really is as base and as contemptible as he is perceived to be. And he needs to prove to himself that he isn’t. Whatever he is, he is not ridiculous.

This man finds himself strangely attracted to what initially seems to him a vision of purity: a very young lady, barely out of childhood, who, since the death of her parents, has been tyrannised and effectively enslaved by her aunts. She tries to pawn her meagre possessions in order to pay for an advertisement for position of governess, but to no avail. The narrator suggests an advertisement somewhat differently worded:

Young person, orphan, seeks position as governess of small children, preferably with an older widower. Can help with housework.

One need not read too closely between the lines to figure out what this is promising. The only way out for this young lady is, effectively, to sell herself sexually.

It is at this point that he proposes marriage to her. It is, on the surface, a noble, romantic action: he is the knight in shining armour rescuing the damsel in distress. By this action, he is answering, disproving, atoning for – what you will – the contempt with which he knows he is viewed. He is proving once and for all that he is not ridiculous. But she, the rescued damsel, does not really have a choice in the matter. She can but accept.

And now begins one of the most complex depictions of any marriage in fiction. We know from the start that she had ended up committing suicide: she had jumped from a high window clutching to her breast an icon. But if we had expected from this, and from the title, a meek and gentle creature, a mere passive victim to the cruelties and injustices heaped upon her, what follows takes us by surprise. For she is a spirited creature, and, in battle, is prepared to fight. He, for his part, demands from her not merely respect, but also love: this, after all, is why he had proposed to her in the first place. He is determined that, from her at least, he will obtain that respect and that love that the rest of the world denies him. Did he not, after all, save her? But he himself has no love to give. And she cannot give love under such duress. And so begins a terrible battle between the two, literally to the death. Not even Strindberg, I think, had given us so terrifying a picture of the struggles for dominance within marriage.

At a climactic point, he awakens from a nap to see his wife standing over him, holding a loaded pistol. At last, here is his chance to exonerate himself for ever from the charge of cowardice: he pretends still to be asleep, and lets her do as she pleases. But she cannot bring herself to pull the trigger: this particular battle she loses, and once again, the balance of power shifts back to him.

And yet, he cannot win, for she refuses to see him as he would like to be seen – as the noble and generous soul, the rescuer, the man who pardons all wrongs with a saintly magnanimity. What he likes to imagine is timidity on her part is really no more than an aversion – an aversion for his moral cowardice, if nothing else. And the end, when it comes, is shocking – even though we have known all along that it would come. For he had wanted love: he had desperately needed it. And, also in his own way, he had loved her. It was admittedly a very twisted kind of love, but it was the only kind of love he could offer. And at the end, the tragedy is his as well: his world now is one of utter desolation, where even Christ’s commandment of loving each other can mean little when we are incapable of such love:

They say the sun gives life to the universe. Let the sun rise and – look at it, isn’t it dead? Everything is dead, and the dead are everywhere. Only people, and around them silence – that’s the earth! “People, love one another” – who said that? whose testament is it? The pendulum ticks insensibly, disgustingly. It’s two o’clock in the morning. Her little boots are standing by the bed, just as if they were waiting for her … No, seriously, when she is taken from me tomorrow, what about me then?

Even here, we cannot be quite sure whether those last words indicate tragic despair, or mere solipsism and self-pity.

For all the glinting hard edges, these final pages are tremendously moving. We are moved not merely on behalf of the dead wife, but also of the living husband, who, in having driven his wife to suicide, should really have been the villain of the piece.

All this is told from the husband’s confused perspective, and, whether or not he finally sees the truth of the matter – insofar, that is, that the truth of the matter can be seen at all – we, the readers, are left with a sense the tremendous pity of it all. The narrator is, in a sense, a monster, and the dead woman is clearly his victim, but Dostoyevsky’s compassion, never mawkish or sentimental, encompasses both monster and victim. It is a quite extraordinary piece of writing, and one I felt compelled to re-read as soon as I had finished. I suspect this will not be the last time I read it.

“The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” (which I put in quotes rather than in italics as it is clearly a short story rather than a novella, and convention requires quotes for the former, and italics for the latter) is, more obviously, a “fantastic” story. The principal character, like the protagonist of The Meek One, is “ridiculous”, and he is aware of how ridiculous he is, of how much he is looked down upon by the world. The fantastic element of the story is narrated as a dream, but it is, in effect, science fiction: he finds himself transported to another planet in which all is perfect, but his human presence in this utopia corrupts the perfection. I am afraid I had the same problem with this story as I have with much of science fiction: it is too obviously written to make a point. And the point here is actually quite a straightforward one: human beings, by their very nature, are unsuited to utopia, and may find what salvation there is in individual acts of kindness. Perhaps those more in sympathy with the science fiction genre would get more out of this story, but I must confess that it was the realistic rather than the fantastic aspect of this story I enjoyed more: the dream of another planet seemed to me far less interesting than the reality of this man’s initial despair, his indifference to human suffering, and the subsequent awakening of his humanity. I realise, though, that in saying this, I am reporting on my own perceptions (or, rather, the shortcomings of my perceptions) rather than on the work itself.

There is another short story written in the last years of Dostoyevsky’s life that deserves the subtitle “A Fantastic Story” – although Dostoyevsky himself did not call it such. This is “Bobok”, a quite delicious piece of Gogolian grotesquerie. Here, the narrator finds himself in a graveyard, and hears the recently deceased and not yet decomposed corpses speaking to each other, bringing into their dead states the spiritual deadness they had carried even when they had been alive. Once again, the “fantastic” elements are most likely the hallucinations of a mad narrator: Dostoyevsky did invest his fiction with a sense of heightened awareness, but those things that are physically impossible he almost invariably cast as dreams, or as hallucinations. Nonetheless, he gives us here a dark and gruesome satire that, one suspects, Gogol would have relished.

But it is The Meek One, in which there is nothing that is physically impossible, that seems to me the greatest and most fantastic of his “fantastic stories”. For there is nothing, after all, quite so fantastic as the lives we strange creatures live in this real world.
[ All excerpts taken from the translations by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volkhonsky, published 1997 by Random House. ]

Murders on the Orient Express

Firstly, a promise. I promise that nowhere in the following piece will I reveal, or even hint at, the solution to the mystery that is at the heart of Murder on the Orient Express. Should there be anyone unaware of what happens in this story, I can guarantee that the revelation is quite startling, and I certainly wouldn’t want to spoil anyone’s enjoyment.

Having said that, I will admit to not being much of an Agatha Christie fan. In my pre-teenage years, the very lurid illustrations that used then to appear on the covers of various paperback issues led me to believe she was a horror writer, but when I did finally come round to reading a few of them in my early teens, far from horror, I found an entirely unexpected cosiness. At the time – I was about thirteen or so – I quite enjoyed the few I read, but not enough, obviously, to want to read more. From what I remember, everything seems subordinate to the plot, and the plot in itself is something I have never found particularly interesting. However, these novels have most definitely passed the test of time quite triumphantly, so no doubt it is I who am missing something. And, after reading Sophie Hannah’s spirited appreciation, I am more than happy to accept that the problem is with me as a reader rather than with the novels themselves. After all, I’ve only read a few, and that many, many years ago, when I was not a very experienced reader: I may well have missed the point.

I can’t help feeling it a shame, though, that in order to praise Christie, Sophie Hannah denigrates Chandler; but I suppose it’s natural to take against someone who has been rude about your favourite writer; and, it must be admitted, Chandler has been quite unconscionably rude about Agatha Christie. In Chandler’s novels, unlike Christie’s, the plotting is very clearly not the point: it doesn’t really matter, for instance, who killed the chauffeur in The Big Sleep. And neither is Chandler interested in the elements of mystery and of puzzles: the appeal of his novels lies elsewhere. Indeed, that is one of the reasons I like Chandler so much: he developed the detective story in directions where plotting becomes increasingly less relevant, and the focus is allowed to fall more fully upon other and – to my mind – more interesting matters. I remain, I must admit, very much on Chandler’s side of this divide.

But this is of course unfair given how limited my exposure has been to Agatha Christie’s novels. If these books can hold generations of readers in thrall for nearly a century now, she must have been doing something right. And I have, after all, enjoyed a great many adaptations of Christie’s novels, both on television and on the big screen, where actors can fill the characters out with their own personalities. So, before I pass further judgement, I felt it only right to try reading some Agatha Christie for myself; and, in view of the recent cinema release, Murder on the Orient Express seemed a good place to start my re-evaluation.

And it’s not just the recent release. This is one of that small handful of Agatha Christie books I read all those years ago, and I remember enjoying it at the  time. I remember particularly how struck I was by that ending. And then, a few days before Christmas 1974, we had a seasonal family outing to the ABC cinema (as it was then) on Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow to see the newly released film version directed by Sidney Lumet, and with Albert Finney as Poirot heading a star-studded cast. It was a tremendously enjoyable night out, and remains vivid in the memory forty years and more afterwards. And what’s more, that film is a particular favourite of my wife’s, and watching the DVD version has become something of a Christmas tradition for us.

And here’s a puzzle, worthy of Agatha Christie herself: if the plot were the whole point of it, why can we (and many others) enjoy watching this film repeatedly, when we already know the story? What enjoyment can we possibly find in a whodunit when we know from the start who dun it? One obvious answer is the sense of cosiness. This is an element virtually all adaptations accentuate, and with good reason. I used to look down on cosiness: a thriller, I felt, deals with evil acts, and should be dark and troubling, sinister and edgy. However, it is wrong to judge anything by one’s pre-conceived rules: a thriller should be what the author set it out to be, and if it sets out to be cosy, then so be it: Agatha Christie was hardly under any compulsion to abide by my rules, after all. And in any case, with advancing years, I find that I am less insistent on the edgy, and, indeed, tire of various formulaic thrillers formulaically focussing on physical violence to achieve that all-purpose formulaic edginess. And at the same time, I find myself more tolerant of cosiness. After all, as the world hurtles madly to heaven knows where, a sense of comfort, I increasingly feel, is not something to be sneered at.

Or it’s possible that I have just got older.

But are the novels really cosy? Are her characters merely cardboard cut-outs, enlivened in adaptations only by the actors’ personalities? And is her prose, as I have so often maintained, merely plodding and bland? Sophie Hannah certainly doesn’t seem to think so:

Each of her novels demonstrates a profound understanding of people – how they think, feel and behave – all delivered in her crisp, elegant, addictively readable style. While immersed in a Christie mystery, you might not notice the wisdom sprinkled throughout the pages because you’re having too much fun, growling with frustration because you’d love to be able to guess the solution but can’t.

To begin with, the story of Murder on  the Orient Express is superb. I don’t just mean the solution to the mystery – I mean the whole idea of the thing. (I have to be careful here to keep the promise I made at the start of this piece.) It has such resonance, that it has become a sort of modern myth. And it raises questions on all sorts of vitally important themes – themes that have been addressed in some of the most profound works of world literature. But Agatha Christie does not so much as touch upon any of them. In my younger days, when I was more prescriptive and censorious than I am now, I would have counted this as a serious flaw, but now I am inclined to think that she does not touch on these themes because she did not want to: she was writing an entertainment, after all, and not a serious Dostoyevskian novel. Indeed, so naturally do these serious issues arise from the plot, it required no small degree of skill and craftsmanship to lock these issues out.

In this respect, the 1974 film version, directed by Sidney Lumet, is faithful to the book. I heard on the radio once that the distinguished film composer Bernard Herrmann (most famous for his scores for many of Hitchcock’s finest films, including Psycho) objected to the delightful waltz composed by Richard Rodney Bennett for this film: this is the Train of Death, Herrmann insisted, and a delightful waltz is out of place. But I think Bennett understood what this film is about: it’s not about Death, and neither is it about psychological trauma, or about divine justice, or any of these things. It is a cosy, comfort film, just as Christie’s novel is a cosy, comfort novel.

Visually, it is superb. Sidney Lumet seemed to make a speciality of setting films within small, enclosed spaces: Twelve Angry Men is an obvious example. Lumet also made some very successful cinematic adaptations of plays set in enclosed locations – Long Day’s Journey Into Night, say, or The Seagull – and the visual variety he finds even in such restricted settings is often quite extraordinary. Lumet weaves his magic here also, conveying superbly a sense of cramped luxury. The setting here is no mere decoration: it helps create the drama.

The cast is superb, but it is when we come to Albert Finney, in the central role of Poirot, that we run into difficulties. I know there are those who simply cannot stand Finney’s singularly mannered performance, and I can understand why. But I can understand also why he chose to play it in this manner. He was surrounded by some of the finest of screen actors, some of the strongest of screen presences – Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, John Gielgud, Vanessa Redgrave, Sean Connery, Anthony Perkins, Wendy Hiller, etc. – and he had to stand out from this distinguished gathering; and he decided to stand out by putting on a highly – one may almost say “grotesquely” – eccentric performance. I must say I rather enjoy it; and the final sequence, where he has the long speech explaining who dun it, and how, seems to me pulled off with a fine theatrical panache. But yes, I can understand why some would hate it also. Nothing so mannered and idiosyncratic can be universally liked. (I still find it difficult to come to terms, for instance, with Jeremy Brett’s highly mannered performance as Holmes, even though the consensus of opinion seems to regard this performance as well nigh definitive.)

Fine entertainment, yes, but light entertainment: Lumet does not allow the serious themes implicit in the storyline to come to the surface, any more than Christie did.

Now, of course, we have the much heralded remake directed by Kennet Branagh. Some objected to remaking the film, but I don’t really see the objection: it is a very powerful story, after all, and why shouldn’t a contemporary director and a contemporary cast get a chance to reinterpret it?  I must admit, though, that I am rather old-fashioned in these matters, and there are some aspects of modern mainstream cinema that … how shall I put it? – that are not to my taste. For instance, when two characters are talking, I just want the camera in the same room as them, and pointing at them. Putting the camera outside so we can see them through the window, and then executing all kinds of intricate camera movements, does not enhance the drama. Worse, it distracts from what the characters are saying. I don’t really see why we should insist that everything must look like a video game.

And neither do I see why anyone should think that conversations lasting more than a minute or so at the most are dull and uncinematic. Some of the very finest and most iconic of films are full of long scenes of conversation. Much of Agatha Christie’s novel consists of conversations, as each of the suspects is interviewed in turn: fitting together all the various pieces of evidence is where the interest lies. But in this film, various of these interviews are intercut with each other, presumably in the belief that if any single conversation goes on for more than a few seconds the audience will lose interest. Sure, this kind of intercutting injects pace into the narrative, but does the narrative always need to be pacy? In effectively banishing from the narrative passages of repose or even of stillness, film-makers seem to me to be restricting their range, resulting all too often in an almost uni-paced, shapeless mass.

Yes, I know this is the modern way of film-making, and that things change, can’t keep still, new generation, and so on, and so forth. And when everyone seems happy with this, I have to accept that it is I who am out on a limb. But there it is, for what it’s worth: I find myself unsympathetic to modern styles. Living in the past, I am, and happy to be there.

There were a few other aspects in this latest film that, to my mind, didn’t work, including an obligatory action sequence, and another obligatory chase sequence, both of which seemed out of place in what is, after all, a cosy whodunit. It is also important for the audience in these whodunits to be always aware of the list of suspects, but the Hungarian couple were kept absent for so long that I had almost forgotten about them till they suddenly emerge some half way through. Sidney Lumet had been more successful, I think, in keeping all the characters constantly in the frame. Also, unlike the Lumet film, the cramped setting was not used here to any great effect: perhaps it was a mistake in taking some of the scenes outside the train.

However, having said all that, the film was entertaining enough on its own terms. The all-star cast is fine, and the story remains as startling as ever. And Kenneth Branagh, with facial hair so spectacular that I felt a mere amateur in this respect, made a strong impression as Poirot without having to go to the extremes of Albert Finney. (Although I must admit that I do still enjoy Finney’s theatrical gusto.) The scene where all is revealed was particularly well done, and the script here was quite happy to bring to the fore some of the more serious aspects of the story that both the novel and the earlier film had stayed away from: Branagh’s Poirot here speaks of “fractured souls”, and of the need for healing.

Between these two productions came two television adaptations – one in 2001 with Alfred Molina as Poirot (I have not seen this), and, in 2010, an adaptation of the novel as part of the long-running series, filmed and broadcast in Britain by ITV, starring David Suchet as Poirot. This particular episode (so imdb.com tells me), was scripted, quite superbly, by Stuart Harcourt, and directed, equally superbly, by Philip Martin. Here, we see Agatha Christie’s story turn into a modern myth: the story is here re-interpreted, and scriptwriter and director make of it something entirely new. Far from hiding away the serious aspects – ethical, psychological, even theological – they are given centre stage, and the effect is about as dark and as disturbing a drama as I think I have seen. Nothing could be further from the spirit of Christie, and while this may perhaps upset some fans of the original, the departure is entirely justified. Christie’s story, splendid though it is, is used here to but as a basis for something that is not even hinted at in  the novel. To say this is not to denigrate Christie’s work: indeed, it speaks for the strength of the original story that, despite the intense seriousness of the themes broached in this version, the plotline is strong enough to carry so heavy a burden.

And no, cosy it ain’t. Noticeably, the rather charming and whimsical theme tune used in the other episodes of this series is here absent. We are plunged, before the title sequence, straight into the midst of things: Poirot is wrapping up his previous case, and, in time-honoured fashion, is explaining (in this instance, to assembled military officers) the solution he has successfully arrived at. But in less than time-honoured fashion, he is here in a fit of passion. The details of the crime he had investigated are not given, but it appears from what he says that what had been thought to have been murder was, in fact, an accidental death; but Poirot’s wrathful indignation is directed at one of the officers present, who, through his lying, had impeded the investigation. And even as Poirot is denouncing him, a shot rings out, and Poirot’s face is splattered with blood. Only a few drops of blood – this is not gothic horror, after all – but enough to let us know that we are not here in the world of cosy whodunits. The officer Poirot was denouncing has shot himself.

As Poirot leaves afterwards, having completed the case successfully (in the sense that he has solved the mystery), one of the soldiers accompanying him breaks protocol to let him know that the man who had shot himself had not been a bad man: he had merely made an error of judgement. Poirot sticks to his guns: he had lied, and was morally culpable. But what precisely is going on in Poirot’s mind we cannot be sure.

In Istanbul, Poirot witnesses another horrible scene: he sees an adulterous woman stoned to death. Even this he seems to condone: it is horrible, yes, but the application of law is necessarily horrible, and the stoning is no more horrible than hangings in Britain. However horrible, the law must be applied, for, without the law, where are we? What are we? There is, of course, another question here, implied though not openly articulated: even when we do apply the law, what are we?

We are in very deep waters here, and those expecting the traditional cosy whodunit may well be tempted at this point to switch off. They would be well advised to do so, for this production does not let up: it is a dark and serious investigation into some of the most profound of themes – the nature of justice; the application of laws, both human and divine; how justice differs from mere retribution; the corrosive nature of evil, and how it spreads; our human need for justice, without which we cannot begin to heal; and our failure to heal even when justice is done, as each act of justice is a fresh crime in itself. Throughout, Poirot’s is a dark, brooding presence, exhibiting none of the quirkiness or whimsicality that had characterised him in previous episodes: he is here a tortured man, clinging dogmatically to what moral certainties he still possesses, because to lose these certainties would be to cast himself into moral chaos.

David Suchet’s performance is simply extraordinary. No theatrical grandstanding here: there is a time and a place for that kind of thing, but not here, where we find ourselves so deep in such turbulent moral waters. The other roles are not quite so demanding, perhaps, although I do find it quite astonishing just how great an intensity of emotion Eileen Atkins can communicate in just a few softly spoken lines. No sense here of dialogue being boring, or uncinematic; no scope here for intercutting with other dialogues to prevent the audience’s attention wandering.

This, like the two films, re-creates the murder in a flashback sequence towards the end. In the Sidney Lumet film, this sequence is very impressively staged, and is tense and sombre; in the more recent film, it is more frenzied; but neither can really compare with the murder scene in this television version, which really chills one’s blood. No hint here of formulaic edginess: the horror is moral at least as much as it is physical.

The whole thing, in short, is a triumph. It is as brilliant as it is audacious: never have I seen an episode of a well-established television drama that so relentlessly subverts audience expectations. And what we see here is the creation of mythology: although the plot keeps quite close to Christie’s novel, this is neither an “adaptation”, nor a “dramatization”: it takes the novel but as a starting point to create something entirely new. Yes, the profound and troubling themes it broaches are all latent in the original novel, but it takes something special not merely to bring them out, but also to explore them in such a way that the original material is left far, far behind.

For that original material is, in spirit if not in letter, very different indeed. When people speak of an adaptation being faithful, they usually mean “faithful” in terms of the plot: in that sense, this adaptation is indeed quite faithful. But it’s very unfaithful where it really matters. For when I read the novel over after watching the television version, I found myself in a completely different world. Had Agatha Christie envisaged that the story could take on such dark and serious hues? Possibly. But if she did, she used all her skill to keep these hues out. For the book is a romp. That is not to criticise it: a romp, light entertainment, cosy whodunit …these are not things to be looked down on. Well-crafted entertainment is admirable in itself. And Christie has, I’d contend, given us even more than well-crafted entertainment: she has given us one of the finest of all plots – a plot capable of bearing the burden of some of the most difficult and troubling of moral issues.

But does Christie, as Sophie Hannah contends, “demonstrate a profound understanding of people – how they think, feel and behave”? I must admit that, on the basis of this novel alone, I’ll have to answer “no”. The characterisation only goes so far as to differentiate the characters from each other, and to render the murderer’s motives (or the suspected murderers’ motives) credible. There are times when she is not above crude stereotypes:

A big, swarthy Italian was picking his teeth with gusto. Opposite him a spare, neat Englishman had the expressionless, disapproving face of a well-trained servant. Next  to the Englishman was a big American in a loud suit  – possibly a commercial traveller.

“You have to put it over big,” he was saying in a loud, nasal voice.

And is the prose style really “crisp and elegant”? It is not clunky, admittedly, but I can’t say I found much trace of elegance either. Perhaps the best way to describe it is “functional”. Everything is geared towards the plot, and plot alone. And, of course, when the plot is so good, that is nothing to apologise for.

But I shouldn’t pass judgement based on just one of her many novels – although, admittedly, it’s one of her most famous novels. And neither should I – as I used to – look down my nose at the “cosy”. Some friends of mine, who have read more of Christie than I have, tell me that many of her early works were considerably darker, and advise me to read And Then There Were None. (That is not, by the way, the original title: that original title is now considered, for entirely understandable reasons, unacceptable in polite society, although it should be said that the book itself is not racist.) Perhaps I’ll read that too some day, for the plot of that, too, has taken on something of a mythical quality. And these books are very easy to read, after all: I do not regard that as a recommendation in literary terms, but it does mean that one can race through them fairly quickly.

I said at the start of this post that I shall not reveal, nor even hint at, the solution to the mystery. I trust that I have kept that promise. It was a promise that was important to keep: for, whatever the resonances of her stories, whatever the serious and profound themes that lie implicit in them, as far as Agatha Christie was concerned, the plot’s the thing. And yes, she did think up some rather fine ones.

On re-reading “Middlemarch”

This is not intended to be a review.

Indeed, nothing on this blog is intended to be a review. Since I want to write on this blog about all the various things I love, I have found myself writing about some of the most exalted of literary creations – Hamlet, Don Quixote, The Brothers Karamazov and what not. For me to claim to review such works seems a trifle presumptuous. If I am reviewing anything at all, it is myself: I am merely recording how my own individual mind responds to these works – sometimes, I hope, with insight, but more frequently, I fear, with incomprehension.

It is with this in mind that I come to Middlemarch, a novel that has not really been very close to my heart. I first read it some twenty-five years ago, and I remember admiring it greatly. But, in contrast to many other novels I have admired, I have not in those intervening years felt the desire to revisit it. And furthermore, the memories I had of it were vague: nothing from it seemed have lodged very firmly in my mind. These facts in themselves I found intriguing. For, after all, there are a great many readers, highly intelligent and cultivated and with unimpeachable literary taste, who not only think very highly of this novel, they refer to it as the novel they love best. Even as the “greatest novel” they have read. Of course, we don’t need to go into tedious disquisitions on the redundancy of the concept of “best” or “greatest” in such matters, or of literature not being a competitive sport: when someone speaks of Middlemarch being the “greatest” novel they have read, I understand what they mean – that not only is it a novel of surpassing merit, but that it is also the novel that speaks to them most directly, most profoundly; that it is the novel that resonates most insistently in their minds and hearts, that provides most that unmistakable tingle in the spine that Nabokov speaks of as being the ultimate arbiter of literary greatness. That Middlemarch is a novel of surpassing greatness I have never doubted, but I was curious to see whether, after so long a gap, this novel would now resonate with me – whether I, as a reader, have developed sufficiently since my earlier reading to allow this novel to enter my consciousness in a way it had not done before. Whether, in short, it would now give that tingle in the spine.

And if not, why not.

That it is a magnificent creation, I already knew. Even at that first reading, I was struck by its breadth and depth of vision. But that may be a strange thing to say about a work that remains doggedly within a single location (the Warwickshire town of Middlemarch, a fictional version, it is believed, of Coventry), dealing with everyday people in this everyday setting, and not finding, nor even seeking for, any sense of transcendence. All that is solid remains solid: the light it is seen in is no visionary or ethereal light, but very much the clear light of day. Wider national politics enter into it, but only insofar as it affects local people going about their daily business: there is no overarching political vision, any more than there is an overarching religious or spiritual vision. Eliot gives us small people leading small lives, and refuses to look beyond this.

In a very fine essay of Wordsworth’s The Prelude (“The Noble Community of the Living and the Dead: Community in The Prelude”, included in The Cambridge Companion to Wordsworth) Lucy Newlyn draws a parallel between Eliot’s work and Wordsworth’s, quoting two surprisingly similar passages from each:

                      Magnificent
The morning was, a memorable pomp,
More glorious than I ever had beheld.
The sea was laughing at a distance; all
The solid mountains were as bright as clouds,
Grain-tinctured, drenched in empyrean light;
And in the meadows and the lower grounds
Was all the sweetness of a common dawn—
Dews, vapours, and the melody of birds,
And labourers going forth into the fields.
Ah, need I say, dear friend, that to the brim
My heart was full? I made no vows, but vows
Were then made for me; bond unknown to me
Was given, that I should be—else sinning greatly—
A dedicated spirit. On I walked
In blessedness, which even yet remains.
– From The Prelude (1805 text), iv, 330-45

 

She opened her curtains, and looked out towards the bit of road that lay in view, with fields beyond outside the entrance-gates. On the road there was a man with a bundle on his back and a woman carrying her baby; in the field she could see figures moving—perhaps the shepherd with his dog. Far off in the bending sky was the pearly light; and she felt the largeness of the world and the manifold wakings of men to labour and endurance. She was a part of that involuntary, palpitating life, and could neither look out on it from her luxurious shelter as a mere spectator, nor hide her eyes in selfish complaining.
– from Middlemarch, Chapter 80

The parallels are apparent, quite apart from the similarity of what is described – human figures within a larger landscape. In Wordsworth, the landscape is perceived first, and only then the figures (the “labourers going forth into the field”), with the grandiloquent diction in the earlier part of the passage giving way to more everyday speech. In Eliot, the process is reversed: the people are seen first (“the man with the bundle on his back, and a woman carrying her baby”), and only afterwards the largeness of the landscape they are in, and the register of the diction moves this time from the everyday to the magnificent. But both the poet in the first excerpt, and Dorothea in the second, feel it to be a moment of revelation. Wordsworth tells us that although he did not himself make a vow, vows were nonetheless made on his behalf: what these vows were he does not spell out: he tells us that he must be a “dedicated spirit”, but dedicated precisely to what he does not tell us, because, given the context, he does not need to. Eliot is more explicit: Dorothea realises she is not detached from the life around her, that she could not merely look on with a disinterested eye. This is the “bond” Wordsworth speaks of – the bond with life, with one’s fellow beings, an awareness of being, ineluctably, a part of something larger than oneself.

And for Eliot, what was larger than one’s individual self was humanity – other individual selves, collectively forming a greater unit. And this greater unit is not restricted merely to those now living. Wordsworth had written in the eleventh book of The Prelude:

                        There is
One great society alone on earth:
The noble Living and the noble Dead.

To which Eliot would probably have added “and the noble Unborn”. For the bond that Wordsworth speaks of links us not only to generations past, but also to generations yet to come. The famous last lines of Middlemarch make this clear:

… for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

However seemingly mundane and quotidian our lives may be, however seemingly insignificant, we are part of a living bond both with generations past, who have prepared the ground for us, and for generations yet to come, for whose sake, whether we realise it or not, we are living now. To recognise our part in this noble community of the Living and the Dead and the Unborn is to be part of the “involuntary, palpitating life”; it is to “feel the largeness of this world”.

So far, so Wordsworthian. But Eliot’s view is nonetheless, it seems to me, somewhat different from Wordsworth’s. For Wordsworth was concerned also with intimations of immortality, with that sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused, that sense of a presence that is both immanent in humanity, but which also transcends it: but these concerns weren’t Eliot’s. There are no “spots of time” in Eliot’s fictional world; or, rather, if there are, they do not look beyond humanity. The sense that Dorothea gets of an attachment to, and an active involvement with, something larger than her individual self, is not so large as to transcend humanity or to point towards eternity. This is not to say that Eliot’s vision was smaller than Wordsworth’s – merely that, for all its apparent similarities, it is differently directed. For, to Eliot, there was nothing larger than humanity; and this “involuntary, palpitating life”, this great human chain of generations succeeding each other, not only leaves no time to contemplate eternity, it makes such contemplation redundant.

We often speak of nineteenth century fiction as “realistic”, but this is mere lazy generalisation. It is not merely that so many giants of nineteenth century fiction had little or no interest in photographic verisimilitude – Gogol, Dickens, Melville, Dostoyevsky, etc. – it is also that there are many different shades of what we lazily term “realism”. Tolstoy and Eliot, for instance, may both be described as “realist” writers: they both depicted the solidity of this world, the chains of cause following effect; they tried both to come to at least some sort of understanding of the endlessly complex rules that govern our lives, our minds. And yet, in Tolstoy, there are times when these rules, however fascinatingly complex they may be, seem to be suspended: when, for instance, Andrei, wounded on the battlefield of Austerlitz, sees that vast overarching sky above him, and wonders why he hadn’t seen it before; or when Anna is close to death, and she, Karenin, and Vronsky, all seem to enter some strange heightened plane of consciousness. There is absolutely nothing like this in Middlemarch. Andrei’s moment of epiphany in seeing that sky seemed to make all human affairs appear small. Similarly, much later in the novel, when the dying Andrei resigns himself to death, all of human life, even that of his own sister and son, or of Natasha whom he loves, appears insignificant. Such a sense of human insignificnce is very alien to the world of Middlemarch: here, Dorothea’s moment of epiphany connects her to the rest of humanity, which is the highest truth there is, or can be. And as for the heightened state of consciousness that Anna, Karenin and Vronsky find themselves in, there is no room for that in Eliot’s world; here, our everyday state of consciousness, with all its “involuntary, palpitating life”, is rich enough.

Once again, none of this is to say that Eliot’s artistic vision is necessarily narrower or smaller than that of Tolstoy, or of Wordsworth: it is merely differently directed. Tolstoy too had depicted this involuntary, palpitating life in all its dizzying variety, but had searched for some underlying and unifying principle, that Wordsworthian “sense sublime … that rolls through all things”. He had possibly not succeeded in that search, but the sense of questing seems to me unmistakable. In Eliot, even that questing is absent. If Tolstoy had missed that sense sublime, Eliot does not even think to look for it.

Flaubert had also missed this sense sublime that rolls through all things. He missed it not because he could not find it, but because he was convinced it did not exist. And this saddened him. All language could do, he famously lamented in Madame Bovary, was to batter away at an old, broken kettle, when all the time he longed to “move the stars with pity”. But Eliot had no thought of moving the stars with pity, or any such nonsense. This involuntary, palpitating life, far from being a battered and broken old kettle, was the thing itself: one need not search for anything beyond, as Tolstoy did, nor even lament, as Flaubert did, the absence of anything beyond. Taken for what it is, it is enough in itself: the everyday little events, taken just for what they are, are enough to fill out a novel of epic proportions. That a thousand-page novel, each page engrossing, could be created out of what Flaubert regarded as a battered and broken old kettle, is in itself a powerful statement of Eliot’s artistic and moral vision. Eliot presented this world, neither searching for any other, nor lamenting its absence. In this sense, Eliot was, perhaps, the most realist of all the realists.

Eliot is often judged, correctly, to be a writer of profound moral sensibility, but is also often judged, this time incorrectly, of being finger-wagging and judgemental. After all, if we are to take our part in this involuntary and palpitating life, then we must extend our imaginative sympathies to understand those who form that greater humanity of which we, as individuals, are a part. To understand is not necessarily to forgive or even to excuse, but it is something to be aimed towards for its own sake. Take Bulstrode, for instance. A man who has made a fortune by questionable means, who has deprived others of what is rightfully theirs to enhance his own wealth and standing, and who now parades his apparent respectability, and indulges in all sorts of religious humbug: it is hard to imagine any author extending to so despicable a person any sympathy. But even Bulstrode Eliot tries to understand, insisting that he is not really a hypocrite:

There may be coarse hypocrites, who consciously affect beliefs and emotions for the sake of gulling the world, but Bulstrode was not one of them. He was simply a man whose desires had been stronger than his theoretic beliefs, and who had gradually explained the gratification of his desires into satisfactory agreement with those beliefs.
– from Middlemarch, Chapter 61

I suppose it can be said that Eliot was harsh on Rosamond (Eliot never did care for self-centred airheads, especially if they were also pretty and blonde), but even here, there is an attempt to see things from her perspective: she too, after all, is someone who has entered into a marriage with unrealistic expectations, and has found herself disappointed; and, unlike Dorothea, she doesn’t even have the consolations of contemplation and of introspection, being by nature incapable of either.

***

I said at the start of this post that I was not going to “review” Middlemarch. I think I have kept my promise: after some two and a half thousand words, I find I have barely mentioned Dorothea Brooke, and haven’t mentioned at all Tertius Lydgate – the two principal characters whose two parallel lives form the backbone of this novel.

Fortunately, Middlemarch is possibly the most blogged about of all classic novels, and there is no shortage either of plot synopses, or of analysis. (And if it is detailed analysis you are looking for, may I recommend this by Rohan Maitzen: it is excellent.) I started this post merely trying to understand, by talking to myself here, why it is that, despite admiring this novel immensely, and thinking it a majestic achievement, it did not make my spine tingle in the way Nabokov thought a good novel should. Even in this my second reading, that spine resolutely refused to tingle. It’s not because George Eliot’s vision is too small, or too narrow: far from it. And it’s not because of her moral sensibilities. I suppose it’s because George Eliot is way too sensible and level-headed; and because I, personally, prefer those writers who have about them that touch of madness. But if I do not place Middlemarch amongst my own favourite novels, I can at least understand why so many do. And with that, I am more than satisfied.

“New Arabian Nights” by Robert Louis Stevenson

O wad some Power the giftie gie us…

If I were to be given the ability to write prose like any writer of my choosing, past or present, I think I’d choose to write prose like Robert Louis Stevenson. There’d be no point picking someone like Dickens, say, whose prose is so idiosyncratic that anything written in that manner would seem merely like imitation. Stevenson’s prose is also very individual – as, indeed, is the prose of any major stylist – but it is not eccentric, as Dickens’ is. It is supple, rhythmical, and eloquent; and it is marvellously expressive. And it is all of these things without the slightest hint of exhibitionism, of drawing attention to itself. Take, for instance, this passage from the story “A Lodging For the Night”, describing snow falling at night on the streets of Paris:

The snow fell over Paris with rigorous, relentless persistence; sometimes the wind made a sally and scattered it in flying vortices; sometimes there was a lull, and flake after flake descended out of a black night air, silent, circuitous, interminable. To poor people, looking up under moist eyebrows, it seemed a wonder where it all came from.

There is nothing gaudy about this: it is far from purple prose. It flows naturally, its rhythms perfectly in place, creating successive waves and troughs, neither pulling the reader up short with quickfire staccato, nor tiring the reader with long unpunctuated phrases in which, by the time the end is reached, the beginning is all but forgotten. It is almost like the conversation of a highly articulate person, its rises and falls and its pauses imitating the natural patterns of speech. And each word seems so perfectly chosen, and so perfectly in place, that neither the choice of words nor the order in which they are put seems capable of improvement. And as an evocation of the scene, as a picture in words of snow falling from a night sky, can this really be improved upon? I could turn to any page at random in this collection, and I would find the same thing – prose that is eloquent, words that are perfectly chosen, phrasing that is immaculate; and, without drawing attention to itself, writing expresses perfectly whatever the author wants to express.

This collection of stories was first published in 1882, when Stevenson was in his early thirties, but the stories had all been appearing individually in literary magazines and journals for a few years before then. The title Stevenson chose for this collection is an interesting one: The Arabian Nights stood, and still stands, for pure storytelling – storytelling of tremendous exuberance and vitality, unencumbered with anything to furrow the thoughtful brow, innocent of insights or thoughts regarding the human condition, but holding the reader’s attention purely by the question: “What happens next?”

But curiously, Stevenson does not often seem very interested in the question “What happens next?” His interest seems to lie, rather, in creating intriguing situations; and it’s these situations that stay in the reader’s mind rather than how they are eventually resolved. Two of the entries in this collection are actually sequences of linked stories – “The Suicide Club” (what a title!) and “The Rajah’s Diamond”. These stories often end without resolution: it is almost as if, having presented us with intriguing situations, Stevenson doesn’t really care too much about “what happens next”, and is moving on quickly to introduce a new thread, with new situations that are every bit as intriguing as the previous ones. This new story will contain, somewhere along the line, some detail that resolves the previous story, but these details are dropped as if in passing: it is the situations that are important to Stevenson, and the rest merely mechanics of the plot, and, hence, of relatively little interest. The resolutions are dropped almost casually, if they were but trifles. And indeed, when these resolutions are eventually presented, we find ourselves already so wrapped up in the new story, that we don’t care too much about how the previous one had worked out. I don’t think I have ever encountered anything of this nature before.

It is all carried off with a tremendous panache. And what situations they are! A quiet, retiring man receives a letter from a mysterious woman, proposing they meet; he is stood up, but he returns to his room to find there a corpse. Or there’s the Suicide Club, a secret organization where men meet who are either suicidal, or are seeking excitement; there, cards are drawn, and the he who draws the ace of spades is to be killed, and he who draws the ace of clubs must do the killing. And so on. The stories may end without resolution (although that will be dropped in later) , but no matter: within a few paragraphs of the next story, we are hooked all over again.

Apart from these linked stories, there are four others, of varying character. In “A Lodging for the Night”, Stevenson recreates medieval Paris on a winter’s night, and presents to us the great poet François Villon, who was also a cut-throat brigand. That one could be both intrigued Stevenson, and what emerges is masterly both in terms of evoking time and place, and of evoking also a character of endless fascination. We are in medieval France again for “The Sire de Malétroit’s Door”, where, once again we are presented with an intriguing situation: it eventually resolves itself into a rather charming love story, but I can’t help feeling that it’s the intriguing nature of the set-up that most attracted Stevenson’s imagination. “Providence and the Guitar” is a rather whimsical tale pitting the improvident artistic temperament against more stolid and more dependable – but also more boring – approaches to life; there is, once again, much charm here, and also a vein of the comic that I don’t always find in Stevenson’s writing.

But the masterpiece of this collection is, I think, “The Pavilion on the Links”. It was a great favourite of Conan Doyle’s (another great storyteller, who was born only a mile or so from Stevenson’s birthplace). And no wonder! Adventure stories really don’t come any better than this! The prose, as ever, is tremendously accomplished, but what impresses most is the pacing, and the creation of tension. It is set on a remote stretch of the Scottish coast, and the heroes (as they turn out to be) find themselves protecting a man from bloodthirsty killers besieging them. We have had elements of this in Treasure Island, of course: there, the besiegers had been pirates; here, they are Carbonari. The basic situation later found its way into Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo, and John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13. Marvellous though both those films are, they are not, I think, superior to this story, which, though much shorter, I found every bit as thrilling as Treasure Island. No wonder Conan Doyle thought so highly of this!

New Arabian Nights was Stevenson’s first collection of short stores. He wrote more, of course, but I have only read a small handful of them so far, and can’t imagine why I have left it so long to read the others. In the meantime, if adventure stories are your thing – and even if they aren’t, and you simply enjoy fine writing – this collection can be recommended with the warmest enthusiasm. What a writer Stevenson was!