Archive for the ‘literature’ Category

“Don Juan” by Molière

[All excerpts from the play are taken from the translation by John Wood, published by Penguin Classics, 1953]


Molière’s version of Don Juan appeared in 1665, only thirty-five years after Tirso de Molina’s, but it seems to inhabit a quite different world. It seems a more civilised world, more refined; and Don Juan is no demonic force of nature here, as he had been in the earlier play – no id stripped of its superego: rather, he seems, if anything, a thoughtful young man, a man who takes the trouble to think about, and to justify, his incessant womanising:

Let fools make a virtue of constancy! All beautiful women have a right to our love, and the accident of being the first comer shouldn’t rob others of a fair share in our hearts. As for me, beauty delights me wherever I find it and I freely surrender myself to its charms.

Not merely does he present his womanising as a virtue rather than as a vice, he sees the women as the victors, and himself as the vanquished – as the one who “surrenders”. Now, of course, this could be, and is, indeed, likely to be, mere self-delusion, but the fact remains that he actually believes it.

Come what may, I cannot refuse love to what I find lovable, and so, when a beautiful face is asking for love, if I had ten thousand hearts I would freely bestow every one of them.

What is generally seen as self-centredness, and lack of empathy for the feelings of others, Don Juan sees as generosity. And this leaves open the question: does Don Juan really not see the grief and the heartache that he causes? Seemingly not. When he encounters Elvira, the woman he had married and had subsequently deserted, he fobs her off with an absurd reason for having left her. It’s not so much that he is lying: not only does he not himself believe what he is saying, he does not expect Elvira to believe it either. Molière, like da Ponte and Mozart after him, endows Elvira with genuine tragic dignity and nobility of character, and Don Juan’s callous treatment of her cannot but leave a nasty taste in the mouth. But Don Juan is, nonetheless, being true to himself. “The whole pleasure lies in the fact that love isn’t lasting,” he says at one point. Love is transient. He accepts that as a fact; he takes pleasure in this fact; and he cannot hold himself responsible if others do not see this fact as clearly as he does. Love isn’t lasting; life isn’t lasting; so why not accept these truths, seek what pleasure these truths bring us, and not burden ourselves with arbitrary moral rules that make us so unhappy in our temporary existence?

For Molière’s Don Juan is a rationalist. His servant, Sganarelle, describes him in the opening scene as a man who believes in neither “Heaven, Hell, nor werewolf”. At one point, Sganarelle, tries to pin down what exactly Don Juan believes in:

Sganarelle:  Do you really not believe in Heaven at all?

Don Juan:  Suppose we leave that alone.

Sganarelle:  That means you don’t. And hell?

Don Juan:  Eh?

Sganarelle: No, again! And the Devil, may I ask?

Don Juan:  Yes, yes.

Sganarelle:  No more than the rest. And don’t you believe in a life after this?

Don Juan:  Ha! Ha! Ha!

Sganarelle [aside]: This chap will take some converting! [To Don Juan] Now tell me this – the Bogy Man – what do you think about him?

Don Juan:  Don’t be a fool!

Sganarelle:  Now, I can’t allow that. There’s nothing truer than the Bogy Man. I’d go to stake for that. A man must believe in something. What do you believe?

Don Juan:  What do I believe?

Sganarelle: Yes.

Don Juan:  I believe that two and two make four, Sganarelle, and that two fours make eight.

And suddenly, we find ourselves in the world of Turgenev’s Bazarov, who knew only that two plus two made four, and that all else is nonsense. This is the truth, this is how things are. Don Juan has happily embraced this truth, and delights in it; and if others cannot do so, then so much the worse for them: Don Juan cannot hold himself responsible for the follies of others.

But, in Molière’s version, Don Juan is by no means a man devoid of morals. When he sees a man set upon by robbers, he feels honour-bound to help protect the man from his assailant: one doubts whether de Molina’s Don Juan or Mozart’s Don Giovanni would have cared. This Don Juan is not amoral; but his morality cannot encompass the irrationality of desiring that which is not, and that which cannot be – of desiring Eternal Love, or Eternal Life.

But one cannot deal with human affairs without taking the irrational into account. Elvira’s continuing to love Don Juan, the man who had so heartlessly deserted her, is no doubt irrational, but we do not, as Don Juan does, scoff at her for doing so: rather, we find in her devotion, misdirected though it is, a nobility and a pathos, and even a tragic dignity. That may be irrational, but in all human affairs, irrationality exists, whether Don Juan chooses to accept it or not. And when irrationality does indeed irrupt into Don Juan’s life, he is troubled by it: when he invites the Commander’s statue to dinner, and the stone statue nods in response, Don Juan is momentarily speechless, and then, after a pause, can only say:

Come on. Let us get out of here.

Later, he claims it was but a trick of the light. His sense of the world cannot accommodate life inhabiting that which is not flesh and blood, any more than it can accommodate human desire for that which does not exist. As with Bazarov, when two and two stop making four, he is out of his depth.

But when the statue finally comes to drag him to a Hell in which he does not believe, Don Juan shows genuine courage. I doubt de Molina’s Don Juan or Mozart’s Don Giovanni show much courage here: since neither has the imagination to feel fear, neither has any fear to overcome. But with Molière’s Don Juan, it is different, for Molière presents Don Juan not as some phenomenon of nature, but as a human. And, being human, he is susceptible to fear, and also capable of courage. Indeed, I cannot help feeling that, despite all Don Juan’s manifold flaws and shortcomings, Molière couldn’t help liking him: he certainly humanises him in a way that neither de Molina nor Mozart does.

This is a feeling I often get with Molière, although, given how long it has been since I last read through his plays, I should really go through them again to check my impressions. But certainly, when I last read these plays, I distinctly got the impression that, despite showing us with a thoroughly unsentimental clarity all the various inadequacies of humans, he couldn’t help liking them. Of course, there are a few, such as Tartuffe, who are probably beyond the pale of human sympathy, but, from what I remember, Molière had no scorn or disdain for those who are duped by Tartuffe: he regarded them, as he did Alceste the misanthrope or Harpagon the miser, with no bitterness, but, rather, with a gentle and amused tolerance. The follies of mankind are things in which we all have a part, and that leaves little room for anger or for bile.

And I can’t help sensing a gentle humanity in Don Juan as well. This is not to say that Molière cannot see the sufferings brought about by Don Juan’s actions, but the features of the character of Don Juan are certainly softened. The killing of the commander, say, that both de Molina and Mozart present onstage, here takes place before the action starts: the exact details of that killing are not given, but, given Don  Juan’s impulsive generosity in running to the aid of a stranger assailed by robbers, we are happy to believe that he is far from a cold-blooded murderer.

Molière emphasises also the warm and easy relationship between Sganaralle and Don Juan – to such an extent, indeed, that I was more than once reminded of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Of course, Sganarelle says that he knows his master to be a scoundrel, but only stays on with him out of fear, but that is belied by the many scenes they have together: there is not the slightest hint of tyranny on the part of Don Juan, nor fear on the part of Sganarelle. In the opera, da Ponte and Mozart made more of the servant’s vicarious enjoyment of his master’s conquests, and of the co-existence of this vicarious pleasure with a certain sympathy for his master’s victims, but Molière stops short of venturing into those psychological depths: in this play, the warmth of the relationship between the two is clear, and is a striking departure from the somewhat harsher dramatic world presented in Tirso de Molina’s play.

But – inevitably, given the story – all the essential gentleness of Molière’s drama cannot camouflage that whiff of sulphur, of hellfire.  Don Juan, who believes in this world and this world only, a world of flesh and blood where two and two make four and twice four make eight, is finally overcome by an irrational force that, far from being flesh and blood, is animated stone. Once again, from what I remember from my previous readings, Molière was usually gentler to his other flawed protagonists, but this is one aspect of the story from which there is no getting away. Which makes this play, I think – despite all the laughs (and it is very funny, even in translation) – the closest Molière has come to tragedy.

“The Trickster of Seville” by Tirso de Molina – the first Don Juan

The myth of Don Juan is possibly unique in that we may pinpoint precisely its origins: it’s a Spanish play, first published in 1630 but written much earlier – possibly as early as 1616, Wikipedia tells me – written by Catholic monk Tirso de Molina. The full Spanish title of the play is El Burlador de Sevilla y convidado de piedra – which, roughly translated, reads The Joker of Seville and the Guest of Stone. The English title of this play varies by translation, but in the one I read – the verse translation by Roy Porter – the title is given as The Trickster of Seville. So let’s stick with that.

The story caught on almost immediately. In the decades following the first performance, there were – in those copyright-free days – any number of variants. Further variants continued to appear at a dizzying pace: Armand E. Singer,  Professor of Romance languages at University of West Virginia, has listed no less than 1,720 of them. And the myth has attracted the attention of some of the greatest creative minds of the Western world – Molière, Mozart, Pushkin. Indeed, Molière’s version appeared a mere 35 years after the publication of Tirso de Molina’s. Clearly, there is something in this story that resonated powerfully, and, given the undiminished popularity of various works based on this myth, continues to resonate still.

At the most basic level, it is, of course, is a male wish-fulfilment fantasy – a man addicted to sex whom no woman can resist is, I’d guess, the stuff of dreams for most heterosexual men, and the punishment at the end is no more than an obligatory piece of stuffy moralising we need to put up with. This, of course, is to interpret the myth at its most basic level, but perhaps we shouldn’t dismiss this basic interpretation: there is, it seems to me, a lot going for it: wish-fulfilment is, after all, a powerful draw. However, it seems fair to say that it is not this crude piece of wish-fulfilment that has drawn to it some of the greatest of creative imaginations: the myth clearly resonates on other levels also.

The last time I broached this subject on this blog, one correspondent very kindly directed me to this fascinating account of the myth by Paul Berman. In his essay, Berman argues that Tirso de Molina, who, despite his Catholic credentials, was a convert from Judaism, critiques in his play the Christian viewpoint that replaces the Principle of Law with the Principle of Grace, of Justice and Retributon with Repentance and Forgiveness. “The trouble,” Berman argues, “ … is that society that depends on conscience has no defense against a sociopath who has none”, and that “Christian reliance on the Attribute of Mercy at the expense of the Attribute of Justice … frees Juan to formulate a sociopath’s theory of salvation”. I shall not repeat Berman’s thesis here, since, firstly, I don’t think I have taken it all in fully; and, secondly, because it available online in its original form, and any paraphrase on my part can only distort. I do, however, recommend it to the interested reader.

However, there seems to me other angles as well that are worth exploring. The most striking, for me, is the means of Don Juan’s punishment. Of course, in a traditional morality play, the wrongdoer must be punished, and Don Juan is; however, perhaps rather surprisingly given the long list of earthly enemies he has accumulated, the punishment does not come from any earthly source: it comes from the other world. This creates for some dramatic untidiness – an untidiness that not even the stagecraft of Molière, of Mozart and da Ponte, or of Pushkin, could quite get around: throughout the action of the play, conflicts are created that are, by the end, left merely hanging in the air, since the resolution comes not from any of Don Juan’s worldly antagonists, but from a very unworldly one. As a consequence, the various characters whom Don Juan encounters are left, once Don Juan has finished with them, with no real dramatic purpose to fulfil. As Don Juan moves on from one set of characters to another, the sets of characters he leaves behind have little to do except to disappear from the action, or merely to crowd the stage for no discernible reason.

In Mozart’s opera, this seems to me the very point: the earthly antagonists are no match for Don Juan (or Don Giovanni), who emerges therefore as a character beyond the reach of earthly justice: the disorder he brings to the world can only be set right by a force from another world. The ineffectuality of mere mortals in the face of the phenomenon that is Don Juan is, it seems to me, is at the very centre of Mozart’s opera. But I am not sure this is the case in de Molina’s play: as in Mozart’s opera, there are several characters who, once their interaction with Don Juan is finished, mill about the action without contributing anything, but their inability to act effectively seems to me here more a dramatic encumbrance than anything else.

However, this other-worldly punisher is a remarkable figure. The idea of the other-worldly nemesis being a statue, a creature of stone, is, as far as I know, entirely Tirso de Molina’s creation, and while, it appears from various modern productions of Don Giovanni, many in our own times find rather risible and are embarrassed by the idea of a moving statue exacting retribution, it is precisely this feature that excited the imaginations of Molière, Mozart, and Pushkin. For Don Juan, who glories in being a creature of flesh and blood, who rejoices in pleasures of the flesh and is fired by desires of the blood, must be punished by one who has neither flesh nor blood about him – who is, indeed, quite literally, made of stone.

But of course, to speak of Don Juan’s punishment by the statue as the punishment of the human by the non-human is too crude a representation. For Don Juan is more than just human, of course. Or, to be more accurate, he is less than fully human. He is a character entirely without conscience, and, as such, no human consideration can touch him. His utter lack of human conscience places him beyond the human pale. In Freudian terms, he is the id set free, with no superego to impose any form of control. It could be argued, I suppose that this man, seeking merely pleasure, without any form of control restricting his actions, is a form of wish-fulfilment, and a very potent one at that: he is certainly a very attractive figure, as was recognised from the very start. But while we may find such a figure attractive, we also recognise his dangers: no ordered society could accommodate such a figure, and his very presence of fills us with a sense of dread, even of terror. Don Juan fills us with both joy and with terror: he both attracts and repels in equal measure. It is easy to see why so many have been drawn to de Molina’s myth.

The Trickster of Seville is, despite some dramatic clumsiness, a remarkable play, and not merely because it originates so powerful a myth: de Molina seems fully aware of the resonances of his creation – although, of course, there is always a danger that we may be reading back into this work various elements that later dramatists have introduced. De Molina presents both the attractive nature and the charisma of Don Juan, and also the misery he leaves in his wake: the lamentations of Tisbea (called Thisbe in Roy Campbell’s translation), is particularly striking, especially given that, unlike Don Juan’s other conquests in this play, she is of a lower social order:

Fire, oh fire, and water, water!
Have pity, love, don’t scorch my spirits!
Oh, wicked cabin, scene of slaughter,
Where honour, vanquished in a fight,
Bled crimson! Vilest robber’s den
And shelter of the wrongs I mourn!
O traitor guest, most curst of men,
To leave a girl, betrayed, forlorn!

Even in Shakespeare, I cannot think of an instance of a woman from the lower social orders accorded such tragic stature.

But at the centre of the play is, of course, Don Juan, the man who is beyond the control of society because he is beyond the control of his own conscience, a fulfilment of our deepest desires and also of our most fearful nightmares, and who both attracts and appals in equal measure. He is a figure who has appeared in all sorts of guises since in Western literature, and, I guess, he will continue to appear: for while we may all secretly desire to be a person who is utterly unconstrained in the obtaining of desires, the very thought of such a person existing can but fill us with terror. We need to be our own Stone Guest to keep out flesh and blood in ord

“Life is a Dream” by Calderón de la Barca

The Golden Age of Spanish Drama is something I’ve only heard about rather than known about, and so, to remedy that, it seemed reasonable to start at the very top, as it were – with what is possibly the most famous play of that era, Life is a Dream (La vida es sueño), written in the mid-1630s by Pedro Calderón de la Barca. And reading it (in a translation into English blank verse by poet Roy Campbell), I could not help wondering to what extent I needed to be acquainted with the theatrical traditions of an era in order to appreciate its drama. I am not at all acquainted with this era, but I would guess, from reading this play, that theatre-goers of mid-17th century Spain went to the theatre with expectations considerably different than those of modern audiences.

One could, of course, forget about theatrical traditions, and read it as a closet play, but I am not sure that works either. Take for instance, a passage such as this (one of many I could easily have chosen):

        Those snowflaking haloes,
Those canopies of crystal spread on high,
Lit by the sun, cut by the circling moon,
Those diamond orbs, those globes of radiant crystal
Which the bright stars adorn, on which the signs
Parade in blazing excellence, have been
My chiefest study all through my long years.

Passages such as this belong to a dramatic tradition in which discursive, rhetorical flourishes are relished for their own sake, and take precedence over such matters as dramatic pace or momentum. This passage is part of an extremely long expository speech, the essence of which could easily have been communicated in a half dozen lines or so, but, quite clearly, the mere expository facts are of lesser concern here than relishing words for their own sake. One gets a few such passages in the earlier plays of Shakespeare also, but, very noticeably, Shakespeare soon learnt to tailor his speeches to serve his dramatic ends; but here, in what I think I am right in saying is among Calderón de la Barca’s most mature and considered works, dramatic ends are almost invariably secondary to a delight purely in language.

That is not intended as a criticism. Placing delight in language ahead of dramatic purpose is no doubt alien to our modern tastes – which may well deem passages such as the one quoted above as bombastic and otiose – but there is no reason why e should judge works from the seventeenth century by our modern criteria. But the problem comes when one is not entirely sure what the criteria actually are whereby a work such as this should be judged. To determine that, one needs ideally to immerse oneself in the literature of that period, and to read both primary and secondary texts: otherwise, one is, as I was, at a distinct disadvantage.

I took for granted that Calderon knew what he was doing, and that these long speeches, rather like the arias of a Handel opera, far from being errors of judgement, are intended primarily to be admired for their own sake, and only secondarily to advance the drama. I do not know whether or not I was right in thinking this, but there was no other way I could make sense of the work. I remembered Ana’s husband in La Regenta, reciting the great speeches from Spanish drama, and rolling his tongue round their magnificent sounds and sonorities – enjoying them, indeed, for their sounds, their imagery, their poetic resonance, rather than for what they communicate: for he felt nothing of their passion.

But while these many speeches retard any sense of forward movement, it could be argued, I suppose, that forward movement is not even something Calderón was aiming at here in the first place. This play, as the title suggests, presents life as essentially a dream, an illusion, and forward movement is as irrelevant in this play as it is in a dream. The entire action of the play seems to be taking place not so much in the real world, but in some strange hinterland of the mind – not of a mind that is awake, but of a mind asleep and dreaming. There is about this play a sense of the phantasmal, of the incorporeal, at times appearing even to foreshadow the dream plays of Strindberg. This did surprise me: I had always associated the idea of life as something essentially unreal to be a feature of Hindu philosophy, which describes the physical world as maya – illusion; but Life is a Dream was written long before awareness of Hindu philosophy had entered the western world. It is true, I suppose, that Plato had famously described the physical world as shadows cast on the walls of a cave by a greater reality of which we are but vaguely aware; St Paul, too, had spoken of those things we perceive in our lives as seen “through a glass darkly”; but both had indicated that there does exist a greater reality beyond our perception, and that what we perceive is but a shadowy, distorted glimpse of that greater reality. But, in Calderón’s play, there’s no such indication: our perceptions here are not even a glimpse of any greater reality; indeed, there isn’t even any indication that a greater reality may exist. What we see on stage is the only reality there is, and this reality is, possibly, utterly insubstantial.

The dramatic situation is as unreal as a dream.  A royal prince has spent all his life imprisoned, because his father, the king, had foreseen that this prince, should he succeed to the throne, will cause havoc. But now that this prince has grown into adulthood, the king his father, considering the possibility that his prognostication may have been wrong, has his son drugged into a sleep, and brought from the isolation of his prison-house into the royal palace. There, when the prince awakes, he runs wild – not surprisingly, perhaps, given how isolated from reality he has been for his entire life. His father’s prophecy had proved a self-fulfilling prophecy: as in Sophocles’ play, the very steps taken to avoid a prophecy ensure that the prophecy comes true. So the prince is drugged again and taken back into his prison; and when he awakes there, he is told that all he had experienced was but a dream. But then, the borders between dream and reality become further blurred: the prince is now freed by his father’s soldiers, and is declared king; and he takes this, too, as illusory, since, after all, all of life, everything, is a dream. And if a dream is all it is, one might as well live life as such. For what else is there?

Into all this is woven various subplots concerning family honour, long lost children and siblings, and the like – all that paraphernalia that modern audiences may well find a trifle dull. But we see all this, as it were, through a gauze: all this, too, we sense, is unreal. Nothing is real. All that seems real, all that seems to us tangible, is but the product of some sleeping mind, which may or may not be our own. And that calls into question even our own identity. If I exist only because I think, then the thought precedes the existence; and if that is so, how can I claim that thought to be my own? In short, how can “I think” precede “I exist”?

No doubt those well versed in ontology will point out where I have gone wrong here – for I am sure that an ignoramus such as myself is bound to go wrong when speaking of such matters. But in any case, what we are discussing here is not a philosophical treatise, but a play. And it is a play in which the very certainties of our own existence are questioned – not from the perspective of philosophy, but of the imagination. Shakespeare had questioned it too: the events in the enchanted Athenian wood in A Midsummer Night’s Dream may be seen, as the title suggests, as a sort of communal dream; The Tempest, too, may be seen as the dreamlike unweaving of reality in some mysterious region of the mind. But before the lovers and the rude mechanicals enter the wood, the world they inhabit is a real one; and the world they return to afterwards is similarly real, albeit transformed by their dream. And similarly, once all is resolved in The Tempest, they sail away from the dreamlike island back into reality. But here, in Calderón’s play, there is no reality to go back to, just as there is no reality from which they had emerged: here, all is unreal.

I do not know whether my reading of this play is a valid reading: I will need to acquire a better knowledge and understanding of this literature before I could make any pronouncement on this matter with any confidence. But I am glad I encountered it; and, while I may draw certain parallels with Shakespeare, or even with Strindberg, this really is quite unlike anything else I think I have encountered. I only draw these parallels because, when one comes across something so entirely new, it is natural to try to relate it to things one does know, if only to get one’s bearings. And I am glad that I encountered these works in Roy Campbell’s translation, as his blank verse really is quite splendid. (I had a look as well at the translation by Edward Fitzgerald – he of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam fame – but, at first glance at any rate, it seemed to me like second rate Victorian verse. That may be unfair: I’ll look into it again.)

How a play such as this may be performed on a modern stage, I have no idea: I don’t even know whether it can hold a modern audience with modern expectations, but, no doubt, an imaginative director may find interesting ways of staging it. But the work itself, despite depicting the world and our lives within it as essentially insubstantial, has sufficient substance to merit not merely revisiting, but further study of the literary and theatrical cultures that produced it.

Turgenev’s shorter fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


The translations I read:

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

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

A sentimental post to start the year

That there hath pass’d away a glory from the earth.

There comes a time in middle age when the Ghosts of one’s Christmases Past begin to outnumber even the most optimistic of estimates of the Ghosts of Christmases Yet to Come. Since I have long passed that tipping point, and the weight of Christmases Past lies so heavily in the balance, I trust I may be excused for focusing on the former rather than on the latter. And as I do so, it is hard not to feel, as Wordsworth did, that there has indeed passed away a glory from the world. Now, before I am accused of sentimentality – as is usually the case when I try to speak of such matters – let me expand a little.

Something has changed – something is very different now from what it had been in our childhood years, and the difference, as any smug commentator will tell you, is in what has changed in ourselves rather than in the outside world. Wordsworth – never the sentimentalist despite ignorant claims to the contrary – recognized this. The innocent brightness of a new-born day, he knew, is lovely yet. There’s no point asking where is fled that visionary gleam: it’s still there – we just can’t perceive it any more, and that’s all. It’s the way things are: no point lamenting the inevitable. But Wordsworth himself, though determined to find strength in what remains, could not help lamenting. We cannot, after all, stop feeling things merely because “there’s no point to it”.

One of the most touching of these laments is the poem “The Oxen” by Thomas Hardy, written in the darkest days of 1915, when he was an old man of seventy-five years, and when Europe, as if justifying the prophetic pessimism he had expressed in his novels years earlier, was in the process of tearing itself apart. In this wonderfully touching poem, Hardy looks back on childhood innocence and naivety; but the poem is not really about either: it is about one’s longing for a time when such innocence and naivety had been possible. There may not be any point to such longing, but we feel a great many things that have no point to them. That such longing is futile does not make it ridiculous, but, rather, imbues it with a profound sadness.

I find a similar lament in a piece that is often regarded merely as candy-coated decorative fluff – in the score of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. It is, of course, a perennial Christmas favourite, to be wheeled out every year along with the crackers, the Christmas tree, the mince pies, and the Dickens; and few, I think, will deny its charm. But what frequently is denied is its profundity. Tchaikovsky himself, we are told, considered the subject matter to be too light, and although, being a consummate professional, he gave it his finest craftsmanship, what he withheld was his artistry. It is merely decorative, merely a bit of fluff.

I have never been able to reconcile myself to this view, as I find the music genuinely and very deeply moving. I can’t deny that it is full of music that is decorative; neither can I deny that its subject – a Christmas Party, a child’s subsequent entry into a world of fairy tales, and her journey to the Kingdom of Sweets – is very slight, even, perhaps, trivial. But I was very interested to read recently this excellent piece by music critic Gavin Plumley, in which he argues that The Nutcracker is a piece that deserves to be taken seriously. Whatever Tchaikovsky’s initial feelings about the nature of his commission, he argues, the composition of the piece was taken very seriously indeed, and not merely in terms of craftsmanship.

Although it’s always dangerous relating a work of art to the artist’s biography, it was good to have confirmation of what seems to me obvious from the music – that, far from being decorative fluff, it is a serious and deeply felt work, and a response to an emotionally shattering event (the death of Tchaikovsky’s sister). As Plumley puts it, “The Nutcracker undoubtedly poses much larger questions than is often suggested”. But what exactly those “larger questions” are is not obvious, and different listeners will have different views on this.

To me, these larger questions are not about mortality: Tchaikovsky kept that for his 6th symphony, a work that, for me, in many ways complements The Nutcracker. Neither is The Nutcracker, as is often suggested, about Clara’s progress from childhood to womanhood: true, the nutcracker become a handsome prince, but I can detect no eroticism in the music, nor any indication of Clara’s sexual awakening. Indeed, she and the Nutcracker Prince go to the Kingdom of Sweets, which hardly suggests leaving childhood behind. These are not what I see in this piece, although what I do see seems difficult to articulate.

One thing that never ceases to strike me about the score (the full score, that is, and not the series of bleeding chunks that form the suite) is a sense of tenderness, a sense of yearning, and a profound melancholy that seems quite at odds with its alleged light-hearted fluffiness. Is there anything in all music that is more tender or yearning than that beautiful passage at the start of the forest scene towards the end of Act One? Or what about the passionate longing in the Act Two pas de deux? (“How is it possible to make so much just out of a simple descending scale?” Britten had wondered.) The underlying seriousness of passages such as this bleeds, as it were, into the rest of the score, infusing even the most joyous of numbers, the most seemingly uncomplicated of childlike dances, with a sense of something more deeply felt – something more deeply interfused, as Wordsworth might have said.

The Nutcracker depicts childhood innocence and naivety, but, as with Hardy’s poem, these are not, for me at least, its central themes: at the centre of this piece there is, I think, our adult longing for childhood innocence and naivety. And this longing, Tchaikovsky knew as well as did Wordsworth or Hardy, is futile: no matter how fervently we may long, we can never return to our childhood state. Indeed, this state of blissful innocence may never really have existed in the first place. But that does not prevent us from longing for it. It is this sense of futility of such longing that infuses this otherwise joyous music with so profound an underlying sense of sadness: I find it almost heartbreaking in its poignancy. Longing for something that can never be attained is a familiar Romantic trope: in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, for instance, this longing was for erotic fulfilment; here, it is for a childhood that is for ever gone.

That, at least, is how it seems to me. Underlying the joyous festivities of The Nutcracker (for it is indeed joyous), I seem to hear a lament similar to what I find in so much of Wordworth’s poetry, or in Hardy’s “The Oxen”.

Tchaikovsky’s next great masterpiece, his last, was his 6th symphony – an unblinking stare into the face of death itself, and among the most shattering of any works of art, in any medium. If The Nutcracker is Tchaikovsky’s Song of Innocence (albeit innocence seen from the perspective of experience), his 6th symphony is his Song of Experience. They are two very different works of, for me, comparable artistic stature. While one looks back at the Christmases Past, evoking its joys but imbuing these same joys with the profound sadness for that which is lost, the other looks heroically and unflinchingly at what is Yet to Come. As another poet put it, we look before and after, and pine for what is not.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Tony Harrison’s “Oresteia”

Some verse dramas hold the stage in translation, but others don’t, and I am not entirely sure why that should be. Ibsen’s Brand and Peer Gynt, though both written to be read rather than performed, hold the stage magnificently in any number of translations; Shakespeare’s plays, too, even when separated from Shakespeare’s English, are successfully performed around the world in just about every language there is. And yet, despite many years of theatre-going, I have yet to see a performance in English of plays by Racine or Corneille, by Goethe or Schiller, or by Pushkin, that I would describe as dramatically compelling. It’s tempting to say that the fault lies with the translations, but I don’t think that’s the case: John Cairncross’ translations of Racine, for example, are, I think, magnificent; but while they compel the reader’s attention in the study, they seem to me less effective when it comes to compelling the audience’s attention in the theatre. These plays, in English translation, are often wonderful dramatic poems, but I remain unconvinced about their qualities as poetic dramas, and would hazard the guess that Racine and Corneille, Goethe and Schiller, Pushkin, etc., whose works are among the undisputed peaks of the western canon, were, unlike Shakespeare or Ibsen, greater poets, perhaps, than they were dramatists. But this is just a guess: unable as I am to read any of these writers in the original, I can’t, and don’t, insist upon it.

When it comes to ancient Greek drama, we have a further complication: not only do we have to negotiate translation into another language, we have to deal with dramatic conventions that are very alien to modern conceptions of drama. Once again, these works are compelling when I read them in the study, but less so when I see them in the theatre. In all these years, I have seen only one production of a Greek play that worked in performance – a thrilling production of Sophocles’ Electra, featuring Fiona Shaw in the title role, and directed by Deborah Warner: I saw this some quarter of a century ago now, and I still remember coming out of the theatre at the end, genuinely shaken by what I had experienced: it had the same sort of effect on me as I get from seeing a good production of King Lear. But as for all the other productions I have seen of Greek drama, they have generally fallen pretty flat. Maybe I have just been unlucky: maybe there have been many other productions as powerful as that production I’d seen of Electra, and I just happened to miss out on them; but, having been disappointed by so many productions over so many years, I can’t help feeling that these Greek tragedies, without dispute among the greatest of literary masterpieces, are best treated as closet dramas, to be read, much as we’d read, say, Milton’s Samson Agonistes.

Friends of mine who know Greek tell me that no translation comes close to matching the originals, but then again, they would say that, wouldn’t they? When one puts in effort into something, one wants to have something to show for it; and who, having put so much effort into learning Greek to the level where they can read Aeschylus or Euripides, would care to concede that plebs like me, who haven’t put in that effort, could appreciate these writers to the same level? I don’t dispute them, of course: I have no doubt they are right. However, I will insist that these works, even in translation, are profound experiences. I have, over the years, not only amassed but have even read a wide range of translations, explaining to guests who scan my bookshelves and wonder why I have a dozen or so translations of Sophocles that a man must have a hobby. And, since each translation is necessarily an interpretation, I find it fascinating comparing them, and trying to piece together from the different perspectives of the various translators something of what the original vision may have been like.

My most recent reading of Greek tragedies was The Oresteia of Aeschylus, in the translation by the poet Tony Harrison. Perhaps “translation” is not the right word for it: I argued in a recent post that the successful translator of poetry cannot afford to be too literal, since the literal meaning is but one of many things – and not necessarily the most important thing – that a translator needs to convey. And it can be argued that, beyond a point, so far is the translated version from the original in terms of literal accuracy, that it can no longer be regarded as a translation as such. Whether Tony Harrison’s version is too far from the original to be still considered a “translation”, I do not know: comparing with the other translations I have, he obviously takes far more liberties with the literal meaning. But it may be that he is closer to Aeschylus than the more literalist translators in some other aspects – the sound, say, or the nature of the impact made on the reader or the hearer. I cannot tell. What I can tell, though, is that his is by far the most striking version of these three plays that I have encountered. I do not mean that as a criticism of the others, but where the others are eloquent, polished, fluent, Harrison is rugged, abrasive, uncompromising, often relying on sound to convey the sense.

This may be demonstrated by a few examples. Take, for instance, the repeated refrain in the first great chorus. Michael Ewans (Everyman) renders it:

Cry sorrow, sorrow – yet may good prevail!

Robert Fagles (Penguin Classics) translates this as:

Cry, cry for death, but good win out in glory in the end.

Hugh Lloyd-Jones (university of California Press) has:

Sing sorrow, sorrow, but may the good prevail.

While Frederic Raphael and Kenneth McLeish (Methuen) go for:

Sing songs of sorrow, but let the good prevail.

Richmond Lattimore (University of Chicago Press), meanwhile, has:

Sing sorrow, sorrow: but good win out in the end.

Ted Hughes (Faber & Faber), like Harrison, himself a poet, does away with the repeated refrain altogether, rephrasing the essence of it in different ways each time it appears. And I think, comparing the different versions, we can see the essence: the line is in two halves – the first an expression of lament, the second of hope. But all too often in the translations, the expression of sorrow appears more potent than the expression of hope, leaving us with a slight sense of anti-climax. Presumably this is why Fagles has expanded the latter half of that line – to give it a greater weight. Harrison’s version, however, is very different from any of the above:

Batter, batter the doom-drum, but believe there’ll be better!

The differences are striking. Clearly, Harrison’s is not a literal reading, but what we get is by far the most forceful. “Batter[ing] the doom-drum” sounds far more active and energetic than merely crying or singing of sorrow, while “believe there’ll be better” strikes a note of defiance that I cannot find in any of the other translations. The preponderance of the hard “b” and “d” sounds gives the line a greater muscularity, and the near-rhyme of “batter/better” – the two words that that open and end the line – knits the two halves together. Whether all this brings the line closer – at least in spirit – to the original, I do not know, but it is certainly more striking than any of the others.

Throughout Harrison’s version, he uses alliterative clusters, compound words (as in German), words forced together almost with a violence, with the impact of the sounds and rhythms compensating for the lack of a clear syntax. For instance:

Calchas the clanseer saw into the storm-cause –
Artemis she-god goaded to godgrudge

The clans and the clanchiefs clamour for sea-calm
The god-sop that gets it makes their guts sicken

The cure for the stormblast makes strong men craven


A surge of choler and grudge sweeps over my spirit,
spitted on pain like a stabwound or spearthrust.
Drops like the spindrift spat off a seaswell
break from my eyes like the sight of this curl.


so men get gulled get hauled into evil
recklessness starts it then there’s no stopping

so a Father can take his own she-child take her
and kill her his she-child his own flesh and blood

The war-effort wants it the war-effort gets it
the war for one woman the whore-war the whore-war

a virgin’s blood launches the ships off to Troy

It is tempting to fill this post with further examples, but let us not try the reader’s patience more than is absolutely necessary. Suffice to say that all other translations I have read seem, in comparison, too refined, too polite.

In his illuminating introduction, Tony Harrison describes his attempt to find a poetic style and diction that could form an equivalent in English to Aeschylus’ verse, that would achieve, as he puts it, “both the weight and the momentum”, and mentions, significantly, Gerard Manley Hopkins, “a Professor of Greek, who achieves both the sweep and the grandeur I have always found in Aeschylus”. And he quotes two lines by Hopkins:

Wiry and white-fiery and whirlwind-swivelled snow
Spins to the widow-making unchilding unfathering deep

The critic D. S. Carne-Ross had asked “Does this not read like an inspired translation of some unknown fragment by Aeschylus?” To which Harrison replies:

Indeed it does, like an inspired Victorian translation, and I have always felt that Hopkins, with his clotted but never clogged or cumbersome line, and his thorough knowledge of Greek, had everything necessary to render a great translation of Aeschylus, except, perhaps … a feeling for the theatre …

Harrison himself was clearly aiming himself for the “clotted but never clogged or cumbersome line”, and I think he succeeded magnificently. As for how this will work in the theatre, I really do not know. This translation was commissioned by the National Theatre, and was performed there, under the direction of Peter Hall, in the early 1980s. I would have loved to have seen it, but I was back then a student in the north of England, and certainly didn’t have the finances in those days to come down to London. But something such as this demands to be read as well: without getting into that debate yet again on whether or not a play is better seen or read, experiencing it on the printed page was spellbinding. As with Christopher Logue’ magnificent version of The Iliad, this is great poetry in its own right.

With this translation, the work itself seemed, as it were, renewed: it was like seeing something familiar from a completely new perspective. (Which, after all, is the whole point of reading different translations.) I must admit, though, that I still find the first play of the trilogy, Agamemnon, the most compelling. Perhaps it’s the old story of Hell being more interesting than Heaven: the whole trilogy represents a journey from darkness to light, from Hell to Heaven (at least, a Heaven of sorts), and, as with Dante, it is Hell that makes the greater impact. (Milton, too, struggled to make God as interesting as Satan.) And the Hell that is presented in Agamemnon, once etched on the mind, is hard to erase. That long narration by the chorus of the sacrifice of Iphigenia; Agamemnon’s homecoming – where he is persuaded to trample the blood-red tapestries into his palace; Cassandra’s prophetic terror before the doors of the Argos, before she walks in to meet her death; Clytemnestra’s narration of how she killed her husband and his slave, and her imagining the dead spirit of Iphigenia in the underworld, greeting with a kiss her father who had killed her … these have long haunted my imagination, and will continue to do so.

In comparison, I find little in the subsequent plays that affects me anywhere near so powerfully. This is not a criticism of the work: it is, rather, a reflection of my own sensibilities, and expectations. In the second part, Aeschylus narrates how Orestes returns, and, with the help of his sister Electra, kills his mother, Clytemnestra, and her lover Aegisthus. This same story is told both by Sophocles and by Euripides in their plays, both titled Electra, but where the younger dramatists were more interested in the psychologies of the participants of the drama, Aeschylus seems to draw back from the individual characters, and focuses on the larger moral pattern. And similarly in the last part, The Eumenides: the focus is not so much on the individual characters, but on the broader question of how we humans, blinded though we are with rage and maddened with blood, can emerge from darkness into light. This is clearly what Aeschylus intended, and this is, indeed, what lies at the heart of the trilogy as a whole, and it is but a reflection of my own personal preference that the psychological approach of Sophocles and of Euripides attracts me more.

But the larger moral pattern that emerges is, nonetheless, fascinating. Aeschylus dramatises the emergence of light in the darkness: from a Hell in which our passions and our instincts reign supreme, and lawless revenge but feeds upon itself, so that each act of vengeance is but a new crime that also cries out for blood, we are presented, by the goddess Athena, with a new way of ordering our lives – a new way rooted in civil discourse, legal institutions, consensus and compromise. In short, civilisation. But, however desirable that civilisation is, however preferable to the horrors of our instinctive bloodlust, it is simply not, for me at any rate, as dramatically interesting.

However, there is of course more, far more, than my crude summary above suggests. The emergence of civic institutions from the darkness of lawless primal urges should not, I think, be seen as something happening in time – i.e. it is not the case that one replaces the other over time: rather, the two co-exist, and will go on co-existing within our divided minds. The final acquittal of Orestes, and the subsequent torchlit procession of triumph, do not cancel out the slaughter of the helpless Iphigenia, or the elemental terror of Cassandra: such terror cannot be cancelled out, or banished, for they live with us still. And neither can the Furies be banished: Athena herself, at the end, incorporates them into the newly-formed legal system: no matter how civilised we may be, no matter how many curbs and restraints we may put upon our primal urges for the sake of being able to live together with what harmony we can muster, at the bottom of it all lies a terror than cannot be wished away – not even by a goddess.

But a step has been taken, an important step: the gods, who used to order mortals to commit acts of revenge – which themselves are crimes calling out for further revenge – have now delegated their powers and responsibilities to humans: it is now up to us to shape our morality, to determine for ourselves, through discourse and consensus, guilt and innocence, and treat both accordingly. But at the bottom of it all lies terror. We cannot do without terror. Even through the triumphant songs at the end, there sound the screams of Cassandra as she walks into the palace of Argos to meet her doom.




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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