Archive for the ‘literature’ Category

“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!


“The Painter of Signs” by R. K. Narayan

*** SPOILER ALERT: I suppose it’s fair to warn readers who care about such things that this post may contain a couple of mild spoilers for those who haven’t read it. But I don’t think there’s anything here that would spoil the experience of a first reading. ***


It is difficult to write about Narayan without using adjectives such as “elegant”, “charming”, “delightful”. For, indeed, he is all of these things. There are readers who prize him precisely because he is so effortlessly enchanting – although, of course, it must take tremendous effort to appear so effortless. But it seems to me that, quite often, there are darker themes lurking in there. Narayan never short-changes these darker themes, but so gentle is the narrative voice, and so formidable the charm, the reader can easily be tempted to overlook them. Or, at best, see them as but minor flies in an otherwise emollient ointment.

The Painter of Signs is a case in point. Looking around the net, many, I see, read this as a bittersweet love story, a quirky and whimsical romance. Maybe it’s my own vision that is too gloomy, but I really cannot see it in such terms. Yes, it has all the trademark charm of Narayan, and all the gentle and compassionate humour one expects from him, but I found it nonetheless troubling. “Bittersweet”? Not much sweetness here as far as I can see. And if it is indeed a love story, it’s a damn strange one.

The principal character, Raman, is depicted in third person, but we are rarely outside his head: the world is shown as he sees it, and his vision is limited. He is very characteristic of the figures who populate Narayan’s novels: as Naipaul put it, Narayan’s novels are full of “small men, small schemes, big talk, limited means”. Raman is the “painter of signs” of the title – a title that invites us to search for a metaphorical interpretation, but then, rather teasingly, refuses to make any such interpretation obvious. For a painter of signs is literally what he is. He paints signs for small businesses in the fictional town of Malgudi. But he is an artist. Or, at least, a craftsman who believes in the importance of his work, and takes it seriously. In the early pages, we follow Raman dealing with various eccentric customers, and the gentle wit and subtle humour of the writing reassure us that we are indeed in an enchanted and enchanting fictional world.

But the sense of security is a false one. Raman is a bachelor, living with an aged aunt, and he is – should we choose to look beneath the surface charm – clearly sexually frustrated.

Then, Raman meets with, and, although he doesn’t quite realise it himself, falls in love with, a newcomer to town, Daisy – an unusual Western name for an Indian. She is independent, and is working on a government scheme promoting birth control. (This novel was published in 1976, during the Emergency declared by Indira Gandhi, and birth control was then very high on the agenda.) And, to go with her un-Indian name, she is also very independent: disciplined, strong-willed, business-like, and unattached. In a strongly patriarchal society, a young woman, on her own, looking after herself unaided and unintimidated, was something of a rarity.

She employs Raman to paint various signs for her campaign, and soon, he finds himself accompanying her on tours around various remote villages, as she speaks to massed assemblies of strangers on the intimate details of birth control with unembarrassed and business-like frankness. There is much comic potential in all this, of course, but Narayan is careful not to overdo it: his humour, as ever, is subtle, and subtlety frequently demands understatement. And anyway, Narayan has more important matters in mind.

For Raman is clearly attracted to her, although it is unclear whether this is love – as those who insist on seeing this as a “bittersweet love story” will have it – or a manifestation of his unfulfilled sexual desire. But when he fantasises about her, as he frequently does, he – rather pathetically given his somewhat feeble personality – imagines Daisy as someone dependent on him. For this, after all, is what he has unwittingly absorbed in the society in which he has grown up: woman is weak, and man, being the stronger, protects woman; and hence, woman is dependent on man; and hence, so should Daisy be dependent on him. The very notion of the strong-willed and determined Daisy being dependent upon a milksop like Raman is, of course, absurd, but Raman does not see the absurdity of it. Until, one night, the fantasy of Daisy being dependent upon him slips over into a fantasy of Daisy being dominated by him, and he tries to rape her. She, alert to the situation, gives him the slip; and even if she hadn’t, it seems unlikely that Raman would have had the strength to get the better of her. But that’s hardly the point: the intention was there. Whatever idea we may have had till now of this being a “bittersweet love story” is here shattered.

Raman almost immediately regrets his attempt. When he meets Daisy again, he is shamefaced. But so wrapped up is he in his own self, so unaware is he of Daisy as an autonomous being, that, quite without irony, he thanks her for saving him from himself: it hardly occurs to him that saving him must surely have been the last thing on Daisy’s mind.

We find out later about Daisy’s past. She had, even as a child, rebelled against the stifling patriarchy of her family background, and, rather than be married off, had run away. She had been taken up by a Christian mission, and had adopted the Western name Daisy – after a flower that does not even grow in India. Just as Raman never really gets to know her as a person, neither does he, or we, the readers, get to know her real name. She is determined to be independent, and yet, if we read between the lines, she is also lonely. And for some time, she sees in Raman a possible solution – as someone who, despite the weaknesses of his character, could provide, if nothing else, companionship. Raman, of course, leaps at the chance offered: by this stage, he is obsessed with her. His aged aunt, a devout lady, is horrified: not only would he (most likely) be breaking caste by such a marriage, he would also be breaking religion – for surely a woman with an un-Indian name like Daisy must be a Christian! Rather than tolerate this, she asks to go on pilgrimage to the source of the sacred Ganges, expecting, given her advanced years, never to return. Raman raises no objection: far from it – he offers his own money to help her. And in any case, it’s barely “marriage” that he and Daisy are planning: Raman has found some ancient Hindu form of marriage that does not require a ceremony – what we would nowadays simply describe as a couple “shacking up together”. But it has the imprimatur of the Hindu religion itself, and that’s good enough for Raman.

Of course, it is hardly to be expected that things eventually work out. It’s all too complex. Lovers meet, lovers part … it is, I suppose, a “bittersweet love story” after all. There is certainly a tremendous sadness and sense of desolation about it all, especially towards the end. And there is, as ever with Narayan, compassion for his characters. Raman, after all, is no villain: the patriarchy that he has grown up with, and has unwittingly absorbed, has damaged him, and he cannot even recognise, let alone understand, the deep frustrations pent up within himself. And there’s Daisy, determined, intelligent, but doomed forever to be lonely. For all the humour, it’s a tremendously sad novel.

Bittersweet love story? Quirky and whimsical romance? Yes, I suppose it is, in its own way, all of these things. But that hardly seem adequate to describe so wise and so subtle, and, indeed, so disturbing a novel as this.

“The love that can be reckoned”

“There’s beggary in the love that can be reckoned,” says Antony confidently in the opening scene of Antony and Cleopatra. It is, indeed, his opening line. This theme of the immeasurability of love echoes throughout Shakespeare’s work: love, true love, is not something that can be reckoned. Rosalind in As You Like It agrees:

O coz, coz, coz, my pretty little coz, that thou didst know how many fathom deep I am in love! But it cannot be sounded; my affection hath an unknown bottom…

It cannot be reckoned, it cannot be sounded, for it is bottomless. At least, its bottom is unknown: as far as our human understanding goes, it is infinitely deep.

Juliet, naturally, is of the same mind:
My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep; the more I give to thee
The more I have, for both are infinite.

Infinity is not a number like any other number. Take a finite number from infinity, and it still remains infinite. A whole new set of mathematical rules must be developed if we are to encompass the concept of infinity.

Even Orsino, in Twelfth Night, who has little reason to praise love given how much he suffers for it, compares love to the incalculable infinity of the sea:

O spirit of love! how quick and fresh art thou,
That notwithstanding thy capacity
Receiveth as the sea, nought enters there,
Of what validity and pitch soe’er,
But falls into abatement and low price,
Even in a minute!

That which may be reckoned or sounded, no matter how large, becomes as nothing when it enters the sea, which can neither be reckoned nor sounded. The infinity of love is beyond reckoning, beyond understanding.

A very conspicuous example in Shakespeare of someone who does not understand the nature of love, who feels it can be reckoned, is Lear. In the very opening scene, he declares he will divide his kingdom to his daughters on the basis of how much they love him. Not only does he think love is something that can be measured, he plans to settle the future of the kingdom itself on the basis of this measurement:

Which of you shall we say doth love us most?
That we our largest bounty may extend
Where nature doth with merit challenge.

Love, for Lear, is something that can be reckoned, can be sounded: it is a measurable parameter, weighting factors in a mathematical equation.

Later, he measures love in proportion to the number of personal attendants he is allowed:

I’ll go with thee:
Thy fifty yet doth double five and twenty,
And thou art twice her love.

Here is obviously a man who is spiritually blind, one of those who, as Gloucester later puts it, “will not see because he doth not feel”. But this is where this seeming dichotomy – between, on the one hand, whose who think love can be measured, and those to understand it to be unfathomable – becomes complicated. For Cordelia, the very epitome of selfless and self-sacrificing love, speaks the same language as her father:

I love your majesty
According to my bond; nor more nor less.

Love here is most certainly reckoned, and by the terms of a legally binding bond: and once it is measured, she is prepared to give it precisely, neither more, nor less. A few lines later, she speaks of love as something that can mathematically be divided:

Why have my sisters husbands, if they say
They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed,
That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry
Half my love with him, half my care and duty:
Sure, I shall never marry like my sisters,
To love my father all.

What a far cry this is from Juliet’s contention that the more love she gives, the more she has, “for both are infinite”.

I must confess that I have a problem understanding Cordelia. It is no doubt true that she is irritated, insulted even, by her father’s antics, and is determined not to play his game. There is in her a sense of stubborn pride that actually marks her out to be indeed her father’s daughter. But need she express her disapproval so bluntly? And in open court? She has grown up in this court, after all, and knows the ropes: she knows that a king cannot be humiliated in his own court without severe repercussions. She knows that if she is disowned – as is the most likely outcome of crossing her father so publicly – her beloved father (for he is beloved) will be in the hands of her sisters, whom she knows well. So why does she speak in this manner? And why does she adopt Lear’s language?

Cordelia appears three more times in the rest of the play – that is, apart from her final appearance as a corpse. The first of these appearances is a brief scene in the French camp, and is mainly expository in nature. The next scene she appears in is the famous recognition scene, where Lear recognises his daughter, and, more importantly, recognises her inestimable worth, the inestimable worth of love itself. In this scene, Cordelia seems at first too diffident even to speak to her father (“He wakes; speak to him,” she says to the doctor); and when her father does awake, she speaks very few words (although these very few words include the almost unbearably moving “No cause, no cause”). She does weep, though (“Be your tears wet?” asks Lear.)

Similarly when Lear and Cordelia are imprisoned. Once again, it is Lear who does almost all the talking, while Cordelia is silent. And once again, she weeps (“Wipe thine eyes,” Lear tells her). Cordelia had probably wept in the very first scene also: “With wash’d eyes Cordelia leaves you,” she tells her sisters, although I suppose it can be argued that Cordelia means “with a clear sight” rather than “with tearful eyes”: I think she means both.

So a picture seems to emerge of Cordelia as someone who cannot, as she herself says, “heave [her] heart into [her] mouth” – who lacks the words when most she needs to speak, and who weeps instead. But yet, in that first scene, she isn’t inarticulate: she articulates very clearly indeed. And, strangely, what this paragon of selfless love articulates is articulated in Lear’s own language: she speaks of love as something that can be reckoned, measured, parcelled out, as if it were but a finite number. It’s all very puzzling.

Oresteia redux: “Mourning Becomes Electra” by Eugene O’Neill

This post is going to be a short one. I know I’m a bit loquacious: when I’m writing about a book, I rarely post less than a thousand or so words, even when I have little to say. But this one, I promise, will be short: Eugene O’Neill has, after all, written Long Day’s Journey Into Night, a work that for many years now has resonated with me most powerfully; and it is frankly painful to have to say anything too detrimental about a writer one of of whose works, at least, has meant to me so much over so many years. So I’ll keep this one short.

Mourning Becomes Electra is a trilogy of plays set in the aftermath of the American Civil War, and is based upon the three surviving Oresteia plays of Aeschylus. Of course, these great myths are capable of renewing themselves for different generations, but the problem here is that O’Neill doesn’t renew anything at all: he merely takes the outline of the story, and dresses it in modern clothes. He dutifully plods through the major events – a general returning triumphantly from war murdered by his adulterous wife, his son and daughter revenging their father’s death, and so on – but, apart from a rather lumbering Oedipal relationship between mother and son, he adds nothing at all. The psychology is crude, the drama plot-driven, the dialogue lumbering and, at times, ludicrously sensational and melodramatic … and it all leaves me shaking my head and wondering how a writer who could have produced that infinitely moving and poetic masterpiece that is Long Day’s Journey Into Night could even conceive of something so ham-fisted as this.

The above paragraph contains merely assertions: I have provided, I am aware, no analysis. The purpose of this post is merely to record my reactions rather than to account for them. I could, I suppose, spend some time analysing these three plays, but such an exercise would, I fear, prove too depressing. I haven’t yet read all of O’Neill’s plays, but of what I have read, The Iceman Cometh seemed to me a fine (though highly idiosyncratic) work; Long Day’s Journey Into Night is a play of searing intensity and of emotions almost too raw to be expressed, but also the work of a profound poetic sensibility; and the rest I have found unremarkable. This trilogy of plays seemed to me even less than merely unremarkable: it is so depressingly ordinary and uninspired – especially given the lofty dramas of Aeschylus that inspired them, if “inspired” is really the word I’m looking for here – that I really can’t see myself returning to them. Not even to check if I have been mistaken.

But Long Day’s Journey Into Night remains as fine a monument as any literary artist could hope to leave behind. It is a work that moves me beyond words. So why dwell on the rest?

“Smoke” by Ivan Turgenev

Smoke by Ivan Turgenev, translated by Michael Pursgove, published by Alma Classics

*** SPOILER WARNING: This post inevitably reveals some details of the plot ***

I actually remember well the first time I read Turgenev’s Smoke: it was shortly before the UK release of Woody Allen’s Manhattan in 1980. I remember watching he film and being struck by how similar the storylines were. In both, there’s a male protagonist (aged around thirty in the novel, but a bit older in the film); a very young lady to whom he is attached; and a far more sophisticated lady, who is closer to his own age, with whom he falls in love, and for whose sake he turns his back on his younger love. And the storylines develop in much the same way. I suppose it is a fairly standard storyline, and I am certainly not accusing anyone of plagiarism. And it is the sort of storyline one comes to expect from Turgenev: the flowering of love, innocence betrayed, the vagaries of the heart, regret, missed opportunities, sorrow, unhappiness brought upon one’s own self by one’s foolishness and lack of moral purpose … it’s all present and correct. What matters, of course, is not the storyline as such, but what is made of it.

What Turgenev makes of it seems to me a gentle, charming love story, nostalgic and melancholy, and aching with wistfulness. Yes, we’ve all been there before. Possibly, after the greater depths broached in his previous novel Fathers and Sons, we may have been entitled to expect something a bit more thematically ambitious. But, then again, art is not to be judged on its novelty alone: there’s always room for yet another wistful love story.

But what surprises nowadays is that a novel so seemingly inoffensive as this should, at the time, have caused such a political storm. Fathers and Sons had done the same, of course, but there, many of the themes had been explicitly political. How is it, one wonders, that a book so apparently innocuous, written by a writer who insistently aligned himself with moderation in all things – moderation not out of indecisiveness or pusillanimity, but because he felt it his moral duty to avoid extremes of all sorts – should have caused such controversy? Perhaps my inability to answer that question indicates my inability to understand adequately the Russian mind of the nineteenth century, and the fury of the entrenched battle lines then drawn between West-looking liberalism, and the Slavophilism that rejected the West, and looked for salvation within the traditions of the Mother Russia. No-one seemed to deny that salvation, of some sort of other, was needed: but there was no agreement on where it was to be found. Turgenev’s gigantic contemporaries, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, went their own extreme ways: Dostoyevsky rejected the idea of a brotherhood imposed from above, and seemed to favour a brotherhood that could only spring spontaneously from below, in the traditions of the Russian Orthodox Church – although, given the multiplicity of voices to be found in his novels, no single idea seems able to keep its shape intact for very long; Tolstoy, meanwhile, seemed to turn towards a sort of Christian anarchism. Both geniuses were touched with madness. In contrast, Turgenev seems the most level-headed of them all – no mean feat given the untrammelled lunacy all around him. Perhaps this is the very reason why his works attracted such opprobrium.

But what seems particularly strange, given the intense controversy of the time, is how small a part politics seems to play in Smoke in the first place. In Fathers and Sons, the whole thing did turn on the conflict between different perspectives on the world, and, by implication, different politics: but here, even that seems to be absent. Turgenev does, it is true, introduce some reactionary aristocrats, and satirises them; but he introduces a group of radicals also, and similarly satirises them. These are not, frankly, the most memorable sections of the novel: Turgenev’s gifts for satire, certainly compared to, say, that of Gogol or Dostoyevsky, seem distinctly limited. And, indeed, so little a part do these scenes play in the novel, and so far are they from what I take to be its central themes, one can’t help wondering whether it would have been better without these scenes. For Turgenev was at his best, it seems to me, with smaller canvases – in his short stories and novellas: why expand the size of the canvas for no particular reason?

For the central themes of this novel is neither liberalism nor conservatism: indeed, it is not politics at all. It is about the mistakes one makes in life; it is about being led astray by one’s emotions, by the weakness of one’s moral purpose, by the inability to perceive matters truly, as they are. And with these themes, which I used in my Dostoyevsky-and-Tolstoy-obsessed youth to dismiss as slight, Turgenev was very much on home ground: no other author has ever conveyed with such delicacy and lyricism the sadness of it all. Of course, Turgenev had dealt with themes before, and, in his late novella, The Torrents of Spring, he addressed them again: but, despite what I may have thought in my youth, these themes are not slight, and are worth revisiting. We do not, after all, criticise Monet for painting those waterlilies so endlessly.

The action takes place in a spa town in Germany, and the drama is played out amongst expatriates. The protagonist, Litvinov, is betrothed to Tatyana, a name that to any educated Russian would instantly conjure up Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. And, like Pushkin’s Tatyana, Turgenev’s Tatyana is young and inexperienced, but also perceptive and intelligent, and possessed of a moral purpose that Litvinov clearly lacks. The third point of this triangle is Irina, whom Litvinov had loved some ten years earlier, but who had been married off to a wealthy aristocrat. (As ever, Turgenev fills us in on the past with a quite leisurely flashback.) Irina is still married, to a husband she does not care for, and, despite his feelings for Tatyana, Litivinov’s old love for Irina again wells up. Turgenev, as ever, conveys these subtleties of the heart with the most delicate of touches. He introduces another character, Potugin: he, too, is in love with Irina, but he is resigned to his passion remaining unfulfilled; and he follows round Irina and her husband wherever they go, asking for nothing, and receiving nothing. He is, I suppose, an image of what Litvinov may himself one day become: no matter how much we may extol love, there is no reason or logic in human passion, and it could, Turgenev knew, be deeply humiliating.

Once we strip away the politics from this novel – and it is easily stripped away – what remains is another sad and gentle love story. It would be easy to mistake this as slight, as I did once, but it isn’t. The vagaries of the human heart are always important, and always worth revisiting.



“Benito Cereno” by Herman Melville

*** SPOILER WARNING: Inevitably, the following gives away some details of the plot ***


As we sophisticated readers know, literature, and, indeed, the arts in general, have nothing to do with the propagation of moral values. Perhaps we should qualify that a bit: we wouldn’t want to exclude Aesop’s fables, after all. So let us say that literature does not necessarily have to propagate moral values. For, after all, given the bewildering complexity of human life, moral issues are rarely clear-cut, and any work attempting unambiguously to affirm certain codes of conduct, or to reject others, must either ignore the complexity of human affairs, or address only those affairs that are sufficiently straight-forward to allow for clarity. And, unless one is writing simple moral fables, neither of these options seems very promising.

All this we know. And yet, we continue to feel uneasy in the presence of works in which moral judgement seems required, but is withheld. This sense of unease is often deliberate. Lolita is a prime example: Nabokov does not, it is true, endorse his protagonist, who is a predatory paedophile, but in withholding explicit condemnation, and, indeed, daring the reader to empathise with his protagonist, he creates a literary experience that leaves even the most sophisticated of readers feeling uneasy. Lolita is among the finest of all novels, but it is unlikely, I think, to be anyone’s comfort read.

Melville’s short novel Benito Cereno leaves us similarly uneasy, and, I think, for similar reasons: the story Melville tells us seems to demand moral judgement, but he refuses to give us any. Worse than that: the story, though written in the third person, is filtered through the perceptions and the judgement of a Captain Delano, whose perceptions, and, as a consequence, moral judgement, are highly suspect. This is not because Captain Delano is an evil man, as such: he clearly isn’t. Indeed, within his own admittedly limited horizons, he is a good man. But his horizons are fatally limited. One may even describe him as “innocent” – in the sense that those unaware of the true nature of evil may be termed “innocent” – but to Melville, this innocence is itself the problem. As he says in his later novel Billy Budd, Sailor:

And yet a child’s utter innocence is but its blank ignorance, and innocence more or less wanes as intelligence waxes.

Captain Delano is innocent because he is unintelligent: his judgement is not to be trusted. He boards the slave ship San Dominick, and things seem to him a bit strange; but he does not enquire very deeply into the strangeness, and nor does he draw the obvious conclusion that even the first-time reader may quite easily draw – that the slaves on this ship have revolted, and are now in charge. In a sense, it is Captain Delano’s innocence that saves him: had he figured out what really should have been obvious, he would have been killed instantly. But he is incapable of perceiving either the evil of the rebellion (accompanied, as we later find out, by horrendous atrocities); and neither is he capable of perceiving the evil of what the rebel slaves are rebelling against. Slavery is something that is accepted in the society that Captain Delano inhabits, and he has neither the intelligence, nor the imagination, nor even the capacity for empathy required, to understand the nature of this monstrosity.

Melville places this utter innocent – an innocent whose innocence is far from admirable – in the midst of what can only be described as an explosion of evil. At the centre of this narrative is a long, meticulously described scene where the deposed captain of the slave ship, Don Benito Cereno, is being shaved by, seemingly, one of the slaves. Captain Cereno has to maintain the fiction that he is still in charge of the ship: any slip on his part, and both he and the hapless Captain Delano would be killed. Cereno, demoralised by the loss of his ship, and by the slaughter of so many of his crew, has a hard time maintaining the façade, but Delano is too obtuse to pick anything up. Delano is too obtuse to pick anything up.

Only on leaving the ship does Captain Delano realise what has been obvious to us, the readers, from almost the start. And then, as a good man who carries out his duty, he does what he has to do: he gives chase to the rebel ship, captures the rebels, and hands them over to “justice”. And justice is indeed carried out. With as much shocking brutality and violence as the atrocities being avenged.

All of this seems to cry out for some sort of moral guidance, but Melville refuses to provide any. Captain Delano’s perceptions, and his moral judgement, clearly do not provide any kind of moral framework that may help the reader negotiate these deep waters as these. So how is the reader to interpret this?  There seems to be a wide range of possible interpretations, each entirely justified by the text, but none, in itself, at all satisfactory. We may take the view that the rebel slaves are evil; that Captain Delano, though slow of thought, carried out his duty as an honourable man; and that the punishment meted out to the rebels, horrific though they are, are entirely justified. There is nothing in the text to invalidate such an interpretation. Or we could look below the surface, detect the various ironies, and conclude that it is the rebellion of the slaves that is morally justified; that the violence the slaves commit in the course of that rebellion, though horrific, is unavoidable; and that, further, the failure of this rebellion is the failure to defeat the greatest evil of all. The text could support such an interpretation also. But this does not seem satisfactory either. And neither does any balancing position between these two extremes. When there is so much evil on all sides, where can one turn for certainty?

Melville does not guide us. He leaves us floundering. All is so dark, so murky, we cannot even turn to innocence to shield us from it all, for in Melville’s world, innocence itself is morally weak, and is culpable. Perhaps no other author, not even Dostoyevsky or Kafka, presents us with quite so bleak and desolate a vision of our human state.

“The Age of Innocence” by Edith Wharton

*** SPOILER WARNING: Please note that although the following does not focus on the plot of the novel, some elements of the plot are inevitably revealed. ***


First of all, the title. Wikipedia tells me that the title is ironic. Perhaps. But if so, it is a rather unsubtle and heavy-handed irony, and somewhat at odds with the subtlety and lightness of touch that are apparent in the novel itself. The title of Wharton’s earlier novel, The House of Mirth, had certainly been intended ironically, but that was very caustic in tone, almost bitter and angry; this, on the other hand, is far gentler, and far more genteel in its manners. So let us, for the moment at least, take the title at face value: let us assume that Wharton is, indeed, depicting an Age of Innocence.

But whose innocence? The two principal characters, Wayland Archer and Ellen Olenska, though both relatively relatively young, are not in the first flush of youth; and neither are they sexually inexperienced. These do not preclude innocence, of course, but if Wharton intends the “innocence” of the title to apply to these two principal characters, then we must look beyond what is seen merely on the surface.

Or perhaps the “innocence” applies to May Welland, Wayland’s fiancée and subsequently his wife. This is possibly more likely, as she really is, at the start of the novel, very young, and inexperienced. However, despite being one of the major participants in the drama, she is rarely allowed to occupy centre-stage, and she plays a quite shadowy (though intriguing) role throughout. One should not rule her out, though: her role, though shadowy, proves vitally important; and throughout the novel, despite her youth and experience, she embodies all the values most prized by the society these characters inhabit: formality, decorousness, correctness. And if the innocence of the title applies to her, it applies also to the society that she and her powerful family represent. And perhaps this isn’t intended ironically either.

The society Wharton depicts is the same society she had depicted earlier in The House of Mirth – the aristocracy of East Coast America, some time late in the 19th century. In the earlier novel, Wharton’s depiction had been quite acrimonious: there’s a sense almost of anger in her portrayal of the various cruelties and hypocricies of a society that, for all its formal and decorous surfaces, heartlessly crushes and destroys the novel’s tragic heroine Lily Bart. However, that earlier novel had been published in 1905; The Age of Innocence, on the other hand, was published in 1920, on the other side of the Great War, when all the old certainties seemed precariously balanced on the edge of extinction, and all values – moral, social, aesthetic – seemed in danger of being turned upside-down. Under the circumstances, it was perhaps not unreasonable to see what had gone before, for all its manifold shortcomings, as being, indeed, an “age of innocence”.

The plot itself is fairly straight-forward: one may go so far as to call it a “standard plot”, ready-made and off-the-shelf. A man, no longer very young but not yet middle-aged, is engaged to a younger woman who is innocent and virginal; but he falls for a more experienced woman who is closer to his age, and a passion develops; and it all ends unhappily. This is the blueprint for any number of Turgenev stories. Indeed, there is more than a whiff of Turgenev to all the proceedings, right down to a nostalgic and regretful epilogue that takes place many years after the main events. And we cannot help but ask ourselves what Wharton was thinking of, at the very time when modernism was on the ascendency and the air was suffused with the excitement of the new, writing a novel of a kind that could very easily have been written some sixty or seventy years earlier. Was it a mere act of defiance, a mere extolling of the values of the past, aesthetic and moral, in the face of their likely demise?

I think that is certainly the case, but only partly. Wharton’s aesthetics and morals were, I think, by nature conservative, but not blindly so. The society she depicts here is still a society of cruelty and hypocrisy: it still values outward show and formality higher than emotional needs, and stability above individual fulfilment. And if someone’s individual needs threaten this stability, then they are crushed. Wharton is still very much aware of all this. At the centre of this novel, after all, is a profoundly sad love story: the love, which grows into a passion, is never consummated, and the two lovers end up apart from each other, living out lives that are empty and hollow. All this Wharton knows; and, what is more, she is sympathetic. And yet, the society which could do all this, the age in which all this could happen, where the turbulence of the inner life is drained to maintain the unruffled nature of the surface, are still, Wharton seems to insist without irony, an innocent society, an innocent age. Social stability may indeed come at a great cost, but at a time when everything seemed up in the air, and the world itself seemed on the verge of turning upside-down, this stability, though dearly purchased, is not something to be easily dismissed.

And if this society is itself essentially innocent, then its representative in this novel (in the sense that it is she who acts to maintain society’s values), May Welland, is also innocent. But this innocence is more complex than it may at first sight appear to the reader. It is certainly more complex than it appears to Newland, who becomes her husband: towards the end of the novel, he is taken by surprise on hearing that, shortly before her death, she had told their son that he could rely on his father, as his father had already made the greatest sacrifice for the sake of his family. In other words, she had known what her husband had felt about Ellen Olenska: she had known the extent of his passion for her, and how much his sacrifice had cost him. And if this knowledge had occasioned in her grief and pain, both had been hidden so perfectly, that not even her own husband had noticed. The external surfaces must, at all costs, remain unruffled: and if her husband has to deny his passion towards this end, May has to deny her injury.

We also cannot help wondering whether Wayland had also underestimated her earlier. During their engagement, she had suggested postponing the marriage, so as to give her fiancé the opportunity to change his mind, should he so wish. Wayland had assumed that May had been thinking of a former flame of his, and he had no worries on that score. But, given how badly he had mistaken May throughout his long marriage to her, it seems likely, in retrospect, that he had mistaken her in this also – that, in truth, May had known all along, possibly earlier than he had done himself, of the true nature of his feelings for Ellen. May, for all her innocence, plays her hand perfectly, much as Maggie Verver plays her hand in Henry James’ The Golden Bowl: May tells Ellen that she is pregnant before she is sure of the fact, and, in effect, packs Ellen off, leaving Wayland for herself. May is utterly victorious. We may ask whether she is happy, or emotionally fulfilled by her victory: perhaps not. It is hard to discern what emotional fulfilment there can be when one is married to someone who, one knows, is deeply in love with someone else. But to May, as to the powerful society family she comes from, social norms and formalities, social stability, all take precedence over mere individual fulfilment. And if Wayland has to sacrifice his inner self to this end, so does she. And all of this, Wharton insists, is indeed innocence.

May Welland is rarely in the forefront of the novel, but the more I think about this, the more important her role appears to be. Shadowy though her presence is, it is her actions in the background that determine the outcome. The novel may be read simply as a sad love story; and as such, it is as exquisite as anything by Turgenev. But while it portrays unfulfilled lives with great sympathy, it also raises, it seems to me, uncomfortable questions on whether the price to be paid for personal fulfilment is a price that is worth paying. The gentleness and, indeed, the gentility of the writing cover matters considerably more disturbing.