Archive for the ‘literature’ Category

“The Optimist’s Daughter” by Eudora Welty

What can we do but enumerate old themes? Love, loss, death, remembrance, and the passage of time that allows us fresh glimpses into these familiar things … It is hard to imagine a time when serious artists won’t want to address such matters. No hankering for novelty can remove these things from the centre of our lives. What is there to be said on these matters that is new? Has not all that can be said already been said?

Perhaps the answer to that question is that it is not a matter of saying anything new about them. Or, indeed, a matter of saying anything at all. For no-one addressing these themes do so because they wish to impart some sort of message: any message capable of being expressed on these matters is, almost inevitably, too superficial. But we can contemplate. Not contemplate to arrive at some sort of answer, or even to arrive at some sort of resolution, but contemplate simply because we cannot help ourselves. And each contemplation is new, because each perspective is personal, individual. We live, we love, and then we die, and those remaining remember. We know ‘tis common – all that lives must die, passing through nature to eternity – but there is little point asking why it seems so particular with us. We know not “seems”.

These old themes are unapologetically at the centre of The Optimist’s Daughter, a short novel, and Eudora Welty’s last, published in the 1970s in her old age. In its concentration, it is almost a short story. Its principal character, Laurel, now living in Chicago, returns to her homeland in the South: her aged father is ill. At first, it does not seem very serious: a standard eye operation. But he fails to recover. His second wife, the vulgar, frivolous, and self-obsessed Fay, much younger than her frail husband, has little sympathy with death; but although she may think that she is on the side of life, she isn’t: life can mean but little if the significance of death fails to inspire awe, or even, as in this instance, adequate acknowledgement. She urges her husband to live – not for his own sake, but for her own. Possibly, she is responsible, in her thoughtlessness, for hastening her husband’s end. But it all means little to her: she is incapable of contemplation, and cannot even begin to understand why it all seems so particular with others. However, for Laurel, the last link with her past is now gone. Her mother had died years earlier; and her husband had died in the war. Though but middle-aged, no-one is now left alive with whom she retains any strong emotional tie: all whom she had loved are now dead. What can she do but remember?

Her remembering is largely left till the closing parts of the novel. The earlier parts of the novel describe, with all the economy of a great writer of short stories, Laurel’s father’s last illness, and the network of relationships between the old man and his young wife, and between father and daughter. The events move swiftly, as the old man fails to recover from what had appeared initially a routine operation; and as the wife, impatient with thoughts of death, and resentful that her feelings (she had felt the operation unnecessary) were being ignored, unwittingly and thoughtlessly hastens his end. At the funeral, Laurel meets again with her old neighbours, and old family friends, but finds herself feeling distant from it all. Her childhood home will now be passing on to Fay. The past is receding quickly. And, unexpectedly, Fay’s redneck family, turn up. She had said previously that she had no family, and it is not hard to conjecture why: even with her limited intelligence, she knew that they would not be approved of.

The resolution of the novel comes when, towards the end, Laurel is left on her own for a while in the old house that she knows she must soon leave for ever. And it is here that all that had gone previously, all that may have seemed fragmentary, fall into place, and we see them in proper focus. Here, at last, Laurel can think about a past that has left nothing behind, that can now exist only in her memory. Now she can re-evaluate.

Re-evaluation of the past, contemplating on why things have turned out as they have, understanding the ground we have occupied in relation to those whom we have loved, are the themes also of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night; but the past there had been turbulent. The past here seems, in contrast, placid and happy. But, as in O’Neill’s play, love and hatred are not mutually exclusive. Perhaps all loves contain some element of hatred.

A new character, only mentioned in passing earlier in the novel, now emerges in the foreground: Laurel’s dead mother. As Laurel’s mind shifts back and forth between the present and various times from the past, she remembers how she had reacted to her mother’s long illness and eventual death; and she remembers also how her mother had reacted to her parents’ death. A chain emerges, a human chain, of departing and of remembering, stretching back over time, across generations.

Her mother, like her father, had also lost her sight towards the end (vision, and lack of it, are among the recurring images of this novel), but, unlike her father’s, her mother’s illness had been a long one. She had, one suspects, never quite managed to tear herself away emotionally from her strong attachment to her family home in West Virginia – “up home”: for all her closeness to her husband, the home he offered in Mississippi never quite matched up to what she left behind, and the breaking, one by one, of her ties with her past – the death of her father, of her mother – had been for her particularly traumatic. And during her own long, final illness, her mind had deteriorated – or, as Fay puts it, “she died a crazy”. Laurel’s mother had been, towards the end, in despair, and her husband, though loving her, could not acknowledge the nature of the tragedy they were living through:

He loved his wife. Whatever she did that she couldn’t help doing was all right. Whatever she was driven to say was all right. But it was not all right! Her trouble was that very desperation. And no-one had any power to cause that except the one she desperately loved, who refused to consider that she was desperate. It was betrayal on betrayal.

Her loving husband, Laurel’s loving father, is an “optimist”: his nature is such that he cannot even bring himself to believe that certain things are beyond the reach merely of our loving; he could not bring himself to acknowledge the essential tragedy of our lives – the losses, the pains, the passing through nature to eternity.

As Laurel goes through her mother’s things, destroying all which she does not wish to come into Fay’s possession, her mind travels back and forth in time, remembering, interpreting, trying to understand. All the while, a storm is coming; and a bird that has flown down the chimney is trapped inside the house. Symbols, certainly, but to try to pin down these symbols is reductive: better, I think, to take these pieces of imagery at face value, and allow them to resonate in our minds. The course of Laurel’s thoughts may seem random, but they are carefully structured. And finally, her mind turns to her husband, Phil, killed at war:

If Phil could have lived –

But Phil was lost. Nothing of their life together remained except in her own memory; love was sealed away into its perfection, and had remained there.

What might have been, what might have emerged from their love, cannot disrupt that perfection in which it is now sealed.

There remains only a final confrontation with Fay before Laurel leaves for ever her childhood home. Laurel had wanted to hurt Fay, but when the time comes, it doesn’t seem worth it:

She had been ready to hurt Fay. She had wanted to hurt her, and had known herself capable of doing it. But such is the strangeness of her mind, it had been the memory of the child Wendell that had prevented her.

Wendell was a child who had been with Fay’s ghastly family that had descended so unexpectedly on the funeral. And he, at least, was blameless. Laurel does not know why the memory of that child should now prevent her from hurting Fay: she puts it down vaguely to “strangeness of her mind”.

Fay ends, as she thinks, triumphant: “I belong to the future,” she declares. And Laurel lets her have her moment of triumph because she knows this is not true.

Memory lived not in initial possession, but in the freed hands, pardoned and freed, in the heart that can empty but fill again, in the patterns restored by dreams.

These are all old, old themes. Welty’s perspective is quiet and unassuming. She meditates, as Laurel does, on the nature of loss, and of memory, that fragile and delicate thing that is nonetheless the sole remaining link to that which has been lost. But Welty is also utterly unsentimental: she is well aware of the deep resentment and hatred that can reside even within the most selfless and devoted love; and how even the most buoyant of optimism can be a denial of our lives’ tragedies – a denial almost of life itself. Love does not conquer all, and it is mere foolishness imagining otherwise.

This is a quite exquisite novel from one of the century’s finest writers.

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Summer lovin’ had me a blast

Now that the nights are hot and sultry, I find I’m in the mood for a bit of lust and murder.

I have loved film noir, and whatever its literary equivalent is, for many years now. Ever since I have been old enough to love it. And possibly since when I was even younger. Oh, how I would long for some torrid femme fatale lead me into desperate mazes of lust, depravity, and murder! OK, maybe not the murder bit, but you get the idea. At an age when I should have been dreaming of a Mary Poppins leading me into a magical land of gentle fantasy, I was fantasising instead of Barbara Stanwyck or Jane Greer or Ava Gardner leading me astray. I still am.

Wife and lover murder husband, and are then tied together by bonds of guilt. This seems to me the archetypal film noir plot, but, as far as I can think, this plot appears only in two film noirsDouble Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Well, a few more than two if we count remakes. The Postman Always Rings Twice has been filmed a number of times: it was given an Italian setting by Visconti in the film L’Ossessione; and was later filmed in its American setting, first in a somewhat flat adaptation starring John Garfield and Lana Turner, and, later, in what seems to me a much finer effort, by Bob Rafelson, with Jessica Lange and Jack Nicholson. The Visconti and Rafelson versions are both, I think, rather fine, but it’s Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity that, more than any other film, epitomises film noir for me. And it is for this reason that this particular plotline strikes me as archetypal noir.

Both Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice are, of course, based on novels by James M. Cain. I am by no means well read in thrillers, but, as far as I have read, I’d unhesitatingly nominate these two as my favourites. Desire, lust, murder, sex, guilt … what more could one want? There seems to me something particularly disturbing, something uniquely horrifying, about two people committing this greatest of all sins, the taking of a human life, for the sake of gratifying their desires; there seems something particularly appalling about the coils of guilt and shame they find themselves enmeshed in, and their despair as they discover, after all they have done, that their desire is had without content. They do not need to wait for the afterlife for punishment: their damnation is right here on earth, even before the law gets to them

Without taking anything away from Cain, such a story must have had forebears. I can only think of two: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District by Nikolai Leskov, and Thérèse Raquin by Émile Zola, both published within a couple of years of each other in the 1860s. There’s Clytemnestra as well, of course, but she murders her husband on her own, without her lover’s help (although with her lover’s knowledge and approval). If we widen the net a bit to cover murders committed by any couple (not necessarily wife and lover), and of any victim (not necessarily the husband), we can find a few more examples of this plotline: very obviously, there’s Shakespeare’s Macbeth; and there’s that strange, savage story, depicted by all three Athenian tragedians, of brother and sister, Orestes and Electra, coming together to murder their mother (although the murder in this case is not motivated by desire). I am sure there are many more examples I can’t right now think of. But restricting ourselves specifically to wife and lover murdering husband, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District, Thérèse Raquin and the two Cain novels are the only ones I can think of.

And, given that I am now in the mood for this sort of thing, I was thinking of re-reading all four of these books. They’re all quite short works, after all, and even at my snail’s pace, they shouldn’t take too long. And I am sure there are other stories with this plotline I can’t think of right now.

And so, over to you. Wife and lover murder husband. Or maybe, for a bit of variety, husband and lover murder wife. For desire. And they go on to suffer all the torments of Hell, even here, on this bank and shoal of time. Any other title I should include in my reading plans?

Thanks in advance.

The tingle in the spine

I should stop trying to do irony on this blog. I just can’t do it very well. It could be that my flights of ironic fancy are often taken at face value because readers can’t see my body language, or the expression on my face; or that they can’t hear my tone of voice; and so on. But it’s no good: I might as well accept that my attempts at irony fall down because I am not a terribly good writer. And even if I was, it would make little difference: after all, the irony of even so great a writer as Jane Austen is often misunderstood, so what chance do I have?

(And may I say, incidentally, that there is nothing in the above paragraph that is intended ironically. And, indeed, nothing in that last sentence either. This could go on for ever, couldn’t it?)

Most definitions of irony (and a quick Google search indicates that definitions vary) talk about intentionally saying the opposite of what one really means; but I think irony can be considerably more subtle than that. Irony can also, I think, encompass saying things that one only partially means. The world is, after all, endlessly intricate and complex, and quite frequently, certain things can be merely partially true: certain things one may find oneself agreeing and disagreeing with at the same time. For instance, in my previous post, I had said that great literature should address great themes. I think I stand by this up to a point, but only up to a point. I think, for instance, that the Sherlock Holmes stories are great literature. I think Wodehouse’s Blandings Castle stories are great literature. I think The Three Musketeers is great literature. Not only do these works not address great themes, they sometimes go out of their way not to address them. But whatever we may mean by “greatness”, I think these books are “great”. And if they’re disqualified because they do not measure up to some pre-defined criterion, then I don’t know that I need worry about it too much.

This does not mean I am willing to jettison my contention: great themes I continue to associate with great literature, and I refuse to accept there is no connection between them. But appreciation and appraisal of literature are far from exact sciences, and rigidly applying pre-determined principles to assess literary value is a pretty fruitless exercise. I think, on the whole, that great literature should address great themes. Except when they don’t.

Perhaps it is best to see thematic seriousness as a criterion of literary merit that is neither necessary, nor sufficient, but which remains all the same an important criterion. And that all other criteria of literary merit one may think of are, similarly, neither necessary, nor sufficient. The entire range of literature is too vast, too unwieldy, too messy, to be bound by any pre-determined criteria.

And in any case, the greatness comes first. If we insist on trying to formulate criteria that determine literary greatness, we do this by examining those works that we already know to be great, and then, and only then, trying to identify what it is about these works that makes them so.

And how do we know without applying pre-determined criteria that a work is great? As that fastidious critic Vladimir Nabokov put it, we know it by that unmistakable tingle in the spine.

This is not the end of the matter, of course. Nothing is ever the end of the matter when it comes to literature: this is why there is always so much to discuss, so much to talk about. What about those works that I strongly sense to be great, but which give me, personally, no spinal tingle at all? Something such as, for me, Middlemarch? Well, let’s leave that for a later post. I have waffled on too long here as it is.

(That last sentence is intended as ironic, by the way: just thought I’d point that out.)

The thriller as literature: “Devices and Desires” by P. D. James

There is no universally agreed set of criteria to determine literary greatness, but I think I would advance, albeit tentatively, the principle that great literature must address great themes.  This does, I appreciate, rule out many a work that I value – Wodehouse novels, Sherlock Homes stories, and the like: these are works I value as much as I do any literature we may term “great”. But principle is principle, and once they’re formed, we shouldn’t really be messing around with them, making exceptions merely to include stuff we happen personally to like.

And if great literature must address great themes, it is easy to see why the thriller genre should so readily produce works that, even by the standards of those who are regularly berated in book blogs as “stuffy”, may be considered “great literature”. The themes of guilt, of sin, of social and moral corruption; of evil, of conscience, and even, perhaps, of redemption; all those big themes that all serious writers and thinkers have been wrestling with now for centuries; are all present, and accessible, to the writer of thrillers. Crime and Punishment, as we all know, is a thriller; so is Nostromo. Recently, Ian Rankin chose Bleak House as a favourite thriller, which seemed to me fair enough, since it is both indisputably great, and indisputably a thriller. And, by any reasonable definition of the genre, works as indisputably possessed of literary greatness as Macbeth or Electra (either the Sophocles or the Euripides version) can all claim to be thrillers. This is not to say that all thrillers are “great literature”: addressing serious themes is a necessary rather than a sufficient criterion; but it does mean, I think, that, keeping out for the moment the contentious idea of great literature, the thriller genre, by its very nature, can lend itself to serious contemplation of humanity.

That it is P.  D. James’ intention to use the thriller genre to address serious themes can hardly be in any doubt. She says so quite clearly in her preface to the novel Devices and Desires, where she describes the early stages of her literary career:

The classical detective story with its formal constraints and internal tensions, its need to balance plot, setting and character, presents a formidable challenge to an aspiring novelist. Tackling its technical problems would, I thought, be an excellent apprenticeship to someone setting out to be eventually regarded as a serious writer. Then, as I advanced in my craft, I came to believe that it was possible to remain within the conventions of the traditional mystery and yet say something true and important about men and women and the society in which we live and die.

Indeed. To be a serious writer, one needs to address serious themes, to say something “true and important”. True, the thriller is not obliged to accommodate such things: but the point is, it can.

But Devices and Desires, a hefty novel of nearly 600 pages, is a particular kind of thriller: it is a whodunit. And I must confess that when I started the novel, I had my doubts about the suitability of this sub-genre to say “something true and important”. For the idea of the “whodunit” is to hold back an important element of the plot – that is, who the criminal is; to tease the reader into forming various different hypotheses on what that missing element of the plot may be; and to surprise the reader at the end by imparting that missing piece of information. All of this throws a great emphasis upon the plot – upon the mere sequence of events. And, further, it means that, far from addressing the “true and important” openly, the author must deliberately hold back certain elements of it until the end, so as not to spoil that surprise, which, in every whodunit, constitutes the pay-off. None of this a problem when the plot is of the essence, as it is in Agatha Christie novels; but where there are other elements important to the whole – where there are “true and important” matters to be addressed – such a leaning towards he plot makes it very difficult to achieve a satisfactory balance. In addition, when the minds of the various characters are explored in detail – as is the case here – the identity of the murderer must be credible not merely in terms of plot (i.e. all the circumstantial details of the plot must fit together to form a credible and coherent whole), but, unless we are to believe that any person, regardless of personality, is capable of committing murder, the psychology must be credible also. In other words, not only must we believe that the murderer had the opportunity and the means and the motive to commit murder, we must also believe that their act is consistent with their psychology. This means that either the author presents a range of suspects each psychologically capable of committing murder; or, alternatively, that a number of possible subjects can be ruled out entirely, thus lessening the sense of surprise when the eventual revelation comes.

All of this P.  D. James is aware of, and, in a long and distinguished career as practioner of the genre, has obviously given it far deeper consideration that I, mere casual reader, can have done. And I must say, she steers the various obstacles with admirable skill. The setting is the Norfolk coast, fairly sparsely populated (most of the principal characters seem to live in remote cottages); it is haunted both by history (Agnes Poley, a former inhabitant, had been burnt at the stake), and by modernity (looming above the landscape is a nuclear power station). Both the past and the present are held together in a precarious balance. There is a serial killer at loose, but this soon  turns out not to be a serial-killer-thriller: a murder, very much in the manner of the serial killer, is committed, but the serial killer himself had committed suicide hours earlier: the latest murder is a “copycat” killing – someone killing for their own reasons, for their own motives.

Among those present in the locality is Adam Dalgleish, a senior detective inspector; but this is not his beat, and he is not officially on the case. As such, he becomes almost a peripheral character in the proceedings. James takes adopts the voice of an omniscient narrator: this is surprising, since the very nature of a whodunit demands that the author holds back from the reader certain pieces of information, and one can but wonder why an omniscient writer should hold anything back at all. But once one accepts this conceit, it becomes a minor consideration. James moves the narrative at will from one character to another, establishing various links between them, giving us glimpses of their past, bringing to life their mental traumas, their unhealed wounds, that these lacerated souls carry around with them. And she gives is glimpses also of the various devices and desires (the title is taken from the Book of Common Prayer) of their hearts.

The pace is stately.  I have seen it described by some online as “plodding”, but I don’t accept that: there is no reason why a thriller shouldn’t be paced slowly. In tracing the interconnected lives of these people inhabiting the same locality, James seems at times to evoke some of the great English novelists of the previous century whom she knew and loved so well – Jane Austen, perhaps, or George Eliot. But the mood here is, naturally, given the genre, much darker.  It is true that this thriller doesn’t, perhaps, thrill, but there is, nonetheless, a tension present – a tension that comes not from any sense of imminent danger, but from the interaction between the various characters.

By the end, I was very impressed, though not, perhaps, entirely convinced. Despite all the undoubted skill apparent – not least a very polished prose style, and a quite superb evocation of place – a whodunit still stands or falls by the ingenuity of the plotting, and any element other than the plot is, inevitably, additional to it, rather than integral. And then, there is the sense of closure: the themes broached in this novel – the unhealed psychological wounds we carry around with us, the questions of personal morality, and so on – can never have closure: these are things that we, as humans, must continue to live with. But the whodunit genre is such, that the revelation of the murderer imparts to the reader a sense of finality: we’ve been presented with a mystery, and now it’s solved. Once again, James is clearly aware of this problem, but I remain unconvinced that she has solved it here. The final chapters convey – inevitably, I think, given the nature of the whodunit genre – a sense of finality; and, given the themes broached, this should not really have been the case.

I am not really a great reader of whodunits, and I am not sure how this novel will settle into my mind. For novels have a way of settling into one’s mind over time:  as one reflects upon what one as read, it can, over time, acquire new resonance, new shades of meanings. Or, conversely, its impact may simply fade. Right now, a full week after having finished it, Devices and Desires seems to me an extremely impressive work, written by a master craftsman. But whether the whodunit genre itself is a suitable vehicle for conveying matters “true and important”, I must say I continue to have my doubts.

The “Ibsen Cycle”, and the search for an -ism

It’s not easy to pinpoint the exact date when artists, writers and composers all decided they’d had enough of being Renaissance, and it was high time they changed to being Baroque. Although, it’s fair to say, the change wasn’t quite so clear cut: some took a detour through Mannerism, but that didn’t really last too long.

Fair enough, my sarcasm above is a bit heavy-handed, but I really do not decry labelling. However different, say, Bach, Handel and Telemann are from each other, it is clear that they are closer to each other than any of them is to, say, Tallis or Palestrina, and labels can be useful in signposting such matters – as long as we take the labelling to be no more than rough guides, and do not insist upon them dogmatically. (I say this rather ruefully, as I am rather given myself to crude generalisations, and have, quite rightly, been picked up before on the matter.)

But even overviews come a cropper when it comes to western literature of the 19th century. Or, more precisely perhaps, of the mid- to late- 19th century. When it comes to composers of that era, we may safely say that Wagner, Verdi, Tchaikovsky, Dvořák, etc., different though they all are from each other, are Romantics. In art, we have a useful catch-all term – “impressionism” – to cover most of the major artists of that era. (And for a slightly later generation of artists who don’t quite fit the term – Cézanne, van Gogh, Gauguin, Seurat – we have ingeniously thought up the term “post-impressionist”.) So that’s the artists covered. But what do we make of the major writers of that era? – of Tolstoy, George Eliot, Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, Flaubert, Dickens (the later Dickens at least), Baudelaire, Ibsen, and the like? Caught between Romanticism before them and Modernism after, there seems to be no -ism into which they seem comfortably to fit.

At this point, we tell ourselves that labels don’t matter, shrug our shoulders, and move on. But I never was one for moving on. Not that I necessarily want to find a handy label: I do recognise that such labelling is pretty pointless. But I recognise also that, by the end of the century, something had changed from the heady days of Romanticism – that it would not have been possible to have produced the novels of Zola or of Hardy in the same age that had produced the odes of Keats or the Prometheus Unbound of Shelley. But what precisely had changed is not so easy to put one’s finger on – at least, not without making the kind of crude generalisations that I had promised myself not to make again.

But let’s make a few anyway, and see if they hold.

The first crude generalisation is that the mid- to late- 19th century was an era of “realism” in fiction – that is, writers of fiction aimed for verisimilitude, and attempted to produce narratives that the reader could believe might have taken place in the real world. But almost instantly we run into problems. Are not the plot and the characters of an 18th century novel such as Richardson’s Clarissa, say, also believable? And conversely, is there anyone who could believe that the characters populating novels so heavily stylised as Dead Souls, Little Dorrit or The Idiot could conceivably have existed as described? Or that the events that take place in those novels might conceivably have happened in reality? All right, let us take these instances as exceptions rather than the rule (although, it must be conceded, these are pretty big exceptions). But it still won’t do: the more one thinks about it, the more such exceptions crowd the mind – novels preceding the mid-19th century that are very realistic in nature (“realistic” as described above, that is), and novels of the mid 19th century that don’t even aim for surface realism. So no, I really don’t think that appealing to “realism” will do.

Neither would it do, I think, to claim that writers of the mid-to-late 19th century were more aware of social and economic pressures. There is no shortage of social and economic awareness in the works of Austen (who wrote when most of the poets we class as “Romantic” were active); or in the works of Fielding or Richardson. Or, going back even further, in the novels of Defoe (see Moll Flanders, for instance, or Roxana). Conversely, Henry James, who was very active towards the end of the 19th century, often made his characters so wealthy that they did not have to worry about economic pressures. So no, that one won’t do either.

But one thing that may, possibly, be said – though I say it rather gingerly – is that it became more difficult to create big characters – heaven-storming characters, characters who aspire to the level of gods; characters who fill the page (or the stage), who fill our imaginations with their bigness. Such characters are familiar in epic poems and plays of the classic age, and beyond – godlike Achilles; Odysseus, the man of twists and turns; Electra and Medea, Othello and Macbeth, Milton’s Satan. And Romanticism allowed for this bigness as well: indeed, with its emphasis on the individual self, it positively invited it – Goethe’s Faust, Shelley’s Prometheus, Pushkin’s Boris Godunov. But in the mid-to-late 19th century, this became more difficult. When the Phaedra of Euripides or the Phèdre of Racine lusts guiltily for a younger man, their passions are huge, they shake the very earth: when Natalya Petrovna similarly lusts guiltily for a younger man (in Turgenev’s A Month in the Country), she is simply an insignificant wife of an insignificant provincial landowner – a sympathetic figure, certainly, but rather small and pathetic in a way the creations of Euripides or of Racine aren’t. When authors of the post-Romantic era do produce big figures, they have to be removed from everyday life and its quotidian concerns (Captain Ahab); or these quotidian concerns are simply ignored (Heathcliff and Cathy). We cannot, after all, have Milton’s Satan or Shelley’s Prometheus worrying about paying their bills.

And, just as it became more difficult to present these big characters, it became easier to present humans as mere ants teeming in an anthill – whether they be the slum-dwellers of Zola’s L’Assommoir, the rotten bourgeoisie of Zola’s Pot Bouille, or the brutal peasantry of Zola’s La Terre. Of course, these novels could not have been written in the Romantic age as the social and economic environments presented by Zola were very much of their own time; but putting that aside, this view of humanity itself as something that is small, of individuality as something that is paltry, submerged in some wider, impersonal collective, seems to me very alien to the Romantic sensibility. Where the Romantics enjoined us to strive, now, the very idea of striving seems absurd. Even those who are dissatisfied with their present do not know what to strive for, or how: Emma Bovary’s rebellion is just as petty and as stupid as that that she is rebelling against.

Now, before you all regale me with notable exceptions to all this, let me suggest a couple myself: Brand, and Peer Gynt. Ibsen created these huge characters in the mid-1860s, in two verse dramas, epic in conception, and vast in scope. But then, his art took a strange turn, and I am still not sure why he felt this turn had to be taken. Having written Emperor and Galilean (which I won’t be posting about here, as I don’t think I understand it very well), and The League of Youth (which I won’t be posting about either, as it seems to me rather slight), he turned, quite deliberately, away from all that bigness, all that grandeur, and fixed his gaze upon those little ants teeming in the anthills. No, not quite Zola-esque, perhaps, but certainly little figures – smug bourgeoisie, small-time businessmen, bank managers, bored housewives, and the like. It’s like stepping deliberately from Racine’s Phèdre to Turgenev’s Natalya Petrovna.

Why did he do it? Could he on this fair mountain leave to feed and batten on this moor?

The first of these plays is The Pillars of Society (which I hope to be blogging about shortly). Without wishing to anticipate, it does seem a bit of a come-down from the granitic magnificence of Brand, or the riotous exuberance of Peer Gynt. But this is what Ibsen wanted. Towards the end of his life, some twenty-five years later, Ibsen himself described the twelve plays from The Pillars of Society to When We Dead Awaken as a “cycle”; and the eminent Ibsenian critic, Brian Johnston, takes Ibsen at his word. But did Ibsen know from the start what this cycle would develop into? Did he, indeed, envisage it as a cycle at all? To judge from Michael Meyer’s biography, I think the answer appears to be “no”. At least, there exists no evidence that he did.

But had he indeed looked forward to the plays towards the end of this cycle, he would have known that even restricting himself to prose (and to everyday prose at that), even confining himself to milieux that are, on the surface at least, “realistic”, he would, by the end, create characters every bit as big as anything achieved by writers of the past. Bernard Shaw, a man not given to flights of fancy, said of the protagonists of Ibsen’s late plays that there’s not one of them who is not touched by the Holy Ghost. And by the end of his last play, When We Dead Awaken, we seem back once again to the poetic and imaginative world of Brand. Ibsen had come full cycle. But that journey back to where he had started is long, and tortuous; and also utterly fascinating.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

When I had decided to blog about the major Ibsen plays, I thought I would do it one play at a time, and not anticipate what lies ahead. But reading The Pillars of Society, I think that would not be very advisable.  The connections not only with plays already written, but with plays yet to be written, are too important to ignore.

The “nunnery scene”

In a recent post, I found myself focussing on what seems to me one of the most complex scene in the entire Shakespearean canon – Act 3, Scene1 of Hamlet. I barely scratched the surface: there is such complexity in this scene that I rarely read it the same way twice. Everything seems to be happening at the same time, and it becomes virtually impossible to keep track. No performance, not even the finest, could hope to capture all the subtleties and nuances.

This scene is often known as the “nunnery scene”. It starts with a bit of scene-setting with Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius and Ophelia (Ophelia is to be the bait, as it were, to get Hamlet talking, while Claudius and Polonius spy on him); then Hamlet comes in, and delivers the famous soliloquy that we can all reel off, word for word; and then he sees Ophelia, rants and raves at her for a bit; and then he storms off. And during all that ranting and raving, he tells her to go to a “nunnery”. At which point we all snigger like schoolkids because a “nunnery”, as we all know, was slang for “brothel”.

But does Hamlet tell Ophelia to go to a brothel? Yes, “nunnery” was sometimes used ironically to refer to a brothel, and this secondary meaning may well have added a bitter undercurrent to the proceedings. But even if it were a widespread piece of slang in Shakespeare’s day (and I honestly have no idea how widespread it was), the brothel is still a secondary meaning, not the primary one. And I do get the impression that we are so taken with this secondary meaning, we allow it to drown out the significance of the primary one. As a consequence, we lose much not only of the subtlety of this scene, but also the pathos, and the deep poignancy.

The context is clear. Hamlet, in his soliloquy, questions why we go on living when life is so full of suffering and pain, and concludes that we only do so because we are too frightened of death. It is a natural step to move from this to thinking that it is best not to have been born in the first place. Why bring yet more people into the world?

Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?

Hamlet is here telling Ophelia not to bear children, not to bring yet more people into this life, in which all any of us can do is merely sin and suffer. And as he says this, he expresses a quite startling degree of self-disgust:

I am myself indifferent honest; but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me: I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offences at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in. What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven? We are arrant knaves, all; believe none of us.

And this is why Ophelia should go to a nunnery. We owe it to our unborn children not to bring them into life.

By allowing a possible secondary meaning to swamp what is undoubtedly the primary meaning is to do this extraordinarily tragic and moving scene a great disservice. It is to replace a profound lament for life with merely a cynical guffaw.

“Peer Gynt” by Henrik Ibsen

[All excerpts below, except where otherwise stated, are taken from the translation by Geoffrey Hill, published by Penguin Classics]

Despite all the fantasy, the surrealism, the dream sequences, the weird forays into the realms of folklore, the plot, such as it is, of Peer Gynt, isn’t hard to follow. At least, not for the first four acts. Peer, when we first see him, is a madcap young man much given to mischief-making and to spinning fabulous yarns. He has been brought up by his long-suffering widowed mother, who is constantly upbraiding him, and who is, at the same time, fiercely protective of him. In the first act, Peer gate-crashes a wedding, and runs off with the bride. Later, he abandons her. He appears to have a few more sexual encounters, but refuses to take responsibility for any of them. In the course of all this, he fathers an illegitimate child, and, once again, refuses to accept responsibility, retreating from the child, and from the child’s mother, in a kind of horror. After his own mother’s death – the death scene, where Peer spins one final yarn for her, one of the loveliest and most tender in all dramatic literature – he goes abroad, and becomes a successful and international businessman, though completely unscrupulous, trading, amongst other things, in slaves. He is cheated of his wealth by other businessmen as unscrupulous as himself, and eventually finds himself an inmate of a madhouse in Egypt. And then, after all this, comes the fifth act, which is even stranger than all that had gone before.

Translator and biographer Michael Meyer suggests that Peer either dies in the madhouse at the end of the fourth act (although his death is not explicitly depicted); or he dies in the shipwreck off the coast of Norway at the start of the final act (although, once again, his death is not explicitly depicted). And all that follows is a sort of phantasmagoric unwinding of his life at the moment of his death, in which he is challenged to discover what significance his life may have had. This makes sense to me. All the fantasies and surrealism and dream sequences of the first four acts may be seen as reflections, however distorted, of reality; but even that model breaks down when we come to the last act.

Although the outline of the plot is clear in the first four acts, the details aren’t. Sometimes, even some very significant plot details are left maddeningly stranded in some no man’s land between reality and fantasy. That which is real and that which isn’t become so inextricably entwined, it becomes impossible to separate them out. We may take the trolls, for instance, to be fantasy, but how are we to take Solveig? If we insist on taking everything in this play at face value, Solveig is a vision of purity, the good and beautiful woman whom Peer really loves (even as he frolics with other girls); and she, in turn, returns his love, and eventually seeks him out. But before they can even begin to live their life together, Peer, horrified by the sight of the brutal child he has fathered, leaves her in shame. And, throughout Peer’s life, Solveig patiently waits for him. And at the very end of the play, she reclaims him. Now, clearly, Solveig is neither conceived nor presented as a real person, but it is impossible to tell whether Solveig is an idealised version of a real woman, or whether, indeed, she exists at all anywhere except in Peer’s mind. It is certainly possible to see Solveig as a pure fantasy – a vision of idealised womanhood that Peer, despite everything, harbours in some corner of his mind, but which he felt he felt he had to abandon when shamed by his own actions. But it is possible also that Solveig is a real person, although presented in the drama in a way Peer would like her to be, rather than the way she really is. We do not know, we cannot tell. And in this confusion of reality and fantasy, the impossibility of ever separating the two is very much the intended effect.

Similarly with Peer’s desert adventures in the fourth act. After the other businessmen have cheated him out of his wealth, Peer travels the desert; comes accidentally in possession of riches; is mistaken for a prophet; and takes for himself as mistress the slave Anitra, who declares she has no soul, and who goes on to cheat Peer of his new-found wealth. Did all this really happen, or is this again one of Peer’s tall tales? Could it be that he really did have a mistress in North Africa who had robbed him and left him, and that all the rest is merely an extravagant product of Peer’s teeming imagination? Once again, we cannot tell. Maybe Peer was cheated of his wealth on separate occasions both by the other businessmen, and by his mistress Anitra; maybe he was cheated just once, and his imagination accounts for the rest. As with so much in this play, we cannot tell.

The repetition of a theme – in this instance, of being cheated of his wealth – we see also in other parts of the pay. In the first act, for instance, the theme of Peer seducing and then deserting a woman is presented twice – the first time, in a more or less realistic mode (when Peer runs off with, and later rejects, Ingrid, the bride at the wedding); and then, the entire scene of seduction and desertion is replayed in a mode of pure fantasy. Here we first see Peer frolicking with three girls who are trolls – those strange goblin-like creatures of Norwegian folklore. Then, Peer, having seduced one of the troll girls (who happens to be the daughter of the troll-king), has to face her father in the Hall of the Mountain King. (He is called the “Dovre King” in Geoffrey Hill’s translation.) It is one of those scenes of mad, wild fantasy, as dark and sinister as it is playful and exuberant, that this play is so full of, and bears little resemblance to the playful scherzo Grieg composed as incidental music. In this scene, Peer agrees at first to become a troll himself and marry the Troll-king’s daughter, but changes his mind when he realises that a surgical operation must first be performed on his eyes, so he can see the world as a troll. He is saved – in true folklore tradition – by the church bells ringing, at the very sound of which the trolls scatter in confusion, and the entire Hall of the Mountain King collapses.

Immediately there follows perhaps the strangest scene of all in this very strange play. It is set completely in the dark. Peer is trying to walk forward, but something is blocking his way. Whatever it is that is blocking his way identifies itself as the “Boyg”. It tells him to “go round”. Peer is determined to walk through, but it is no good: he cannot pass through – he has to “go round”. And once again, he is rescued, as in the previous scene, by the church bells. “He was too strong for us,” says the voice of the Boyg, “the prayers of good women were keeping him safe.” What are we to make of all this? We may no doubt take the scene with the trolls as a fantastic reflection of real events, but do we make of the Boyg, and of the injunction to “go round”? What do we make of the repetition, within a mere two pages, of Peer being saved by the church bells? What do we make of that curious reference to the “prayers of good women”?

Fantasies though they may be, but neither the encounter with the trolls nor that with the Boyg is wasted on Peer. He may have refused the surgical operation on his eyes, but he certainly takes to heart the injunction given him by the Dovre King:

Out there – remember? – under the sky’s high-gleaming vault
‘be thyelf, be thyself, even to thy most inward fault’
is the great injunction. Down here, with the race of trolls,
‘be to thyself sufficient’ is the motto that appeals.

“To thyself be sufficient.” I’d guess that the original Norwegian resists easy translation. Peter Watts (Penguin) translates this as “To thyself be – enough!”,  with an interpolated dash and italics; James Kirkup and Christopher Fry (Oxford) make a reference to Polonius, translating this as “To thine own self be – all-sufficient!” – again with an interpolated dash, but no italics; and Michael Meyer (Methuen) gives us “Man, be thyself – and to Hell with the rest of the world!” The basic idea, made explicit in Meyer’s rendition, is one of solipsism: one’s own self is the only thing that matters. Whatever else of the troll-world Peer might reject, this injunction he follows.

And he follows too the Boyg’s injunction to “go round”. He never faces anything: he always takes whatever happens to be the easiest way, the path of least resistance – he always goes round. When he is horrified by the child he has fathered, when  he is too ashamed to face Solveig, he goes round – rather than face it, he simply walks away.

This makes the character of Peer Gynt in many ways the diametric opposite to that of Brand. (The two plays of which Brand and Peer Gynt are eponymous heroes were published only a year apart, in 1866 and 1867). Brand was always fanatically true to his fanatic self, but Peer “goes round” so often, one wonders whether he has a self to be true to. While these two verse dramas may be seen as mighty opposites, and their respective eponymous characters equally contrasted to each other – the one rigid and austere, the other exuberant and prodigal – the contrast between the two is too obvious, perhaps, too simple, to cast much light on either. Nonetheless, it may be said, I think, that, whatever misgivings we may have about the person of Brand, he was great of soul; with Peer Gynt, we wonder whether he has a soul at all. And this is the theme that comes to the fore in the final act: what, at the end of it all, is Peer? Is he really anyone at all?

The fourth act had ended in a madhouse in Egypt. The scene was nightmarish, frenetic: it had about it a sense of wild, uncontrolled frenzy. Maybe this is where Peer dies: we cannot tell. At the start of the fifth act, without explanation, we see Peer as an older man, on a ship back to his native Norway. Maybe he had escaped the asylum, and had made some sort of life for himself; maybe what we see is yet another fantasy, this time happening at the moment of his death. We do not know.

On this ship, Peer meets a ghostly passenger (referred to in the Dramatis Personae in Michael Meyer’s passenger as the “Strange Passenger”). The crew tells Peer that he is the only passenger, but, by this stage of the play, we are not surprised to encounter someone who doesn’t exist. This strange passenger is perfectly courteous, and he politely informs Peer that he wants Peer’s body when he dies.

Off the coast of Norway, the ship is wrecked in a storm. The strange passenger re-appears, and, in modern parlance, breaks through the fourth wall by telling Peer not to worry, because the hero of a play doesn’t die at the start of the fifth act. But here, maybe, he does.

Then Peer is on dry land, and finds himself at a funeral. His own funeral, we wonder? No, it is the funeral of a man Peer had seen earlier in the play chopping off his own fingers to avoid military conscription. From the long funeral oration, we find he had been a good man: he had had a family, and had looked after them. In short, he had been what Peer hadn’t. As Peer dies, so does his alter ego. And while we ponder the significance, if any, of the chopped fingers, we move on.

Peer now encounters a character who could have come straight out of folklore – the Button Moulder. He has been sent to melt Peer down, for Peer had not actually been anyone. Peer has no soul, nothing that could either be saved or damned. He is a blank, a nothing, worthy merely to be melted down. Even evil had eluded him. True, he had paid no attention to morals, and had even traded in slaves, but he had done all this not out of any attachment to evil as such, but simply because it had been the easiest way: he had, as ever, “gone round”. It is not a question of Good and Evil: it is a question of Being. What has Peer been?

Earlier, he had tried to describe his “Gyntian self”:

The Gyntian self – that iron brigade
of wishes, passions and desires,
a massive flood that knows no shores,
vortex of impulse, need and claim,
the world that I entirely am.

To his own self, in other words, he is sufficient. But can “a massive flood that knows no shores”, a mere “vortex of impulse”, really be anything at all? Is a shoreless flood an object? Does it have shape?

Peer asks to Button Moulder to give him time to prove himself, and they agree to meet at the next crossroads. In the meantime, Peer searches desperately for some meaning, some significance, his life must, he feels, have had. It is here we have the famous scene where Peer peels an onion, and finds merely layer upon accumulated layer, with no real core. In another scene, balls of yarn speak, as do withered leaves, and drops of dew, and broken straws. They tell us  they are the thoughts Peer hadn’t thought, songs he hadn’t sung, deeds he had never delivered, tears he hadn’t shed. Peer meets the Dovre King again, now come down in the world; and he meets a thin man in a priest’s cassock, who turns out to be the Devil himself. Neither can vouch for his being. At one point, Peer comes close to the cabin where he had left Solveig so many years ago: she sits there waiting for him still, singing, and once again, Peer turns away in shame.

But it is Solveig who nonetheless claims him in the end. How are we to read this? That he is saved by a vision of an ideal, which he had turned away from in shame but which had never quite disappeared from his heart? That Eternal Woman leads him on ever upward, as it had Faust?

Das Ewig-Weibliche
Zieht uns hinan.

These famous lines of Goethe’s had been quoted earlier in Peer Gynt, but in a mocking tone. Are we to take them seriously now? I suppose there’s no reason why we shouldn’t. But there’s no reason why we should either. In this play, where it has proved consistently impossible to separate out the different levels of reality and fantasy, this could be yet another fantasy. For even as Solveig claims Peer, having waited for him all her life, we hear the Button Moulder’s ominous lines:

Last crossroads, Peer? Our final meeting?
We’ll see. Till then, I shall say nothing.

Nothing is settled.

***

Peer Gynt is a huge, vast piece – like its predecessor Brand, far too long to be performed uncut in a single evening. But unlike Brand, it is wild, it is exuberant, it is overflowing with mad, extravagant, phantasmagoric visions. What it must be like reading it in the original Norwegian, I can only imagine, but all four of the translations I have read – by Michael Meyer, Peter Watts, James Kirkup & Christopher Fry, and the most recent translation in Penguin Classics, by Geoffrey Hill – convey a sense of almost of abandon, of reckless energy and vigour and  irrepressible ebullience.

As with his translation of Brand, Geoffrey Hill, not knowing Norwegian, had worked from a literal (and annotated) translation, this time by Janet Garton. It does not seem to me to be the ideal way to translate, but the results, it must be admitted, are very persuasive. Hill’s verse flows freely, with rhymes at the end of lines, and, more often than not half-rhymes, or simply words that vaguely echo each other. He varies the length of the lines far more than he had done in Brand, sometimes using alexandrines, or lines even longer, of fifteen or sixteen syllables. Sometimes he uses internal rhymes. But in all this, he achieves a wonderful fluency. The technique, as is to be expected from so distinguished a poet, is formidable, but it never slows the verse down: much of the time, it seems to rush forward like a torrent, a “massive flood that knows no shores”. I don’t think it displaces the earlier translations, but is certainly a most welcome addition to them. And by the end, I was left breathless.

***

I don’t think anything in Ibsen’s earlier work could prepare us for that sudden explosion of creativity that resulted Brand and Peer Gynt in, respectively, 1866 and 1867. He had been writing for some fifteen years, but, to my mind at least (I realise others may differ on this point), he had never really been much more than a journeyman dramatist. Even the best of his earlier work – The Vikings at Helgeland, Love’s Comedy, The Pretenders – could not have led anyone to expect what followed. But then, he was awarded a grant from the Norwegian government, and the freedom not to have to write for the stage seemed suddenly to release his creative energies.

The 1860s were a remarkable decade in European literature. It started with the publication of Great Expectations, and soon  afterwards, Dickens started serialisation of his last complete novel, Our Mutual Friend. (It was published in  1865.) Turgenev wrote what is often regarded as his finest novel, Fathers and Sons; and meanwhile, Dostoyevsky announced himself with From the House of the Dead and Notes From Underground, and followed them up with Crime and Punishment and The Idiot. Meanwhile, in France, Baudelaire published the third and final edition of Les Fleurs du Mal, containing several new poems; and Flaubert weighed in  with L’Education Sentimentale, and  George Eliot with, amongst other, The Mill on the Floss. And meanwhile, in Russia, there was the trifling matter of War and Peace. There was more than enough written and published in just those ten years to keep any reader occupied for an entire lifetime. And Ibsen’s Brand and Peer Gynt are among the major achievements even in this company. He may have started the decade merely as a journeyman, but after these two monumental achievements, everything was changed.

Brand and Peer Gynt were written  to be read rather than to be acted, but Ibsen’s instinct for the theatre never deserted him: judiciously trimmed versions still hold the stage triumphantly, even in  translation. (This is not something that can be said for all verse drama.) But curiously, Ibsen never wrote in verse again. Why he turned away from verse drama, after having written two of the very finest – possibly the last great plays to be written  in verse – is a matter of considerable conjecture: perhaps he felt he had exhausted all he could achieve in the form. His next play turned out to be the very exotic epic Emperor and Galilean, a vast work in two parts: Ibsen spent several years on this, and thought them, at the time, to be his best work, but I have never understood them, and a recent reading has left me as puzzled as I ever have been. And then came the decisive break: realistic plays, in realistic settings, with people from ordinary walks of life speaking the kind of language the audience spoke. No more Vikings at Helgeland, no more emperors and Galileans, and, above all, no more verse. It was a very unexpected turn for Ibsen to take, given what he had written before, but the themes broached in Brand and in Peer Gynt were to echo, I think, even here. They may not be verse, but the hand of the poet is apparent throughout.

But let us not anticipate…