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Books that make me cry

I was asked recently by the administrators of the website Rogue Cart if I would like to put together a list of ten books of my choosing, on a theme of my choosing, and write a few words on each. Never being one to hide my light under a bushel, I agreed. And, being somewhat maudlin and lachrymose by temperament, I decided to choose books that address the theme of grief. Or, as the title of my list puts it, Ten Books That Make You Cry. (Strictly speaking, they’re not all “books”: I’ve included a few poems and short stories in the list.)

Please do have a look.

Penny-in-the-slot criticisms

TRIGGER ALERT: This post contains some intemperate views, and expresses no small degree of irritation on my part regarding various comments I have seen online over the years. If such things trigger you, then I would advise giving this one a miss.

There is a kind of criticism that I have heard referred to as “penny-in-the-slot criticisms”. Which means that these criticisms are automatic reactions, instinctive and unthinking – reflexive rather than reflective.

When it comes to literature, and to books in general, there is a set of criticisms that, I think, could come under this category. Perhaps the worst thing about these criticisms is that they are immutable: no matter how vehemently you may argue against them, you won’t change anyone’s mind, because your argument will not be engaged with. Not that your argument was necessarily right: one is – or, at least I am – grateful when one’s argument is shown to be flawed, and one is forced either to refine one’s ideas, or to rethink them, or even to withdraw them altogether. But no, in an environment in which even to questions someone’s opinion is viewed as an act of aggression, that kind of thing doesn’t happen. It’s not even a case of one’s argument not being countered: it’s simply not engaged with. But nonetheless, as sure as night follows day, that penny-in-the-slot criticism you had argued against will re-appear, as if you’d never said anything at all to counter it.

Here are a few such criticisms I’ve picked up over the years (in bold), along with brief arguments against them (in italics) that are regularly ignored.

“People don’t really enjoy reading difficult books: they only read books such as Ulysses to show off.”

If it were true that it is not possible to enjoy anything that is difficult, it’s hard to explain why so many are attracted to chess, say, or to difficult cryptic crossword puzzles.

And show off to whom? We do not live in a world where erudition is much valued. Reading something like Ulysses in order to “show off” seems like an awful lot of hard work for very little in return.

“People who write difficult books – again, like Ulysses – are just showing off how clever they are.”

Once again, showing off to whom? And why?

And if you don’t like “clever” writers, do you really prefer stupid ones?

“Male authors couldn’t/can’t create convincing female characters.”

Odd, isn’t it? Good writers of fiction can imagine themselves into the minds of all sorts of people different from themselves – children, old people, people from different walks of life, people from different social class, and all the rest of it. But the one barrier that is, seemingly, insurmountable is the barrier of gender. Not sure why: no-one has bothered explaining.

And in any case, how do you know that men writers cannot create women? Do all women think and feel in the same way? And are you privy to all their thoughts and feelings?

A good many of these penny-in-the-slot criticisms refer to Dickens. Some do lead to a bit of an exchange, but they never really get anywhere:

“Dickens really couldn’t create women.”

Miss Havisham, Betsey Trotwood, Sarah Gamp –

“Yes, but those are caricatures.”

But caricatures are not failed attempts at portraiture. You did not specify –

“You know what I meant. Dickens could not depict real women.”

Esther Summerson, Lady Dedlock, Harriet Beadle, Rosa Dartle, Lizzie Hexam…

“Dickens could only create caricatures.”

As said previously, a caricature is not a failed attempt at portraiture. It takes skill to create a memorable caricature. And as for Dickensian characters who are complex people and most definitely not caricatures, we have Steerforth, John Jarndyce, William Dorrit, Pip, Miss Wade …

“But Dickens’ heroines are awful”.

Some of Dickens’ romantic heroines, especially in his early novels, are certainly bland and colourless. But so are his romantic heroes. Nicholas Nickleby is as colourless as Madeleine Bray, the adult David Copperfield as colourless as Agnes Wickfield, Martin Chuzzlewit as colourless as – and so on. It’s not just his heroines. The convention that romantic heroes and heroines had both to be spotless created all sorts of problems for writers. Dickens later overcame this and created heroes and heroines who are genuinely interesting – Pip and Estella, Bella Wilfer, Louisa Gradgrind, etc.

Silence. No response. And then, soon after:

“Dickens couldn’t create female characters, and all his characters are merely caricatures anyway.”

And also, for good measure:

“Dickens was just soap opera of his day”.

Just for clarity, could you define what you mean by “soap opera”, and specify how it differs from other (and presumably superior) forms of drama?

No, of course they can’t. At least, they don’t. The whole point of these criticisms is that you don’t need to follow them up.

And then you get the killer one:

“Dickens is sentimental.”

Sentimentality is a difficult thing to define adequately. Yes, in many of his works – especially the early ones – he can be genuinely mawkish. But that is by no means the full story: there is also much in his novels that has real emotional depth and complexity. For instance …

And you put together a long, detailed catalogue of examples, but no-one is listening. They have demonstrated how superior their taste is to yours by proclaiming that they are above Dickens and you aren’t, and that’s the end of the matter. They may even add, for good measure:

“I don’t have to like something just because the critics say I must.”

The implication is that I am blinded by the authority of these “critics” (whoever these mustachio-twirling pantomime villains may be), but they, being more independent in their thought, aren’t. And you might as well stop there, unless you want to create a scene.

Dickens certainly gets more than his fair share of penny-in-the-slot criticisms, but other writers aren’t exempt either:

“The Brontës were the bodice-rippers of their day.”q

“Austen was the chick-lit of her day.”

You can write entire essays trying to refute these claims, safe in the knowledge that no-one will engage with anything you may have to say. Well, some might, I guess – but you know that the same comments will come up again, and from the same people.

And then, on Shakespeare, there is that old bugbear of mine:

“Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be seen, not read.”

How do you know this? Are you privy to what Shakespeare intended? And even if that is what Shakespeare had intended, why deny ourselves the experience of reading these plays when reading them can be so enriching?

Then there is that perennial one:

“I read to enjoy myself.”

My protestations that I, too, read to enjoy myself pass unnoticed.

“At the end of the day, it’s all just a matter of personal opinion.”

This is the point where you decide you’ve had enough of book boards, and create your own blog where you can let off steam to your heart’s content. As I have done here.

(If anyone has been triggered by any of this, please do bear in mind that I had placed a Trigger Warning at the start of this post, and I don’t think I can be held responsible for any distress or trauma caused.)

My Answers to Author Questions

I don’t normally do these memes on this blog, but I have been enjoined to do so by the redoubtable Di Nguyen of The Little White Attic blog. (Her own answers to these questions may be found here.) So here goes.

1/ Who are your favourite writers? Restricting myself to ten (or we’ll be here for ever), Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Ibsen, Tolstoy, Tagore, Conan Doyle (and not just for the Sherlock Holmes stories), M. R. James (I’ve always loved creepy ghost stories), and, finally, P. G. Wodehouse, who makes me laugh more than any other author.

A few more? OK – Gerard Manley Hopkins, Eugene O’Neill, William Butler Yeats, Flannery O’Connor, Emily Brontë, William Faulkner, Franz Kafka, George Eliot, Alexander Pushkin, Anton Chekhov, John Keats, Carson McCullers, Sophocles, Nikolai Leskov, Robert Louis Stevenson, Boris Pasternak, Benito Pérez Galdós, Raymond Chandler, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Homer, R. K. Narayan, Thomas Mann, Seamus Heaney, Cervantes, Elizabeth Bishop, James Joyce, Nikolai Gogol, James M. Cain, Muriel Spark, Thucydides, Alexandre Dumas, Vasily Grossman, Harold Pinter, Joseph Conrad, Eudora Welty, Gustave Flaubert, Bertolt Brecht …

Can I stop now?

2/ Who were your favourite writers when you were a teenager? Which of them do you still like? I was an overly serious teenager, and my teenage reading was, on the whole, fairly heavy duty stuff. Shakespeare I discovered early, and has remained a constant companion. I also discovered the 19th century Russians – Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, etc. I was a great admirer of Bernard Shaw for a while, but the major influence on my political thinking was Orwell – not so much his two well-known novels, but, rather, his essays, reviews, and journalism.

I continued my childhood love of reading creepy ghost stories in bed at night: other than M. R. James, writers such as Algernon Blackwood, A. M. Burrage, E. F. Benson, and various other writers who will only be known to aficionados, were (and remain) huge favourites. And, of course, there were the Sherlock Holmes stories. And various other stories by Conan Doyle: it’s a shame that the Holmes and Watson stories, wonderful though they are, overshadow, for instance, the Brigadier Gerard stories.

For some reason, when I entered my teens, I felt adventure stories – which I enjoyed in my pre-teenage years – were now beneath me. So I gave up on the likes of Stevenson, Rider Haggard, John Buchan, Anthony Hope, etc. It was very foolish of me.

3/ Which writers have most influenced you? In terms of my political views, Orwell, certainly – although, as I said, his essays and journalism were more important to me than Animal Farm or Nineteen Eighty Four.

My literary mentor was Anthony Burgess. I did not know anyone sufficiently knowledgeable or interested in literature to discuss it with me, or to guide me, and Burgess filled that position admirably.

As for the rest, just about every writer whose works I value has, in some way or other, influenced the way I think, and the way I see the world.

4/ Which writers do you wish had not influenced you? None that I can think of, really. For a time, I was something of a Shavian, but I soon got over that, although I still admire him as a comic dramatist. Sadly, I don’t think he was anywhere near as profound a thinker as he imagined himself.

5/ Which writers are you embarrassed you used to like? Once again, none I can think of. In my early childhood, I used to love Enid Blyton’s adventure stories, and I know I am supposed to find that embarrassing now, but I don’t. I enjoyed her stories, and they gave me the confidence to read in English (which was, of course, not my mother tongue).

6/ Which writers did you not expect to like, but did? I find that the older I get, the broader my range of sympathies become. I used to find Austen, for instance, very alien to my sensibilities. Similarly Henry James, or Edith Wharton. I much preferred the irregularities of a Dostoyevsky to the smooth and immaculately polished surfaces of a Henry James; the vast, mysterious vision of late Ibsen to the seeming ordinariness of Kathrine Mansfield; Gogol’s streaks of madness, or the exuberance and eccentricity of Dickens, to the eminent sanity of Austen. I now admire (and even like) all those sane, immaculate polishers who used previously to bore me.

And, of course, Tagore. I grew up in a very Tagorean household: he was, effectively, an extra member of the family. His music and poetry were all around me, and I think I absorbed Tagore virtually through the pores of my skin. I turned against him in my teenage years, only to return to him later, in middle age.

7/ Which writers do you think you will still read, and like, for the rest of your life? I’ll be sixty in a few years time, and I can’t really see myself turning against any of those writers I have loved now for decades.

8/ Who are your favourite prose stylists? Or your favourite writers on the sentence level? I don’t think I know of any prose writer in English who had greater command over the language than James Joyce. Dickens had a magnificent ear for the rhythms and sonorities of the English language: no matter how long his sentences, he never lost his way. I enjoy also the grace and the elegance of Austen, Wharton, and R. K. Narayan.

And, for all his repetitive clumsiness (and, it must be said, occasional gibberish), the prose of D. H. Lawrence could, at its best, communicate states of mind and levels of consciousness that one might have thought were beyond the power of words.

9/ Who are your favourite writers of characters? Shakespeare and Tolstoy.

10/ Which writers, alive or dead, would you invite to dinner? I’d invite renowned conversationalists, such as Mark Twain or R. L. Stevenson.

11/ Which writers, alive or dead, would you like to know personally? And think you could be friends with? See answer to previous question. I also like to think I’d have got on quite well with Carson McCullers.

12/ Do you personally know any published author? Yes, one or two, but this is not the place for name-dropping.

13/ Which writers do you like/ admire but generally avoid, for some reason? Nabokov comes to mind. Not entirely sure why I tend to avoid him: it’s something I haven’t analysed.

14/ Which writers do you like as critics/ essayists but not as novelists? I do like Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty Four, but I rate Orwell more highly as an essayist. Also, I find the novels of Virginia Woolf very alien to my sensibilities, but her critical judgements tend to be sound. (Except her views on Ulysses: like so many others, she was shocked by it, but didn’t really want to admit being shocked.)

15/ Which writers have changed you as a reader? Just about every writer who has meant anything to me.

16/ Who do you think are overrated? On the understanding that “overrated” doesn’t mean “inferior”, I’d nominate John Steinbeck and Harper Lee. It’s not their fault: it’s just that, in UK schools at least, everyone (and I mean everyone) has to read Of Mice and Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, or both; and as a consequence, these two novels, which are both pretty good, are often regarded as representing the highest peaks of literature.

I’m also genuinely puzzled by the reverence in which F. Scott Fitzgerald is held, but that’s probably just me. I really don’t know. The high status of Evelyn Waugh and E. M. Forster also continues to puzzle me.

17/ Who do you think are underrated and should be more widely read? R. K. Narayan, definitely. And Aldous Huxley should be known for more than just Brave New World: his early novels especially – Crome Yellow, Antic Hay, Point Counter Point – are intelligent, endlessly witty and inventive, and a sheer joy to read.

18/ Who do you think are the best living writers? My reading of contemporary literature amounts to so little, I’d be embarrassed even to try to answer this question.

19/ Which writers do you go to for comfort? Conan Doyle, M. R. James, P. G. Wodehouse, R. L. Stevenson, Alexandre Dumas. And many writers of creepy ghost stories.

20/ Which writers do you go to for mere amusement? I’ve never thought of “amusement” as “mere” (the ability to provide high quality amusement is a skill to be respected) but P. G. Wodehouse I think fits the bill here. And, possibly, the Flashman novels of George Mcdonald Frazer, although, once again, it is doing these books a disservice by applying to them the rather insulting adjective “mere”.

21/ Who are the greatest writers that you don’t personally like/ that you just don’t warm to? See answer to Question 13.

22/ Which writers do you hate/ strongly dislike? When I dislike a writer who is generally well regarded, I put it down to shortcomings on my part rather than on the writer’s. The whole point of reading is to come across perspectives and sensibilities very different to my own, and to absorb them into mine; but some perspectives and sensibilities are so very different to my own, that taking them in becomes virtually impossible. One just has to shrug one’s shoulders, accept that there are limits to what one can take in, and move on.

I confess as well that I have a strong antipathy to the fantasy genre, and to science fiction. Once again, that’s a comment on myself, and not on the accomplished writers within these genres. But I generally try to avoid people who push a copy of The Lord of the Rings into my hands and tell me I really must read it.

There are many writers I’m sure I’d dislike if I were to read them, but who are not even on my radar, so there’s little point my mentioning them.

23/ Which writers are you prejudiced against? Writers in the science fiction and fantasy genres (see answer to question above).

24/ Which writers do you feel you should have read by now? Montaigne (I’m reading his essays now); the mythical Valmiki and Vyasa (reputedly authors of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata), and the anonymous authors of the Icelandic sagas; the great poets of Persian literature; Dante and Proust (I’ve only dipped my toes into their works, and don’t claim to know them adequately); Lady Murasaki; Ezra Pound (I’ll get round to the Cantos some day, I’m sure); … and so on, and so forth. In the immortal words of Stan Laurel, life’s not short enough.

25/ Which writers from your country would you recommend to a foreigner? I’m not entirely sure what “my country” is. Bengal? India? Scotland? England? UK? Assuming it’s Bengal (or India), I’d recommend the two magnificent novels Pather Panchali and Aparajito by Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay. (Tagore was a towering figure, but his poetry is very difficult to translate. However, the existing translations have garnered much praise.) Assuming it’s Scotland, I’d recommend Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg.

And assuming it’s England, I’d recommend Shakespeare. (For those who insist that these plays were “meant to be seen, not read”, I refuse to discuss the matter further.)

26/ Which writers do you recommend to everyone? Every serious reader? I love talking about the books I value, but these days, I never recommend anything to anyone, We all have our own priorities, and we all have too little time.

27/ Which writers do you wish you could write like? R. K. Narayan. I wish I had that seemingly effortless grace and elegance, and that natural charm.

28/ What is your favourite language to read in? English. It’s not my mother tongue, but it’s the language I know best.

29/ Which foreign-language writers make you wish to learn their language in order to read them in the original? Russian. My enthusiasm for Russian literature is still as strong as it ever was.

30/ Who is the best writer you’ve just discovered recently? I recently found the short stories of Giovanni Verga quite revelatory. And I am currently enjoying rediscovering Molière, whom I had previously underrated.

If any other blogger would like to address these questions on their own blog, please do go ahead, and put a link to it in the Comments section below.

“Madama Butterfly” revisited

There are times when one should reconsider some point of view one had previously expressed with great confidence, and concede, much though it may pain one to do so, that one may, perhaps, have been a trifle over-hasty. To switch now to the first person, I have to admit I’ve been talking shite.

The last time I wrote about the operas of Puccini, I had characterised him as, essentially, a purveyor of schmaltz – a splendid craftsman who, far from hiding his craftsmanship, put it on display, and who knew better than anyone how to pull at the heartstrings. And while it is certainly very enjoyable stuff, it is not, I implied, to be taken too seriously. You have a good cry as you’re watching it, and afterwards, if not actually forget about it, smile at the thought of having been so affected at the time. It’s showmanship of a very high standard, admittedly, but showmanship all the same, and nothing more.

But now, a full week after seeing a live broadcast into the cinemas of Royal Opera’s superb performance of Madama Butterfly, and still unable to get it out of my head, I find myself questioning this. Even if it were all true; even if Puccini were a master showman, a craftsman of the highest order who knew full well how to get his audience crying; why should that imply that his works are not to be taken seriously? What is it, precisely, that should prevent me from seeing Madama Butterfly as a serious tragic drama?

The plotline is simple enough (and I guess that I should issue at this point a spoiler warning, for those who care about such things). A young Japanese girl, Cio Cio San, from a noble family now fallen upon bad times, and, aged only fifteen, very innocent and naïve about the ways of the world, enters into marriage with a young American sailor Pinkerton. She takes the marriage very seriously, going as far as to reject her religion for her future husband’s, thus earning her family’s disapproval. Pinkerton, on the other hand, does not take this “marriage” at all seriously: he is just in it for a night of sex with an attractive young Japanese girl, and he even jokes quite openly about later finding himself a “proper American wife”. After his night of passion, he sails away, and forgets all about this girl. It is not that he is a villain: he is just a thoughtless young man who is doing what he sees everyone else in his position doing. It doesn’t occur to him – or, indeed, to anyone else – that the “bride” might be taking this whole silly business seriously.

But she does. From that night of passion, she has a little boy. And she waits for Pinkerton to return, as he had said he would, and will not hear anything to the contrary. And when, after three years, he does return, he has his “proper American wife” with him. He is overcome by remorse, and he and his American wife speak of adopting the little boy from his former “marriage”. Cio Cio San, her entire life and soul now crushed, takes out of its scabbard the sword with which her father, on the Emperor’s command, had committed hara-kiri. She reads the inscription: “He who cannot live with honour must die with honour”. And she blindfolds the little by so he cannot see his mother’s final agony, both physical and spiritual.

That is the story, and, for all the talk we hear of operas having silly plots, this seems to me frighteningly realistic. But what is interesting is what Puccini makes of this story. For, as far as I can see, what he makes of it is more than just a finely crafted tear-jerker. It now seems to me that it is nothing less than a tragedy of immense proportions. Cio Cio San’s fate is every bit as tragic as that of Janáček’s Káťa Kabanová, or Berg’s Wozzeck. If we do not hesitate to describe those works as tragic (and I don’t think anyone seriously does), I really don’t see why we should withhold that status from this opera. Yes, Cio Cio San is tortured beyond human endurance, and Puccini is often criticised for what many regard as his streak of sadism, and of misogyny. But Káťa Kabanová and Wozzeck are equally tortured, and I’ve yet to hear Janáček criticised for misogyny on that score, or Berg of misandry. And neither is accused of sadism. It seems that these criticisms are made only of Puccini. Is it because he wears his heart so obviously on his sleeve, I wonder? What other reason can there be?

Also, sadism implies an enjoyment in inflicting pain. But I get no sense of that at all in Madama Butterfly. Puccini takes Cio Cio San’s sufferings very seriously. Indeed, he is perhaps the only one who does. Apart from the maidservant Suzuki, all other characters seem to see Cio Cio San as essentially disposable: she doesn’t matter, and neither do her feelings. In the first act, Pinkerton never pauses to ask himself whether Cio Cio San takes the marriage seriously, or as lightly as he obviously does. Even the American consul, Sharpless, though sympathetic, is merely uneasy at the marriage, and no more: he tells Pinkerton to be careful, but, crucially, doesn’t tell him not to proceed with his plans. Later, he expresses frustration that Cio Cio San insists on waiting for the man she still regards as her husband. In the final act, no-one questions that Pinkerton’s second marriage, with a “proper American woman”, is the one that really counts, and not his first. Pinkerton may be remorseful, and everyone may feel sorry for Cio Cio San, but no-one thinks anything of taking her child away from her. The American Mrs Pinkerton promises to Cio Cio San that she will look after the child as if he were her own: she actually thinks this is a kind thing to say. And we can all guess what will happen once the curtain drops on the dead woman and the blindfolded child: the child will be taken away, his mother never more mentioned, and, in time, she will be forgotten. A disposable person well disposed of. Move on – nothing to see here.

The only person to understand the full extent of this tragedy, to understand its earth-shaking nature, is Puccini himself. And to see this merely as a master showman pulling strings to get his audience crying does not strike me as an adequate way to view this – as it seems to me now – extraordinary work. It wrings the heart with terror and with pity, and neither is there just for theatrical effect.

The Royal Opera production, and the performances, were top notch. Conductor Antonio Pappano shapes and paces the drama to perfection, and Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho is absolutely sensational as Cio Cio San, both in terms of singing and of acting. A full week after the show, neither my wife nor I can get this opera out of our heads. The other characters on stage may no doubt see Cio Cio San as essentially a disposable human being; but Puccini has ensured that we see her as something considerably more than that. Madama Butterfly is among the great works of tragic drama.

In praise of independent bookshops

There we were, in Totnes, a town in the west of England that we had not been to before. My wife and I commented to each other how pleasant it was to see a high street with mainly independent shops, rather than with branches of large multi-national chains. Pleasant though it was, most of the shops were not, I admit, of much interest to me: clothes shops generally leave me indifferent (I am not the world’s best-dressed person); watches and jewellery I tend to find a bit dull; and the specialist food and wine shops are really not for the likes of me, as anything I am drawn to is more than likely to be disapproved of by my doctor. But no matter. It was pleasant just walking up that high street, and soaking up its multi-national-free ambience.

Then it appeared: a bookshop, and an independent bookshop at that. Not that I disapprove of chains. I remember when Waterstones and Dillons (the latter now taken over by the former) first appeared on our high streets some thirty or so years ago: they gave us book-browsers far more to browse through than we had ever enjoyed before. And even now, my local branch of Waterstones is staffed by friendly and enthusiastic people, who are very fast and efficient in getting for me any title they happen not to have in stock. So no, I am not complaining. But an independent bookshop is different. And I think what makes it different is the reason any independent shop is different from a branch of a chain: there is an individuality about what they stock, what they display.

Now, I do not know how these things work, but most branches of Waterstones, in terms of the titles and the kinds of book on display, are fairly identikit: see one branch, and you’ve seen them all. Once again, I am not complaining: they have obviously decided that is the best way to run their business, and best of luck to them. But one can’t help noticing that the stocks in independent bookshops are different. Obviously, given limited space, no bookshop, not even the largest, could hope to stock every book; and independent bookshops, given that they tend generally to be on the smaller side, have no choice but to be discriminating about which titles, and which kind of books, they want to display. And the choices each one makes is refreshingly different: they are, inevitably, indicative of the owners’ tastes and values, and of how they feel the local book-buying community is best served.

Of course, there could, and, no doubt, do exist bookshops where the focus is on books that one may find, for whatever reason, objectionable or unsavoury. In such cases, the obvious thing to do is to walk out.  But in general, it is precisely the individual nature of each independent bookshop that makes them so delightful. It is that chance of coming across a book one had not seen before, or had not known about, or had been looking for in vain, that makes the browsing so pleasurable. When I am finally invited to Desert Island Discs (and why the BBC hasn’t yet invited me, I cannot imagine), and am asked what luxury I would like, I would, as John Arlott had done, ask for a good bookshop. Or, better still, a few good bookshops.

That shop in Totnes did not disappoint. True, it was very small, but the stock we found was refreshingly different from that we would normally encounter in a branch of Waterstones. My wife headed immediately – as she generally does – to the history section, and didn’t take too long to find a few titles she wanted. As for me, I found Winter Notes on Summer Impressions – Dostoyevsky’s account of his travels in Europe. Despite the fame of the writer, this is a fairly specialised title, and not one I’d expect to find even in the larger branches of chain bookshops. That I found it in a small independent bookshop in Totnes is remarkable, and really does fill me with delight.

Sadly, apart from a specialist children’s bookshop in Richmond, there aren’t too many independent bookshops near where I live. A friend of mine runs an independent bookshop in Kenilworth (the Tree House Bookshop, that I have no hesitation in plugging here on this blog), and my only complaint is that it is not within easy travelling distance of where I am. But every time I visit Lancashire (which I do fairly frequently for family reasons), I find myself in Halewoods in Preston (who appear not to have a website), or in that lovely little bookshop in Clitheroe. Like that shop we found in Totnes, these shops are run by people who obviously care about books, and, despite the limited shelf space, take care over the titles they stock. And every time I step into one of these shops, I feel at home: I feel almost guilty walking out without having made a purchase! And when I have a weekend to myself, I can think of nothing better than to head out to Hay-on-Wye, and spend a day or two browsing at my leisure through its many bookshops.

But it is invidious to single out a few shops when there are still so many. And I cannot help wondering how much longer I’ll be able to enjoy visiting these independent bookshops, given both the current economic and cultural climates. There was an independent bookshop in the nearby town of Chertsey that was forced to close down a few years ago. And even in Hay-on-Wye, a town internationally renowned for its many bookshops, the number of shops has declined dramatically over the years, and many owners I have chatted to have left me in no doubt that running these shops is, frankly, an uphill struggle. It is tremendously sad. If these shops do some day disappear, we will be left more impoverished than I think we realise. The people who run these shops, despite all the difficulties, do so because they love books, and they deserve our most sincere respect and gratitude. I’d be more than happy to raise a glass or two to them. And would, indeed, do so, if only my doctor approved…

But while they are still here, let us celebrate them. Browsing through these shops, and then walking up to the cash desk with a few purchases, are amongst the greatest delights of life. Long may we continue to do so, and long may these shops thrive, whatever the odds!

“The Stone Guest” by Alexander Pushkin

[All excerpts below taken from the translation by Nancy K. Anderson, published by Yale University Press, 2000.]

Pushkin seemed to have had Mozart on his mind around 1830, when he wrote those four miniature plays, usually known in English as the “Little Tragedies”. In one of these plays, Mozart and Salieri – a dramatic treatment of the myth that Salieri had poisoned Mozart, and written long before Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus –  Mozart himself is one of the protagonists. Another deals with a myth that, by then, was very much associated with Mozart – the myth of Don Juan. But, as with everyone else who had tackled this myth (including its originator, Tirso de Molina), Pushkin had his own individual view of the myth. And, partly because the form of Pushkin’s work – a miniature play in which, given its brevity, much is necessarily left unsaid – it is Pushkin’s view that I find the most enigmatic and elusive of those I have so far encountered.

Tirso de Molina had not made too much of the master-servant relationship. Molière, and, following him, Mozart and da Ponte, had, bringing this relationship to the front of the stage. Pushkin also brings the master and the servant (the servant here called Leporello, as in Mozart’s opera) to the forefront: the drama begins with the two of them entering Madrid, even though Don Juan has previously been banished from the city. The conversation between the two is partly expository – telling us what we need to know for the drama to make sense; but it is not entirely expository. Just minutes into the play, for instance, we get this:

DON JUAN (pensively): …    Poor Inez!
She’s gone now! How I loved her!

LEPORELLO: Inez! The black-eyed one … Now I remember,
For three months you were paying court
To her; it was all the devil could do to help.

DON JUAN: July it was … at night. I found strange pleasure
In gazing at her sorrowful eyes
And death-pale lips. It’s strange,
You apparently didn’t think she was
A beauty. And in fact, there wasn’t
Much beautiful about her. Her eyes,
Just her eyes. And her glance … I’ve never seen
Another glance like that. And her voice
Was quiet, feeble – like a sick woman’s –
Her husband was a worthless wretch, and stern –
I found that out too late – Poor Inez!…

With all its various ellipses and aposiopeses, the effect of this passage is sketchy – an adumbration rather than a depiction. Inez was no beauty in any conventional sense, and her “sorrowful eyes and death-pale lips”, and her voice that was “quiet, feeble”, suggest something sickly, other-worldly, and haunted by death. She is not, in short, the type of woman we would expect Don Juan to be attracted to; and, indeed, Don Juan himself is not sure why he had been attracted to her. In Mozart’s opera, Don Juan (or Don Giovanni) would seduce (or rape, if needs be) all kinds of women, simply to add them to his list, but what we see here is something new, something very alien to the incarnations of Don Juan as imagined by either de Molina, or by Molière, or by Mozart: we see here a Don Juan capable of genuine tenderness and affection. True, the other Don Juans could express tenderness and affection for the woman they are wooing at the time, but never for a past conquest; and it is left to us to determine how sincere their protestations of tenderness and affections are, and, indeed, whether such feelings can be said to exist at all when they are, at best, merely transient. But Pushkin leaves us in no doubt: this Don Juan is indeed capable of feeling these emotions, even for a woman who is now, presumably, dead.

And neither was Don Juan attracted to Inez because of her beauty. Leporello did not think her beautiful, and Don Juan agrees. Whatever attracted him, it was not her physical charms. And what he chooses to remember about her are those death-haunted qualities – her “sorrowful eyes and death-pale lips”. All of this suggests a rich inner world that previous Don Juans did not have. But then, almost immediately, Pushkin pulls us up short: the last two lines of the passage quoted suggest – only suggest, as nothing is spelt out – that Inez was murdered by her husband for her affair with Don Juan. If this was indeed the case, Don Juan had played a significant part in her tragedy, and, especially given how he still feels about her, he should feel guilt, and remorse. And yet, he doesn’t. Immediately after this rather affecting minor key passage, without so much as pausing for breath, Pushkin turns the tonality to a major key, and the rhythm becomes jaunty, as Don Juan and Leporello move on to talk about further conquests. Yes, Pushkin had Mozart on the mind, right enough.

This passage about Inez cannot be described as “expository”, as Inez is not mentioned again in the play. The entire section could have been taken out without affecting our understanding of what happens. But that minor key tonality it imparts, if only for a few bars, colours everything that comes afterwards. And it leaves us with a strange impression of Don Juan: he is a man clearly capable of introspection and tenderness and depth of feeling, who can be drawn to qualities other than mere external charm, and yet who bears no responsibility for the past, no guilt for his actions. He had, in the past, before the curtain raises on this play, killed the Commander, for reasons and in circumstances both left unspecified. But, once again, there is not the slightest hint in him of remorse: rather than feel sorry for the man he had killed, it is his widow, Doña Ana, who now interests him. The past is buried, and not allowed to interfere with the joys of the present.

In the second of the four scenes that make up this play, we are introduced to, in effect, a female equivalent of Don Juan, the actress Laura, who, like her male counterpart, demands complete freedom to pursue her desires. If Don Juan feels no responsibility for the past, Laura, only eighteen, and, hence, without much of a past to speak of, feels none for the future. When reminded that some day she too will be old, her reaction is:

…  Then? Why should
I think of that? What talk is this?

But even in those eighteen years, she had been Don Juan’s lover, and, in this scene, Don Juan comes back to visit her once again. This is yet another departure from previous incarnations of Don Juans: previous Don Juans did not care for their past lovers, their past conquests – they were always moving onwards to new experiences. But Pushkin’s Don Juan is different: he may not take responsibility for the past, and may refuse to feel any guilt that may interfere with his enjoyment of the present, but that past, nonetheless, is never dead for him.

In Laura’s apartment, Don Juan is challenged to a duel by a Don Carlos, whose brother Don Juan had previously killed in duel. (Whether or not Don Carlos’ dead brother is the Commander, we are never told.) Don Juan does not want to fight in Laura’s room, but he is given no choice. Of course, he kills Don Carlos. As in Molière’s play, Pushkin had placed the killing of the Commander before the play opens, but while Molière had done this to make Don Juan a more likeable character, Pushkin has no such intention: the killing of Don Carlos takes place in full view on stage, and, while it can certainly be argued that Don Juan was given no choice in the matter, we cannot but note the utter lack of remorse, or even of regret, either on his part, or on Laura’s. It has happened, it is now in the past, and responsibility for past actions, or guilt for past crimes, must not be allowed to interfere with the demands of the present.

And yet the past cannot be forgotten. There, it seems to me, is the paradox at the heart of this strange and elusive work. To enjoy the present, to seize the moment, the past must be forgotten; and yet, the past cannot be forgotten: the death-like pallor of Inez continues to haunt.

This paradox forces itself into the forefront of the action in the final scene. Here, Don Juan, having declared his love for Doña Ana under the assumed name of Don Diego, has been invited into her chamber. And, on the very brink of attaining his desire, he does the very thing that is most likely to thwart it: he admits that Don Diego is but an assumed name, and that he is really Don Juan, the killer of her husband. It is a startling moment, and not something I can claim fully to understand. It seems an inexplicable thing to do, and certainly not something that the Don Juans of de Molina,  Molière, or Mozart would have done. But Pushkin’s Don Juan is different: however he may try  to bury the past, to expunge it from his mind so he does not have to bear its burden, it refuses to remain hidden: it must out. And, in this startling final scene, it erupts unexpectedly into the open.

And at this point, the statue of the Commander comes to drag Don Juan into Hell. It is impossible not to see the stone statue at this point in symbolic terms. What does he represent? For surely, he must represent something: he is not just an optional add-on, present merely because the story demands it. The title of Pushkin’s play is not, after all, Don Juan, or Don Giovanni, or The Trickster of Seville: it is The Stone Guest. It is the statue, the title reminds us, and not Don Juan, who is at the centre of things, and it is up to us to understand the significance of this statue.

The obvious response is that he is the past that Don Juan had tried to deny – the responsibility he had shirked, the guilt he had buried, but which refuses to remain buried. Seen in this respect, we can find significance in the fact that he is of stone, the very antithesis of the flesh and blood that lives for the moment; we may find significance also in the fact that it is Don Juan who had invited him; or in the fact that the statue of the Commander is considerably larger than the Commander had been when he had lived.

All of this makes for a coherent reading, no doubt, but it strikes me as unsatisfactory, as it reduces the poetic richness of the work to mere allegory, and symbols rich with meaning into impoverished ciphers. In these cases, it seems to me best to not interpret at all, but, rather, instead of trying to winkle out what these symbols and the poetic images may mean, to take them at face value, and allow them to resonate in one’s mind.

I can’t say this play has settled yet in my mind. But it does continue to resonate, and I do sense there is more substance here than can be conveyed by any interpretation I may have to offer. Pushkin seemed to see this myth in terms of the past, and of the burden of guilt for that past that we try to keep submerged, but which we cannot keep from irrupting into the present.

At least, that’s the way I see it right now: I’m sure that the longer I ponder on it, the more meanings it will continue to yield. It is, as I said, the most enigmatic and elusive of all the Don Juans I have encountered so far.

“Don Juan” by Molière

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don Juan:  Suppose we leave that alone.

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

Don Juan:  Eh?

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

Don Juan:  Yes, yes.

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

Don Juan:  Ha! Ha! Ha!

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

Don Juan:  Don’t be a fool!

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

Don Juan:  What do I believe?

Sganarelle: Yes.

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

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

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

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

Come on. Let us get out of here.

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

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

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

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

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

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