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The Nighttime madness of “Finnegans Wake”

Given that we spend some one third or so of our lives asleep, it may seem incongruous that writers of fiction devote so little time to exploring our sleeping states. Incongruous, perhaps, but not surprising. For one thing, while we know that we do dream, we very often cannot remember what we dream about: at best, we remember – and even then, partially – only what we were dreaming about immediately before waking; more often, our remembrance slips away from our grasp within moments of our daytime consciousness assuming control, and all that remain, if anything, are the feelings and emotions our dream had evoked rather than the dream itself. And even if we do remember our dream, we don’t know what to make of them – weird jumbles that they are of our current concerns, our memories (both those still fresh in the mind and those long buried), our hopes and, more frequently (for me at any rate) our fears, all mixed up with fragments and pieces and bits and bobs we have picked up from books, from newspapers, from television, from conversation, etc. – all that detritus floating rather pointlessly upon the disordered surfaces of our minds. None of this seems sufficiently malleable into a formal coherence that is, whether we like it or not, a requirement of art.

This hasn’t, of course, prevented writers from attempting to enter the world of dreams. In ancient literatures, dreams were things that came into our mind from the world outside, usually from divinities warning us of what is yet to come; often, they required skilled interpreters – a Joseph or a Daniel – to extricate their true meaning. Later, a dream was seen not so much as an intrusion from an outside world, but as a fantasia played out with material that is already within the dreamer’s mind: in that astonishing passage in Richard III in which Clarence narrates his dream, for instance, Shakespeare presents not a divine foretelling, but the writhings of a guilt-tormented mind.

Later still, writers and thinkers – especially those fascinated by the essential irrationality of human mind, e.g. Poe, Dostoyevsky, Strindberg – attempted to understand this strange phenomenon better. Famously, Freud attempted to formulate systematically what our dreams mean. But even then, in fiction, at any rate, dreams played, at best, a peripheral part: they were too vague, too intangible, too formless and too indifferent to artistic and to thematic unities, to be incorporated satisfactorily into something that demands formal coherence. It was like trying to sculpt with water.

And this, I think, is the challenge Joyce set himself in Finnegans Wake. Having depicted in Ulysses the daytime consciousness, as well as the daytime unconsciousness, of the waking mind, could he now turn his attention to the profound mysteries of the mind in its sleeping state? Not, as had been done already, as episodes in an otherwise daytime narrative, but as the very substance of the work? Could the work itself be a presentation of a dream miraculously remembered, with all its irrationalities, all its indifference to the unity or even to the consistency of time and of space, both of which are, effectively, banished? Could he dispense even with characters? And what about thematic unity, or structure? Are these things too, to vanish?

The answers to all these questions aren’t unambiguously “yes”:  in some cases, it’s unambiguously “no”. Characters cannot be dispensed with: without characters, there can be no narration, and, hence, no fiction. But in a dream narration such as this, characters may merge one into another; they may change identity; they may split themselves into different characters, and reassemble, possibly into something different. Time, too, cannot be dispensed with entirely: the children’s games in Part Two certainly break out of their ostensible timeframe, but the children’s lessons follow these games in time. And neither can space be banished completely: in Book Three Shaun disappears, but turns up as Jaun in another place; and later, Jaun too disappears, an turns up as Yawn, again, in another place.  The longest chapter is set in a bar, and, despite various episodes that seem to take us out, we remain quite firmly, I think, within it. Character and time and space may all be fluid, but the concepts cannot completely be dispensed with.

And, Joyce decided early on, structure most certainly could not be dispensed with either. The book may often seem like random meanderings, but it isn’t: unlike our real dreams, Finnegans Wake, like Ulysses, is very intricately structured. The point was not to create a work that was merely random meanderings, as dreams are, but, rather, to give an impression of formlessness: this impression of formlessness is important since our dreams themselves are formless, but structure is important also because Finnegans Wake is also a work of art, and art cannot exist without structure.

For Ulysses, Joyce had famously turned to Homer’s Odyssey for his structure, but that sort of linear narrative structure building towards a cathartic climax would not have worked here: dreams are not oriented towards any particular end. So he turned instead to the writings of the Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico, who had proposed (so I’m told: I don’t pretend to have read his work) instead of a linear view of history, a cyclical view. To begin with, according to Vico, we have a theocratic age, where humans are ruled by the divine, whose essence is seen on earth in the forms of giants and heroes, and whose word is brought down to us by visionaries and prophets; then, the religious element starts to vanish, and we have an aristocratic age, where we are ruled by an elite that does not necessarily seek the sanction of divine will; then follows the democratic age, but with such multiplicity of voices each striving for attention, a certain sense of an overriding purpose is lost, a certain debasement is apparent, and things fall apart; and, at this point, according to Vico, we have the ricoroso – the return again to divinities, and the theocratic age, and the whole cycle begins all over again. Whether Joyce accepted such a view of history doesn’t really matter (I rather suspect he didn’t): the point was that this gave him the sort of cyclical structure he had been looking for. For Finnegans Wake isn’t end-oriented: it starts in mid-sentence with the run of a river, and ends in mid-sentence, in the middle of a majestic passage describing the river flowing into the sea. But the river flowing into the sea in not the end: for the clouds that form above the sea drift back landwards, and the entire cycle starts all over again. The river continues to flow. The unfinished sentence at the end is completed by the unstarted sentence at the beginning, so, once one has reached the end, one can (in, theory, at least: I’d be surprised indeed if anyone has actually done this in practice) turn right back to the beginning and read the book all over again.

This cyclical view of time fits well with one of the major themes of the book – the succession of human generations, with each new generation superseding and supplanting the previous, and yet, somehow, mirroring the previous. Not in exact terms, of course: but the journey from youth to middle age to old age and finally to death is the common lot of us all, whatever generation we may be part of; for all of us, whatever visionary gleam we may have to begin with fades into the light of common day, and we repeat, in somewhat different forms, no doubt, the patterns that had gone before – as if our whole vocation were endless imitation.

But it is not perfect imitation. In each of the stages of the Viconian cycle, there has been a decline, of sorts, from the previous stage. The aristocracy could not compare with gods in terms of stature, and neither can democracy, the Age of the People, undirected and pulling simultaneously in all directions, compare with the aristocracy. Such a schema makes little sense, of course, as political analysis, but in structural terms, it suits Joyce’s purpose: there are three stages, each forming a major part of the book, and each marking a decline in terms of stature, of “bigness”, from what had previously been, until a short last chapter, the ricorso, takes us back to where we had started.

So far, I have been discussing all of this in the language of daytime – our waking language. And, for the purposes of this post, I shall continue to do so. But this language is inadequate for Joyce’s purpose, for this waking daytime language has built into it a logic that serves us for our daytime activities, but is quite unsuitable for the night-time state that Joyce is representing – a dream that will not, by its very nature, admit any kind of waking daytime logic. So Joyce took the most radical (and still deeply controversial) step of creating his own language. The result, according to many, is simply gibberish. Well, yes: dreams are simply gibberish as well, if it comes to that. But one cannot read hundreds of pages of mere gibberish: at some level, it has to make at least some sort of sense.

The language Joyce created for himself is multilingual. Being himself an accomplished linguist, he took elements not merely of English, but of various languages from across Europe, from the Middle East, from India (though he appears not to have ventured into the languages of Africa, the Far East, or of the Americas), and combined them together to create what often seem to be nonsense words, but which, looked more closely, reveal a multitude of different meanings. This allows him to say multiple things at the same time, and also – and this, I think, is important – to hide meaning. For dreams are obscure: from the Prophet Joseph to Sigmund Freud, we have felt the need to interpret dreams, because they do not, can not, by their very nature, give up their secrets openly. To criticise the book for its obscurity is to miss the point. A dream that is not obscure is no longer a dream.

And it is not just the multilingual aspects that create the obscurity. Embedded into the prose are references to all sort of things – from learned exegeses of the Book of Kells, to ballads, to popular music hall songs, to philosophical and theological concepts, to historic events and personages, to mythology and to folklore – all the various fragments and pieces and bits and bobs that Joyce had floating on the surface of, or stored in the depths of, his own prodigiously capacious mind.

All very well, but were does this leave the reader? Especially those readers without Joyce’s linguistic abilities, and without his massive erudition? True, there are available now many fine guides to this book – guides without which, frankly, I’d have floundered quite hopelessly. Roland McHugh’s Annotations to Finnegans Wake breaks down the multi-lingual vocabulary of the various compound and portmanteau words line by line with an extraordinary and exacting thoroughness, while A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake by Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson gives us a fine picture not so much of the individual details, perhaps, but of the narrative flow. Neither should one overlook Anthony Burgess’ splendid writings on this book that, throughout his literary career, he had exalted and had encouraged us all at least to try. But even with all this help, there are passages – often long passages – that seemed to me to make little sense, and where, despite my best intentions, I was most certainly tempted to regard merely as “gibberish”, and to give up. This, I think, is where we need to open our ears. For Finnegans Wake is, perhaps above all, a very musical book. We need to sound the words to our inner ear, pick out the various assonances and dissonances, the various internal rhymes and metres and rhythms. And it is quite astonishing how much these sounds and sonorities and rhythms convey when the meanings of the words themselves remain unclear. And if it still seems obscure – well, it is, after all, a dream.

But whose dream? Ostensibly, it is the dream of a publican in the Chapelizod area of Dublin, probably named (as we discover towards the end), Porter. But it can’t be: if the material of a dream cannot be other than what is already contained within the head of the dreamer, it is quite inconceivable that this Mr. Porter could carry around in his head such vast multi-lingual and multi-cultural erudition. Furthermore, towards the end of the book, Mr. Porter wakes up, but the language does not wake up with him: it remains the dream language that Joyce had invented. So, most likely, this is Joyce’s own dream. Perhaps. But I think Joyce’s ambition was aiming higher. If this is anyone’s dream at all, it is the collective dream of everyone, of the whole of mankind. Here Comes Everybody.

Although this may sound megalomaniac on Joyce’s part, it is not, I think, fanciful on ours. Joyce’s intention was, indeed, to write a work that would encompass the whole of mankind. But no-one, not even Joyce, could write a novel whose dramatis personae includes all humans. What he did instead was to focus on a small group of people, a family, and let each member of this family take on a multiplicity of roles. This is a dream, after all, and identities need not be fixed.

There is the father, a publican in the Chapelizod area of Dublin. His daytime name is, probably, Porter, but his night-time dream name is the simultaneously grandiose and somewhat absurd Humphrey Chimpden Earwhicker. Humphrey because he is also Humpty Dumpty, who has a great fall (and who, in Through the Looking Glass, introduces the concept of the “portmanteau word” – one word that is the composite of many others, and takes on all their meanings); Chimpden because … well, I’m not quite sure to be honest; and Earwhicker because among other things, it suggests an “earwig”: we’ll come to the significance of that later. His wife too has a rather wonderful dream name – Anna Livia Plurabelle: Livia because she is, among other things, the River Liffey that runs through Dublin (and, by extension, she is all the rivers in all the world); Plurabelle because she is beautiful in a plurality of ways. Throughout this narrative are embedded the initials HCE and ALP in all their various forms. HCE we encounter right at the end of the first paragraph: Howth Castle and Environs. He is also Haveth Childers Everywhere; he is also Here Comes Everybody. He is the eternal father figure of us all, and also the eternal everyman. If it seems rather fanciful to elevate an ordinary Dublin publican to such grandiose heights, it is, perhaps, no more so than elevating an advertising canvasser to be the great Ulysses himself. And after all, this is a dream: anything is possible.

 ALP will make her presence felt later. Just as her husband is present somewhere nearby when HCE crops up, so is she present every time we encounter ALP. There are such leitmotifs scattered throughout the text, in a rare attempt, perhaps, on Joyce’s part to guide us through this nighttime maze.

They have three children – twin boys Jerry and Kevin, and a daughter, Isobel. Jerry and Kevin appear throughout in various forms – most often as Shaun the Post, and Shem the Penman. Both are, in their different ways, incomplete (and hence, inferior) epigones of their father. Shem is the writer: in the chapter describing him, Joyce gives us what is in effect a witty self-portrait. He also presents Shem in the most unflattering, even scurrilous of terms:

Shem’s bodily getup, it seems, included an adze of a skull, an eight of a larkseye, the whoel of a nose, one numb arm up a sleeve, fortytwo hairs off his uncrown, eighteen to his mock lip, a trio of barbels from his megageg chin (sowman’s son), the wrong shoulder higher than the right, all ears, an artificial tongue with a natural curl, not a foot to stand on, a handful of thumbs, a blind stomach, a deaf heart, a loose liver, two fifths of two buttocks …

And so on. Shem the Penman may be Joyce himself, the writer of the book we are reading, but he is not the book’s hero. (Later, we shall see him bear false witness against his brother Shaun, who has been accused of his father’s crime.)

Neither is Shaun the hero. He is the Post – not someone who can wield the pen, but who can deliver what has been written. He is the extrovert – the captain-of-the-school-team type, a ladies’ man, much beloved by the girls (who revile Shem). Shaun and Shem appear throughout as opposites – as opposites, furthermore, at war with each other. A picture on the wall of the Porters’ house depicts the Archangel Michael defeating Lucifer: this is the cue needed to transform Shaun and Shem into the Archangel and the Devil – into Mick and Nick (Shaun being the splendiferous archangel, of course, and Shem the Devil). They re-appear as Burrus and Caseous (butter and cheese) – both in love with Margareen; as the Mookse and the Gripes, in a fable that, among other things, rehearses the incorporation of the Irish Church into the wider Church of Rome; as the Ondt and the Gracehoper, in a charming parody of Aesop’s fable (“Ondt” is the Norwegin for evil – obviously!); and so on.

In all these presentations of fraternal warfare, of battles between the opposites, another Italian philosopher is invoked: Giordano Bruno, who spoke of opposites being eventually reconciled to form a greater whole. Bruno was born in Nola, in southern Italy, and Bruno the Nolan becomes transformed quite easily into Brown and Nolan, a firm of Dublin publishers and booksellers. Brown and Nolan appear in various forms throughout the text as a leitmotif referring to brotherly hate, of warring opposites awaiting eventual reconciliation to become whole again.

And there’s Isobel, the daughter. Sometimes – for, once again, this is a dream – she becomes split into two: her own sweet self, and her mirror image, a nubile temptress. She is the twenty-ninth of the “calendar girls” (numbers play an important role in this book). There are twenty eight other girls, each representing one day of a month in the calendar (presumably this dream is taking place on a February night), with Isobel herself appearing as the twenty-ninth, the leap year girl. It’s these twenty nine who enthusiastically cheer on Mick in his battles against Nick, and revile Nick in his defeat. It’s these same twenty-nine girls to whom Shaun (in the guise of a debased Christ figure Jaun) later delivers seemingly pious but deeply cynical homilies, declaring them to be his Church.

Isobel is also Iseult of Celtic myth, or Isolde, as she appears in Wagner’s opera. (And we must remember that this dream is being dreamt in Chapelizod – the Chapel of Iseult.) In the myth, there are actually two Iseults – the one with whom Tristram (Tristan in Wagner’s opera) falls in love, and Iseult-la-Belle, whom Tristram later marries. So it is only reasonable – insofar as reason has any place here – that Isobel should also split herself into two – her own self, and her mirror image. In her form as temptress, she tempts, rather disturbingly, her brother Shaun, and also, equally disturbingly, her father, HCE himself. HCE – or Mr Porter, or what you will – is getting on in years, losing his sexual prowess; his wife, too, now in middle age, is not the beauty she had once been (though, being Plurabelle, she has other kinds of beauty too). It is not surprising that HCE, in one last throw of the dice, as it were, should be, at least, tempted by younger women – if only subconsciously. But in this book, where all the characters are effectively played by members of one family, the young woman to tempt HCE can only be his own nubile daughter. This incestuous desire is too terrible to be spoken out loud, even in a dream: so “incest” appears (and reappears) in disguise, as “insect”. Earwhicker comes in the form of an earwig. When rumours about HCE’s sexual misdemeanours spread across the city, a scurrilous ballad appears (Joyce gives us both text and music) – “The Ballad of Persse O’Reilly”. And we all know that perce-oreille is French for “earwig”. Of course we do.

HCE certainly falls, but he wasn’t the first. For, before the aristocratic age, we had, according to the Viconian schema, the theocratic age – and we have here the fall of Finnegan. The Finnegan here is mythic: he is Finn McCool, he is Brian Boru – the great giants and leaders in Irish history and folklore. But equally, he is also an ordinary builder in the popular ballad “Finnegan’s Wake” (the apostrophe in the title of the ballad implying possession, just as the lack of that apostrophe in the title of the novel implies plurality). According to this ballad, this Finnegan falls off his ladder while at work, is thought dead, but comes back to life at his own wake on hearing the word “whiskey”. Joyce describes his fall,

… with larrons o’toolers clittering up and tombles a’buckets clottering down.

(Already we are looking forward to the tale of the Mookse and the Gripes, with Bishop Laurence O’Toole of the Irish Church in the ascendency, and his contemporary Bishop Thomas à Beckett in decline.)

This Finnegan, when introduced, is referred to as “Bygmester Finnegan of the Stuttering Hand”. The “Bygmester” is a reference to Ibsen’s The Master Builder, or, in the original, Bygmester Solness – a work that plays an important thematic role in this novel. Master Builder Solness, or Bygmester Solness, fears being supplanted by the next generation; and towards the end of the drama, at the urging of a temptress far younger than himself and to whom he is clearly attracted, he climbs up his own tower, despite his fear of heights; and, from the top, he challenges the God he has rejected, but whom he still dare not even name, before falling to his death. Both the attraction to a younger woman implied by the reference to Ibsen’s play, and the stutter implied by “Stutterer’s Hand”, are associated in the rest of the novel not with the original Finnegan, but with his successor HCE. But we mustn’t expect consistency of character in a dream: Finnegan has about him elements, at least, of HCE. We shouldn’t be too surprised to see HCE peep out from the mythical Finnegan, nor, later, appear to speak through his sons. HCE is all men, anyway: Here Comes Everybody.

Finnegan dies, but is resurrected. This sets the pattern for the whole book: first the fall, and then the rise, generation after generation. We are born, we die, but then the cycle then starts all over again: we start again only to fin again. HCE falls too, and his fall, significantly, is in Phoenix Park in Dublin (the phoenix, of course, being the mythical bird that rises from its own ashes). But … “O phoenix culprit!” (“O Felix Culpa,” said St Augustine regarding Man’s first fall – “Oh happy crime!”)  

The exact nature of HCE’s fall isn’t clear. We are told he had “behaved with ongentilmensky immodus opposite a pair of dainty maidservants”. The “pair of dainty maidservants” are, of course, played by his own daughter Isobel and her mirror image. It is witnessed also by three soldiers. What this “ongentilmensky immodus” is, we cannot be sure, but rumours begin to spread. HCE protests his innocence, but his guilt – for whatever it was – makes him stutter. In his advancing middle age, he has been attracted by nubile young females: whether or not he had acted on this attraction is, for the purposes of this novel, immaterial. He is “insectuous”. The scurrilous ballad that circulates about him is “The Ballad of Persse O’Reilly” – perce-oreille, earwig. 

Of course, HCE is hardly the first middle-aged man to have been attracted to younger women. There is Master Builder Solness in Ibsen’s play. There is King Mark in Celtic legend, who loved his young wife Iseult, but who was betrayed by the younger Tristram. (Or, rather, Marke, Isolde and Tristan, as named in Wagner’s opera.) There’s Jonathan Swift, who, in his advancing years, exchanged many letters with two young ladies, both called Esther – Esther Johnson (referred to in Swift’s correspondence as Stella) and Esther Vanhomrigh (referred to as Vanessa). Again – two ladies, two ghostly twins, with the same name. And there’s Charles Stuart Parnell, the Irish politician whose career ended after his adulterous relationship with Kitty O’Shea became known. References to all of these (and more) are littered throughout the text of Finnegans Wake, sometimes in the most obscure of forms. (In one brief chapter, HCE actually dreams that he is King Mark.) And they point to the same thing: HCE’s guilt. He protests his innocence, but he cannot hide his guilty stutter, his hesitancy while speaking.

And his hesitancy too becomes a recurring theme. When a journalist Piggott had tried to destroy Parnell’s reputation with a forgery, he had mis-spelled the word “hesitancy” – an error a man such as Parnell would never have made. And this becomes a sort of running gag, as various mis-spellings of the word “hesitancy” punctuate the narrative of Finnegans Wake, acting as yet another leitmotif of HCE’s guilt.

The guilt may have been no more than desire, maybe even unconscious desire, rather than action: we cannot tell. But the stories and rumours swell to gigantic proportions, and HCE is tried, found guilty, and buried under Lough Neagh (or under “lough and neagh”). But yet, like his forebear Finnegan, he rises – begin again to fin again.

But there is one who stands by him: his wife, Anna Livia Plurabelle, the Liffey, the flowing River upon which her husband builds the city.

In the name of Annah the Allmaziful, the Everliving, the Bringer of Plurabilitis, haloed be her eve, her singtime sung, her rill be run, unhemmed as it is uneven!

As HCE is everyman, ALP is everywoman: as the twin sons Shem and Shaun are contained in HCE, so Isobel is contained in ALP. So is Kate, the cleaning woman at the pub, who also appears throughout the novel in various forms. But whatever form she appears in, she is, underneath it all, ALP. She is the river that is ever-changing – we never step into the same river twice, after all – but ever the same nonetheless. Even her final departure into the sea is but a beginning. She protects and nurtures her children, and defends the injured reputation of her husband. When the scandal breaks about his head and he is tried and condemned, ALP writes a letter in her husband’s defence. At least, she composes it: it is her son Shem the Penman who pens it. This letter is lost, but a hen digs it up from under a heap of dirt. When examined, it seems curiously to have transformed itself into the Book of Kells (there follows at this point a pseudo-scholarly exegesis of that work). We only get to see the letter at the very end of the book, as the river flows majestically into the sea: just as Ulysses had ended with Molly Bloom’s triumphant monologue in which she declares Bloom’s victory over his rivals, so this ends with another triumphant monologue, justifying a much-maligned and guilt-ridden humanity. Except, of course, this isn’t the end.

There are other motifs too running throughout the book, each seemingly transformed from the Porters’ daily life. The twelve customers in the pub become transformed into twelve jurymen, trying HCE on the charge, presumably, of “ongentilmensky immodus”. Or they become the twelve months of the calendar hanging on the wall.  Or the twelve disciples. There are four others, who sometimes become the four evangelists. Or, sometimes, the four provinces of Ireland. They are revealed towards the end – when the mists lift slightly – to be the four bedposts of the Porters’ bed. But nothing can keep its shape for long here. In ever-changing patterns, they collide with each other, are transformed, and return, inescapably, in new shapes and new colours. The book itself Joyce describes at one point as a “colliderscape”.

What, in the end, is one to make of all these mountains of myth, of all this madness? There seems little point in claiming it may be read like any other novel. But poring over every word and trying to tease out its meaning gives little sense of its flow. Is it worth it? I guess the answer, for me at least, must be “yes” since I did, after all, spend over a year making my way through it. I was, of course, puzzled a lot. But I also laughed a lot: it is a mistake, I think, to approach Joyce with a furrowed brow when, all too often, a good-natured laugh is more appropriate. It is also often deeply poetic, with its nonsense words and nonsense worlds creating what may without overstatement be described as a sense of exaltation. And nowhere more so, perhaps, than in the final chapter of the First Part, where two washerwomen, on either side of the River Liffey speak in homely, everyday terms about the woman who is also the river they are washing their clothes in. And of her husband, the builder of cities, who built his city upon this river. And of their children, the “daughtersons”, redeemed by their mother Plurabelle mother from their Earwig father’s guilt. As the river approaches the sea, it becomes wider, and the washerwomen, one on either bank, can no longer hear each other:

Can’t hear with the waters of. The chittering waters of. Flittering bats, fieldmice bawk talk. Ho! Are you not gone ahome? What Thom Malone? Can’t hear with bawk of bats, all thim liffeying waters of. Ho, talk save us. My foos won’t moos. I feel as old as yonder elm. A tale told of Shaun or Shem? All Livia’s daughtersons. Dark hawks hear us. Night! Night! My ho head halls. I feel as heavy as yonder stone. Tell me of John or Shaun? Who were Shem or Shaun the living sons or daughters of? Night now! Tell me, tell me, tell me, elm! Night, night! Telmetale of stem and stone. Beside the rivering waters of, hitheringandthithering waters of. Night!

Previously, at the end of the episode of the Mookse and the Gripes, Shem had turned into a tree, and Shem into a rock – one living and forever growing, though transient; and the other inanimate, but permanent. The washerwomen seem to reflect on this – Shem and Shaun, stem and stone. The Art and the Law, if one likes. Two opposites longing to be one, to become a greater whole. Time itself seems here to stand still, and we seem to be granted a glimpse into some other mode of existence. The mode of a dream, perhaps.

Little learnings

A little learning is a dangerous thing,
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.
From “An Essay on Man” by Alexander Pope 

There’s nothing wrong with package tours. Or with short visits to places. Of course, you aren’t going to get to know a place from just spending a few days there: to get to know a place at all adequately, you need to spend longer – you need, ideally, to live there. And even that doesn’t guarantee anything. This is not, however, to denigrate short visits, or even package tours: they have their place too. For even an impression is better than nothing. Pope’s famous dictum that one must drink deep or not at all has never quite satisfied me: if one were to apply that consistently, one would end up barely going to that Pierian spring at all, and, as a consequence, have very little breadth either of knowledge or even, I think, of understanding. A little learning can be important too, and is not a dangerous thing as long as one is at least aware that it is, indeed, little, and have the humility to acknowledge its littleness.

It is in this spirit that I recently approached Dante and Goethe. There are, of course, other works which I have lived with. The plays of Shakespeare, for instance. Or Cervantes’ Don Quixote. The works of Wordsworth and Dickens, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky; the plays of Ibsen; the poetry of Yeats and the prose of Joyce. And the poems of a certain Bengali writer – although I shouldn’t count him, as, given my background, I had little choice in that matter. On a lighter note – there have also been my beloved Sherlock Holmes stories; the creepy ghost stories of M. R. James and the like; and, of course, Wodehouse. And a few others as well, I guess. All of these are part of my mental furniture now, and I feel there are worse ways to furnish one’s mind. Not to everyone’s taste, no doubt, but these are places I’ve lived in, as it were, rather than merely visited on package tours. Dante and Goethe will never enjoy such a status with me, which is, I have no doubt, entirely my loss, but one can’t win ‘em all. There’s too much out there of great value. But on the whole, I think I’m happy with what has penetrated through to the inside of my thick skull. And I am not averse to the occasional package tour, to at least get to know something of what I have so far missed out on.

In a few weeks’ time, I shall be embarking for the first time upon one of the undisputed masterpieces of world literature – The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, and I’m feeling a bit intimidated by it in a way I wasn’t when I had first dived into War and Peace or The Brothers Karamazov almost fifty years ago now. For, back then, I was confident that if I didn’t get it all, I could always return to it. Maybe I could do the same with Tale of Genji. Maybe I could be so taken by it that that I could return to it often, and take up residence in it, so to speak, so it becomes as important a novel to me as Anna Karenina is. But I can’t spend the greater part of my life on it (as I have with many other works) for the simple reason that I no longer have the greater part of my life ahead of me.

Or, maybe, I could be persuaded to take another package tour to some other great literary domain I haven’t yet visited. But you get to a point where you begin to wonder if it is worth it. The pursuit of literary excellence is surely more than ticking titles off a list: one needs to give oneself time – in my case, many, many years – to absorb at all adequately works of such stature.  And also, while I am still happy to take these package tours from time to time, I find myself more inclined to revisit those lands I’ve been to before, but don’t feel I’ve explored adequately. To The Iliad and The Odyssey, for example.

This is not to say I’m not looking forward to The Tale of Genji. Of course, it is the product of a culture completely unknown to me, and, no doubt, I will need to adjust my very Eurocentric aesthetic values. But one needs to do that kind of thing too from time to time if one is not to get stale.

So, in short, to hell with Pope! – I’m off to medieval Japan to have have a wee taste of that particular Pierian spring. Will report back later on what little learning I may have gained.

With apologies to Cole Porter

This is what happens when you have hours of insomnia to while away:

You’re the top,
You’re a Bach partita,
You’re the top,
You’re Cinecitta,
You’re the pleasing quails in the ghostly tales of James,
You’re Messi’s verve, you’re Federer’s serve, you’re Hunger Games!

You’re the Wiz,
You’re the vaccine Pfizer,
You’re the fizz
Of a can of Tizer,
You’re the zest and zing when Beatles sing “Get Back”,
You’re Billy Bones, you’re Indy Jones, you’re Armagnac!

You’re the best,
You’re the flower bed border,
You’re the rest
That the doctors order,
I’m out of rhymes, and so, betimes, must stop,
But if baby, I’m the bottom, you’re the top!

Flaubert on Balzac

“What a man Balzac would have been, had he known how to write!” wrote Flaubert to Louise Colet (in a letter dated December 16th 1852). And then he added, rather intriguingly, “but that was the only thing he lacked”.

This may seem rather strange coming from Flaubert, for whom, if the popular image is to be believed, good writing was the only thing worth striving for. If the ability to write was the only thing Balzac lacked, it surely follows that he had other qualities which too were worthwhile. And since Flaubert only knew Balzac through his books, those other qualities must have been apparent in his books,despite (as Flaubert saw it) his inability to write. And this leads us to a somewhat un-Flaubertian conclusion: there exist qualities in literature distinct from the ability to write well.

Flaubert does not clarify what precisely he means here. He certainly wouldn’t have allowed such imprecision in his novels, but this was, after all, only a private letter. And we may, I think, take a guess that his implied distinction was between, on the one hand, writing prose well, and, on the other, those various other qualities that may conduce to the quality of a novel, even if the prose itself is unremarkable.

But what qualities are these? If we define “good writing” to cover everything it takes to produce a good book, then, by definition, there cannot be anything else. But if we restrict the definition, and consider “good writing” to refer specifically to the ability to construct sentences elegantly; to select those words and images that express with absolute precision what the author wants to communicate, and no more and no less; to arrange those words to produce euphony of rhythm and of sonority, or to produce a dissonance if that is the intended effect; and so on and so forth; then, in a novel, it isn’t difficult to identify various other qualities that may also enhance its literary merits. The construction, say – the pacing over long stretches, and the ability to tighten and to loosen tension appropriately, in order to create a coherent shape across the span of the work; the ability to communicate a sense of place, and of atmosphere; the ability to invent plot, and to ensure that the reader remains interested in the affairs of entirely fictional characters; the ability to create characters – and make them appear to think and to feel and to behave in a manner that is credible given their innate natures, and given the circumstances in which they find themselves; the ability to depict these characters developing through experience; and so on. And, on top of all that, I’d argue – at least, in those novels we think of as being novels of quality – a certain vision of life. By which I mean a certain way of looking at life, individual to the author, which appears to the reader as being in some way striking, and memorable. And if the ability to write was, for Flaubert, the only thing Balzac lacked, then, presumably, these other qualities he must have possessed.

And here I must make a confession: Balzac’s reputation puzzles me. Flaubert obviously thought highly of him, despite his alleged inability to write (a flaw which, one might have thought, would have damned him irretrievably given Flaubert’s aesthetics); Henry James, who seems in many ways the antithesis of Balzac, admired him immensely; and Somerset Maugham – a novelist whose star has now fallen but who was often astute in his criticism – once said that Balzac was the only novelist whom he would unhesitatingly describe as a “genius”.  Now, I really don’t want to say too much here about my own reactions to Balzac: I have read only four of his novels (though they are among his most highly rated), and a few short stories; and three of those four I read over 40 years ago. The last Balzac novel I read was Illusions Perdues, and even that was nearly 30 years ago. So my memory of those works, frankly, isn’t particularly strong. Also, these novels made so little impression on me that, despite my mania for re-reading, I have never felt the urge to return to them. And, since one tends not to be too perceptive about books one does not like, my own opinions on Balzac really do not seem worth communicating. There must have been something about Balzac to have impressed such fastidious tastes as Flaubert and James: the loss, I’m sure, is entirely mine.

But the impressions I retain of Balzac, such as they are, are those of a novelist who took a keen interest in the structure of society, of how society worked, and who understood money: I got the impression that he knew exactly how much each of his characters earned, and how; how much they spent, how much they invested, how much disposable income they had. These things fascinated him, and, it may be argued, given the importance of these matters in our lives, other novelists, especially those claiming to be “realist”, should take a little more interest in them. But, at the same time, his characters seem to me to have little or no inner lives; their aspirations rarely, if ever, rise above accumulating wealth, acquiring social position, and having sex. I frankly thought Balzac vulgar, and his fictional world limited merely to what is coarse. D. H. Lawrence once described Balzac as a “gigantic dwarf”: I’m not at all sure what he meant by that, but whatever he may have meant, I’m with him.

I am not, of course, insisting on any of this: if Flaubert and James admired Balzac (despite his inability to write, that is), then who am I to stand against them? But I frankly do not feel the urge to return to Balzac, as I often have done with many other writers I didn’t “get” the first time round. If I don’t “get” Balzac, I’m content to remain in that state.

But what about Flaubert’s own writings? Can it not be argued that his characters, too, inhabit a world that is irredeemably coarse and vulgar? That they are bereft of anything we may describe as a “spirituality”? That they too have nothing worthwhile to aspire towards? Flaubert’s prose was, of course, exquisite – no-one could accuse him of not writing well – but does that fact alone raise his work above the vulgarity of what he depicts? – the vulgarity that is, in effect, the central theme of his novels?

For many readers, I know, the answer is “yes, it does”. Flaubert saw life as entirely pointless and futile, and the only thing that mattered was his act of recording that pointlessness and futility. It is, in short, the quality of his writing, that purely aesthetic quality of his prose, that raises it above all the vulgarity he depicts. Now, I have never been entirely satisfied with this view. I think this comes down to a difference in how we, as individual readers, read things, but, if this is how we are to read Flaubert, his works would be, it seems to me, lacking in one of those qualities I had mentioned earlier that great novels ideally should have – a certain vision of life, “a certain way of looking at life, individual to the author, which appears to the reader as being in some way striking, and memorable”. For an empty eggshell cracked open merely to reveal its emptiness does not seem to me the stuff of great art, no matter how exquisite the act of cracking.

I think Flaubert offered more, but what more I think he offered isn’t, however, easy to explain. But perhaps we may get some idea of it if we consider the ending of Madame Bovary. (And here, I suppose I should issue one of those tiresome “spoiler alerts” for those who haven’t read it.)

At the end of the novel, after Emma’s death, her deceived husband, Charles Bovary, dies of grief. In a sense, this is another cynical touch: Emma had despised Charles, and had been unfaithful to him. Nonetheless, he was clearly devoted to her, to such an extent that he could not go on living without her. No matter how one views this, it is difficult to be cynical about what is clearly a great depth of feeling. Somerset Maugham, whose astuteness in these matters I was praising earlier in this post, felt that Flaubert could have conveyed the futility more powerfully if Charles’ mother had arranged another marriage for him, but Flaubert, I think, knew what he was doing: if he depicts Charles’ depth of feeling here, it is because he wanted to; that depth of feeling is the very point. Of course it is absurd that such a nincompoop as Charles should be able to feel so deeply, but the messy and uncomfortable fact is that he does. And yes, that depth of feeling is futile, but it is also, for me at any rate, unbearably sad – all the sadder precisely because it is so futile, so utterly pointless.

And this is what I get in so much of Flaubert: indeed, this is what seems to me at the very core of Flaubert – a sense of futility and absurdity, true, but also a profound awareness of the immense sadness that things should be so.

Earlier in the novel, in one of its most celebrated passages, he had written:

 … la parole humaine est comme un chaudron fêlé où nous battons des mélodies à faire danser les ours, quand on voudrait attendrir les étoiles.

This has proved difficult to translate into English, as there is no direct equivalent of the word “attendrir”, which means, as I understand it, to soften – to soften emotionally rather than physically, that is – to make one more amenable to gentler emotions. Lydia Davis translates this as follows:

… human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when we long to move the stars to pity.

Other translations I have consulted (including the old Penguin translation by Alan Russell – the first translation of this novel I read, and one I am still much attached to) also go for “move the stars with pity”, and I can’t frankly see how it can be translated otherwise. But however one translates it, “attendrir” indicates a softening of our emotions, and acquiring of certain feelings that are, at least, not too distant from “pity”. And pity is what I feel at the end of Madame Bovary. And I feel this pity in other works by Flaubert too – L’Education Sentimentale, Un Coeur Simple, Bouvard et Pécuchet: no matter how cynical the guffaw, no matter how implacable Flaubert’s insistence on the pointlessness of it all, our human inadequacy in the face of what life throws at us is, at heart, pitiful. How else can I explain the fact – for fact it is – that Frédéric Moreau’s last meeting with Madame Arnoux, towards the end of L’Education Sentimentale, has me in tears, even on repeated readings?

But once again, I do not insist on any of this, any more than I insist on my reading of Balzac. I know there are readers whose discernment I respect who feel otherwise. But I can only record my own reaction here.

But obviously, this Flaubert whom I love so dearly himself loved dearly Balzac, a writer whose works mean so little to me. When Balzac died, Flaubert wrote in a letter (to Louis Bouilhet, dated November 14th 1850):

Why has Balzac’s death “affected me strongly”? One is always saddened by the death of a man one admires. I had hoped to know him later, hoped he would have liked me.

No doubt I am just a sentimental old fool, but I find this rather touching too. I do get the feeling that Flaubert regarded himself as following in Balzac’s footsteps, and would have liked Balzac to have approved of him, and to have approved of his work. That he had a great regard for Balzac is clearly beyond doubt. But if only he had known how to write!

[The excerpts quoted here from Flaubert’s letters are taken from The Letters of Gustave Flaubert, selected, edited and translated by Francis Steegmuller.]

Season’s greetings 2020

Around this time of the year, along with some maudlin observations of the passage of time, I usually announce that the blog will be shutting down over the Christmas season, but perhaps such an announcement would be superfluous this year: my output has slowed down to such an extent that a few weeks without a post would hardly be worthy of comment. I am not sure why my output has slowed: perhaps after all these years I have finally realised that I never really wanted to write about books anyway, but had used that as an excuse to write what are in effect childhood memoirs. Now I am aware of that, I can, I feel, be more unapologetically autobiographical.

But may I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year – well, as merry and as happy as our strange times will allow – and leave you with this rather lovely triptych by Hans Memling of the Adoration of the Magi that I saw in the Prado last year.

See you all next year!

Triptych of The Adoration of the Magi by Hans Memling, courtesy Prado Gallery, Madrid

“The Common Breath” literary questionnaire

Glasgow-based publishing imprint The Common Breath invite the great and the good to answer a literary questionnaire every week. This week, they made an exception and invited me as well. Do please take a look.

From Monsoon to April Showers: poems from Bengali to English

It may not have escaped readers of this blog that there is a handful of writers about whom I tend to bang on interminably, and that one of these writers is Rabindranath Tagore. That is not too surprising. The propensity to bang on interminably about Rabindranath Tagore is, along with loving fish curry, a defining characteristic of a Bengali. But I have gone a step further than just bang on about Tagore: in my spare time, I have also been translating a number of his poems, mainly, I think, because working with those poems, often, indeed, wrestling with them and trying to tease out their various nuances and complexities, helped bring me closer to these glorious works. And, after a while, standing back from them as best as I could, it struck me that these translations held up rather well in their own right as poems in English.

Now, it may be, these poems will be shared with a wider audience. Nothing is certain yet: indeed, nothing can be certain in these uncertain times. Nothing has been agreed formally. But I have been speaking with Holland House Books, and – fingers crossed – a slim volume, as they say, may well be published shortly. What is currently being planned is an illustrated volume, with the illustrations tending towards abstraction, and reflecting the mood and the tone of the poems.

I am, as I need hardly emphasise, an amateur, both in the sense that translation has not been my day job, and also, more importantly I think, in the sense that the very word “amateur” is derived from the Latin word amare: I worked on these poems purely for the love of them.

Looking back – something I tend often to do, as, once again, readers of this blog will no doubt have noticed – I have actually been a translator for many years now without quite knowing it. Going to school or the first time in Britain, aged five, and not knowing a word of English, I could not at first give voice to my Bengali thoughts; but after a while, once I had picked up enough of this strange new language, all my communication outside home consisted of my Bengali thoughts translated into English. I still have a vivid memory from those days of, one day, seeing a lady walking in front of me in the street dropping a letter, and walking on without having realised; and my picking up that letter and running after her, thinking all the while how to explain in English, once I had caught up with her, that she had dropped it. Even then, I think, I was translating.

Translation became, for many years, second nature to me in that respect, until, inevitably, my second language became, effectively, my first, and, without realising it, I started even to think in English. But old habits die hard: every time I read Bengali, I couldn’t help thinking to myself how it could best be rendered into English. Not just the literal meaning, but all those other meanings that lie hidden under the literal. Perhaps my taking on the poems of Tagore was simply a natural extension of an old unforgotten habit: I was too used to translating to just stop.

But whatever the causes, we are where we are. These translations, hidden for so long on my laptop, may at long last see light of day, and readers may even, I hope, be as appreciative as that lady had been when I had handed her the letter.

There’s a long way still to go, but should this develop as we hope, there may be cause for cracking open the champagne yet some time not too distant. I’ll keep you posted.

“Against Nature” by Joris-Karl Huysmans

I doubt I’m the first to find it difficult to articulate my responses to Huysmans’ À Rebours. I found it engrossing, but I had first to overcome two major problems I have concerning fin-de-siècle decadence: aesthetically, I do not see its appeal; and morally, it has long struck me as an affectation that can only be indulged in by the sufficiently wealthy. Unless I was prepared to put away these prejudices, or, at least, suspend them while reading the book, I’d end up merely judging its protagonist des Esseintes unfavourably, and seeing in the book little more than a criticism of his character and of his thoughts. And mere unfavourable judgement cannot, I think, sustain a reader through an entire novel. But once I’d cleared my mind of my prejudices as best I could, I think I started to make more sense of it.

It’s hard to believe that this very strange novel was the product of a literary culture that, at the time (it was published in 1884), was dominated by Zola. The French title is untranslatable, and is usually rendered as Against Nature; however, this does not strike me as particularly felicitous, as it has about it a Shakespearean echo that’s a bit out of place here (“’Gainst nature still!” from Macbeth); and further, it isn’t just nature that des Esseintes is against: he is against modernity, society, everything – even humanity itself and human relationships. He is not just the leading character of the novel: he is the only character. A few others appear on the sidelines from time to time – servants, the doctor, and the like – but des Esseintes’ relationship with them is not touched upon. This refusal to engage with relationship between humans eliminates what is central to most novels, both in the nineteenth century, and also now: it eliminates the possibility also of conflict, and, hence, of drama.

But despite its strangeness, this novel has certain forebears. The classic novel of the solitary man creating his own world is, of course, Robinson Crusoe. Des Esseintes is, we are told, the last enervated remnant of a decayed aristocratic family, and we have met this character before in Poe’s Roderick Usher, and also in Stevenson’s marvellous Gothic tale “Olalla”. Des Esseintes’ disdain for bourgeois values and for popular taste (a disdain clearly shared by the author) is present in Flaubert; and we find in Flaubert also that studied ironic detachment of Huysmans’ narrative style – although, in Flaubert’s case, I can’t help but sense that this ironic detachment was a front for deeper feelings, whereas with Huysmans, I do not get that sense at all.

The immense erudition apparent in all the various learned references and allusions that the novel is packed with is also Flaubertian (it is very apparent in Bouvard et Pécuchet), and the idea of a man who detaches himself from a society he despises may even remind us of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man (although, admittedly, Dostoyevsky’s fictional world is a very far cry from that of Huysmans).

The structure of Huysmans’ novel is not so much symphonic, but more, as it were, a sort of “theme and variations”: the theme is stated first, and each chapter that follows is a variation on it. This structure, too, derives from Flaubert – again from Bouchard et Pécuchet.

But despite all of this, this novel is entirely original and unique, and its ability to engage the reader (for it certainly engaged me) is something I can’t quite account for.

While des Esseintes is not Huysmans (neither at the start nor at the end is he capable of writing the book we are reading), there is, I think, a considerable degree of overlap between author and protagonist: the desire to escape from this world and create one’s own is one Huysmans seems to sympathise with. He must: he would hardly have written an entire book on this theme were it otherwise. But it would be wrong, I think, to see this book merely as a vindication, or even as a commendation, of its protagonist: we should, I think, be prepared to regard des Esseintes in a critical manner. Unlike Robinson Crusoe, he cannot make his own clothes, or grow his own food. Nor, for that matter, can he decorate his dwelling to his tastes (a detailed description of des Esseintes’ interior decoration takes up an entire chapter of the novel). And he has personal servants as well. So, really, his detachment from life, from society, really is an affectation: given his inability actually to do anything, he is entirely dependent upon that same society that he so despises.

While this is not, I think, a negligible point, to see the entire novel from this perspective is to miss its richness. For des Esseintes is no mere hypocrite, and no mere poseur: his desire to detach himself from a world that is hateful to him is real. And the alienation that urges him to do this is also real. It is precisely in order to appreciate this element of the novel that I had to suspend my usual distaste for decadent aestheticism.

And it is not merely from the world of his fellow humans that he is alienated: he is alienated from nature itself. Not for him to turn to Nature to replenish the soul, in Wordsworthian fashion. He turns instead to artifice: the further from nature, the better, for the entirety of Nature is hateful to him. This is about as violent a reaction from nature-worshipping Romanticism as I think I have encountered.

But while des Esseintes assiduously cultivates the artificial, it isn’t clear – not to me, at least – what exactly he gets out of it. Possibly he doesn’t know himself. If all this is a different means of replenishing his soul, there seems no indication of that in the narrative: indeed, the very idea of a human soul that needs to be replenished seems very far from the spirit of this novel. Are his aesthetics, perhaps, no more than a gesture to demonstrate his hatred of the world outside? Or perhaps, his particular brand of aestheticism really does have some sort of positive effect on him. Or, perhaps, does it not matter either way. I couldn’t really get to the bottom of this: des Esseintes’ mindset is so very different from my own, I’m not sure I always understand it – fascinating though it was to enter it.

But his aestheticism, whatever he gets out of it, is utterly divorced from moral considerations: indeed, it seems at times to be in opposition to moral concerns. Des Esseintes is, ethically, completely disengaged. In one chapter, he pays for a young urchin to visit brothels, and, once the lad develops a taste for this sort of thing, abruptly withdraws the funding, just as an experiment to see what happens, and hoping that it all ends in criminality, and even murder. One must be extremely disengaged from all ethical concerns even to consider such an experiment with a living human, purely, as far as I could work out, to satisfy one’s aesthetic sense. But where, in any other novel, something so striking would have been developed, here, the strand just vanishes: des Esseintes loses touch with the boy, and neither he nor we know (nor care) what happens next. This wouldn’t have been possible in a symphonically constructed novel, but in a Theme and Variations format, each variation is allowed to stand independently of the others.

There is a hilarious passage where he thinks of going to England, but, after an evening in an English-style bar in Paris, decides not to go after all, as he has in that bar experienced England far better than he possibly could in England itself. This reminded me of the film critic Leslie Halliwell’s observation that the MGM backlots of Paris were far more romantic than the real Paris could ever be. What, after all, is so great about reality?

I’m still not sure why I found this strange novel so engrossing. I’m still far from being in sympathy with the aesthetics of decadence; and since this novel does not deal with human relationships, the conflict that is necessary for drama is missing. But a conflict of sorts does perhaps emerge – between, on the one hand, a desire to detach oneself from the world, and, on the other, the impossibility of doing so. And this impossibility neither negates nor makes ridiculous the desire. But in the end, the desire is defeated: reality, loathsome as it may be, has to be accepted. The theme has been stated; the variations played out; and then, it’s an inevitable return to the life that had been rejected.

These are my somewhat confused impressions of a very strange novel. I’m still not entirely sure what to make of it all. Maybe I need to give it more time to sink in.

What Shakespeare may (perhaps) have thought about

“Never trust the teller, trust the tale,” D. H. Lawrence famously said, adding, rather interestingly, that it was the critic’s job “to rescue the tale from the teller”. Given how far just about every major writer falls short of their creation – some, admittedly, more than others – I have always found this a useful thing to bear in mind: it’s the work we have to deal with, not the author, and if what we know of the author’s personal defects and shortcomings gets in the way of our appreciation of the work, it is indeed the critic’s job to focus the reader’s attention on what really matters.

But it is no more than natural curiosity to want to know something, at least, of the person who could create those works that we admire so much, and, when it comes to Shakespeare, we are for ever at a dead end. We have a few scraps of facts about his life, but nothing, really, that tells us what kind of person he was. And while part of me thinks that just as well, there’s another part that can’t help questioning what exactly was going on in that strange mind of his. And all we are reduced to on this point is, I think, conjecture.

Not that this has stopped people from making claims on this matter. I don’t think there’s a single religious or political or social orthodoxy, or, for that matter, heresy, that has not claimed Shakespeare as a fellow-traveller. Even leaving aside partisan accounts of Shakespeare’s ideologies (assuming he had any), there seems no shortage either of commentators who seem also to know for sure what Shakespeare had intended for his plays, as far as performance is concerned. He had, apparently, intended his plays to be seen and not read: that mantra is repeated with such tiresome frequency that I have now given up arguing against it: it is, in practice, simply an excuse not to read the plays. He had also, apparently, intended his texts to be no more than blueprints for performance, and had fully intended them to be adapted with more or less complete freedom. And if this means the kind of adaptation we seem to be witnessing all too frequently these days, with those long boring speeches cut out and long boring scenes cut and spliced together so as to accommodate audiences who find that sort of thing tedious, then, yes, Shakespeare had intended that also. The question “How do we know?” never seems to arise. We may, I suppose, point to historical evidence that suggests that adaptations, sometimes even radical adaptations, were common practice in the Elizabethan and Jacobean playhouses, but I doubt even that takes us too far: for how can we tell whether Shakespeare had approved of such practice? If, as is generally agreed, Shakespeare had an extraordinary mind, is it not one of the attributes of extraordinary minds that they could look beyond the mores of their own time?

That is not to say that we slavishly follow the texts: we couldn’t even if we wanted to, as the existing texts, where they exist in more than one version, often vary quite considerably, and are, further, bedevilled with printing errors: all of this has kept armies of scholars busy for a few centuries now. Of course the texts are to be adapted for performance; but if certain kinds of adaptation turn what is a miracle of the human imagination into something that, frankly, isn’t, then the question “why bother?” most certainly comes to mind. Shakespeare may indeed, for all I know, have approved of such adaptations; but, then again, he may not. As ever, we can never know what was going on in his mind. We have to examine the texts ourselves, and use our own judgement. And, comparing the texts I read to some of the adaptations I have seen, I can’t help wondering what judgement would step from this to this.

But none of this answers the question that continues to press upon us: what did Shakespeare actually think about? While awareness of the cultural and political background of Shakespeare’s times certainly helps, we must, I think, rely primarily on the internal evidence of the plays themselves. In short, those dreaded texts. But here too we have problems: rather inconveniently, he was a dramatist, and spoke through different people, and we have no idea whether he used any of his characters as mouthpieces for his own views. There are the sonnets, of course, with which, Wordsworth claimed, Shakespeare unlocked his heart. Perhaps. But, given the endless interpretations and speculations regarding these sonnets, they seem to complicate rather than clarify matters. I personally tend to see most of the sonnets as, as it were, dramatic monologues, spoken by specific characters who may or may not be the poet himself, and the whole sequence, rather than a set of personal confessions, as more an extended and varied meditation on love, sex, and death. Such a way of looking at these sonnets may or may not have been what Shakespeare had intended, but, as ever, we can never know. The texts are there, and we interpret them as best we can; as to what they tell us about Shakespeare as a person – well, who knows?

There are, however, some points where Shakespeare clearly speaks as a poet. We know, for instance, that Shakespeare may well have felt constrained by censorship (“And art made tongue-tied by authority”, from Sonnet 66). And also that Shakespeare knew well just how good he was. For instance:

Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme…

(Opening lines of Sonnet 55)

That Shakespeare knew well the value of his writing does, incidentally, make it all the more unlikely that, as is sometimes contended, he wouldn’t have cared too much about how his works were adapted. But leaving that aside, these little glimpses tell us little of what kind of person he was, of what he actually thought. And this, I don’t think we can ever know. However, in observing the themes and motifs that recur in his work, we can, I think, reasonably infer at least some of the matters that preoccupied his mind.

He seemed, for some reason, to be taken with the idea of a guiltless woman falsely accused of infidelity. This occurs most spectacularly in Othello, of course, but it had also occurred earlier in Much Ado About Nothing, where it had drawn what had appeared till then to be a sunlit and happy play into a more tragic direction. It had appeared again in two of his very late plays, Cymbeline and The Winter’s Tale. And it had appeared in a comic key in The Merry Wives of Windsor. That Shakespeare kept coming back to this does indicate that it was a matter of some importance to him, but when we wonder why, we, as ever, draw a blank.

Another of his favourite themes was that of brotherly hate – of brother overthrowing brother to take, or usurp, his place. We see this in Richard III, As You Like It, Hamlet, King Lear. But once again, when we ask ourselves why Shakespeare kept returning this matter, we run up into that brick wall: we simply don’t know, and there’s little point trying to conjecture.

There is a third recurring theme that I can spot, and here, enquiry is, perhaps, a bit more fruitful, and that is the theme of reconciliation, both in terms of people thought lost now restored, and, also, in terms of the healing of past breaches. One of his earliest plays, The Comedy of Errors, ends with people reconciled who had long been thought dead. Of course, reconciliation is the traditional end for a comedy, but Shakespeare, it seems to me, went much further than merely the demands of the comic form; in particular, even while depicting reconciliation, he depicted also its impossibility. What sort of reconciliation can there be when there are those who will not, cannot, be reconciled? Or when the breaches of the past are so vast that they cannot be healed? Shakespeare seemed to consider this matter so seriously that he would unbalance the harmony of comedy rather than be untruthful: the fall of Shylock in the fourth act of The Merchant of Venice is so seismic, that all else seems, to me at least, to become unsettled. For Shylock cannot be reconciled: the breaches made are too wide to be smoothed over, now or ever.

In his next comedy, Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare kept his villain, Don John, a relatively minor figure, and had him conveniently removed from the dramatic action before the end, so that his downfall is, in dramatic terms at least, off-stage, and not something that interferes greatly with the general reconciliation at the end. But this reconciliation remains problematic for different reasons. Can reconciliation really be complete given what has happened? Given how Claudio has behaved, even while under a misapprehension? Shakespeare parked this particular question for the while, but was to return to it again in The Winter’s Tale. In As You Like It, Jaques, the man who cannot be reconciled, withdraws voluntarily from the reconciliatory celebrations, thus avoiding the question; but there’s no evading the issue in Twelfth Night: Malvolio is urged to forget all that has happened, and when he refuses, Olivia sends after him to ask him to return; but the very fact that the characters on stage can’t see why a man who has been sexually humiliated in public cannot return tells us all we need to know about why the reconciliation is impossible. These characters on stage may be able to forget about Malvolio in time, but we, the audience, cannot.

This discrepancy between, on the one hand, our profound desire for reconciliation, and, on the other, the impossibility of achieving it, seems to be present just about everywhere one looks in Shakespeare. Prince Hal is reconciled with his father, but that reconciliation necessitates a breach with Hal’s other father, Falstaff: the drama ends not with reconciliation, but with the cruellest of rejections. Prince Hal’s more neurotic Danish cousin, Hamlet, is not reconciled to his father, much though he longs to be: his father had died while he had been at university in Wittenberg, and when he meets his father’s ghost, there seems to be no expression of love or of tenderness on either side. Hamlet is tormented with questioning that the meeting with his father’s spirit does nothing to allay, but he must learn to live with those questions unanswered. Even at the end, there is no answer to these questions, no resolution: once life has ebbed away, the rest is mere silence.

Othello does not even look for reconciliation by the end. Though Desdemona has miraculously forgiven him, seemingly even from beyond death, Othello cannot believe there can be any reconciliation given what he has done. His despair is not merely for this world:

… when we shall meet at compt,
This look of thine will hurl my soul from heaven,
And fiends will snatch at it.

And even the reconciliation between Lear and Cordelia, ineffably moving though it is, is not beyond questioning. Lear imagines spending the rest of his life happily in prison with Cordelia: this may be fine for him, but hardly the life that Cordelia, for all her forgiving nature, may want for himself. And as Lear ecstatically describes the joy of spending the rest of their lives together in prison, Cordelia remains tantalisingly silent. But even Lear’s vision of happiness in a prison does not come to fruition. Lear dies knowing that Cordelia is gone, and will never come again – “never, never, never, never, never”: no reconciliation then, either in this world, or in the next.

This theme of reconciliation unmistakably comes up to the surface in the three plays often regarded (quite reasonably, I think) as Shakespeare’s last dramatic testament – Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest. Cymbeline is essentially a fairy-tale, and the ending, appropriately, is a fairy-tale like ending, with the good people united and happy, and the malefactors punished (and since these malefactors are mere fairy tale villains, their punishments don’t really cast any significant shadow over the happiness of others, as the fate of Shylock had done in the earlier play). But matters are considerably more complicated in the next two plays.

In the final scene of The WInter’s Tale, miraculous in all respects, we are given what is, essentially, a vision of the Resurrection itself. As with the reconciliation scene between brother and sister towards the end of Twelfth Night, time itself seem to stand still as those who had been thought dead are restored once again to life. I find it hard, even when reading it at home, not to feel here a sense of solemn awe. And yes, there is, indeed, forgiveness, as the play that had contained so much turbulence comes to a glowing and serene end. But what sort of reconciliation is this? It is very subdued. This is not the occasion for torchlit processions of triumph through the streets. Mamilius remains dead; the years of separation and of grieving cannot be called back; all losses aren’t restored, and neither do sorrows end. But this is the best we may hope for, even with the promised Resurrection: the breaches in nature we have made in the course of our lives cannot entirely be healed.

And in The Tempest, there is no reconciliation. Prospero “forgives” only in the sense that he decides not to punish: he has clearly not, nor cannot, forgive the man “whom to call brother would even infect my mouth”. And neither is there contrition on the other side: the evil has not been defeated, and nor can it be – it continues to exist, maybe to erupt again some later day. If this is the resolution of the tempest that had raged in Prospero’s mind, then the resolution is bleak. And if this is indeed, as is often claimed, Shakespeare’s final message for posterity, I can see nothing in that message in which we can take any kind of comfort.

So what kind of man was he? What did he think about? I’m not sure any of us is sufficiently qualified to answer such questions, not even the greatest of Shakespearean scholars. Even when we think we are familiar with his work, we find ourselves, on re-reading, taken quite unexpectedly into quite unfamiliar areas. At least, I do: I freely confess that I can’t keep pace with the workings of this man’s mind. But I do think that he pondered long and hard on the question of reconciliation, on whether the brokenness of life can ever be put right, either in this world or in the next. And, if his last plays are anything to go by, I don’t think he was too optimistic on that score. There is no assurance.

Or maybe there is, and we remain most ignorant of what we’re most assured. But if there is, such assurance is beyond even Shakespeare’s vision.

More utter nonsense

Some time back, I put up on this blog a translation I made from Bengali of a nonsense poem by Sukumar Ray, from his collection Abol Tabol. I am, as I explained, very attached to these poems, partly for reasons of nostalgia, and also because I think they’re rather good. So I decided to have a go at another one. And here it is.
(The illustration below is by Sukumar Ray also.)

Do not fear, oh do not fear,
There’s no cause for alarm,
Even if I tried, I swear,
I couldn’t do you harm.
Eat you up? Of course I won’t!
I’m gentle, soft, and kind –
Why, bless my soul! Nothing could be
Further from my mind.
Maybe it’s my gleaming horns
That fill you so with dread,
But I’m so mild, I’d never gore
Anybody dead!
Come with me, come to our den,
And we will see you right,
We’ll pamper you, look after you,
We’ll spoil you day and night!
This cudgel here that’s in my hand,
Is this what scares you so?
Please don’t be scared! This cudgel is
Very light, you know!
You’re not list’ning. Something wrong?
You’ve nought to fear, I said!
You’ll come to your senses once
I sit upon your head!
There’s me, my wife, nine kids in tow,
You don’t stand a chance!
We’ll all bite, if you insist
On such a song and dance!