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“Shakespearean Tragedy” by Kiernan Ryan

The title, of course, is Bradley’s. A. C. Bradley’ famous book, published nearly 120 years ago now, still looms large in the field of Shakespeare criticism, and, as the borrowing of the title indicates, is a major presence in this book. Ryan frequently quotes Bradley, often at length, and mostly in agreement. But this isn’t, of course, a mere re-tread of Bradley’s interpretative ideas: that would be pointless. But neither is it entirely a refutation. Ryan, in the introduction, says that his own interpretative ideas have “profited from building on and arguing against Bradley’s views”, but “have conscripted Bradley in the service of a conception of Shakespearean tragedy and interpretations of the plays that are radically different from his”.

Bradley viewed these tragedies primarily in terms of character, of the particular internal workings of the characters’ minds; but Ryan extends this to consider the impact of the society these characters inhabit, and, in particular, the systemic injustices of that society. Too much Shakespearean criticism, Ryan goes on to argue, underestimates the impact of the latter.

Perhaps Bradley’s focus on the internal workings of the characters’ minds is understandable: we like to think of these tragedies as being universal, but if the cause of the tragedy lies in specific features of society that may be changed, then, once the changes are implemented, there can be no further cause for tragedy; and hence, no sense of universality. Ryan argues that attributing the cause of the tragedy primarily or even entirely to the personal flaws and shortcomings of the protagonist leads to reductive readings, reducing these tragedies merely to fables or to morality plays; this is certainly true: one need not look too far to find earnest enquiries into characters’ “tragic flaws”, as if identifying Othello as jealous or Hamlet as indecisive somehow helps us understand and clarify these works. But equally, placing the cause of the tragedy to systemic injustices of society also runs the risk of reduction: a depiction of tragedy caused by such systemic injustices is, implicitly at least, a call to reform society, so that such tragedies can no longer happen; and calls for social reform cannot be seen as anything other than social manifestos, or even, perhaps, as agitprop. And this, too, is a reduction.

But of course, Ryan is too subtle a critic to go too far in that direction: while a summary of his thesis in his introduction inevitably presents a simplified view, in the detailed analyses that follow, his interpretative ideas prove considerably more complex and nuanced. At any rate, his impatience with the “find the tragic flaw” school of criticism, which, to judge by its prevalence online, still seems to be widely taught in the classroom, is refreshing.

Like Bradley, Ryan focuses primarily on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth, but he includes also shorter chapters on the other tragedies (except for that rather curious stump of a play Timon of Athens); and also on Parts 2 and 3 of Henry VI. (Part 1 he dismisses as not being part of the series, whatever the titles given in the First Folio may indicate).

In these two Henry VI plays, there are two characters who seem well placed to be seen as tragic heroes – Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester in Part 2, and Richard Duke of York in Part 3 – both highly placed men of power, who meet with tragic downfalls. But more interesting than either is the character of Henry VI, a quiet, gentle man, who has no appetite for the wicked power games played around him, and is horrified by the carnage they bring about, but is unable to stop any of it. It has been argued that it is Henry’s weakness of character that expedites the bloodbath, but Ryan rejects this: the carnage is caused by strong, bloodthirsty, warlike nobles, all jockeying for power, and the contention that the bloodshed may have been averted by Henry acting in a similar manner, Ryan rightly argues, doesn’t bear scrutiny. What interests Ryan is not so much the alleged weakness of Henry’s character, but, rather, the division between Henry’s public role as a monarch, which Henry finds oppressive and hateful, and his private inner self, that desires escape from the endless horrors. This division is made clear in Henry’s lines in Part 2 when his uncle, the Duke of Gloucester, is stripped of power. As Henry leaves the court, in the deepest dejection, he says to the assembled court: “what to your wisdoms seemeth best / Do, or undo, as if ourself were here”. This, Ryan argues, “bespeaks a disengagement strikingly at odds with the tender, imaginative empathy he displays” elsewhere for the doomed Duke of Gloucester; but “it chimes perfectly with his desire to withdraw himself from ‘ourself’, from the virtual royal self he appoints to remain present in his absence”; he recoils from “his own intolerable identity”. The compassionate self breaking away from an identity imposed upon him by an iniquitously hierarchical society is an early indication, Ryan argues, in what may well be Shakespeare’s earliest existing play, of the tragic vision developed more fully in the more mature tragedies – a vision that is predicated upon the inner being of the individual struggling against the expectations and responsibilities placed upon it by an external, systemically unjust society.

That this external society is systemically unjust, Shakespeare is in no doubt. Throughout his work, there is an awareness of this injustice, and also intimations of a utopia. In our own time, as we look back upon the attempted establishments of various heavens on earth, and the hells on earth that have in each case ensued, we are rightly suspicious of utopian political ideals. But that does not banish thoughts of a utopia – built upon an awareness that what we have now is iniquitous. From the earliest existing plays to the last, Shakespeare has this dream of a utopia in mind, and, Ryan argues, his tragic vision has its roots in his protagonists inhabiting a world that falls far short of what it should, and maybe could, be; the tragedy is not merely an outcome of a “tragic flaw” peculiar to the protagonist, but, rather, of the protagonist struggling against being “cabin’d, cribb’, confined” within the limitations of a grossly imperfect world.

In Henry VI Part 2, the utopian vision is given explicit expression in the scenes of Jack Cade’s rebellion. Cade is, it is true, a cruel and often absurd figure, and his followers recognise this in their sarcastic undercutting of his pretensions to royalty; but they follow him all the same, because the utopianism he preaches – of a land where all wealth is literally held in common – is one that appeals. And in any case, his cruelty is no more barbaric than that of those he is rebelling against: if we are sickened by the plethora of severed heads that appear on stage in the scenes depicting his rebellion, Shakespeare follows it up with a similar plethora of severed heads in very next act, in the aftermath of the Battle of St Albans. Severed heads continue to make their presence felt in various other scenes of Part 3. If this first batch of severed heads is a symbol of Cade’s barbarity, what are we to make of the severed heads that appear as a consequence of the nobles’ struggles for power? Is there any reason to take the ruling elites as any more civilised than Cade?

The vision of utopia is presented here in the scenes of Cade’s rebellion, along with the inevitable contradictions inherent in such a vision: the classless society Cade propounds can only be established with Cade becoming king, and his own followers aren’t blind to this irony. The same vision of utopia, and the same inherent contradiction, appear also in the play believed to be the last that Shakespeare wrote (apart from a few late collaborations): in The Tempest, Gonzalo too imagines what an ideal state would look like, and again, he imagines a state without hierarchies. “No sovereignty”, he says, at which point the scoffing Sebastian breaks in: “Yet he would be king on’t”. Shakespeare seemed to realise, throughout his career, that such a utopia, harbouring as it does such profound internal contradictions, is not achievable.  And yet, that dream of utopia has persisted: it is apparent in the last play, The Tempest, as well as in the first, Henry VI Part 2. And from first to last, these utopias look much the same: all wealth held in common, no social hierarchy, equality between all its citizens, and so on. Whether attainable or not, it is a dream Shakespeare cannot help but harbour. And this dream is implicitly – and sometimes more than just implicitly – present also in the plays that come between the first and the last. These plays, argues Ryan, view the action from the perspective of such a utopia: the cause of the tragedy is not just in the specific internal workings of the protagonists’ minds, but in the conflict that arises between the characters’ greatest inner needs and desires, and the iniquitous society within which their inner selves are cabin’d, cribb’d, confined. And also – and this, I think, is a particularly subtle point – in the way that the values of this iniquitous society infiltrate the mind of the protagonist, so that the struggle is not merely between the individual and the outside world, but also one between the character’s world-corrupted mind, and the nascent inner self that resides within.

As an example of this, we may consider the character of Othello. When, in the first act, Othello defies convention and marries a white woman, her father, Brabantio, accuses him of witchcraft, as he feels it is unnatural for his white daughter to actually wish, of her own volition, to want to marry a black man. Othello, positioning himself here as a utopian who insists upon racial equality, summarily dismisses this: he is in a powerful enough position here not to have the worry about defying of social customs. And yet, in Act 3, when Iago makes exactly the same point, Othello, his mind now under pressure, gives way to it: “And yet, how nature, erring from itself…” The racist assumption (and Ryan, quite rightly, has no compunction about calling it racist) that attraction between races is “unnatural”, has infiltrated Othello’s mind also: what he had once easily dismissed he can no longer put out of his mind, so subtle and so powerful are the forces of the society he inhabits. External forces of society he could oppose while they remain external, but once they become part of him, it’s a different matter.

Titus Andronicus

It is within this framework of the mind tragically at war, knowingly or unknowingly, with the forces of an iniquitous society, that Ryan analyses these plays. He manages to make more of a case for Titus Andronicus than I would have thought possible: this is, after all, the only play in the canon I have wished Shakespeare had not written. My objection is not so much to the extreme violence – there was no shortage of severed heads in the Henry VI plays, for instance, and one hardly needs reminding of the horrendous onstage eye-gouging scene in King Lear – but, rather, to what seems to me an inadequate response to the horrors. The only reaction of the characters to unmitigated violence is to respond with even greater violence, as if humans were merely machines programmed to commit unspeakable outrages against each other. It may be that this is what humans are, but if so, they aren’t, it seems to me, worth writing plays about. In Ryan’s analysis, though, Titus does learn humanity – at least, up to a point: to begin with, he is a man who has bought in to the brutal values of Imperial Rome to such an extent that he kills even his own son when he stands in his way, and never shows any remorse for it. However, Ryan argues, after the horrific violence on his daughter Lavinia, Titus, perhaps for the first time in his life, begins to feel compassion for a fellow creature. It still doesn’t prevent the explosion of grotesque violence in the final scene, but nonetheless, Shakespeare dramatises the presence of an inner, compassionate being lurking underneath the inhuman values absorbed from an inhuman society.

Ryan shows a particular interest in the character of Aaron – a villain, certainly, but no more morally depraved than the society he strives against. He is a close relative of Jack Cade, of course, and also of the Duke of Gloucester (later Richard III); and, in later plays, of Iago and Edmund. These villains can confide in us, the audience, and even make themselves likeable to us, for we too are products of an iniquitous society. We may object that we aren’t villains, as they are, but they may respond that they are at least being honest in having no illusions about the society in which they live. This is why, Ryan argues, it is difficult to present these characters in performance as unlikeable, despite their obvious evil. And yet, by presenting themselves as likeable, on a certain level at least, they implicate us in their evil.

Romeo and Juliet

In his essay on Romeo and Juliet, Ryan expands on his idea that “Shakespearen tragedy is conceived and scripted from the vantage point of a possible future foreshadowed by the present”. The love the two protagonists feel for each other, equally given and received by both and free from any taint of domination or submission, is not consonant with their times: it belongs to some future time unthinkable in the volatile macho environment of Verona, with its pointless deadly enmities, its sporadic outbursts of violence.

“You kiss by the book,” Juliet says teasingly to Romeo at their first meeting; and indeed, Romeo is still in thrall to the “book”, that is, to what is sanctioned by convention; but the feelings that both protagonists find overtaking them is new – it belongs to some possible future age, free from the bounds of a dead and deadening convention. However, “what they show to be humanly possible is not historically possible”; and therein lies the tragedy.

Julius Caesar

In Julius Caesar too, Ryan finds the characters inextricably tangled in historic complexities that they themselves are not fully aware of. Brutus may speak of his honour, of his love of Rome, but the arguments of Cassius that move him do not point to such things: rather, they are aimed to arouse is Brutus the same resentment that Cassius himself harbours – resentment that Caesar, a fellow patrician, could rise above them. This hidden motive of Brutus accounts for the unconvincing arguments he makes to himself for Caesar’s assassination (“It must be by his death…” in II,i). As Coleridge had observed, Shakespeare could easily have given Brutus convincing reasons, but he didn’t. Brutus’ arguments aren’t convincing because he himself is not really convinced by them: he is merely deluding himself about his altruistic love of Rome, and he is deluding himself because his true motive – his patrician pride, handed down from earlier generations – is too ugly, too uncomfortable to be faced. So, far from being a tragedy about honour and decency misled by faulty reasoning, we have, in Ryan’s words, a “clinical indictment of a society … that privileges the gratification of the powerful over the needs and rights of a powerless multitude, while masquerading as a society that has the best interests of all its citizens at heart”. As in Romeo and Juliet, the iniquitous conventions of past generations continue to weigh down heavily upon the protagonists. And this heavy burden Shakespeare dramatises from the perspective of a future that can recognise these iniquitous conventions for what they are.

In the longest section of the book, Ryan focuses in depth, as Bradley had done, on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth.  

Hamlet

Naturally, Ryan has little time for attempts to find flaws in Hamlet’s character that cause the tragedy: the formulation presented explicitly in Olivier’s film  version of “a tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind” is rightly dismissed as too banal to merit serious consideration. Ryan summarises a few other formulations too of what Hamlet’s “tragic flaw” might be, before declaring it would be “otiose to review all the permutations of this line of thought” – all these permutations assuming, as they do, and without justification, “that the problem lies with Hamlet rather than with the world and the situation in which he finds himself”.

What makes the situation even more complex is that Hamlet assumes this himself: Hamlet, too, is constantly questioning why he does not carry out the revenge that he is sworn to, and becomes frustrated that he cannot pluck out the heart of his own mystery. Ryan shows through thorough and careful references to the text that none of the formulations concerning Hamlet’s supposed flaw, including those made by himself, squares with what is actually in the play. But the play does, Ryan insists, “guide us towards its own quite different conception of Hamlet’s tragic predicament”; however it does so “by the indirect art of implication”; and so, as Polonius says to Reynaldo, we must by indirections find directions out.

In Ryan’s analysis of the play, the question besetting Hamlet is not so much “Why do I not carry out the revenge?” – although Hamlet poses this question to himself quite explicitly – but, rather, “How may one live in a world filled with such wickedness and iniquity?” The revenge is finally achieved in the last scene, but not as a consequence of premeditated strategy towards that end: indeed, at no point in the play, not even in the final act, is there any strategy on Hamlet’s part. The revenge, if such it is, comes about arbitrarily, committed in the heat of the moment. And even then, Ryan points out, there is no mention on Hamlet’s part, not even the slightest hint, that he is paying his uncle back for having murdered his father, the elder King Hamlet. This final scene wraps up the plot, but, as Shaw had commented, the Gordian knot is cut rather than untied. “The only thing that could untie the knot for Hamlet,” Ryan continues, “would be the transformation of society into one fit for what human beings could be, instead of one fit for scoundrels, pawns, and parasites it forces most of them to become”. Such a utopia is not achieved within the play, and one cannot help wondering whether such a utopia can be achieved at all: I suppose this depends on the extent one thinks society is responsible for the creation of “scoundrels, pawns, and parasites”, and to what extent one thinks the potential to be “scoundrels, pawns, and parasites” lies latent in humanity, ready to bubble up to the surface regardless of how society is structured.

For Hamlet himself is not, after all, immune to moral corruption. The image of a disease that spreads and corrupts is, after all, central to this play, and Hamlet, being but human, is prey to it also. His heartless treatment of Ophelia is much mentioned, as is his utter lack of remorse for his part in her tragic fate (his declaration of love for Ophelia in the graveyard scene is more a parody of Laertes’ bombast than it is an expression of anything heartfelt, and, it may be argued, parodying the grief of a bereaved brother is itself cruel and heartless). Throughout the play, it seems to me, we see Hamlet’s increasing intolerance with human weaknesses, even where, as with Ophelia, that weakness is understandable given the circumstances. And there is, it seems to me, something inhuman about such intolerance: such intolerance of human flaws can itself be seen as a human flaw.

Ryan notes the identification at certain points of the character of Hamlet with that of Claudius – such as at the electrifying moment in the play-within-the-play where the murderer, Lucianus, turns out not to be the brother of the king, as might have been expected, but the nephew: this makes the play-within-the-play a threat as well as a re-enactment, but also, quite startlingly, it aligns the projected act of revenge with the original crime. This could indeed be a eflection of Hamlet’s fear that in carrying out the revenge – the revenge that is demanded by the code of the society that Hamlet inhabits – he but becomes an epigone of that which he hates, but I wonder if this is all there is to it: even if we reject the code of blood revenge, killing to achieve a justice that cannot be achieved by the formal processes of law is surely different in nature from killing for power and for lust. Rather, it seems to me, the aligning of the two characters at this point – at the mid-point of the play – serves to underline the extent to which Hamlet’s moral character has already been corrupted. And this, it seems to me, is an important aspect of the tragedy of Hamlet: Claudius’ fratricide – an image of the first instance of bloodshed in the Book of Genesis – creates waves of evil and of corruption that engulf all in their path, and not even Hamlet can be immune.

But the greater point remains, I think, that the problem, the root of the tragedy, lies not so much in Hamlet himself, but in the world that he inhabits, and that looking for a flaw in Hamlet’s character to account for the tragic outcome – especially when the flaw is identified as something so banal as indecisiveness – is misconceived.

Equally misconceived are questions regarding Hamlet’s failure to carry out the revenge. Hamlet is a revenge tragedy where revenge is not really at the centre of the play: by the time we get to the final act, except for the brief passage where Hamlet tries to justify to Horatio his hatred of Claudius, revenge is not mentioned at all – not even at the point where it is finally carried out. The focus of the play has moved way, way beyond that.

Othello

Ryan has no problem using the term “racism”. It is often objected that the term – indeed, the concept itself – is the product of a later era, but if the features we now understand as “racism” are depicted by characters in a Shakespeare play, why shouldn’t the term be applied?

For the society Othello inhabits is certainly racist. Iago, Rodrigo and Brabantio all come out with racist slurs. The inter-racial marriage between Othello and Desdemona Brabantio considers unnatural: how could a white girl actually want, of her own free choice, to marry a black man? There must be witchcraft involved – some drugs, perhaps that have affected her judgement. The Venetian court overrules Brabantio, but only because it desperately needs Othello’s services.

This is also a deeply misogynist world – a world in which women are expected to be unfaithful, and cuckoldry is a running joke and something to be feared, because, in a society where the man is expected to be in command of his household, cuckoldry exposes the husband’s lack of virility and of authority. And a consequence of this fear of cuckoldry is an extreme jealousy: Iago too is not immune from this.

In Ryan’s reading, neither Othello nor Iago is a startling anomaly: both are very obviously creations of a deeply imperfect and unjust society. Othello is easy prey because the circumstances of his inter-racial marriage, regarded as “unnatural”, predisposes him towards insecurity: as soon as Iago mentions that Desdemona’s love for a man of a different race is unnatural, Othello, instead of dismissing it out of hand as he had done in the first act (when he had known he was in a position of power), takes it seriously. He doesn’t even have to think about it.

As for Iago, Ryan dismisses Coleridge’s formula of “motiveless malignity searching for a motive”. Now, this is a formulation that I have in the past found convincing, and so, as I started to read this passage in Ryan’s book, I marshalled to my mind the various reasons why Iago’s stated motives – that he was passed over for promotion, and his own jealous suspicions that his wife Emilia had had an affair with Othello – may be considered insufficient to account for what he does. But I needn’t have bothered: Ryan is – as is to be expected, I guess – well aware of all this: his point is that Iago does have a motive, and that motive is that he simply hates Othello. And where I had seen this as a brute fact that could be delved into no further – and hence, inscrutable – Ryan locates the source of this hatred in the values of the society that both Iago and Othello inhabit. Iago, far from being a mysterious font of inexplicable evil, is, to Ryan, all too explicable: there is nothing mysterious about him at all. The motives Iago states are, it is true, symptoms rather than causes of his hatred, but the hatred itself is not a mystery: it can be traced back to the vile and malignant values of a vile and malignant society.

Ryan applies a similar lens to Desdemona. After she has been humiliated by Othello, there is a strange passage beginning “’Tis meet should be used so, very meet…”. This passage is usually taken as ironic, because there seems no other reasonable way of taking this, but Ryan raises the possibility that, just as Othello has internalised the racism around him, Desdemona may also have internalised the misogyny. If so, this is particularly troubling. It could also mean that Desdemona’s final words, in which she refuses to blame Othello for her murder, are also indicative of the same internalisation. It is a coherent view of the play, no doubt, but it leaves me uneasy. Desdemona’s words, virtually from beyond the grave, seem to me miraculous in every sense, a breathtaking testament to the power of human forgiveness; but I appreciate that such an interpretation could be seen as merely sentimental. Nonetheless, viewing these words, which had seemed to me (and seem to me still) as nothing short of miraculous, as but a pathetic utterance of a woman deluded even at the point of death, I cannot help but seeing as reductive – reducing a tragedy of cosmic dimensions but to a sordid little tale of delusion and of domestic violence.

However, Ryan merely holds out the possibility of this particular interpretation: he does not insist upon it. What he does insist upon, quite rightly, is the wrongness of seeing the tragedy as a consequence merely of Othello’s personal character flaw – of his mistaken conviction of his wife’s infidelity, with the distasteful unspoken implication of such an interpretation that had the conviction not been mistaken, his actions would have been justified. It is, rather, as Ryan presents it. a tragedy of people whose utopian love, in defiance of the stultifying values commonly accepted by the world in which they live, is eventually corrupted and destroyed by those same stultifying values.

King Lear

Of all Bradley’s essays, the ones of King Lear have longed seemed to me the least convincing, and this because his approach, focusing as it does on analysis of character, is least appropriate for this play. For the characters here – at least, compared to the characters in Shakespeare’s other tragedies – are quite simple. The scope of the tragedy, its causes, its consequences, stretch out far beyond the characters, and encompasses the world itself. And perhaps even further. It is not just the characters’ minds that are in turmoil here: the entire fabric of the universe itself seems to undergo violent convulsions, and, at points, as in the Fool’s strange speech in III,ii where he appears to prophesy a prophecy (“This prophecy Merlin shall make, for I live before his time”), we lose whatever temporal bearings we may have had: time itself suddenly seems unstable and insecure.

Ryan focuses on the significance of the word “nothing” – clearly an important word in the play, and repeated many times in many different dramatic contexts. But first, he draws our attention to a striking passage from Timon of Athens, a play Shakespeare had been working on possibly just before writing King Lear, and which was probably, for whatever reason, abandoned:

Why, I was writing of my epitaph.

It will be seen tomorrow. My long sickness

Of health and living now begins to mend.

And nothing brings me all things.

The quality of nothing is not here merely an absence of something: it is referred to by Timon as something positive, something actually to be desired. It is what Cordelia says she has for Lear when she is asked how much she loves him: nothing. When Edgar decides to disguise himself as Poor Tom, he says: “That’s something yet; Edgar I nothing am.” He could easily have said something like, say, “Edgar I am no more”, but Shakespeare structures that line such that the words “something” and “nothing” counterpoise each other, so that the “nothing”, rather than denoting merely an absence of “something”, is, as it had been with Timon, a quality in its own right,

Lear, too, is reduced to a nothing, and again, Ryan asks whether this “nothing” is merely negative – merely an absence. In I,iv, when Lear first begins to notice his authority questioned, he speaks of himself in the third person:

This is not Lear:
Doth Lear walk thus? speak thus? Where are his eyes?
Either his notion weakens, his discernings
Are lethargied – Ha! waking? ’tis not so.
Who is it that can tell me who I am?

To which the Fool answers “Lear’s shadow”. Once again, Lear’s speech can be taken purely as enraged irony on his part, but Ryan intriguingly poses a different possibility. Should the “shadow” mentioned by the Fool be seen as entirely negative? Through the course of the play, we see a transfiguration in Lear: the man who could actually say to his daughter that it would have been better for her not to be born than not to have pleased him better, comes, by the third act, to recognise that he is just a poor, bare, forked animal, no different from the lowest beggar and outcast. One persona gives place to another. And it is in this context that Ryan asks us to consider this earlier passage. In this passage, when cracks in the person Lear had been begin for the first time to appear, he does not truly know who he is; and this is why he speaks of himself in the third person; and this is why he has to ask “Who is it that can tell me who I am?” The Fool’s answer – “Lear’s shadow” – can certainly be taken to mean that Lear is now but the shadow of the man he used to be; but, more intriguingly, the Fool may intend the “shadow” to denote nothing – a nothing that is nonetheless positive, for from this nothing may arise a being that had previously lain dormant within. It is a nothing that, as Timon had recognised, brings all things.

Lear’s transformation from a king to a nothing – a nothing that is nonetheless greater than the something he had previously been – has antecedents in Shakespeare’s plays, and Ryan traces these carefully. There was Henry VI, of course, whose inner being retreats in revulsion from his kingly self; there’s Richard II, who, once stripped of his kingly status must try to understand what the being is within. Hamlet too had quizzically said that “a king is a thing of nothing”.  But in none of these earlier plays had the focus fallen so explicitly on social iniquities, on the poor naked wretches who have to bide the pelting of pitiless storms. Lear comes to recognise that he had “ta’en too little care of this”, but, as Ryan says, Shakespeare has to take him further: it is not merely that the rich should look after the poor better; a commonality in our shared humanity must be recognised. Immediately at the point where Lear prays for those of whom he had ta’en too little care, there appears Poor Tom – a man who does not even have the necessities without which, Lear had previously thought, man’s life were as cheap as beast’s. And Lear, to his horror, recognises his own commonality with this poor, bare, forked animal that now appears before him.

It has been objected that the fact of Poor Tom being Edgar weakens the point, but Ryan takes an opposite view: the point of our common humanity is emphasised rather than negated by Edgar too being such a poor, bare, forked animal beneath his robes and furred gowns that had previously hidden his unaccommodated self. Edgar has taken on this persona that goes way beyond what was required merely for coherence of plot, and it is important to question why: Edgar, too, like Lear, and like Gloucester afterwards, had to become a nothing – a nothing that could, perhaps, bring him all things. Edgar he nothing is.

Macbeth

Macbeth fits easily into the traditional patterns: two protagonists, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, share a tragic flaw – in this case, ambition – and, as a consequence of this flaw, commit the most terrible crime, thus disrupting the fabric of the society in which they live, as well as damning their own souls; but it is all put right at the end when they are defeated by good people. Their souls remain damned – that’s their tragedy – but the breach they made in nature is set right. And of course, none of this would have happened if the protagonists had been able to rein in their “tragic flaw” in the first place.  

This does make a coherent reading, and is consistent with the text. But clearly, such a reading presents the drama as, essentially, a morality tale: do not be over-ambitious, and do not commit murder, for that way damnation lies. But clearly, there is more: a mere morality tale such as this is unlikely to shake us to the extent that this play does. To investigate what more there is, Ryan first of all examines the patterns of language used throughout the play. And in doing so, he finds that the patterns used by the witches occur throughout the play: they crop up not only in the speeches of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, but also, perhaps surprisingly, in the speeches of various other characters too – both major and minor. For instance, the witches’ incantatory “Fair is foul and foul is fair” is echoed almost immediately by Banquo (“So fair and foul a day I have not seen”); the witches’ rhyming of “done/won” (“When the hurlyburly’s done, when the battle’s lost and won”) is echoed in the very next scene by Duncan and Ross:

DUNCAN

…And with his former title greet Macbeth.

ROSS

                                                        I’ll see it done.

DUNCAN

What he hath lost noble Macbeth hath won.

The witches’ “Double double, toil and trouble”, Ryan demonstrates with copious examples, finds echoes throughout the play. And so on.

All this, says Ryan, has been commented on, but “their implications for our understanding of the play as a tragedy have not been appreciated” (author’s italics). “The cumulative effect,” Ryan continues, “of hearing …  distinctive speech habits of the witches or of the Macbeths at home is to involve them all in the attitude articulated in the idiom they share”. Macbeth’s ethos, in other words, is not greatly different from that of the society he inhabits, any more than are his speech patterns. Of course, needless to say, Macbeth reacts to it in a far more extreme way than do the other characters, but he is a product of that society, rather than an anomaly.

The murderous thoughts that immediately strike Macbeth after meeting with the witches are entirely his own: at no point do the witches suggest murder, not even implicitly. When Lady Macbeth calls on evil spirits to possess her, she calls them “spirits that tend on mortal thoughts”: tend, not instigate. The thoughts are purely human, and whatever thoughts humans have, the spirits do no more than tend.

Ryan goes on to demonstrate how widespread are the treasonous and bloodthirsty thoughts in general throughout this play. Even honest Banquo is clearly afflicted with evil thoughts, the wicked nature of which he is well aware (“merciful powers, / Restrain in me the cursed thoughts that nature / Gives way to in repose!”); and all other seemingly good characters are tarred to some lesser or greater extent. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are no anomalies: the moral sickness from which they suffer is widespread in the society they inhabit.

And at the root of this moral sickness, Ryan finds “a potent but toxic idea of masculinity, of what it means to be a man”. This is not new in Shakespeare. “If it be man’s work, I’ll do it,” says the officer in King Lear charged with hanging Cordelia, and this leads us naturally to ask: “What is man’s work?” The officer in King Lear had not thought that hanging Cordelia was inconsistent “man’s work”. Macbeth tells the murderers he employs to kill Banquo that the work of the highest rank of men is to kill without qualm of conscience. Lady Macbeth calls upon spirits to “unsex” her, to implant into her a male spirit, so she too could partake in acts of “the direst cruelty”. When Macbeth wavers, it is with his lack of virility that she taunts him (“When you durst do it, then you were a man”).

But the curious fact in all this is that Macbeth does waver: not for him the cheerful amorality of Richard III, who also murders his way to the top. Lady Macbeth is aware of this element in his character: he is too “full of the milk of human kindness”. Ryan reminds us that at this point (and elsewhere) in the text of the First Folio, this famous phrase appears as “the milk of humane kindness”: “human” is an emendation of Rowe’s that all subsequent editors have followed. But there is clearly a conflation in the original text between what we now understand as “human” – that is, pertaining to the species homo sapiens – and “humane”, that is, compassionate.

It may seem strange that Macbeth, who has now become emblematic of homicidal evil, should be described in such terms; but the fact remains, he is. And also that Lady Macbeth knows him well. But what is particularly interesting here is the image of “milk”: it conjures up the image of a baby feeding at its mother’s breast. And indeed, in a passage shortly afterwards, this image of the baby at the breast is evoked more explicitly, but in the vilest of contexts: to urge her husband on, Lady Macbeth evokes the most disgusting image of plucking a baby from her breast whom she had been suckling, and dashing its brains out. The image here is, of course, is that of an innocence horribly destroyed; but if “milk” is an image of  innocence, that innocence, Lady Macbeth realises, lies also in her husband. And this is why he wavers. This is why he knows immediately after the murder that he shall never sleep again. This is why he knows that had he died but an hour earlier, he “had lived a blessed time”. This is why he never for a moment enjoys that which he had most ardently desired. There is, inside him, the milk of human (or humane) kindness – a baby, innocent and defenceless, and yet powerful enough to stride the blast; or, to employ the imagery so prevalent in King Lear, there is in him a nothing that, though savagely suppressed, has the potential in some hereafter to be stronger and more powerful than the something that Macbeth has made of himself.

And here lies the essence of the tragedy both of Macbeth and of Lady Macbeth. From the society around them, virtually from the air that they breathe, they have imbibed those values of a poisonous notion of masculinity that makes them something, but, all the while, there is, hidden deep inside them, a nothing, that, in some conceivable utopia, might have brought them all things.

Antony and Cleopatra

More, perhaps, than in Shakespeare’s other plays, Antony and Cleopatra presents us with different perspectives, often contradictory each with the other, that are nonetheless true at the same time.  From the Roman perspective, Cleopatra is merely a depraved and lascivious woman, and Antony is playing the fool in neglecting his duties, and being so utterly besotted with her. This is the way they had both been depicted, Ryan tells us, in “nearly all medieval and early modern takes on the story”. Dante, Ryan reminds us, had placed Cleopatra in that circle of the Inferno reserved for “carnal sinners”. Shakespeare, however, while not by any means neglecting this perspective, presents us with something quite different: in the late flowering of love between these two deeply flawed and even, at times, absurd creatures, there is something that is nonetheless magnificent.

What exactly there is that is magnificent is easier felt that described, but it’s there: even the cynical and down-to-earth Enobarbus can’t help but recognise the magnificence. It is easy to point out all the defects in the characters of the two lovers, but, as Enobarbus says, Cleopatra “make[s] defect perfection”. The more “irrational, perverse and aggravating” Cleopatra is, the more Antony loves her; and the further Antony sinks, the more immovable seems Cleopatra’s love of him. And somehow, miraculously, by some magic that I still cannot come close to accounting for, we, the audience, feel the same way: we see Antony and Cleopatra, despite being in positions of power and responsibility, neglecting their duties: they are clearly bad rulers. We see the acting irresponsibly, even reprehensibly. But, as with Enobarbus, against all reason, we can’t help but find something quite magnificent about them.

Not that the Roman view is necessarily an admirable one. As Ryan emphasises, Antony and Cleopatra, whatever the historic accuracy, are, in this play, of different races: Cleopatra is contemptuously referred to as a “gypsy”, and as “tawny”, and Cleopatra herself speaks of being “by Phoebus’ amorous pinches black”. Race is not as major an issue here as it had been in Othello, but disapproval of their union on the grounds of racial difference isn’t absent here either.

But Antony, even while speaking of breaking free from “Egyptian fetters”, is most oppressed by the Roman fetters that bind him: “Let Rome in Tiber melt!” declares this triple pillar of the Roman world, before adding, quite magnificently, “kingdoms are clay”.

But neither he nor Cleopatra can wish away the realities of this imperial world: far more so than the loves of the previous tragic couples – Romeo and Juliet, Othello and Desdemona – their love is played out entirely in public view, and their fates are inextricable from the wider politics.

The conflict between the real world that they must live in, and a world in which their deepest needs may be met and their deepest desires flourish, is too obvious to be spelt out. At the end, with Antony already dead and with Cleopatra’s interest in living in the real world waning, she creates from her imagination an image of Antony as he had never been. Ryan gives much emphasis to the speech of hers that follows, beginning with “But if there be nor ever were one such…” It’s a difficult speech, with complex syntax, but the upshot of it is that creations of the imagination, according to Cleopatra, are not merely fantasy, for that imagination itself is a creation of the real world. And so she mythologises Antony, and, at the point of death, mythologises herself to be the great queen she never had been in real life.

And yet, her final image of herself is not that of royalty: “Dost though not see the baby at the breast / That sucks the nurse asleep?” Ryan adds: “Death liberates Cleopatra from her royalty to enjoy, if only for a moment in her imagination, something far superior to royalty: the simple bond of nurturing motherhood.” Charmian understands: Cleopatra was not a “queen unparalleled”, as may have been expected, but “a lass unparalleled”.

It is Octavius who actually refers to a utopia: he senses a time of “universal peace” near at hand. This universal peace would, of course, be on Octavius’ terms, and we would be right to be suspicious of it; but nonetheless, “universal peace” is a concept that would have been unthinkable to either Antony or to Cleopatra. But it is a rather different kind of utopia they evoke – a utopia in which kingdoms really are clay.

Coriolanus

Shakespeare ended his sequence of tragedies with two Roman plays written in close succession – the very opulent Antony and Cleopatra, and the very austere Coriolanus. But one feature shared by these two very dissimilar plays is that the tragedy of the protagonist is inseparable from the social context. And the social context here is very much that of class warfare. We are plunged into this right from the start. Plutarch, Ryan tells us, tells of the plebians’ revolt some way into his narrative, but Shakespeare opens the play with it. And the plebians’ cause is the most basic: they face starvation because the patricians are hoarding grain.

The contempt in which the patricians hold the people is apparent. The patrician Menenius tries to soft-soap the plebians, but when that fails, his true feelings come out: “Rome and her rats are at the point of battle.” The people of Rome are but vermin. Caius Martius (as Coriolanus is known to begin with), when he enters, doesn’t even pretend: when he hears of likely wars, he says he is glad of it, as that will help cull some of the “musty superfluity”.

It is sometimes said that Coriolanus presents class war from a neutral viewpoint, but Ryan rejects that: true, Shakespeare doesn’t hesitate to show the people as “spineless, gullible, vacillating”, but this does not invalidate their cause, and nor does it justify the patricians. And, Ryan says, “the values on which the plebian rebellion against the patricians is based form the ethical bedrock on which the entire tragedy is built”.

For Coriolanus’ hatred of the people is “born of a horror of having anything in common with them”, and in this, he is no anomaly: this hatred is endemic to his class, though Coriolanus exhibits it more clearly. But the tragedy comes when, at a crucial moment, a being within Coriolanus that had till then been suppressed comes to the fore – when he accepts his mother’s plea to spare Rome. Of course, he signs his own death warrant in doing so, but it is here, Ryan says, that “the universal bond between mother and son prevails, [and] we see and hear the vulnerable, compassionate human [who had been] imprisoned within Coriolanus since childhood”.

***

In the above, I have summarised as best I could Ryan’s arguments – or, at least, my reading of his arguments, which may not be quite the same thing. But, inevitably, summary implies a simplification, a flattening out of subtleties and nuance, and a straightening out of complexities. So I really should emphasise that any flaw detected in the arguments presented in this post is most likely to be a flaw in my own understanding, or my own summarising, rather than a flaw in Ryan’s arguments.

These arguments are presented throughout with admirable lucidity, and are completely free of jargon; and they are always justified by the text, rather than imposed upon them. I won’t say that they have changed my view of these plays overnight: when one has lived with these works for some half a century or so, as I have, certain ways of looking at them become imprinted in the mind, and it becomes hard to change. But they have certainly thrown new light on these works, and have, among other things, provided me with an explanation of why I have found so unsatisfactory those interpretations predicated primarily – or even solely – upon the character flaws of the protagonists.

These plays have long been the works that I think I love more than any other work of art, in any form or medium, and reading such absorbing and penetrating analyses of them has been an unmitigated pleasure. If I have any complaint at all about this book, it is that I could wish the chapter on Antony and Cleopatra – the play in the canon I think I love most – to have been longer, and that Ryan had given it as profound and as detailed a consideration as he does Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth. But no matter. This book demonstrated for me, yet again, the sheer inexhaustibility of these endlessly entrancing works.

“Man, you should have seen them kicking Edgar Allan Poe…”

For Proust, it was madeleine cake: for me, it was some scary pictures.

In A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, Proust had famously unleashed his past by tasting some of madeleine cake dipped in tea. (And no, I’m not sure why anyone would want to dip madeleine cake into tea, but there you go.) It’s not so much that this taste had merely brought back memories: rather, it had brought back entire experiences; it had brought back feelings and sensations that he had felt in the past, and which, far from having receded with the years, had stubbornly remained, locked in obscure compartments of his mind, hidden even from his waking consciousness, until he had found, quite inadvertently, that elusive key that unlocked the doors to these secret chambers. Whereupon his mind had become flooded with something that is more than mere memory – something that didn’t just remind him of the past, but which, in a sense, re-created that past.

The bit of my past recently re-created dates from the late 1960s, I think: I must have been about 9 or so at the time. No older than 10, certainly, since we were still living in Kirkcaldy. I had checked out a book of selected stories by Edgar Allan Poe from the Kirkcaldy children’s library. (I wonder, incidentally, if children’s libraries would still stock such a book? Possibly not – I’m not sure.) I had not heard of Poe, but I was both horrified and fascinated by the illustrations, which, even in the safety of the children’s library, sent the most wonderful shivers down my spine. My parents, who wouldn’t even let me stay up on Friday nights to watch Hammer horror films (and I still bear the emotional scars of that!), wouldn’t, I knew, approve of my checking out such an unwholesome book: the point of my going to the library at all was, after all, for me to improve my English, and not to gratify my perverse taste for the lurid and the grotesque. But I decided to risk it. I had to try this out.

Russell Hoban’s illustration to “Fall of the House of Usher”

I tried to read these stories back home, but the prose defeated me. I had only started learning English some four years earlier, and I wasn’t quite ready for Poe’s convoluted syntax. But those pictures! They terrified me, and invaded my nightmares. I sometimes used to wake up quite literally in a cold sweat. But, such is the imp of the perverse that resides within us, I wouldn’t have missed that experience for anything.

What pictures they were! There was one of a man bathed in a ghastly green light, holding a lamp at arm’s length, and looking into a coffin occupied by a young dead woman. In another, a bearded man faces the viewer, obviously in some pain, with, near his head, some grisly rats, again bathed in that lurid green light, while above him was swinging a pendulum with a huge, fearsome blade attached to it. And so on.

Russell Hoban’s illustration to “The Pit and the Pendulum”

Those images invaded my mind, and stayed there. And everything in my everyday life would direct my consciousness back to those images. Our primary school teacher explaining to us once what the word “masque” meant – I have forgotten now why that word had come up – would lead me immediately to picture in my mind those hideous bloated figures illustrating “The Masque of the Red Death”. Driving once past Usher Hall in Edinburgh, I remember, my mind immediately fixed itself upon that image of a green-lit Roderick Usher looking into the coffin. And so on.

But of course, for better or worse, one grows up, and with the passing years, one’s imagination becomes far less impressionable. And so with me. Until, one day, quite by chance, I stumbled upon those images again online. I discovered, to my surprise, that the artist had been none other than Russell Hoban: I knew him as a writer, of course, and hadn’t even realised that he was also an artist, and, further, that it was his paintings that had made so great an impression on me. And this chance discovery of these pictures proved to be my madeleine cake. It wasn’t just that I remembered that book: I hadn’t, after all, forgotten it in the first place. But I found myself, suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, experiencing something, at least, of what I had experienced back then. I felt once again – though as a man now in his sixties rather than as a child – that pleasurable shiver running down my spine. And it seemed to  me that, even after more than half a century, those sensations I had experienced then had never actually gone away: perhaps nothing ever goes away.  They remain locked in those secret chambers of the mind, sometimes breaking out in our dreams, but, at other times, awaiting that key that will set them free once again.

Russell Hoban’s illustration to “The Masque of the Red Death”

In the intervening years, I haven’t, I admit, given much attention to Poe. I became (and remain) an aficionado of ghost stories, and of horror stories in general, but Poe had not featured among the writers I tend to return to. The last time I tried his stories, there seemed to me an excessive striving for effect, with the hysteria pitched at so high a level right from the beginning that when the screw begins to turn, there isn’t really anywhere further to go. But it would be unfair of me to give Poe a kicking (and yes, I had to write this sentence to justify the title of this post): it was his stories, after all, that inspired the pictures that had enriched my childhood. Yes, enriched: I don’t think that’s too strong a word in this context.

Russell Hoban’s illustration to “Murders in the Rue Morgue”

I think I should revisit these stories now, if only as a greeting of sorts to my younger self. I am, after all, no longer held back by the difficulty of the prose. These are stories I had desperately wanted to read when I was 9, but couldn’t; and now that I can, I think I owe it to the boy I used to be to give them another spin, and tell my critical faculties to shut the hell up. Whether I like it or not, these stories are already part of me.

What I look for in fiction

I try these days not to start a post with a question that I then go on to answer: it seems to me a tired rhetorical device, and, having found myself cringing on observing it in several of my earlier posts, indicative, I think, of lazy writing. But let us not be rigid. I’ll start this post with a question:

  • What do I look for in fiction?

Or, as my friend Di Nguyen put it in her blog post

  • What turns me on?

[EDIT: For another answer to this same question, do please have a look here.]

I find that question difficult to answer, as there are so many different and disparate things that I enjoy. I tried thinking of the novels and plays and short stories that I most love, but couldn’t really find any distinct pattern emerging. I love the realism of something like Madame Bovary, say, but also the inspired illogicalities of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; or, say, Dead Souls, in which the real world is distorted into all sorts of strange and eccentric shapes, verging frequently on the lunatic. I am impressed by the life-and-death seriousness of The Rainbow, and amused by the light-as-a-soufflé frivolity of Right Ho, Jeeves! They both engage me, in entirely different ways, of course, and for entirely different reasons.

So I tried looking at it from another angle: What don’t I look for in fiction? Or, in other words, what turns me off? This path of enquiry proved, I think, more fruitful.

To cut to the chase, I find myself turned off by what are often described as “representative narratives”. I find myself frankly disturbed when novels advertise themselves as “representative” of some marginalised voice. Like, say, the “immigrant experience”. I myself am an immigrant, having come to Britain from India aged 5, some 57 or so years ago now, and yes, I like to think I have my own voice. But what does the “immigrant experience” actually mean? Immigrants from different parts of the world will have different experiences, and hence, different voices. Even immigrants from the same part of the world will have different experiences depending on their social background, the role they fulfil in the country they have come into, the part of the country they live in, and so on, and so forth. And even if the experiences of two immigrants are exactly the same, their voices still won’t be the same, simply because they are two different individuals. And this, I think, is an important point. Whatever the background of the character, whatever minority or majority they may belong to, however marginalised or centralised they may be, each character is, and should be depicted as, an individual. I find I have little time for “representative voices”. I certainly haven’t encountered any voice in fiction resembling my own, and neither would I want to: for one thing, I’d be too embarrassed.

One finds one’s common humanity not, I think, from characters resembling oneself, but, paradoxically, from characters very different from oneself – people from different times, from different cultures, from different walks of life, with different outlooks and different perspectives. If we restrict our interest primarily to characters similar to ourselves, of course we will find a unity of sorts: there’s nothing too surprising about that. It’s when we sense a unity even within the vast and dazzling diversity of humanity that we discover literary exaltation. I have, in short, little time for identity games when it comes to literature: to see literature as an arena for social and political activism is to demean it.

Of course, childhood influences are important: what is impressed upon the mind when that mind hasn’t yet hardened remains for the rest of one’s life. I loved adventure stories as a boy, and that has stayed with me: I love still the stories of Stevenson and Dumas, the Flashman novels of George Macdonald Fraser, and so on. I love also the elements of the boys’ own adventure story that one finds in even the most mature works of Conrad. But even more than the adventure story, I love the supernatural. As a youngster, I used to scare myself silly reading creepy ghost stories in bed, and that habit has remained with me. I love elements of the Gothic when they appear (in Wuthering Heights, say, or Great Expectations); I love hints, or more than mere hints, of the supernatural. I put all this down to the stuff I used to read when my parents thought I was in my room doing my homework.

And, of course, the Sherlock Holmes stories. How could I not mention them when talking about what I love? I was eleven when I came out of Bishopbriggs children’s library with The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Hound of the Baskervilles in my clutch. I did not know it then, but it was the start of a beautiful friendship.

There are some readers, I know, who are very adept at focusing in on details, and teasing out their significance. I am not really such a reader, though I have tried to train myself to be one. I tend to notice more the shape of the novel – the form, the structure; I tend to notice where the pace is accelerating, and where it is decelerating; where the dramatic climaxes are set; and so on. It is only once I get a sense of the shape that the details start falling into place. Which usually means I need to read the thing at least twice – but that is, perhaps, no bad thing: no book worth reading is worth reading only once.

On matters of style, I am quite open-minded: perhaps my preference leans towards the ornate rather than the plain, but I cannot think of any English prose more beautiful than the very straightforward prose of The Pilgrim’s Progress. But no matter whether one’s prose style is plain or ornate, or on some point on the spectrum between the two poles, it can, as with anything else, be done well, or done badly. If an ornate style is done badly, it will appear merely meretricious; if a plain style is done badly, it will appear merely bland. But the point, I think, is that the style is no mere optional add-on: it must be consonant with the subject to such an extent that the two cannot be spoken about separately. The relatively plain style of George Eliot would be no more suitable for Bleak House than the more ornate style of Dickens would be for Middlemarch. Given a choice between the two, my preference would be for Bleak House, both in terms of style and of content (though it is worth stressing that in neither novel can either style or content be considered in isolation). But that preference is purely a subjective matter.

I have often wondered, incidentally, why it is that Middlemarch, for all its undoubted greatness, has never made too great an impact on me. Any serious consideration of the novel reveals an extraordinary mastery – of theme, of subject, of structure … of just about everything one can think of that contributes to the greatness of a novel. And yet, the spine somehow fails to tingle. When I wrote about the novel earlier in my blog, I concluded that this is because it is such a sane and level-headed novel: my temperament is such that I like a touch of madness, as it were – a touch, perhaps, of the wuthering heights. (Or, in the case of Dostoyevsky, perhaps, a touch of pure, unrestrained lunacy.) I think this is true. Needless to say, this is a comment on me rather than on the work, but a view of this solid world, no matter how profound, no matter how piercing, that focuses on its solidity, does not really set my pulse racing: it is only when I see the vast, transcendent expanse of sky, like Prince Andrei does on the battlefield of Austerlitz, that I start to feel that mysterious tingle in the spine.

I find myself, especially as I grow older, not too interested in examinations of the structure of society, of its economic and social basis, and so on. I know some novelists are very good at depicting these things, and I applaud their skills: but that’s not really what I look for. I am attracted more to works that involve me emotionally. Sometimes, these works can be emotionally draining – like, say, Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, a work that is, for whatever reason, very close to my heart. I can appreciate and admire works that ask you to observe from a decorous distance; but it’s the works that draw me headlong into the immediacy of human emotions that attract me more.

And overall, this, I think, leads me to what I most look for in fiction. Human emotions point to a human mystery, and each human being is a profound mystery: the works I tend to respond to most keenly are those that confront me with that sense of mystery. I find it in Tolstoy, in Dostoyevsky; I find it in Dickens too, and in Joyce; and, obviously, in Shakespeare. One cannot, after all, pluck out the heart of Hamlet’s mystery: he cannot pluck it out himself. And, of course, in Ibsen. Bernard Shaw, a man not given to fancy, said of the characters in late Ibsen plays that “there is not one … who is not, in the old phrase, the temple of the Holy Ghost, and who does not move you at moments by the sense of that mystery”. 

In any dispassionate view, we humans are really quite absurd beings: farting, puking, nose-picking creatures, with mean thoughts and often meaner acts. Even our transgressions tend not to be so great: small and petty – that’s all we are. And yet, by some mighty paradox, we are, nonetheless, in that old phrase that Shaw uses, temples of the Holy Ghost. And the religious imagery of that expression no longer embarrasses me as it might have done in my younger days. The literature that means most to me is that which attempts, at least, to confront and to depict this great mystery.

On Imposture

I often worry that I may not be qualified enough to have Impostor Syndrome.

Here I am, blithely writing often long and detailed posts on some of the most complex and most intensely analysed of literary works, and I haven’t even studied literature formally since leaving school. I tell myself that it doesn’t really matter: I don’t, after all, make any claims of being anything I am not, and those who think I am talking uneducated nonsense have the option of not reading. But a nagging worry does remain, and not merely at the back of my mind: what can I have to say about these works that could possibly be of interest to anyone? It is unlikely, after all, that I could say anything about, for instance, the plays of Shakespeare that has not been said before, and said more eloquently; or explore some aspect of those dramas that has not already been explored to far greater depths. I worry especially that someone really learned in these fields may chance upon these writings, and, at best, smile indulgently; and at worst – well, let’s not even go there. I worry about those who regularly mark students’ essays chancing upon these, and mentally awarding my posts a C minus. If I’m lucky.

But at least when I write about Shakespeare – or Dickens, or Ibsen, or Wordsworth, or any of those other writers who mean the world to me – I can at least claim that I have been immersed in these writers’ works for the greater part of my lifetime, and have spent more time than is perhaps entirely healthy thinking about these works, albeit in an informal and unstructured manner; and that, given this immersion, even my informal and unstructured thoughts may not be entirely without interest. But why should similar indulgence be extended to my posts on those writers with whose works I am not so well acquainted? I felt this very strongly when I read Dante’s Commedia recently: I was aware even when reading that what I was taking in was barely adequate, and that, given the vast range and depth of Dante scholarship so easily available to anyone interested, my stuttering record of my meagre understanding could really be of no interest to anyone. And, worse, to those who have actually made a proper study of Dante, even my attempting to write something on the Commedia may even appear embarrassingly presumptuous.

I could, of course, restrict myself to merely summarising what happens. Give a précis of the plot. But doing that would be even worse than boring the reader: that would also bore me.

So ultimately, I decided on silence. I think I wrote a post explaining why I couldn’t write about Dante – a pointless post if ever there was one. But I am not sure this was my best option. Why have a blog, after all – and a blog devoted mainly to literature – if I am to remain silent on what I read?

Late last year, Tom, that is, Amateur Reader of the Wuthering Expectations blog, proposed reading through all the existing Greek plays – 44 in all, apparently – in (as far as can be ascertained) chronological order. One a week, thus taking up the better part of the year. It seemed too good a proposal to turn down. I have read most of these plays before, but nonetheless, my acquaintance with these works may best be described as “nodding”. And the proposal to read these monuments of world literature in the company – even virtual company – of so fine a reader as Tom seemed far too good to turn down. So far, in the four weeks on January, I have read the four plays of Aeschylus that are not part of The Oresteia. (Or, rather, three plays by Aeschylus, and one, though traditionally attributed to him, is unlikely to be his work.) And I have felt too intimidated to put cursor to screen.

In short, I hit upon the problem I faced after I had read Dante. What the hell could I write about it? Should I remain quiet again? This isn’t really a reasonable option, since, among other things, I have promised Tom that I would accompany him with the reading, and since we cannot meet up in person to exchange our impressions, writing online – that is, writing in our respective blogs – is really the only feasible option. And if that means I write stuff that will make scholars smile and shake their heads, or even wince, well, so be it. Why start a blog anyway if I’m not prepared to make a fool of myself?

So soon as I put up this post, I will be starting on a longer post jotting down my impressions of The Persians, Seven Against Thebes, The Suppliants, and also the one that may not be by Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound. This may no doubt make me an impostor, but dammit, this stuff is too good to be left only to specialist scholars!

Caricature and Characterisation: the Sausage and the Rose

There are certain words that, though frequently used, remain, for me at least, uncertain in meaning, and while this isn’t usually a problem in everyday conversation, where approximate meanings tend to be good enough, it becomes more of a problem in areas where a greater degree of precision is required. Literary criticism, for instance. Now, what on earth are we to make of that oft-used term “realism”? It is a word used with almost reckless abandon in literary criticism without anyone ever bothering to define what it means. Or even what they take it to mean.

The dictionary is of limited use here. The Oxford English Dictionary goes through the various different meanings in different contexts, and the one that comes closest to its use in literary criticism is as follows:

Close resemblance to what is real; fidelity of representation, rendering the precise details of the real thing or scene.

As a dictionary definition that is possibly about as good as we can get, but when we try to apply it to individual cases, problems arise. Ghost stories, we may assume, aren’t real, since the reality of ghosts, though believed in by many, remains unproven. But are we therefore to describe Hamlet as “unrealistic”? Indeed, since people in real life do not speak in blank verse, should the entire works of Shakespeare be labelled “unrealistic”? We tend not to think of Shakespeare’s plays in such terms, rightly recognising that through this highly stylised (and hence, unrealistic) form, profound realities about our human lives are revealed; and hence, in that sense, at least, these plays are “realistic”. But once we recognise this, the dictionary definition given above doesn’t prove very useful. If terms such as “realism” or “realistic” are to be in any way significant, we must first of all define what we take them to mean in the context of our argument. Otherwise, one person may say that Animal Farm is realistic because it accurately depicts political realities; while another may say Animal Farm is unrealistic because it depicts talking animals; and they would both be right.

That reality can be addressed through the deliberate use of what is unreal is, of course, a fundamental principle in art, but that does mean we have to use the terms “realism” or “realistic” very carefully. And, in much that I encounter, they aren’t. Even in many scholarly works I have read, the term “realism” is used without any attempt at definition, and with the blithe assumption that, even without a working definition, we are all agreed on what is meant by it. And this imprecision leads to all sorts of questionable conclusions. One of the most persistent, I find, is the conclusion that characterisation – that is, “three dimensional” characterisation, as defined by Forster in Aspects of the Novel – is realistic, and hence Good; while caricature is unrealistic, and hence Bad. Or, if not Bad, as such, less Good than three-dimensional characterisation.

Before we discuss this, I think we need at least some working definitions of “characterisation” and of “caricature”. No, really. I insist. In brief, Forster described “three-dimensional characterisation” as that in which we may see the fictional characters from different perspectives, and, as a consequence, view that character as a complex of different, and sometimes contradictory, traits. A “caricature”, on the other hand, is “flat”. We are shown only a few traits, or sometimes just one trait, and, as a consequence, the character lacks the complexity of a fully three-dimensional character. And hence, in terms of literary artistry, is inferior to the three-dimensional character.

This seems, on the surface at least, entirely reasonable. Characterisation reveals the complexity of reality; caricature simplifies that reality by flattening it out. And if the aim of the art is to depict reality, then clearly the former is superior. Alternatively, if depiction of reality isn’t the aim of the art, then whatever that art is aiming for is clearly a lesser aim. Why? Well – it just is, that’s all. We may admire the caricatures of Gillray or of Daumier, but let’s not compare them to the portraiture of Rembrandt.

We should, at this point, note two distinct strands in this tangle. The first is the contention that works of art that do not aim to illumine reality in any way are necessarily inferior to those that do. According to this contention, a ghost story by M. R. James, whose ambition extends no further than to frighten the reader, must by definition (i.e. by the way we have chosen to define it) be aesthetically inferior to a ghost story by Henry James that uses the supernatural to depict real depths of the human mind. I don’t personally accept the contention that leads to such a conclusion, but let us leave this to one side for now, and address the other strand: is a rounded three-dimensional characterisation necessarily superior to a caricature for the very reason that it is three-dimensional, and, hence, a truer representation of reality?

Such a view, though admittedly coherent, seems to me to leave much to be desired. It seems self-evident nonsense to describe Gogol’s Dead Souls, say, as inferior literature – as we must if we are to consider caricature aesthetically inferior to characterisation. It seems perverse to describe Mrs Bennet, Mr Collins, Aunt Norris, and Mr Elton as among Austen’s lesser achievements because they are caricatures rather than fully rounded characters. If our view of aesthetics is to be derived from what we find aesthetically satisfying, as seems to me reasonable, we must revisit the view that regards these creations as inferior.

To try to understand why the caricatures of Austen or of Gogol aren’t inferior creations, we need to consider the impact they make on us. That, after all, is the starting point of any aesthetic inquiry. And here, we run into problems. For the words we use to describe the impact these “flat” characters make on us – vivid, vital, striking, and so on – are not very easily defined. We recognise these qualities when we encounter them, but explanations aren’t easy. We recognise, for instance, that Fagin is a striking creation, and “comes alive” on the page in a way that Monks from the same novel doesn’t, but there seems no way of expressing that in objective terms, or in terms that would convince someone who fails to respond to Fagin in such a manner.

But I think it isn’t irrelevant to note that vast numbers of readers, from different eras and from different cultural backgrounds, have found Fagin striking and more memorable than any number of three-dimensional and well-rounded characters in any number of other novels. The subjective view of one reader, or of a group of readers, may not be admissible evidence, but when that view is shared by so many readers from so many different backgrounds and so many different generations, it does, I think, command some attention. That the caricatures of Gogol, of Austen, of Dickens, have captured and continue to capture so many imaginations is not easily dismissed. So let us accept then that there is indeed something about these characters which, though it cannot be captured in objective terms, strikes readers forcibly, and imprints itself upon the memory. And that the ability to create such characters is indeed a gift, for few are capable of doing so. The ball then is back in the court of those who insist on the inferiority of caricatures to explain why this gift – this gift of creating striking and vivid caricatures – should be any less in value than the gift of creating fully rounded characters.

I think my personal view on this matter is fairly obvious by now, but I might as well say it explicitly: the ability to create good caricatures – that is, characters that, despite being “flat” and exhibiting only a small handful of traits, have a life of their own, are striking and memorable, and emerge from the page with vitality and vigour – is every bit as remarkable as the ability to create complex, fully-rounded characters. It is a different kind of skill, but I know of no metric whereby it may be judged to be of lesser value. Of course, there is the contention that the fully-rounded characters depict reality more accurately, but I don’t know that contention amounts to much given that the depiction of reality through the employment of that which is unreal is, quite demonstrably, often in the very nature of art.

In short, I love Dickens as much as I love Tolstoy. Further, I think they were, in their different ways, equally great novelists. And if we really are to insist that art must illumine reality, then I would argue that Dickens, through his unique stylisations, illumines reality just as brightly as Tolstoy does – that Bleak House holds up the mirror to nature every bit as remarkably as does Anna Karenina. Dickens’ mirror happens to be a distorting mirror, but it’s a mirror all the same.

Orwell, in his famous essay on Dickens, says at one point that it is pointless trying to compare Dickens and Tolstoy: it’s like comparing a sausage to a rose – their purposes barely intersect. I remain grateful that I encountered both at an impressionable age, and the powerful impressions made then on my malleable mind have remained there imprinted after all these years.

A very happy Christmas, and New Year

Well, here we are again. This is the time of year when book bloggers compile their lists of the Best of the Year, their Top Ten, and what not. But I doubt I’m capable of doing that: I don’t think I’ve read ten books this year.

Mind you, what I have read has been pretty substantial. I actually finished Finnegans Wake, and I’m still patting myself on the back over that. And Dante’s Commedia, in Clive James’ translation. I doubt I got as much out of either as I should have done, but at least I tried my best. There are posts earlier in this blog describing my experiences with these monumental works.

And speaking of monumental works, I re-read Goethe’s Faust too (there’s a post somewhere on what I made of that strange second part). I also read Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, and, I must admit, I found it more congenial to my tastes and sensibilities, Add to that some dozen plays by Shakespeare (I’m still readimg one a month), and about half of Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu (to be completed next year some time), as well as Sheila Hale’s massive biography of Titian, i guess I haven’t been doing too badly.

But my blogging has, I realise, dropped off considerably. Laziness, I suppose. I’ll try to do better next year – honestly, I will.

As for reading plans – yes, there are always reading plans. I need to finish Tale of Genji for a start: it is a book I’m finding absorbing, but difficult. Its cultural background I am entirely unfamiliar with, and its literary aesthetics are very different from anything I have encountered before: I am finding it difficult merely keeping up, and am not at all sure that I’ll have anything to say of any great interest should I decide to blog about it once I have finished.

And similarly for a few other books I am planning to read: they are generally departures from my usual reading, and I am diffident about having any particular insight to offer. I’d like to read Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Troilus and Criseyde, both in the original text rather than in modern translations. And I’d like to tackle Rabelais. I’ve acquired Gargantua et Pantagruel in translations by Thomas Urquhart and Pierre le Motteux (le Motteux completed what Urquhart had left unfinished when he died), and by Donald Frame, and I plan reading them both – the latter because it is a modern translation reputed to be scholarly and accurate; and the former because, despite the looseness that, I understand, was quite common in translations of the seventeenth century; and, further, despite many passages that are, seemingly, Urquhart’s own invention; this translation is often declared to be a masterpiece in its own right. Since I wanted to read both an accurate version, and also to enjoy Urquhart’s contributions, the best solution seemed to be to read both.

In addition, I plan to read, along with Tom of the much esteemed Wuthering Expectations blog, all the existing Greek plays – one a week (there is an itinerary here). Maybe that is just what I need to get back into blogging again on a regular basis.

I plan also to continue reading one Shakespeare play a month, although, given how much I have written about Shakespeare’s plays on this blog over the years, I doubt I’ll be blogging about them unless I have anything very specific to say.

And that’s about it, really. So best wishes to all for a very Happy Christmas and New Year. And I’ll try to ge a bit more productive next year.

“Nativity” by Fra Angelico, cortesy of Museo dimSan Marco, Florence.

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. However, 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 those of 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.]