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The Apu Trilogy Revisited

The Apu Trilogy, directed by Satyajit Ray, consists of the films Pather Panchali (a.k.a. The Song of the Road, 1955), Aparajito (a.k.a. The Unvanquished, 1956),  and Apur Sansar (a.k.a. The World of Apu, 1959)

aputrilogy

It’s always difficult writing about things you feel personally close to. For one thing, it becomes virtually impossible to keep an objective distance, or even the pretence of one, and the whole thing ends up being the kind of gushing that puts off the very readers one wishes to enthuse. And for another thing, it becomes very difficult to keep autobiography out of it.

Looking back on what I had previously written in this blog on these three films, I see I hadn’t quite managed to keep autobiography out of it. But it was not as bad as I had feared. I see also that while I had focussed on the themes of the work, I had spoken also on what happens – i.e. the plot. But that previous post had been written over six years ago. I try not to say much about plot in my posts these days, since, in any major work of art – whether a film, or a novel, or a play, or an opera, or whatever – the plot is usually the least interesting aspect, and doesn’t, I think, merit much discussion. And after all, a summary of the plot is always a bit boring: if you know the work in question, it becomes merely an account of what you already know; and I fail to see what possible interest it can have for those who don’t know the work. So, I promise, in this post at least, to keep off the plot as far as I can. I promise also not to get autobiographical.

(No, on second thoughts, I retract that second promise, for once I start talking about these films, who knows where my ramblings may lead me! The first promise, though I intend to keep.)

But I do feel I need to talk about these films again. (And here I make another promise: I shall do my utmost best not to repeat anything I had said in my previous post.) This last Sunday, I was at the British Film Institute on the South Bank in London, seeing all three films one after the other, on the big screen, in newly restored prints; and, since then, I am finding it difficult to think about anything else.

Aparajito 5

I have known these films since my teenage days, and have seen them heaven knows how many times over the years – first on VHS tape, later on DVD, and, occasionally, in the cinema. For reasons given above, I’ll resist the temptation to gush about them, and overload this piece with superlatives: let me just restrict myself to saying that what I experienced at the BFI on Sunday, I feel I need to share.

First of all, the restorations themselves. I didn’t think they would make much difference – after all, how could I love those films even more than I already did? – but they do. Those passages where I remember the picture shaking now emerge as they were meant to be seen; and the extraordinary beauty Ray and his cameraman Subrata Mitra capture – in the Bengali countryside, in the faces of people, even in the scenes of urban squalor – emerges as if freshly minted. I realised, as I frankly hadn’t done before, just how visually gorgeous these films are.

And the soundtrack too has been restored. The music for Pather Panchali was composed by a then relatively unknown Ravi Shankar during a single session on a single day (Ravi Shankar later composed the music for the other two films also), and it emerges here resplendent. And what music! With the restoration of the soundtrack to such pristine quality, I realised all the better how much thought Ray had put into the placing of the music. There are musical themes – leitmotifs, I suppose I should call them – associated with certain dramatic themes, with certain characters, and with certain dramatic situations; and their reprises, often in subtly altered form, tell us much about the nature of the drama. For instance, in Apur Sansar, the third of these films, we hear, on the night of Apu’s bizarre wedding, the soulful strains of the boatman’s bhatiali song; we hear this music again much later when Apu returns, and sees his son for the first time. The effect of linking those two scenes together with this music is heart-rending. And we get this kind of thing throughout – scenes and situations linked together, often unexpectedly, by the music. For this trilogy of films seems to me a musical as well as a dramatic masterpiece.

Most striking of all, for me, was the return at the very end of the last film of that hysterical death music we had heard near the end of Pather Panchali. I never quite understood why the reprise of this music at this particular moment should be so striking. I suppose an explanation of sorts can be offered: at its first appearance, a father loses a child; at its reprise, a father reclaims his child. The wheel has, in a sense, come round full circle. But this is a contrived explanation, and it doesn’t really satisfy. In the end, one has to put it down – as with so much in these three films – as one of those pieces of magic that defy rational analysis. It works, it resonates, it takes our minds and our souls to some rarefied plane to which only the greatest of art can take us: we might as well just leave it there, and not even try to account for it.

When I try to convey my overall impressions of these films, I often find myself speaking of its emotional intensity, and I think I give the impression of a tearful wallow, a weepie. I suppose this is, in a sense, inevitable. Everyone I know, or know of, who has responded to these films, speak of its very direct – often disconcertingly direct – emotional impact. Saul Bellow, in Herzog, describes his titular character watching Pather Panchali in a New York cinema, and weeping with the mother when the hysterical death music begins. Indeed, only now, writing that last sentence, do I realise that the words “hysterical death music” that I have used both in this paragraph and in the previous are taken from Bellow’s novel. In the previous paragraph, the borrowing had been unconscious: Bellow’s words had obviously lodged in my mind, and they had surfaced unbidden. But since I have already written it, it might as well stay: Bellow’s words do, after all, describe the nature of the music, the expressive ardour and ferocity of which convey more powerfully than any other music I am aware of an utterly uninhibited abandon in the face of that greatest and most devastatingly final of all losses.

In my earlier years, I remember, I used to try my best not to weep as Moses Herzog had done in that New York cinema. For I was a man. A young man at that. And men don’t cry. At the end of the film, I would try to compose myself as best I could before walking out of the cinema. What’s that in my eye? Yes, that’s right, something had gone into my eye, and I was just scratching it, that’s all. But this time, my worry was quite the opposite: I was afraid that, as Hopkins puts it, “as the heart grows older, it will come to such sights colder”:  I was afraid that I wouldn’t be so emotionally affected by these scenes; that, with age, my heart, along with my arteries, have hardened. And I am genuinely happy to report that such was not the case. I was as emotionally affected as ever I have been.

But although there is much loss in the course of these three films, loss is not the central theme. Rather, at the centre of these films is the ability to grow with experience, to engage with the world and all that it has to offer. In this, I think, Ray’s trilogy is somewhat different from those two magnificent novels by Bibhuti Bhushan Banerji (Pather Panchali and Aparajito) on which they are based. Bibhuti Bhushan (it is customary in Bengali to refer to people by their forenames rather than by their surnames) had been primarily interested, it seems to me, on the continuity between past and present – on those events of childhood, apparently trivial though many may be, which shape the man that is to emerge; and also on the re-creation through memory of the past that helps nourish the present. But Satyajit had picked up, I think, on another aspect of Bibhuti Bhushan’s novels, and this is Apu’s desire, his hunger, to engage with the world, and all that it has to offer.  And to do this, he has to live through loss. He has to learn – not so much to overcome grief (for such grief cannot be overcome), but to live with the grief, and not turn away. But turning away, despite all, is precisely what he does in Apur Sansar: here, even Apu buckles, and chooses to turn his back on life, and live instead with the memory of the dead. Only in the final section of the film does he re-emerge; or, rather, it is only in the final section that he begins to re-emerge: there is no closure, no finality, for such things cannot exist while we go on living. But even in this beginning to re-emerge, there is joy. For all the pain and grief that run through these three films, ultimately, what is conveyed is a sense of joy – a joy that is all the more precious for being so precarious, and for having been so painfully won.

ApurSansar

I suppose this is the point, as I am approaching the end of this post, where I should recap and summarise, but I must be careful once again not to appear gushing. Before I went to the British Film Institute last Sunday, I was wondering whether I could take so long an emotional marathon. And it’s fair to say, I think, that the six or so hours I experienced was not exactly light entertainment. But I am glad I went. Sometimes, one feels one knows certain works so well, that one doesn’t bother revisiting them: they’re in one’s mind anyway, so what’s the point? But even when something is imprinted in one’s mind as firmly as these three films are in mine, it is worthwhile revisiting them. Especially when, as in this instance, they have been returned to their pristine glory by such loving and meticulous restoration.

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A Nobel Prize for Storytelling?

It’s far too easy for us self-styled “literary types” to have a cheap laugh at the expense of Jeffrey Archer. I’d like to think, however, that this blog is above that. Especially now, in the lead-up to the Festive Season. “Goodwill to all men, except for Jeffrey Archer” does seem a bit churlish at best.

I’d like, nonetheless, to comment, not on Mr Archer the person, nor even on Mr Archer the writer, but on a line from some article in the Daily Telegraph in praise of Mr Archer that is now quoted on the covers of his books. “If there were a Nobel Prize for storytelling,” we are told, “Archer would win.”

archer-us

I personally have no quarrel whatever with this line. The judgement expressed may or may not be a good judgement, but I am not sufficiently interested in the matter to try to find out for myself: life is too short to take an interest in everything, and, beyond a point, one’s curiosity does begin to dwindle. But I can’t help noticing that this line has been the subject of much ridicule and scoffing on social media. There already does exist such a prize, the scoffers tell us: it’s called the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Well, actually, no. The scoffers are wrong. Storytelling is certainly an aspect of fiction (or, for that matter, of plays, narrative poems, screenplays, operatic libretti, or whatever); but as a criterion of literary merit, while it can on very rare occasions be a sufficient criterion (I am thinking here, say, of the likes of Dumas), it is by no means a necessary one. There is much literature of surpassing high quality where storytelling skills play little part.

I can’t help feeling, though, that it would be no bad thing if there were to be a Nobel Prize for Storytelling, for good storytelling is a fine skill, is possessed by few, and deserves to be celebrated when found. Whether or not Mr Archer should win such a prize, I am in no position to say, but this particular skill, as and when I come across it, is one I find myself much admiring. As is only to be expected, I suppose, from one who would unhesitatingly pick The Sherlock Holmes Stories as his single Desert Island Book.

“A Month in the Country” by Ivan Turgenev

I’ve long had a theory – which will, I am sure, be quite exploded in the comments section of this post by people better read than myself – that while the novel was establishing itself in the nineteenth century as perhaps the most important literary form of the age, drama lagged significantly behind. While prose drama was seen primarily as suitable for comedy ( Sheridan, Gogol, the prose plays of Molière, etc.), tragic works were still seen to require a dignity and nobility that only verse could provide. Further, drama, unlike prose fiction, had either to be tragic or comic: there was nothing between Racine on the one hand, and Molière on the other. And while the comic could (and indeed did) accommodate figures from all walks of life, the tragic had to deal with kings and queens, nobles and bishops, princes and princesses; and, with people now reading about Emma Woodhouse or Emma Bovary, kings and queens and nobles and bishops delivering high-flown blank verse were, perhaps, starting to seem a bit old hat. So, while the novel flowered as a literary form (Austen, Stendhal, Balzac, Dickens, Hawthorne, Melville, and so on), drama, in contrast, remained relatively static, and, indeed, stultified, until some time in the late nineteenth century when Ibsen and Chekhov (and I guess I should add Strindberg, although, personally, I have never really understood his work) rescued the form by raising it to the heights that the novel, at its best, had already attained.

I suppose it would be easy enough to find exceptions to this (Büchner, for instance, although his remarkable plays weren’t know about till much later); but, whatever the reason, as a vehicle of literary expression, the drama did indeed, I think, lag behind the novel for much of the nineteenth century. But one very notable exception is a play Ivan Turgenev wrote in 1850, A Month in the Country.

At this stage in his career, Turgenev had written some wonderful short stories and sketches, but had not yet embarked on the novels on which his fame now primarily rests. A Month in the Country is not too often performed these days (at least, I cannot remember a single performance of it in London in the last few decades), but, reading it, it seems a remarkably assured work, and leaves one wondering what Turgenev might have gone on to achieve in the field of drama had he not decided to turn instead to the novel. Not that A Month in the Country is not a fine work in itself. But it also seems, in the context especially of the times, a sort of harbinger, indicating directions of development in the drama that were only really taken up by Chekhov some fifty years afterwards.

The scene should be familiar to anyone who knows Chekhov’s plays: a country estate populated by its owners (landed gentry naturally), and various hangers on (wards, ageing parents, “companions” – i.e. those who would have been destitute were it not for the landowners’ charity); tutors and governors, maids and servants; and the occasional country doctor or neighbouring landowner stopping off. It is, in short, an ensemble piece, as are all of Chekhov’s dramas. And the mode is neither comic (although there are a few jokes in it), nor explicitly tragic: it is pitched – once again, as Chekhov’s plays are – between the two extreme poles, depicting with the utmost seriousness and sensitivity the unfulfilled longings and the pains of disillusion of its principal characters, while yet placing them in a wider context in which we may see such things as, perhaps, less than cataclysmic. The register, as in Turgenev’s novels, is of a gentle sadness.

At the centre of this group is Natalya Petrovna, the lady of the house. Although she is married, she is loved by Rakitin, described in the list of characters as a “friend of the family”. The love is not returned: Natalya Petrovna is not an adulterous wife. Nonetheless, and despite knowing what Rakitin feels for her, she is on friendly terms with him, and often confides in him. This scenario would recur in Turgenev’s later novel, Smoke, with Irina and Potugin; and, as was well-known even at the time, Turgenev himself was in just such a position, in love with the famed opera singer Pauline Viardot, and hanging around hopelessly with the Viardot household. It does seem a somewhat humiliating situation to be in, and it seems surprising that Turgenev, knowing this to be his own situation, and knowing, further, that this situation was no secret, should so draw attention to it by depicting it in his own work.

In Smoke, the husband had been a pretty nondescript character. Here, the husband is off-stage for most of the play, but when he does emerge in the final acts, the way Turgenev presents his is arresting: he knows full well how his friend Rakitin feels about his wife, but has such confidence both in his wife and in his friend, he firmly believes that neither would betray him. This is quite remarkable, especially in a drama, in which an Othello-like jealousy would have created a far greater theatrical impact; and that Turgenev was prepared to forgo such a immediate theatrical impact for the sake of greater subtlety of characterisation is an indication of how seriously he took the artistic potential of what he must have known was a new kind of drama – neither broadly comic, nor yet aiming for the intensity of high tragedy.

But arresting though this situation is, Turgenev keeps it mainly in the background till the final two acts. Of greater impact in the earlier part of the play is the passion Natalya Petrovna feels for her son’s tutor, a young man barely out of childhood himself, and who is utterly taken aback when he discovers the intensity of the passion he has unwittingly unleashed. And here, although Turgenev is not aiming to write high tragedy, he is surely harking back to Racine’s Phèdre, or even to Euripides’ Hippolytus. Racine’s focus had been the older woman, and Euripides’ the younger man, but since Turgenev’s play is an ensemble piece, he can focus equally on both. The young tutor, Belyaev, finds himself having to grow up quickly, and come to some kind of understanding of the endless complexities of adult human emotions; and Natalya Petrovna, having regarded lightly Rakitin’s passion for herself, has now to understand, and, if she can, come to terms with her own unfulfilled passion, and its destructive power. And this proud lady has to cope also with the humiliation of becoming a rival to her own teenage ward.

One may, of course, read this as Turgenev “getting his own back” on Pauline Viardot, but that would seem to me a shallow reading. Quite apart from the inadvisability of interpreting a work based on what we know of the author’s own life, advancing such an interpretation is to overlook the gentle compassion with which Natalya Petrovna is depicted. If there is any sense of triumph on the author’s part, I, for one, could not detect it. The theme here is unfulfilled desire, and, however humilating it may be, either in Rakitin or in Natalya Petrovna, or, for that matter, in the teenage ward Vera, Turgenev’s treatment of this theme evinces a gentle sadness. There is no catharsis at the end. Turgenev was not writing high tragedy: people here do not die of unhappiness, but have to go on living, bearing their burdens as best they can.

The play is not, perhaps, flawless. Ibsen had once said of one of Tolstoy’s plays that there were “too many conversations and not enough scenes”: sadly, he did not go on to explain what he regarded as the distinction between the two, but we may, perhaps, guess at it: in a “conversation”, only what is explicitly said is important, whereas in a “scene”, what is said is invested with various overtones and resonances in such a way as to communicate more than what is explicitly said. That, at least, is my understanding. And here, too, I think Ibsen might have made the same criticism as he had made of Tolstoy’s plays – “too many conversations, not enough scenes”. But Ibsen himself had worked for decades to master the art of creating scenes rather than mere conversations; and while it is true that much of this play consists merely of conversations (at least by the definition I have proposed above), these conversations are never less than interesting, and are often compelling; and the “scenes”, when they come, are magnificent.

There are cases, admittedly, when characters express their thoughts through long monologues. I suppose that in a modern production, realism can be dispensed with altogether at such points, and stage time frozen as the character steps up to the footlights to deliver what we would now describe as “stream of consciousness”. Or better still, such monologues may be cut altogether: audiences are more used now to picking up subtleties of internal thought purely from what the characters say on stage.

And little passages such as this may also be cut:

ISLAEV: I’m not used to altercations of this sort. I hope they won’t often be repeated. I’ve a strong constitution, God knows, but I can’t bear this.

To our modern ears, this sounds very much like a novelist writing a play. We can easily imagine a passage such as this in a novel – for instance:

Physically, Islaev had a strong constitution, but he had been throughout his life so free of all worry, and so unused to conflict, that confrontations of all kinds upset his natural equilibrium.

But in a play, such lines seem out of place. We are asked to believe that Islaev, in a state of mental perturbation, could nonetheless analyse himself accurately, and articulate clearly the fruits of his analysis for the audience’s benefit. But these were early days for realistic drama: one can easily find such passages also in early Ibsen or in early Chekhov.

A Month in the Country was Turgenev’s last play: he had written a few earlier – mainly in a comic, Gogolian mode – but none of them are anywhere near the class of this. After this, he turned to the novel. But it’s hard not to speculate how the drama might have developed had he decided otherwise. A Month in the Country very clearly points forward to Chekhov, but even when seen purely in its own light, it seems to me a remarkable achievement.

(The translation I read and quoted from above is by Stephen Mulrine, published by Oberon Books)

“Pnin” by Vladimir Nabokov

Pnin and Lolita were written at around the same time, and it is hard not to compare the titular character of the one, the academic Timofey Pavolovich  Pnin, with the principal character of the other, Humbert Humbert.  Both are European émigrés in America, and both are highly intelligent; but in everything else, they are direct opposites. Humbert Humbert is personable and good-looking: from the description given (“ ideally bald … an infantile absence of eyebrows … apish upper lip, thick neck … a pair of spindly legs …”), Pnin isn’t. Humbert Humbert deceives his wife, Pnin is deceived by his. Humbert Humbert is a predatory paedophile, who grotesquely exploits his step-daughter: Pnin is selflessly kind and generous to his wife’s son. Humbert Humbert is a monster: Pnin is a good man. Indeed, it may not be going too far to describe him as a saint. And whereas, in Lolita, Nabokov encourages a degree of sympathy, and possibly even empathy, with his monster creation, so we, the reader, can feel shocked by where our empathy has taken us, the game Nabokov plays with Pnin is quite different: he depicts him throughout as an absurd and laughable character, so that we, the reader, find ourselves shocked that we could even think of laughing at so good and so selfless a human. He was one for games, was Nabokov.

In Lolita, Nabokov allowed the vile but deeply seductive voice of Humbert Humbert to tell us his story.  Here, the narrative voice belongs to someone else, and it is not entirely obvious to begin with who this someone else is. What this narrative voice gives voice to is highly individual: there are pot shots at various aspects of academia, for instance; there is also a dislike of fashionable psychiatric ideas (“Victor was a problem child insofar as he refused to be one”), and, frequently, a waspish sense of humour that often descends into outright sneering; and there is an openly expressed dislike of such literary figures as Stendhal, Dostoyevsky, Dreiser, Mann. And all this is expressed a razor-sharp, precise, glinting prose. It is hard, given all this, to escape the notion that this narrator is Nabokov himself. Certainly, it is the same voice I hear in my mind when I read his fascinating (though highly idiosyncratic) literary criticism. But if the narrator is Nabokov, why is he so cruel and so unfeeling to Pnin? Do we put this down to yet another of Nabokov’s games?

But it’s not that the narrative voice misleads us. What this voice depicts is so clearly at odds with its sneering tone, that we learn very quickly not to take that tone of voice at all seriously. It would take a deeply insensitive reader, after all, to share the narrator’s obvious amusement when Pnin breaks down in tears in his landlady’s presence (“I haf nofing left, nofing, nofing!”)

There isn’t really much of a plot, as such. Nor is there much continuity between chapters, with each chapter emerging as a sort of tableau, and not moving anything on noticeably. In one chapter we meet Pnin’s ex-wife, who had shamefully exploited him, and continues shamelessly to exploit; and while Pnin is heartbroken, the narrator invites us to laugh at his heartbreak, and his astonishing lack of rancour. In another chapter, Pnin looks after his wife’s son, and treats him with a greater kindness and understanding than his biological parents have ever done. This, too, the narrator seems to find rather funny. In another chapter, we see Pnin at a gathering of Russian émigrés: here, he seems a bit more at home. And so on. None of these tableaux seems to be part of any particular line of development: they simply reflect different facets of Pnin’s life, of his past, and of his miserable state of exile.

It is in the chapter relating the gathering of Russian émigrés that we learn that Pnin, in his youth, had loved a young Jewish woman, Mira Belochkin, who had later been murdered in a Nazi extermination camp. In a more conventional novel, this would have been at the centre, but here, it is dropped almost as if in passing, as if it were but an incidental detail. And  afterwards, it is never mentioned again. But the few sentences given to this apparently incidental detail gives us all that is needed for our imagination to latch on to:

Pnin had taught himself, during the last ten years, never to think of Mira Belochkin … no conscience, and hence no consciousness, could be expected to subsist in a world where such things as Mira’s death were possible.

The narrator, though at other points seemingly insensitive, goes on to say:

And since the exact form of her death had not been recorded, Mira kept dying a great number of deaths in one’s mind, and undergoing a great number of resurrections, only to die again and again, led away by a trained nurse, inoculated with filth, tetanus bacilli, broken glass, gassed in a sham shower bath with prussic acid, burnt alive in a pit on a gasoline soaked pile of beechwood.

The narration is clearly inconsistent here: if Pnin had indeed taught himself not to think of her, Mira could hardly have died and undergone resurrection “over and over again” in his mind. (The narrator does cover his back by saying “one’s mind” rather than “his mind” – my italics – but it’s hard to imagine who this “one” could be if not Pnin himself.) And the whole thing is never referred to again. A momentary mention, and that is it. It is left up to us, the reader, to take what is presented but as an incidental detail, and put it at the centre of things where it belongs. Nabokov plays games with the reader, yes, but, at the same time, he is openly asking the reader to see through his games.

After this little detail is dropped, the narration resumes as before, but the reader now must see the new events in the context of this detail, and re-evaluate everything that has gone before. If Pnin is a man hopelessly lost, a man hopelessly out of place, this is not merely because he is an émigré: it is not merely America in which he is a fish out of water – it is the world itself, a world in which no conscience or consciousness can be expected to subsist.

The comedy, however, continues. There is one delicious scene reminiscent of Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 in which it is decided not to assign Pnin to French classes because he actually knows the language. And, in the final chapter, the narrator emerges, revealing himself to be a fellow academic and fellow Russian émigré: indeed, he reveals himself to be, as we had always suspected, Nabokov himself. And the various inconsistencies in his narrative compel us to consider just why these inconsistencies have been introduced. There is possibly no definitive answer to this question: certainly, all the reams of literary theory concerning the use of the unreliable narrator is of little use to us here (one suspects that Nabokov himself would have aimed some sharp and well-aimed barbs at such theories). I rather suspect that these inconsistencies point to Nabokov’s recognition, and yet, at the same time, his inability openly to acknowledge, that human goodness, and indeed, human saintliness, can still exist in a world in which no conscience or consciousness could be expected to subsist. And Nabokov recognises quite clearly this conflict within himself: his inconsistencies are quite deliberately placed.

In the end, Pnin is relieved of his post, and he disappears. And at this point, the author, Nabokov himself, suspends his game-playing, and the razor-sharp precision of his prose gives way, if only momentarily, to a vision of another world that, somewhere, may still exist:

Then the little sedan boldly swung past the front truck and, free at last, spurted up the shining road, which one could make out narrowing to a thread of gold in the soft mist where hill after hill made beauty of distance, and where there was simply no saying what miracle may happen.

No waspish wit here, no sneering. Just for a single moment, Nabokov has let down his defences, and has given us what is perhaps as close to a religious vision as is possible in a world in which no conscience or consciousness could be expected to subsist.

Dostoyevsky’s “Fantastic stories”

I use the word “fantastic” not in the sense that it is generally used now – that is, to describe something that is spectacularly good – but in the sense that Dostoyevsky himself had used it in the subtitle of two of his late stories, The Meek One (sometimes rendered as A Gentle Creature, or A Timid Creature, or some variant thereof), and “Dream of a Ridiculous Man”, both of which he subtitled A Fantastic Story. However, while “Dream of a Ridiculous Man” is quite clearly a work of fantasy – the greater part of it relating a dream involving travel to another planet – the element of fantasy in The Meek One is harder to discern, as it appears to tell a realistic story, albeit from the perspective of a character whose grasp of reality may seem tenuous. That Dostoyevsky chose to explicitly describe both these stories as “fantastic” raises some not easily answered questions on what he considered to be “fantastic”, and where precisely he considered the boundaries of reality and fantasy to lie.

For while his major fiction cannot really be described as “realistic” – in the sense that we would describe the works of, say, Flaubert or of Tolstoy as “realistic” – nothing happens in any of them that is physically impossible. When the physically impossible is introduced – say, the hideous gigantic insect-like creature that Ippolit sees in The Idiot – it is made clear that it is seen in a dream. For all the strangeness of a Dostoyevsky novel, even an event such as a spontaneous combustion (which is famously accommodated in Dickens’ Bleak House) would have been grotesquely out of place. Yes, people act in his novels in very strange ways, or think very strange things; and quite frequently the action described seems to address some weird, rarely visited corners of our minds; but there is nothing that contravenes the laws of physics. Even in “Dream of a Ridiculous Man”, which is explicitly described as “fantastic”, that fantasy – what we would nowadays describe as “science fiction” – takes place within a dream. But in The Meek One, there isn’t even a dream sequence. In a short preface to the story, Dostoyevsky explains why he chose to describe the story as fantastic: it refers, he says to the form: the narration itself is a fantasy. It tells us what is going on in the mind of a man whose wife has just committed suicide: his thoughts, his feelings, are utterly confused, fragmented, and often contradictory, and he tries desperately to piece them all together to arrive at what may be the truth of the matter. And the fantasy, says Dostoyevsky, lies in the piecing together of all this formless confusion into the semblance, at least, of an orderly narrative.

I can’t honestly say I am entirely convinced by this explanation, and suspect that, in this preface, he is playing games with us. In describing his story as “fantastic”, and then drawing our attention to it by giving us at the outset an explanation that clearly does not satisfy, he is challenging us, the reader, to determine for ourselves where the boundaries of reality may lie. That the narrator is unreliable goes without saying; but the subject of the story is not merely the events he describes, but also the very process of his trying to fit these events all together into some sort of coherence. And it is here, we may suspect, that the element of fantasy may enter.

The story is one of immense psychological complexity. Possibly it is a story that is not possible to narrate from an objective viewpoint – not because the objective truth does not exist, but because it is so profoundly hidden from sight, so difficult to arrive at. Nothing is as it seems: even the title deceives, since “the meek one” – or the “gentle creature”, or the “timid creature” – is neither meek, nor gentle, nor timid.

The narrator is a pawnbroker, a profession not considered honourable. And he is aware of how he is regarded. Quite apart from his profession, he has in the past been regarded with derision: when in the army, he had been insulted, and had refused to defend his honour by fighting a duel. He insists to us, the reader, that his refusal had not been out of cowardice, but we cannot be entirely sure. And neither, we suspect, can he. We suspect that he is tormented by the thought that he really is as base and as contemptible as he is perceived to be. And he needs to prove to himself that he isn’t. Whatever he is, he is not ridiculous.

This man finds himself strangely attracted to what initially seems to him a vision of purity: a very young lady, barely out of childhood, who, since the death of her parents, has been tyrannised and effectively enslaved by her aunts. She tries to pawn her meagre possessions in order to pay for an advertisement for position of governess, but to no avail. The narrator suggests an advertisement somewhat differently worded:

Young person, orphan, seeks position as governess of small children, preferably with an older widower. Can help with housework.

One need not read too closely between the lines to figure out what this is promising. The only way out for this young lady is, effectively, to sell herself sexually.

It is at this point that he proposes marriage to her. It is, on the surface, a noble, romantic action: he is the knight in shining armour rescuing the damsel in distress. By this action, he is answering, disproving, atoning for – what you will – the contempt with which he knows he is viewed. He is proving once and for all that he is not ridiculous. But she, the rescued damsel, does not really have a choice in the matter. She can but accept.

And now begins one of the most complex depictions of any marriage in fiction. We know from the start that she had ended up committing suicide: she had jumped from a high window clutching to her breast an icon. But if we had expected from this, and from the title, a meek and gentle creature, a mere passive victim to the cruelties and injustices heaped upon her, what follows takes us by surprise. For she is a spirited creature, and, in battle, is prepared to fight. He, for his part, demands from her not merely respect, but also love: this, after all, is why he had proposed to her in the first place. He is determined that, from her at least, he will obtain that respect and that love that the rest of the world denies him. Did he not, after all, save her? But he himself has no love to give. And she cannot give love under such duress. And so begins a terrible battle between the two, literally to the death. Not even Strindberg, I think, had given us so terrifying a picture of the struggles for dominance within marriage.

At a climactic point, he awakens from a nap to see his wife standing over him, holding a loaded pistol. At last, here is his chance to exonerate himself for ever from the charge of cowardice: he pretends still to be asleep, and lets her do as she pleases. But she cannot bring herself to pull the trigger: this particular battle she loses, and once again, the balance of power shifts back to him.

And yet, he cannot win, for she refuses to see him as he would like to be seen – as the noble and generous soul, the rescuer, the man who pardons all wrongs with a saintly magnanimity. What he likes to imagine is timidity on her part is really no more than an aversion – an aversion for his moral cowardice, if nothing else. And the end, when it comes, is shocking – even though we have known all along that it would come. For he had wanted love: he had desperately needed it. And, also in his own way, he had loved her. It was admittedly a very twisted kind of love, but it was the only kind of love he could offer. And at the end, the tragedy is his as well: his world now is one of utter desolation, where even Christ’s commandment of loving each other can mean little when we are incapable of such love:

They say the sun gives life to the universe. Let the sun rise and – look at it, isn’t it dead? Everything is dead, and the dead are everywhere. Only people, and around them silence – that’s the earth! “People, love one another” – who said that? whose testament is it? The pendulum ticks insensibly, disgustingly. It’s two o’clock in the morning. Her little boots are standing by the bed, just as if they were waiting for her … No, seriously, when she is taken from me tomorrow, what about me then?

Even here, we cannot be quite sure whether those last words indicate tragic despair, or mere solipsism and self-pity.

For all the glinting hard edges, these final pages are tremendously moving. We are moved not merely on behalf of the dead wife, but also of the living husband, who, in having driven his wife to suicide, should really have been the villain of the piece.

All this is told from the husband’s confused perspective, and, whether or not he finally sees the truth of the matter – insofar, that is, that the truth of the matter can be seen at all – we, the readers, are left with a sense the tremendous pity of it all. The narrator is, in a sense, a monster, and the dead woman is clearly his victim, but Dostoyevsky’s compassion, never mawkish or sentimental, encompasses both monster and victim. It is a quite extraordinary piece of writing, and one I felt compelled to re-read as soon as I had finished. I suspect this will not be the last time I read it.

“The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” (which I put in quotes rather than in italics as it is clearly a short story rather than a novella, and convention requires quotes for the former, and italics for the latter) is, more obviously, a “fantastic” story. The principal character, like the protagonist of The Meek One, is “ridiculous”, and he is aware of how ridiculous he is, of how much he is looked down upon by the world. The fantastic element of the story is narrated as a dream, but it is, in effect, science fiction: he finds himself transported to another planet in which all is perfect, but his human presence in this utopia corrupts the perfection. I am afraid I had the same problem with this story as I have with much of science fiction: it is too obviously written to make a point. And the point here is actually quite a straightforward one: human beings, by their very nature, are unsuited to utopia, and may find what salvation there is in individual acts of kindness. Perhaps those more in sympathy with the science fiction genre would get more out of this story, but I must confess that it was the realistic rather than the fantastic aspect of this story I enjoyed more: the dream of another planet seemed to me far less interesting than the reality of this man’s initial despair, his indifference to human suffering, and the subsequent awakening of his humanity. I realise, though, that in saying this, I am reporting on my own perceptions (or, rather, the shortcomings of my perceptions) rather than on the work itself.

There is another short story written in the last years of Dostoyevsky’s life that deserves the subtitle “A Fantastic Story” – although Dostoyevsky himself did not call it such. This is “Bobok”, a quite delicious piece of Gogolian grotesquerie. Here, the narrator finds himself in a graveyard, and hears the recently deceased and not yet decomposed corpses speaking to each other, bringing into their dead states the spiritual deadness they had carried even when they had been alive. Once again, the “fantastic” elements are most likely the hallucinations of a mad narrator: Dostoyevsky did invest his fiction with a sense of heightened awareness, but those things that are physically impossible he almost invariably cast as dreams, or as hallucinations. Nonetheless, he gives us here a dark and gruesome satire that, one suspects, Gogol would have relished.

But it is The Meek One, in which there is nothing that is physically impossible, that seems to me the greatest and most fantastic of his “fantastic stories”. For there is nothing, after all, quite so fantastic as the lives we strange creatures live in this real world.
[ All excerpts taken from the translations by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volkhonsky, published 1997 by Random House. ]

Murders on the Orient Express

Firstly, a promise. I promise that nowhere in the following piece will I reveal, or even hint at, the solution to the mystery that is at the heart of Murder on the Orient Express. Should there be anyone unaware of what happens in this story, I can guarantee that the revelation is quite startling, and I certainly wouldn’t want to spoil anyone’s enjoyment.

Having said that, I will admit to not being much of an Agatha Christie fan. In my pre-teenage years, the very lurid illustrations that used then to appear on the covers of various paperback issues led me to believe she was a horror writer, but when I did finally come round to reading a few of them in my early teens, far from horror, I found an entirely unexpected cosiness. At the time – I was about thirteen or so – I quite enjoyed the few I read, but not enough, obviously, to want to read more. From what I remember, everything seems subordinate to the plot, and the plot in itself is something I have never found particularly interesting. However, these novels have most definitely passed the test of time quite triumphantly, so no doubt it is I who am missing something. And, after reading Sophie Hannah’s spirited appreciation, I am more than happy to accept that the problem is with me as a reader rather than with the novels themselves. After all, I’ve only read a few, and that many, many years ago, when I was not a very experienced reader: I may well have missed the point.

I can’t help feeling it a shame, though, that in order to praise Christie, Sophie Hannah denigrates Chandler; but I suppose it’s natural to take against someone who has been rude about your favourite writer; and, it must be admitted, Chandler has been quite unconscionably rude about Agatha Christie. In Chandler’s novels, unlike Christie’s, the plotting is very clearly not the point: it doesn’t really matter, for instance, who killed the chauffeur in The Big Sleep. And neither is Chandler interested in the elements of mystery and of puzzles: the appeal of his novels lies elsewhere. Indeed, that is one of the reasons I like Chandler so much: he developed the detective story in directions where plotting becomes increasingly less relevant, and the focus is allowed to fall more fully upon other and – to my mind – more interesting matters. I remain, I must admit, very much on Chandler’s side of this divide.

But this is of course unfair given how limited my exposure has been to Agatha Christie’s novels. If these books can hold generations of readers in thrall for nearly a century now, she must have been doing something right. And I have, after all, enjoyed a great many adaptations of Christie’s novels, both on television and on the big screen, where actors can fill the characters out with their own personalities. So, before I pass further judgement, I felt it only right to try reading some Agatha Christie for myself; and, in view of the recent cinema release, Murder on the Orient Express seemed a good place to start my re-evaluation.

And it’s not just the recent release. This is one of that small handful of Agatha Christie books I read all those years ago, and I remember enjoying it at the  time. I remember particularly how struck I was by that ending. And then, a few days before Christmas 1974, we had a seasonal family outing to the ABC cinema (as it was then) on Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow to see the newly released film version directed by Sidney Lumet, and with Albert Finney as Poirot heading a star-studded cast. It was a tremendously enjoyable night out, and remains vivid in the memory forty years and more afterwards. And what’s more, that film is a particular favourite of my wife’s, and watching the DVD version has become something of a Christmas tradition for us.

And here’s a puzzle, worthy of Agatha Christie herself: if the plot were the whole point of it, why can we (and many others) enjoy watching this film repeatedly, when we already know the story? What enjoyment can we possibly find in a whodunit when we know from the start who dun it? One obvious answer is the sense of cosiness. This is an element virtually all adaptations accentuate, and with good reason. I used to look down on cosiness: a thriller, I felt, deals with evil acts, and should be dark and troubling, sinister and edgy. However, it is wrong to judge anything by one’s pre-conceived rules: a thriller should be what the author set it out to be, and if it sets out to be cosy, then so be it: Agatha Christie was hardly under any compulsion to abide by my rules, after all. And in any case, with advancing years, I find that I am less insistent on the edgy, and, indeed, tire of various formulaic thrillers formulaically focussing on physical violence to achieve that all-purpose formulaic edginess. And at the same time, I find myself more tolerant of cosiness. After all, as the world hurtles madly to heaven knows where, a sense of comfort, I increasingly feel, is not something to be sneered at.

Or it’s possible that I have just got older.

But are the novels really cosy? Are her characters merely cardboard cut-outs, enlivened in adaptations only by the actors’ personalities? And is her prose, as I have so often maintained, merely plodding and bland? Sophie Hannah certainly doesn’t seem to think so:

Each of her novels demonstrates a profound understanding of people – how they think, feel and behave – all delivered in her crisp, elegant, addictively readable style. While immersed in a Christie mystery, you might not notice the wisdom sprinkled throughout the pages because you’re having too much fun, growling with frustration because you’d love to be able to guess the solution but can’t.

To begin with, the story of Murder on  the Orient Express is superb. I don’t just mean the solution to the mystery – I mean the whole idea of the thing. (I have to be careful here to keep the promise I made at the start of this piece.) It has such resonance, that it has become a sort of modern myth. And it raises questions on all sorts of vitally important themes – themes that have been addressed in some of the most profound works of world literature. But Agatha Christie does not so much as touch upon any of them. In my younger days, when I was more prescriptive and censorious than I am now, I would have counted this as a serious flaw, but now I am inclined to think that she does not touch on these themes because she did not want to: she was writing an entertainment, after all, and not a serious Dostoyevskian novel. Indeed, so naturally do these serious issues arise from the plot, it required no small degree of skill and craftsmanship to lock these issues out.

In this respect, the 1974 film version, directed by Sidney Lumet, is faithful to the book. I heard on the radio once that the distinguished film composer Bernard Herrmann (most famous for his scores for many of Hitchcock’s finest films, including Psycho) objected to the delightful waltz composed by Richard Rodney Bennett for this film: this is the Train of Death, Herrmann insisted, and a delightful waltz is out of place. But I think Bennett understood what this film is about: it’s not about Death, and neither is it about psychological trauma, or about divine justice, or any of these things. It is a cosy, comfort film, just as Christie’s novel is a cosy, comfort novel.

Visually, it is superb. Sidney Lumet seemed to make a speciality of setting films within small, enclosed spaces: Twelve Angry Men is an obvious example. Lumet also made some very successful cinematic adaptations of plays set in enclosed locations – Long Day’s Journey Into Night, say, or The Seagull – and the visual variety he finds even in such restricted settings is often quite extraordinary. Lumet weaves his magic here also, conveying superbly a sense of cramped luxury. The setting here is no mere decoration: it helps create the drama.

The cast is superb, but it is when we come to Albert Finney, in the central role of Poirot, that we run into difficulties. I know there are those who simply cannot stand Finney’s singularly mannered performance, and I can understand why. But I can understand also why he chose to play it in this manner. He was surrounded by some of the finest of screen actors, some of the strongest of screen presences – Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, John Gielgud, Vanessa Redgrave, Sean Connery, Anthony Perkins, Wendy Hiller, etc. – and he had to stand out from this distinguished gathering; and he decided to stand out by putting on a highly – one may almost say “grotesquely” – eccentric performance. I must say I rather enjoy it; and the final sequence, where he has the long speech explaining who dun it, and how, seems to me pulled off with a fine theatrical panache. But yes, I can understand why some would hate it also. Nothing so mannered and idiosyncratic can be universally liked. (I still find it difficult to come to terms, for instance, with Jeremy Brett’s highly mannered performance as Holmes, even though the consensus of opinion seems to regard this performance as well nigh definitive.)

Fine entertainment, yes, but light entertainment: Lumet does not allow the serious themes implicit in the storyline to come to the surface, any more than Christie did.

Now, of course, we have the much heralded remake directed by Kennet Branagh. Some objected to remaking the film, but I don’t really see the objection: it is a very powerful story, after all, and why shouldn’t a contemporary director and a contemporary cast get a chance to reinterpret it?  I must admit, though, that I am rather old-fashioned in these matters, and there are some aspects of modern mainstream cinema that … how shall I put it? – that are not to my taste. For instance, when two characters are talking, I just want the camera in the same room as them, and pointing at them. Putting the camera outside so we can see them through the window, and then executing all kinds of intricate camera movements, does not enhance the drama. Worse, it distracts from what the characters are saying. I don’t really see why we should insist that everything must look like a video game.

And neither do I see why anyone should think that conversations lasting more than a minute or so at the most are dull and uncinematic. Some of the very finest and most iconic of films are full of long scenes of conversation. Much of Agatha Christie’s novel consists of conversations, as each of the suspects is interviewed in turn: fitting together all the various pieces of evidence is where the interest lies. But in this film, various of these interviews are intercut with each other, presumably in the belief that if any single conversation goes on for more than a few seconds the audience will lose interest. Sure, this kind of intercutting injects pace into the narrative, but does the narrative always need to be pacy? In effectively banishing from the narrative passages of repose or even of stillness, film-makers seem to me to be restricting their range, resulting all too often in an almost uni-paced, shapeless mass.

Yes, I know this is the modern way of film-making, and that things change, can’t keep still, new generation, and so on, and so forth. And when everyone seems happy with this, I have to accept that it is I who am out on a limb. But there it is, for what it’s worth: I find myself unsympathetic to modern styles. Living in the past, I am, and happy to be there.

There were a few other aspects in this latest film that, to my mind, didn’t work, including an obligatory action sequence, and another obligatory chase sequence, both of which seemed out of place in what is, after all, a cosy whodunit. It is also important for the audience in these whodunits to be always aware of the list of suspects, but the Hungarian couple were kept absent for so long that I had almost forgotten about them till they suddenly emerge some half way through. Sidney Lumet had been more successful, I think, in keeping all the characters constantly in the frame. Also, unlike the Lumet film, the cramped setting was not used here to any great effect: perhaps it was a mistake in taking some of the scenes outside the train.

However, having said all that, the film was entertaining enough on its own terms. The all-star cast is fine, and the story remains as startling as ever. And Kenneth Branagh, with facial hair so spectacular that I felt a mere amateur in this respect, made a strong impression as Poirot without having to go to the extremes of Albert Finney. (Although I must admit that I do still enjoy Finney’s theatrical gusto.) The scene where all is revealed was particularly well done, and the script here was quite happy to bring to the fore some of the more serious aspects of the story that both the novel and the earlier film had stayed away from: Branagh’s Poirot here speaks of “fractured souls”, and of the need for healing.

Between these two productions came two television adaptations – one in 2001 with Alfred Molina as Poirot (I have not seen this), and, in 2010, an adaptation of the novel as part of the long-running series, filmed and broadcast in Britain by ITV, starring David Suchet as Poirot. This particular episode (so imdb.com tells me), was scripted, quite superbly, by Stuart Harcourt, and directed, equally superbly, by Philip Martin. Here, we see Agatha Christie’s story turn into a modern myth: the story is here re-interpreted, and scriptwriter and director make of it something entirely new. Far from hiding away the serious aspects – ethical, psychological, even theological – they are given centre stage, and the effect is about as dark and as disturbing a drama as I think I have seen. Nothing could be further from the spirit of Christie, and while this may perhaps upset some fans of the original, the departure is entirely justified. Christie’s story, splendid though it is, is used here to but as a basis for something that is not even hinted at in  the novel. To say this is not to denigrate Christie’s work: indeed, it speaks for the strength of the original story that, despite the intense seriousness of the themes broached in this version, the plotline is strong enough to carry so heavy a burden.

And no, cosy it ain’t. Noticeably, the rather charming and whimsical theme tune used in the other episodes of this series is here absent. We are plunged, before the title sequence, straight into the midst of things: Poirot is wrapping up his previous case, and, in time-honoured fashion, is explaining (in this instance, to assembled military officers) the solution he has successfully arrived at. But in less than time-honoured fashion, he is here in a fit of passion. The details of the crime he had investigated are not given, but it appears from what he says that what had been thought to have been murder was, in fact, an accidental death; but Poirot’s wrathful indignation is directed at one of the officers present, who, through his lying, had impeded the investigation. And even as Poirot is denouncing him, a shot rings out, and Poirot’s face is splattered with blood. Only a few drops of blood – this is not gothic horror, after all – but enough to let us know that we are not here in the world of cosy whodunits. The officer Poirot was denouncing has shot himself.

As Poirot leaves afterwards, having completed the case successfully (in the sense that he has solved the mystery), one of the soldiers accompanying him breaks protocol to let him know that the man who had shot himself had not been a bad man: he had merely made an error of judgement. Poirot sticks to his guns: he had lied, and was morally culpable. But what precisely is going on in Poirot’s mind we cannot be sure.

In Istanbul, Poirot witnesses another horrible scene: he sees an adulterous woman stoned to death. Even this he seems to condone: it is horrible, yes, but the application of law is necessarily horrible, and the stoning is no more horrible than hangings in Britain. However horrible, the law must be applied, for, without the law, where are we? What are we? There is, of course, another question here, implied though not openly articulated: even when we do apply the law, what are we?

We are in very deep waters here, and those expecting the traditional cosy whodunit may well be tempted at this point to switch off. They would be well advised to do so, for this production does not let up: it is a dark and serious investigation into some of the most profound of themes – the nature of justice; the application of laws, both human and divine; how justice differs from mere retribution; the corrosive nature of evil, and how it spreads; our human need for justice, without which we cannot begin to heal; and our failure to heal even when justice is done, as each act of justice is a fresh crime in itself. Throughout, Poirot’s is a dark, brooding presence, exhibiting none of the quirkiness or whimsicality that had characterised him in previous episodes: he is here a tortured man, clinging dogmatically to what moral certainties he still possesses, because to lose these certainties would be to cast himself into moral chaos.

David Suchet’s performance is simply extraordinary. No theatrical grandstanding here: there is a time and a place for that kind of thing, but not here, where we find ourselves so deep in such turbulent moral waters. The other roles are not quite so demanding, perhaps, although I do find it quite astonishing just how great an intensity of emotion Eileen Atkins can communicate in just a few softly spoken lines. No sense here of dialogue being boring, or uncinematic; no scope here for intercutting with other dialogues to prevent the audience’s attention wandering.

This, like the two films, re-creates the murder in a flashback sequence towards the end. In the Sidney Lumet film, this sequence is very impressively staged, and is tense and sombre; in the more recent film, it is more frenzied; but neither can really compare with the murder scene in this television version, which really chills one’s blood. No hint here of formulaic edginess: the horror is moral at least as much as it is physical.

The whole thing, in short, is a triumph. It is as brilliant as it is audacious: never have I seen an episode of a well-established television drama that so relentlessly subverts audience expectations. And what we see here is the creation of mythology: although the plot keeps quite close to Christie’s novel, this is neither an “adaptation”, nor a “dramatization”: it takes the novel but as a starting point to create something entirely new. Yes, the profound and troubling themes it broaches are all latent in the original novel, but it takes something special not merely to bring them out, but also to explore them in such a way that the original material is left far, far behind.

For that original material is, in spirit if not in letter, very different indeed. When people speak of an adaptation being faithful, they usually mean “faithful” in terms of the plot: in that sense, this adaptation is indeed quite faithful. But it’s very unfaithful where it really matters. For when I read the novel over after watching the television version, I found myself in a completely different world. Had Agatha Christie envisaged that the story could take on such dark and serious hues? Possibly. But if she did, she used all her skill to keep these hues out. For the book is a romp. That is not to criticise it: a romp, light entertainment, cosy whodunit …these are not things to be looked down on. Well-crafted entertainment is admirable in itself. And Christie has, I’d contend, given us even more than well-crafted entertainment: she has given us one of the finest of all plots – a plot capable of bearing the burden of some of the most difficult and troubling of moral issues.

But does Christie, as Sophie Hannah contends, “demonstrate a profound understanding of people – how they think, feel and behave”? I must admit that, on the basis of this novel alone, I’ll have to answer “no”. The characterisation only goes so far as to differentiate the characters from each other, and to render the murderer’s motives (or the suspected murderers’ motives) credible. There are times when she is not above crude stereotypes:

A big, swarthy Italian was picking his teeth with gusto. Opposite him a spare, neat Englishman had the expressionless, disapproving face of a well-trained servant. Next  to the Englishman was a big American in a loud suit  – possibly a commercial traveller.

“You have to put it over big,” he was saying in a loud, nasal voice.

And is the prose style really “crisp and elegant”? It is not clunky, admittedly, but I can’t say I found much trace of elegance either. Perhaps the best way to describe it is “functional”. Everything is geared towards the plot, and plot alone. And, of course, when the plot is so good, that is nothing to apologise for.

But I shouldn’t pass judgement based on just one of her many novels – although, admittedly, it’s one of her most famous novels. And neither should I – as I used to – look down my nose at the “cosy”. Some friends of mine, who have read more of Christie than I have, tell me that many of her early works were considerably darker, and advise me to read And Then There Were None. (That is not, by the way, the original title: that original title is now considered, for entirely understandable reasons, unacceptable in polite society, although it should be said that the book itself is not racist.) Perhaps I’ll read that too some day, for the plot of that, too, has taken on something of a mythical quality. And these books are very easy to read, after all: I do not regard that as a recommendation in literary terms, but it does mean that one can race through them fairly quickly.

I said at the start of this post that I shall not reveal, nor even hint at, the solution to the mystery. I trust that I have kept that promise. It was a promise that was important to keep: for, whatever the resonances of her stories, whatever the serious and profound themes that lie implicit in them, as far as Agatha Christie was concerned, the plot’s the thing. And yes, she did think up some rather fine ones.

Halloween greetings

Until fairly recently, Halloween did not use to be so big a thing in England. Indeed, it was barely a thing at all. It is something that has come over here from across the Atlantic, enthusiastically spurred on by various companies who saw profits to be made with an extra celebration a few months before Christmas. While some welcome this excuse for merry-making, there are also others who resent what they see as the intrusion of an essentially alien event.

But perhaps it is not quite so alien to these isles: celebrating Halloween may be a relatively recent thing in England, but it has long been a Scottish tradition. We certainly had it in Scotland when I was growing up there in the 60s and 70s. I remember going to Halloween parties, and ducking for apples. We didn’t go trick-or-treating: that was, at the time, an unheard-of phrase. But many did go “guising”. This involved dressing up – not with elaborate costumes, but, more often, with something borrowed from the parents, and often with some facial hair painted on; or, if all else failed, with a bedsheet over one’s head, pretending to be a ghost. And, in this disguise, the children would knock on neighbours’ doors, tell jokes, sing songs, or whatever, in exchange for sweets. I got as far as the dressing up, but, my parents being what they were, knocking on neighbours’ doors in expectation of sweets was a few steps too far for them. I bear the psychological scars of this still.

But this has turned, as all celebrations sadly do, into a commercial orgy, and, descending as I am into grumpy and misanthropic old age, I can understand those who dislike, and are indeed resentful of, the whole business. However, there is another part of me that loves ghost stories, and old horror films, and this part wishes to indulge itself. So, since Halloween is now here to stay whether we like it or not, I propose that we invent our own age-old traditions. I suggest we discard all this hollowed-out pumpkin business; I suggest further that we bin trick-or-treating, and, if we must, return to good old-fashioned Scottish “guising”. And, most importantly, I suggest that for this one evening in the year, we switch off all our electric lights, light candles instead, and, in this ominous gloom and murk, with the candle-light casting eerie, eldritch shadows about the room, and with the wind moaning outside like the despairing voices of damned souls (we will clearly need wind machines should the night not be windy), we scare ourselves silly by reading creepy ghost stories to each other.

Have a very happy Halloween, and see you all on All Soul’s Day.