Losing the plot

There are certain words we use frequently, quite sure that we know what they mean, but then tie ourselves up in knots when asked to define them. “Tune” for instance. We all know what a “tune” is. Which of us has not hummed along to one? And yet, when we come to define it, we flounder. The best I can think of is something along the lines of:

“A sequence of pitches, with each element of that sequence lasting for a specified duration, and with a different level of stress applied to each.”

Not very elegantly phrased, I agree, but I think that should cover just about everything we may recognise as a tune. Problem is that it applies to a whole lot of things also that we wouldn’t recognise as a tune. If I were to, say, play a random sequence of notes on a piano, that too, according to my definition, must be counted a tune, but I doubt anyone would recognise it as such. No doubt musicologists have very refined and sophisticated definitions of what constitutes “melody”, but, speaking as a layman, although I am sure I know what the word means, I cannot even begin to articulate what it is.

I have the same difficulty when it comes to fiction: what is “plot”? Once again, I think I know what the word means. Tom Jones has a plot, and Tristram Shandy doesn’t; The Age of Innocence has a plot, but To the Lighthouse doesn’t. But once again, I don’t know how to define it. The best I can think of is “a sequence of incidents, each related to the others”. But of course, that would cover Tristram Shandy and To the Lighthouse as well as it does Tom Jones or The Age of Innocence. I’d hazard a guess that it might even cover Finnegans Wake. Indeed, I am not at all sure it’s possible to write fiction without incidents of some form or other. But as with “tune” or “melody”, this definition does not cover what we mean when we speak of “plot”. We do use the term merely to describe a sequence of related incidents. But what we actually mean by it, I really don’t think I can articulate.

All this makes it difficult to write about such matters. Possibly it’s my scientific background that makes me feel very uneasy when terms are discussed and debated that have not been defined. When we talk about fiction, we speak all the time of “plot”. But what do we mean?

This lack of definition of “plot” is the first thing – though by no means the only thing – that worried me about this recent article by Tim Lott. For those unwilling to click on links, let me summarise as best I can what I think it says. Mr Lott first refers to a recent report by the Arts Council that tells us sales of literary fiction have declined sharply in Britain; he then rejects the idea that literary authors ought to be subsidised, and proposes instead that they write “better books”. By which he means that they should focus more on plot. For to neglect plot is, he thinks, poor craftsmanship.

(I may have misinterpreted Mr Lott, or I may be caricaturing what he is saying. If so, both misinterpretation and caricature are unintentional. But I have at least provided a link to the article, so curious readers may easily satisfy themselves on this point.)

Quite apart from the lack of definition of “plot”, there is also another term that Mr Lott uses quite freely, and which, I believe, the Arts Council report to which he refers also uses quite freely; but which, too, is undefined: “literary fiction”. While I think I know what “plot” is, even without a working definition, I honestly have no idea what “literary fiction” means. Presumably it is some category of fiction – a genre; but genres are defined by content: horror, thriller, romance, western, science fiction, fantasy, erotica – all of these and more are defined by the nature of the content. But is there any element of the content of a work of fiction that defines it as “literary”?

The only reasonable definition of “literary fiction” I can think of is “fiction that has, or aspires to have, literary qualities”. This is not, I agree, a very good definition, as it raises, but leaves unanswered, the question of what we mean by “literary quality”, but I don’t think I can be taken to task for not providing a good watertight definition of a term when the term itself is not mine, and not one I would ever think of using. But if “literary fiction” is indeed fiction that has, or aspires to having, literary qualities (however we define them), then “literary fiction” seems to me to be about as meaningful as “artistic art”, or “musical music”.

And then, “better books”. By which Mr Lott means “books with more plot”. And his implication that the stronger the element of plot, the greater the craftsmanship. I was going to write a refutation of these assertions, but now I come to it, I really don’t think it’s worthwhile: it’s hardly difficult to find a great many very prominent counter-examples in literary history.

Now, we are not talking here about the opinions of some bloke from down the pub: Tim Lott is an eminent author, and teaches postgraduate students in possibly the most prestigious creative writing course in Britain. And I find it profoundly depressing to see someone in so eminent a position saying such things.

It is not to denigrate plot (and let us not get too worried here about the definition) to say that fiction lacking plot can be of an extremely high quality, and require a very high degree of craftsmanship. For instance, The Count of Monte Cristo, say, has, I think, an extremely good plot. Actually, it has very many good plots, all intertwined together with a breathtaking skill and panache; and it maintains our interest over a thousand and more pages almost entirely by maintaining narrative tension – by keeping the reader in suspense over the questions of what happens next, or what has happened in the past that is yet to be revealed. It is a magnificent achievement. On the other hand, Ulysses, though not lacking in incident (as I said earlier, I don’t think it is possible to conceive of fiction that lacks incident), is lacking in what we normally think of as plot. Going by Mr Lott’s equating of plot with craftsmanship, it should follow that Ulysses, compared to The Count of Monte Cristo, say, is lacking in craftsmanship – a sentiment so self-evidently absurd that Mr Lott himself would, I am sure, be happy to distance himself from it.

Even when plot exists, I am not too sure that it is necessarily of primary importance. Middlemarch, say, is not short of plot: there are two main, intertwining plotlines, with many subsidiary plots hanging off them. One of these plotlines involves hidden crimes in the past, blackmail, manslaughter (possibly even murder!), public scandal … in short, incidents often sensational in nature. But does anyone actually read Middlemarch for the plot? Is “What happens next?” the main concern that keeps the reader turning the pages?

In novels such as, say, Conrad’s Nostromo, we actually do have a good plot. If all the events were arranged in chronological order, then we would have a thrilling tale of hidden silver, torture, revolution, etc. But Conrad takes this plot, turns it inside out, fragments it, displays only some of the fragments to us (out of chronological order) – indeed, does everything he can think of to take the reader’s attention away from the plot. Faulkner does something similar: Absalom, Absalom!, if written in a conventional manner, would be a vast family saga encompassing the American Civil War, and would no doubt have been the basis of a Hollywood epic to rival Gone With the Wind. But, as with Conrad, Faulkner fragments the plot and gives us some of those fragments (often narrated by unreliable sources) out of sequence; he also writes it in a prose so idiosyncratically convoluted that it’s only the most determined of readers who can last for more than a few pages. So apparently uninterested were Conrad and Faulkner in the plot that even when they had good ones, they effectively smashed it to bits.

And there’s Chandler, whom I find a particularly interesting case. He was definitely writing “genre fiction” – the detective story; and the genre he wrote in is one that generally demands good plotting. Yet, it seems to me that Chandler relegates the plot to the background – not by not having enough of it, but by having too much of it. There are so many plot elements, and they are so very intricate, that, after a while, the reader – well, this reader at least – finds it impossible to keep track of it all. And the strange thing is that it doesn’t matter. Even when I can follow no more than a very rough outline of the plot, I find it all enthralling. Once again, the plot is there, but relegated away from the principal focus of interest.

None of this is to denigrate the plot. However one defines it, it is a tremendous skill to plot well. But to assert that plotting makes for “better books”; or that plotting is indicative of superior craftsmanship; strikes me as so self-evidently absurd, that I wonder whether Mr Lott himself would care to stand by the conclusions they lead us to.


Aida on the M6

We hadn’t been looking forward to the long drive south down the M6 motorway on New Year’s Day. To relieve the tedium, we decided to put Verdi’s Aida – a favourite opera of us both – on the car stereo, but it wasn’t a good idea. I’m not really sure how people manage to listen to music in the car: the quieter passages are all but inaudible, and the lower register is inevitably drowned out by the rumble of the engine. The soft opening strains of Aida were virtually inaudible, but we kept it on anyway, listening to what we could, our musical memory filling in what we couldn’t. We had heard it often enough, after all, over the years.

I remember that when I first encountered it – many decades ago now – I was a bit puzzled. I was puzzled why Verdi, having created dramas of great complexity, should choose for a subject so simple – one may even say “simple-minded” – and so conventional a story. I was puzzled why, having created in his previous operas characters of such intricacy and detailed nuance, he should now settle for characters that were, once again, simple and straightforward. Verdi had, I knew, intended this to be his last opera, so I put it all down at the time to his wanting to bow out with a big popular hit; the simple-minded nature of the drama was something that had to be put up with, I felt, for the sake of the beauties of the score. But really, that won’t do. First of all, whatever one may think of the quality of Verdi’s art (and he has many detractors, I know), the seriousness of his artistic intent is surely not in any doubt. And Verdi had searched far and wide for a plot for his opera before settling on this one; he had also given extremely detailed and precise instructions to his librettist Antonio Ghislanzoni, so there can be little doubt that the final libretto is precisely what he had wanted. And in any case, given his stature at the time – no-one had greater claims than he of being a living legend – anything he cared to compose would have been a box office hit. If Aida does not present us with a complex drama or with complex characters, it is not because such things were beyond Verdi, or because he made do with whatever was available, or because he had lowered his artistic standards: it is because dramatic complexity was not what he wanted here. To point to all the conventional elements of this piece as evidence of Verdi’s lack of artistic ambition is fail to address what Verdi actually did achieve.

And yesterday, despite the inadequacy of listening in the car, it struck me – somewhere around M6-M5 interchange north of Birmingham, I think – just how profoundly anti-nationalist the work is. This in itself is surprising. For, while I am sure that Aida cannot be the only major work of nineteenth century art that is anti-nationalist, I found it difficult to think of others. Amongst composers, Chopin was a fervent Polish nationalist; Smetana and Dvořák were Czech nationalists; Mussorgsky, Balakirev and co. (the group known as “The Five”) looked to create a specifically Russian music; Wagner’s strident Germanic nationalism is notorious; Brahms kept a portrait of Bismarck above his desk. In literature, things were hardly any better: Dostoyevsky was extremely nationalist, and even Tolstoy in War and Peace could barely restrain his pride that it was the Russians who gave Napoleon his come-uppance. Of course, there are exceptions – Turgenev is an obvious one – and it’s best not to make any hasty generalisations (as I fear I am prone to do): but it’s safe to say, I think, that nationalism was a fairly widespread phenomenon in nineteenth century Europe. And it is fair to say also, I think, that it would have been no surprise had Verdi been a fervent Italian nationalist, especially given that by the time he composed Aida, he was, in effect, the living representative of the entire nation’s culture. The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves, from his early opera Nabucco, had been enthusiastically taken up as an anthem of Italian patriotism; Verdi himself had fully supported Garibaldi’s campaign, and had celebrated joyously the emergence of Italy as a new, unified nation (in 1848, when the occupying Austrians had temporarily been forced to retreat from Milan, Verdi had actually written in a letter “Italy will yet become the first nation of the world … I am drunk with joy! Imagine that there are no more Germans here!!”); after unification, Verdi had supported Cavour; had been elected to the Parliament, and later, appointed to the Senate (although, despite his patriotic fervour, he preferred to keep a distance from political activity); and so on. In short, Verdi was a very unlikely candidate for the composer of an anti-nationalist work. And yet, that is what Aida seems to me to be. It seemed to me so obvious yesterday, driving through the rain and the winter murk, that I wondered why this had not struck me before.

The story is of lovers from across a divide, and thus, looks back very obviously to Romeo and Juliet. Which, in turn, looks back to the story of Pyramus and Thisbe in Ovid’s Metamorphoses; and, no doubt, that too looks back on something from even earlier. It’s a time-honoured story. But here, the divide is not between feuding families, but, quite explicitly, between nations – nations furiously raging together. Aida is an Ethiopian slave girl in Egypt, captured in war; but what the Egyptians do not know is that she is actually the Ethiopian royal princess. She is in love with the young Egyptian soldier Radames, and he loves her too. But Radames is also loved by the Egyptian princess, Amneris, and so, the two princesses (one still a slave girl) find themselves unequal rivals. Things get really complicated when Radames is chosen to lead the Egyptian army against their old enemies, the Ethiopians – against Aida’s people. And so on. It’s all fairly standard stuff, unlikely to be of any interest to anyone nowadays were it not accompanied by Verdi’s music. Even at the time of writing (in the 1870s), it was probably already old hat.

But this tired old plot nonetheless encapsulated Verdi’s theme – individual human love set against the hatred of nation unto nation. Of course, individual love doesn’t stand a chance, and is crushed. But in that ineffably beautiful final scene, we do not hear the tread of doom: we hear, instead, the most ecstatic outpourings of the human soul, as Aida and Radames expire in each other’s arms as only characters in opera can do, discovering in their defeat a nobility and an exaltation that the irrational armies clashing my night could never even envisage. And as these two sing of waking into Eternal Day, they are joined by the grieving voice of Amneris, nominally the villain of the piece, but who too had loved, and had lost: Verdi’s generosity of spirit does not leave her out.

And how far all this is from the crude and violent shouts of war (“Guerra! Guerra! Guerra!”) we had heard in the opening scene. The soldiers are ultimately the victors, of course. That is inevitable. And they will go on fighting. In Romeo and Juliet, the warring factions are reconciled by the deaths of the lovers, but things had moved on from Shakespeare’s time: in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn (written only a few years after Aida), there’s a parody of Romeo and Juliet, but here, the lovers from two feuding families do not bring the warring factions together: once they elope, their respective families, far from being reconciled, merely slaughter each other. In Aida, too, there is no hope of reconciliation: the ignorant armies will continue to clash by night, urged on by equally ignorant cries of “Guerra! Guerra! Guerra!” But in the defeat of Aida and of Radames, a defeat they both willingly accept in preference to anything the outside world may consider victory, Verdi gives us a different music. Like Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, they make Death proud to take them.

The villain of this opera turns out not really to be Amneris, although she may seem, superficially at least, to fit that role: for she too is driven by love. The villains here are collective. They are the theocrats – the priests who urge the war; they are the Egyptian empire, the war machine. And among the villains is also the defeated Ethiopian king, Amonasro, Aida’s father. For he too is a man of War. It is he who insists that his daughter must betray her personal loyalty and embrace instead the collective identity that has been pre-determined for her: she is, above all, an Ethiopian. In our modern world, with people from very different cultural backgrounds living cheek by jowl with each other to a far greater extent than ever before, the Amonasros have not disappeared: quite the contrary, they have multiplied. But their clamour and their stridence must not be allowed to drown out the very different music that Verdi gives us – a music that is both fragile, and also of a surpassing radiance.

This opera no doubt lacks the complexity of character and the intricacy of drama that we may find in various other operas by Verdi, but it gives us, I think, a vision of something else – something that is important for us to hold on to. We may take the easy way out and dismiss it all as merely “sentimental” or “naïve”, but I think we would be wrong to do so. Verdi, too, in his time, had been a patriot, a nationalist: possibly, he remained so even to his death. But he knew there is also that within us that can surpass and transcend such matters, and in Aida, he gives this its fullest artistic expression. And not even the rumble of the engine and the roar of the motorway could quite drown that out.


Christmas greetings

Normally, at this time of the year, I close down the blog over Christmas and New Year, while looking forward to much feasting and boozing with the family. Alas, my days of even mild dissipation are past me nowadays, but don’t let that put you off: I can still enjoy such things vicariously. “A fine thing when a man has to indulge his vices by proxy!” as General Sternwood famously said.

Well, at least the children (I still find myself calling them “children”) are back home for the holidays, so it seems almost like old times!

Have a very good Christmas and New Year, and God bless us, every one!


“Nativity” by Piero della Francesca, courtesy National Gallery, London

Stevenson, Conan Doyle, and Christmas reading

I’ve been reading Stevenson’s short stories lately – many for the first time – and I can’t help wondering why it has taken me so long to get to them. After all, not only has Stevenson meant much to me over the years, I find his works, when I do read them, most congenial to my temperament. As I never tire of mentioning here, Treasure Island and Kidnapped were huge childhood favourites, and I revisit them whenever I want to bask in nostalgia for my childhood years (which, in my case, is often). And there’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, of course: Nabokov’s inclusion of this work in his critical collection Lectures on Literature, alongside such acknowledged masterpieces as Madame Bovary or Metamorphosis, still raises some peoples’ eyebrows, but not mine: Jekyll and Hyde is as great a masterpiece as any Nabokov places it alongside. And those charming children’s poems in the collection A Child’s Garden of Verses I have known since my primary school years, when, in my Scottish primary school, we were required to commit many of them to memory. (And, contrary to modern wisdom on these matters, this did not put us off: we loved these poems, and I, for one, still do.) But, really, for a long time, that was about as far as it went. Even Weir of Hermiston, his late, unfinished masterpiece, I came to know only quite recently.

However, better late than never, I suppose. I have recently been catching up on some of his short stories. A couple I did know from before: “The Body Snatcher”, for instance. Although often included in anthologies of ghost stories (which is how I got to know it in the first place), it is only in the final pages that the supernatural makes its mark: till then, it had been a splendid thriller, evoking the dark gloomy lanes and wynds of old Edinburgh in the days when grave-robbers used regularly to dig up freshly made graves to sell the fresh corpses to medical research. (There was a fine film based on this story, produced by Val Lewton and directed by Robert Wise, and featuring at its centre a superbly sinister performance by Boris Karloff: well worth catching up on, if you don’t know it already.) And “Thrawn Janet” I also knew – amongst the most terrifying of all ghost stories, but less frequently anthologised, possibly because it is written in what to many is an indecipherable Scots dialect.

Earlier this year, I read, and was much impressed by, the stories published early in Stevenson’s career under the title New Arabian Nights. Looking back on what I had written, I found myself much impressed by the clarity and expressive eloquence of Stevenson’s prose; and I also noted, I see, a delight in devising intriguing situations, but a certain impatience when it came to developing them. However, Stevenson presents us with so rich a panoply of scenes that delight and fascinate, and presents them with such panache, that we find ourselves happy simply to be swept along by it all, and find ourselves not minding too much the demotion to mere background details of the narrative resolutions. Stevenson does not repeat that kind of thing in his later stories – not the ones I have read so far, that is – but he did retain that wonderful gift of setting up intriguing situations. And as a writer of adventure stories, he really was second to none: so great is his skill in creating and sustaining narrative tension that I have even found myself wishing my commuter journeys were longer.

There’s the wonderfully creepy “Olalla”, for instance. It’s not a tale of the supernatural, but it should be: it certainly has the atmosphere of one. Its themes are surprisingly Poe-like – familial decline, hereditary madness, Gothic gloom – all familiar elements in, say, “The Fall of the House of Usher”. But where Poe, to my mind at least, starts at so high a pitch of feverishness that at the climax there is nowhere further to go, Stevenson’s prose is clear and measured throughout, so that when the climax comes, it is genuinely shocking. “Olalla” is fairly long for a short story, and its pacing is immaculate. I have tried to rile some of my Poe-loving fiends by telling them that this was the kind of story Poe would have written had he been as good a writer as Stevenson, but I’ll refrain from saying that here: in the first place, I really would not wish to unleash a torrent of indignant protests in the comments section; and in the second place, it is, to be honest, an inaccurate and frankly unfair assertion. That Stevenson is more to my taste than Poe does not make Poe a lesser writer; but the fact nonetheless remains that Stevenson is, indeed, very much more to my taste.

And there’s “Markheim”, which seems to be Stevenson’s response to Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. (And no doubt those as allergic to Dostoyevsky as I am to Poe will tell me how far superior Stevenson’s treatment is of the theme.)

And there are three stories making up the late collection Island Nights Entertainment. As with New Arabian Nights, Stevenson is clearly evoking A Thousand and One Nights in the title, but even had he not done so, it would have been difficult keeping A Thousand and One Nights out of even the briefest of discussions of these tales. Although set in the South Sea Islands (where Stevenson spent the last few years of his life) rather than in the Middle East, they are saturated with a sense of magic and wonder that permeate A Thousand and One Nights. The first of the three stories, “The Bottle Imp”, borrows the idea of the genie of the lamp (with the lamp replaced by a magic bottle). This genie, or “imp”, as Stevenson calls him, will grant its owner any wish; but the owner must sell the bottle on at a lower price than he had paid for it; for if he dies with the bottle still in his possession, his soul will go to Hell.

So naturally, over time, the price of this bottle spirals lower and lower, and becomes ever more difficult to get rid of: for, eventually, a state will inevitably be reached where its price is the lowest denomination available in any monetary system, and selling it at a lower price will become impossible. It’s an intriguing set-up. The resolution this time is not shirked, nor demoted to a mere incidental detail, but nonetheless, it’s the situation one remembers more than how it all works out at the end.

Then there’s “The Isle of Voices”, which, if one had to pitch it, could be described as “Arabian Nights meets Joseph Conrad”. (Although, of course, this predates, if only by a few years, the works of Conrad.) There is much here for the students of post-colonial studies to sink their teeth into. The premise is, once again, magical in nature – a sorcerer obtains his wealth by spiriting himself, invisible, to another island, where, by burning certain leaves, he can transform shells to coins, and transport them back home.  But human greed knows no limits: by the end, there’s a sickening bloodbath, in which the native inhabitants of this island are slaughtered for the sake of further gain. It isn’t, perhaps, easy for this story to fit into any simple pattern: the sorcerer, in the first place, is not white, but is native Hawaiian; and the people so horribly massacred by the end, far from being innocent victims, are themselves cannibals. But the themes of exploitation, greed, and imperialist violence are all there.

The longest and most substantial story of the three is “The Beach of Falesa”, and, once again, we seem to be very much in Conradian territory. The narrator is a white trader in the South Seas, and, while he is hardly free from racism himself, finds himself genuinely loving the native girl he has so cynically been hitched up with in “marriage”. Prominent in this story is the theme of sexual exploitation of native girls: the girls and women are treated as so much property, to be enjoyed as objects, then ill-treated, and abandoned as and when her “husband” tires of her. At one point, the narrator speaks casually, as if in passing, of one of the traders “thrashing” his “wife”, as if it were the most natural and unremarkable thing in the world. And while the narrator, in this case, does indeed find himself loving the girl who has, effectively, been allotted to him, by the end of the story he worries about returning to Britain with his mixed-race children: he knows there is no place for them there.

But powerful though all this is, it is still, essentially, an adventure story. (As, indeed, are many of Conrad’s works.) The narrator, Wiltshire, finds himself pitted against a fellow trader, Case, who has his own very dubious set-up, and who doesn’t tolerate competition: Wiltshire realises that he must either kill Case, or be killed by him. The story takes a long time to build: Stevenson’s pacing is deliberate, but when the tension starts to grip, it doesn’t let up. And the passage where Wiltshire delves deeper and deeper into Case’s mysterious domain has about it a sense of almost hallucinatory terror: it’s hard not to feel that one is being drawn into some sort of Conradian Heart of Darkness.

I haven’t read them all Stevenson’s stories yet: there are still a few more to go, but it’s always good to have something to look forward to. I haven’t been disappointed by any of the ones I have read so far. But over the Christmas holidays, I think I’ll turn to Stevenson’s fellow Scotsman – born about a generation after Stevenson, and just a mile or so away from Stevenson’s birthplace in Central Edinburgh – Arthur Conan Doyle. Not the Sherlock Holmes stories: there’s far more to Conan Doyle than those Sherlock Holmes stories, which I keep re-reading them all the time anyway. No – this Christmas, I am planning to read through the Brigadier Gerard stories. All of them. It has been far too long since I last read them, and I am pretty sure I have not read them all.

It is incredible to think that storytellers of such brilliance were born in such close proximity to each other: I certainly cannot think of anyone – not even Dumas – who surpassed these two in terms of plotting. And I suppose that to Stevenson and Conan Doyle, one could add a third Scots writer – George Macdonald Fraser, whose Flashman novels are surely up there with the best when it comes to holding the reader’s attention purely with the plot.

Well, not purely, perhaps, with the plot: even the best of plots require immense writing skills if they are to hold the reader’s attention so fixedly. Over the last century or so, plot seems to have slipped down the list of priorities in what is loosely termed “literary fiction”, and maybe, one day, it would be interesting to analyse the skills required to hold the reader’s attention in this manner, and have them turning the pages purely to find out what happens next.

But for the moment, I am having far too much fun enjoying them to be worried about all that. Christmas holidays are approaching: it’s time to choose one’s Christmas reading – nothing too heavy, nothing to unduly tax one’s alcohol-sodden mind – but nothing to insult the reader’s intelligence either. Those wonderfully witty and exciting Brigadier Gerard stories seem to fit the bill perfectly!

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)


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, speaks 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, will 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 person 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.


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.

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.”


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.

Shakespeare’s Roman plays on stage

Well, I live within reasonable travelling distance of London, so I may as well take advantage of it!

When the Royal Shakespeare Company announced they were performing all four of Shakespeare’s Roman plays in the same season, I felt like that proverbial kid in the candy-shop, unable to decide which one to go for. Should I go to see Antony and Cleopatra again? I have admittedly seen it many times before, but I love that play. Or there’s Julius Caesar, a play I was quite obsessed with as a thirteen-year-old – I used, I remember, to read it over and over again, and it is very firmly imprinted in my mind – but, for whatever reason, I had never seen it on stage before. Or there was Coriolanus, which, too, I had never seen on stage: maybe a stage production would help me appreciate better this strange play – Shakespeare’s last tragedy featuring a protagonist who, far from developing into some measure of self-awareness, seems resolutely incapable of any kind of development at all. In the end, the kid in the candy shop realised he couldn’t decide, and spent all his pocket money on all the sweets.

(Well, not perhaps all: Titus Andronicus has never really been a favourite play of mine, but I have not seen this on stage either, and I have received some very fine reports of this production.)


Coriolanus came first. I have always found this a grim and rather severe play. It is one of Shakespeare’s longest, and, lacking as it does a subplot, the focus is insistently, almost oppressively, on its principal character throughout. And this character seems not to have much of an inner life: an unthinking fighting machine, seemingly incapable not merely of subtle or of profound thought, but of any thought at all. And he lacks poetry. The entire play seems to lack poetry: those wonderful lines and passages scattered throughout Shakespeare’s plays that grab you by the throat or make those hairs on the back of your neck stand up with their expressive eloquence and their irresistible verbal music seem very conspicuous here by their absence. Shakespeare obviously knew what he was doing: problem is, I don’t.

The performance didn’t really help. The text was quite severely cut, and as a consequence, lacked the sense of that almost oppressive intensity I seem to detect when I am reading it. Sope Dirisu as Coriolanus didn’t really project any strong personality, or charisma, as I think he ideally needed to. For some reason, the drama somehow failed to grip. Either that, or I just attended a bad night. (I have bad days in the office sometimes: I am sure actors are allowed the occasional bad day on the stage!)

So, basically, Coriolanus remains for me something of a puzzle. But I’ll keep trying.

Next came Antony and Cleopatra, a play I have gone on about quite a bit in various posts here, as it is a firm favourite of mine. It started very promisingly: Josette Simon was a very spirited and vivacious Cleopatra, and Antony Byrne looked just right playing his namesake – a war-hardened soldier who, now advancing in years, is losing it. I particularly liked the way Ben Allen played Octavius – a very young man who nonetheless takes his responsibilities seriously, and who, at the start, idolises Antony as a great soldier, and cannot understand why this once great soldier is no longer living up to his Roman sense of duty. This makes sense of the text. Here, the proposal that Antony marry Octavia is no mere cynical ploy on Octavius’ part: he really wants Antony in his family, and actually believes that the love of a good Roman woman would cure Antony of his Egyptian decadence. So when Antony does return to Cleopatra, Octavius can only take this as a personal insult. And at the same time, his expression of grief on hearing of Antony’s death appears heartfelt, as it was surely intended to be: in too many productions, where Octavius is played as a cynical, manipulative statesman, cold and unfeeling in all his dealings, this scene falls flat, s it is hard to believe that such a man could be capable of such heartfelt emotion. Here, it worked splendidly.

But all was not perfect here either. For one thing, the cuts. I understand that this is a long play, and some cuts are necessary, but here, they did hurt. They cut the scene on the night before the battle where the soldiers on guard duty hear mysterious music coming from under the ground. It is only a short scene, and is very atmospheric: I’m sure it could have stayed. The many battle scenes were considerably thinned out, reducing, I felt, something of the play’s epic dimension. The scene between Cleopatra and her treasurer is cut. And, most grievous of all, I thought, was the excision of that wonderful passage where Antony calls round all his sad captains:

                                            … Come,
Let’s have one other gaudy night: call to me
All my sad captains; fill our bowls once more;
Let’s mock the midnight bell.

I also couldn’t help feeling that they short-changed the poetry somewhat. Among other things, Antony and Cleopatra is full of passages of soaring lyricism: it’s almost as if Shakespeare had poured into this play all the verbal opulence that he so carefully kept out of his very next play Coriolanus. And yet, the beauty of the poetry did not really seem to register. Even Cleopatra’s heart-wrenchingly beautiful lines

Give me my robe, put on my crown; I have
Immortal longings in me

seemed  to lack solemn majesty.

It could be argued, of course, that “solemn majesty” is not how Josette Simon sees Cleopatra, and certainly, she has plenty of textual evidence on her side. Perhaps I am bringing too many of my own preconceptions to the proceedings, and that’s never a good thing.

And today, it was Julius Caesar. We read this play at school when I was thirteen, and, contrary to the oft-repeated mantra that Shakespeare in the classroom puts people off for the rest of their lives, I loved it. I think I developed a sort of obsession about it. And, rather strangely perhaps, I remember how I used to regard this play back then. Brutus was my hero, a genuine man of honour, who, quite rightly, acted to protect the Roman people from Caesar’s tyranny, and was defeated by the unscrupulous Antony. Now, while still thinking that Brutus acted with honourable motives, he seems to me something of a self-obsessed prig, continually telling everyone how very honourable he was. Cassius now seems to me more neurotic than I had then thought him. Antony is still unscrupulous, but now, I find myself admiring his extraordinary courage, and his loyalty to the dead Caesar. And Caesar himself I find myself admiring more than I used to. In short, I have grown up, and am more aware of the various ambivalences in all four of these fascinating leading characters.

And I found myself also thinking that while Antony and Cleopatra – written some seven years after Julius Caesar – was not intended as a sequel, the characters of Antony and of Octavius are consistent with what had gone before. Antony’s tiring of his responsibilities in the later play, and wishing only for a life of unthinking hedonism, takes on particularly strong resonance when one knows that Antony had spent his youth in pursuit of pleasure, and had only taken on political and soldierly duties when circumstances had compelled him to do so. The great statesman and soldier we hear of in the later play we see for ourselves in the earlier: and we see also what had driven him to such a life. And in his advancing years, it is his carefree pleasure-filled youth he wishes to return to.

The production, I thought, is tremendous. Alex Waldman plays Brutus here is a self-obsessed prig that I now see him to be, and Martin Hutson’s Cassius is overtly neurotic. Andrew Woodall is a splendid Caesar (he had been an equally splendid Enobarbus in Antony and Cleopatra) , and the whole thing is staged quite superbly. Best of all, perhaps, was James Corrigan’s dynamic Antony: that great speech scene was every bit as electric as it should be. And for once, they played the text more or less complete, with only the smallest of cuts. (But then again, this is a much shorter play than the other two.)

One thing that struck my fifty-seven-year-old self that I most certainly had not recognised as a thirteen-year-old is that the final act is surprisingly weak. A big battle scene, and a rounding off of the story – all finely executed, sure, but I get the feeling that after the long scene in Brutus’ tent in the fourth act, Shakespeare didn’t really have anything more to add. The final act, in comparison to what had gone before, is perhaps a bit routine. But no matter. Those first four acts are simply extraordinary, and this play will always have a special place in my heart. Why it took me so long to get round to seeing it on stage, I really don’t know.

So should I go and see Titus Andronicus this January? I have never really liked the play, but it is one of the fifteen plays of Shakespeare’s I haven’t yet seen on stage (I was counting them off on my fingers on the train back home), so perhaps I should make the effort. If only to tick it off the list. But something tells me that the boy in the candy-shop has had too much candy already.