Confessions of a culture-vulture

It was Cosi Fan Tutte last night.

Every November, the Glyndebourne Touring Opera give a few performances in nearby Woking, and, almost invariably, they perform a Mozart opera. Which, obviously, is fine by us. Last year, it was Don Giovanni (I reported on that briefly here). I was recovering then from serious illness, and, in my weakened state, was afraid I might fall asleep during the performance; but, in the event, it turned out to be a first step back, as it were, to life: by the end of that performance, I felt less of an invalid, less weighed down by my troubles and worries – in brief, less of a miserable old sod. Those three Mozart-da Ponte operas have that effect on me: no matter how serious the aspects of our humanity they probe into, they elate, they exhilarate.

Take last night’s Cosi Fan Tutte. One of my earliest posts on this blog was about this opera, and I dwelt at some length on how deeply troubling the whole thing was. I cannot think of any other work, in any other artistic medium, that is so exquisitely beautiful, and yet so profoundly troubling. And last night, I felt the full force of this paradox all over again: the music is so perfectly beautiful, that the sense aches at it; and yet it presents a view of ourselves, of us all, that perturbs, and leaves one uneasy. I have read many accounts of this work, and even writers with far greater command than myself of the English language clearly find themselves struggling in trying to describe its effect. It remains elusive: just when you think you have found the key to it, some new detail occurs to you, and the entire edifice you have built for yourself suddenly comes tumbling down. It is hard indeed to account for a work that so entrances with its beauty, and yet so troubles you to your very depths; and which, even despite this troublesome nature, leaves you, somehow, elated by the end.

In other words, it’s a right bugger to blog about. So let’s move on.

One full year on from when I was feeling so sorry for myself and so comfortably self-pitying, I find myself in the midst of a spree of nights out. Last night, as I said, it was Cosi Fan Tutte; last week, it was Handel’s Rodelinda at the English National Opera. This was unplanned: a friend of a friend had an extra ticket which he was willing to see off at a ridiculously low price, and it seemed rude to turn it down. I must confess, though, that I am not really convinced by Baroque opera. Not dramatically, I mean. As I understand it, opera audiences of Handel’s time went to hear fine singing from star singers; and they went for spectacle; but they didn’t really go for what we would nowadays consider drama. So Handel operas tend to consist of a long sequence of solo arias – each very beautiful, and each very expressive, but each rather static, designed as they were for the singers simply to stand-and-deliver. Modern stagings invent various piece of stage business – some ingenious, others (to my mind) a bit pointless, and even a bit silly – to prevent it all becoming a merely a long sequence of dramatically static arias; but I rarely find myself convinced. The ENO production did as good a job as can be imagined, but I don’t think I’d have lost much if it had all been done simply as a concert performance. Certainly, in musical terms, and in terms of their expressive power, the arias themselves are top-drawer stuff, and they were quite beautifully performed; but I still can’t quite see this as drama. However, this is just a personal reaction: aficionados of Baroque opera may well disagree.

And I am also attending a series of concerts given at the Wigmore Hall by the Spanish quartet Cuarteto Casals, covering all of Beethoven’s mighty string quartets. I’ve been to two already, and there is a third concert in early December. We are also going to a performance of Monteverdi’s Vespers in two weeks’ time, in which a friend of ours is singing in the chorus. (To clarify on this point, when I say “I”, I mean I am going on my own; when I say “we”, I am going with my wife. We share some tastes – we both love Mozart and Verdi, for instance – but not all, and we see little point dragging each other off to events we may not enjoy.)

I will not be writing here about any of these concerts, since I am not really qualified to pass my layman’s opinions on musical matters. But when it comes to dramatic matters … well, truth to tell, I’m not really qualified to write about these matters either; but if I were to keep quiet about everything I am not qualified to comment on, this blog would never even get started. (And in any case, remaining silent when you have nothing much of interest to say would be going very much against the spirit of our times.)

And there’s theatre, of course. The Royal Shakespeare Company will be in London this winter, and they are bringing down from Stratford-on-Avon all four of Shakespeare’s Roman plays – Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus. Titus Andronicus has never been amongst my favourite plays, although, given I have never seen it on stage before, I may well go along to have a look come January. More surprisingly, perhaps, I have never seen Julius Caesar or Coriolanus on stage either, and have tickets for both between now and Christmas. And also between now and Christmas, I’ll be seeing Antony and Cleopatra, which I often name as my single favourite Shakespeare play: I find it a hard play to keep away from.

(And speaking of which, the National Theatre promises us an Antony and Cleopatra next year with Ralph Fiennes. It also promises us also Macbeth with Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff. At the same time the Royal Shakespeare Company is also promising us Macbeth, this time with Christopher Ecclestone and Niamh Cusack. Which one will be better? Well, there’s only one way to find out, as Harry Hill might say…)

And if all this weren’t enough, one Sunday in early December, the British Film Institute promises us screenings of all three films comprising Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy (which I often regard as possibly cinema’s finest artistic achievement) in newly restored prints. I used to be a very keen film-goer in my student days, but I must admit that this is something that has long fallen by the wayside. However, I have never seen these masterpieces before on the big screen, and this really is very tempting.

So much to see, so little money in the bank…

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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.

On re-reading “Middlemarch”

This is not intended to be a review.

Indeed, nothing on this blog is intended to be a review. Since I want to write on this blog about all the various things I love, I have found myself writing about some of the most exalted of literary creations – Hamlet, Don Quixote, The Brothers Karamazov and what not. For me to claim to review such works seems a trifle presumptuous. If I am reviewing anything at all, it is myself: I am merely recording how my own individual mind responds to these works – sometimes, I hope, with insight, but more frequently, I fear, with incomprehension.

It is with this in mind that I come to Middlemarch, a novel that has not really been very close to my heart. I first read it some twenty-five years ago, and I remember admiring it greatly. But, in contrast to many other novels I have admired, I have not in those intervening years felt the desire to revisit it. And furthermore, the memories I had of it were vague: nothing from it seemed have lodged very firmly in my mind. These facts in themselves I found intriguing. For, after all, there are a great many readers, highly intelligent and cultivated and with unimpeachable literary taste, who not only think very highly of this novel, they refer to it as the novel they love best. Even as the “greatest novel” they have read. Of course, we don’t need to go into tedious disquisitions on the redundancy of the concept of “best” or “greatest” in such matters, or of literature not being a competitive sport: when someone speaks of Middlemarch being the “greatest” novel they have read, I understand what they mean – that not only is it a novel of surpassing merit, but that it is also the novel that speaks to them most directly, most profoundly; that it is the novel that resonates most insistently in their minds and hearts, that provides most that unmistakable tingle in the spine that Nabokov speaks of as being the ultimate arbiter of literary greatness. That Middlemarch is a novel of surpassing greatness I have never doubted, but I was curious to see whether, after so long a gap, this novel would now resonate with me – whether I, as a reader, have developed sufficiently since my earlier reading to allow this novel to enter my consciousness in a way it had not done before. Whether, in short, it would now give that tingle in the spine.

And if not, why not.

That it is a magnificent creation, I already knew. Even at that first reading, I was struck by its breadth and depth of vision. But that may be a strange thing to say about a work that remains doggedly within a single location (the Warwickshire town of Middlemarch, a fictional version, it is believed, of Coventry), dealing with everyday people in this everyday setting, and not finding, nor even seeking for, any sense of transcendence. All that is solid remains solid: the light it is seen in is no visionary or ethereal light, but very much the clear light of day. Wider national politics enter into it, but only insofar as it affects local people going about their daily business: there is no overarching political vision, any more than there is an overarching religious or spiritual vision. Eliot gives us small people leading small lives, and refuses to look beyond this.

In a very fine essay of Wordsworth’s The Prelude (“The Noble Community of the Living and the Dead: Community in The Prelude”, included in The Cambridge Companion to Wordsworth) Lucy Newlyn draws a parallel between Eliot’s work and Wordsworth’s, quoting two surprisingly similar passages from each:

                      Magnificent
The morning was, a memorable pomp,
More glorious than I ever had beheld.
The sea was laughing at a distance; all
The solid mountains were as bright as clouds,
Grain-tinctured, drenched in empyrean light;
And in the meadows and the lower grounds
Was all the sweetness of a common dawn—
Dews, vapours, and the melody of birds,
And labourers going forth into the fields.
Ah, need I say, dear friend, that to the brim
My heart was full? I made no vows, but vows
Were then made for me; bond unknown to me
Was given, that I should be—else sinning greatly—
A dedicated spirit. On I walked
In blessedness, which even yet remains.
– From The Prelude (1805 text), iv, 330-45

 

She opened her curtains, and looked out towards the bit of road that lay in view, with fields beyond outside the entrance-gates. On the road there was a man with a bundle on his back and a woman carrying her baby; in the field she could see figures moving—perhaps the shepherd with his dog. Far off in the bending sky was the pearly light; and she felt the largeness of the world and the manifold wakings of men to labour and endurance. She was a part of that involuntary, palpitating life, and could neither look out on it from her luxurious shelter as a mere spectator, nor hide her eyes in selfish complaining.
– from Middlemarch, Chapter 80

The parallels are apparent, quite apart from the similarity of what is described – human figures within a larger landscape. In Wordsworth, the landscape is perceived first, and only then the figures (the “labourers going forth into the field”), with the grandiloquent diction in the earlier part of the passage giving way to more everyday speech. In Eliot, the process is reversed: the people are seen first (“the man with the bundle on his back, and a woman carrying her baby”), and only afterwards the largeness of the landscape they are in, and the register of the diction moves this time from the everyday to the magnificent. But both the poet in the first excerpt, and Dorothea in the second, feel it to be a moment of revelation. Wordsworth tells us that although he did not himself make a vow, vows were nonetheless made on his behalf: what these vows were he does not spell out: he tells us that he must be a “dedicated spirit”, but dedicated precisely to what he does not tell us, because, given the context, he does not need to. Eliot is more explicit: Dorothea realises she is not detached from the life around her, that she could not merely look on with a disinterested eye. This is the “bond” Wordsworth speaks of – the bond with life, with one’s fellow beings, an awareness of being, ineluctably, a part of something larger than oneself.

And for Eliot, what was larger than one’s individual self was humanity – other individual selves, collectively forming a greater unit. And this greater unit is not restricted merely to those now living. Wordsworth had written in the eleventh book of The Prelude:

                        There is
One great society alone on earth:
The noble Living and the noble Dead.

To which Eliot would probably have added “and the noble Unborn”. For the bond that Wordsworth speaks of links us not only to generations past, but also to generations yet to come. The famous last lines of Middlemarch make this clear:

… for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

However seemingly mundane and quotidian our lives may be, however seemingly insignificant, we are part of a living bond both with generations past, who have prepared the ground for us, and for generations yet to come, for whose sake, whether we realise it or not, we are living now. To recognise our part in this noble community of the Living and the Dead and the Unborn is to be part of the “involuntary, palpitating life”; it is to “feel the largeness of this world”.

So far, so Wordsworthian. But Eliot’s view is nonetheless, it seems to me, somewhat different from Wordsworth’s. For Wordsworth was concerned also with intimations of immortality, with that sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused, that sense of a presence that is both immanent in humanity, but which also transcends it: but these concerns weren’t Eliot’s. There are no “spots of time” in Eliot’s fictional world; or, rather, if there are, they do not look beyond humanity. The sense that Dorothea gets of an attachment to, and an active involvement with, something larger than her individual self, is not so large as to transcend humanity or to point towards eternity. This is not to say that Eliot’s vision was smaller than Wordsworth’s – merely that, for all its apparent similarities, it is differently directed. For, to Eliot, there was nothing larger than humanity; and this “involuntary, palpitating life”, this great human chain of generations succeeding each other, not only leaves no time to contemplate eternity, it makes such contemplation redundant.

We often speak of nineteenth century fiction as “realistic”, but this is mere lazy generalisation. It is not merely that so many giants of nineteenth century fiction had little or no interest in photographic verisimilitude – Gogol, Dickens, Melville, Dostoyevsky, etc. – it is also that there are many different shades of what we lazily term “realism”. Tolstoy and Eliot, for instance, may both be described as “realist” writers: they both depicted the solidity of this world, the chains of cause following effect; they tried both to come to at least some sort of understanding of the endlessly complex rules that govern our lives, our minds. And yet, in Tolstoy, there are times when these rules, however fascinatingly complex they may be, seem to be suspended: when, for instance, Andrei, wounded on the battlefield of Austerlitz, sees that vast overarching sky above him, and wonders why he hadn’t seen it before; or when Anna is close to death, and she, Karenin, and Vronsky, all seem to enter some strange heightened plane of consciousness. There is absolutely nothing like this in Middlemarch. Andrei’s moment of epiphany in seeing that sky seemed to make all human affairs appear small. Similarly, much later in the novel, when the dying Andrei resigns himself to death, all of human life, even that of his own sister and son, or of Natasha whom he loves, appears insignificant. Such a sense of human insignificnce is very alien to the world of Middlemarch: here, Dorothea’s moment of epiphany connects her to the rest of humanity, which is the highest truth there is, or can be. And as for the heightened state of consciousness that Anna, Karenin and Vronsky find themselves in, there is no room for that in Eliot’s world; here, our everyday state of consciousness, with all its “involuntary, palpitating life”, is rich enough.

Once again, none of this is to say that Eliot’s artistic vision is necessarily narrower or smaller than that of Tolstoy, or of Wordsworth: it is merely differently directed. Tolstoy too had depicted this involuntary, palpitating life in all its dizzying variety, but had searched for some underlying and unifying principle, that Wordsworthian “sense sublime … that rolls through all things”. He had possibly not succeeded in that search, but the sense of questing seems to me unmistakable. In Eliot, even that questing is absent. If Tolstoy had missed that sense sublime, Eliot does not even think to look for it.

Flaubert had also missed this sense sublime that rolls through all things. He missed it not because he could not find it, but because he was convinced it did not exist. And this saddened him. All language could do, he famously lamented in Madame Bovary, was to batter away at an old, broken kettle, when all the time he longed to “move the stars with pity”. But Eliot had no thought of moving the stars with pity, or any such nonsense. This involuntary, palpitating life, far from being a battered and broken old kettle, was the thing itself: one need not search for anything beyond, as Tolstoy did, nor even lament, as Flaubert did, the absence of anything beyond. Taken for what it is, it is enough in itself: the everyday little events, taken just for what they are, are enough to fill out a novel of epic proportions. That a thousand-page novel, each page engrossing, could be created out of what Flaubert regarded as a battered and broken old kettle, is in itself a powerful statement of Eliot’s artistic and moral vision. Eliot presented this world, neither searching for any other, nor lamenting its absence. In this sense, Eliot was, perhaps, the most realist of all the realists.

Eliot is often judged, correctly, to be a writer of profound moral sensibility, but is also often judged, this time incorrectly, of being finger-wagging and judgemental. After all, if we are to take our part in this involuntary and palpitating life, then we must extend our imaginative sympathies to understand those who form that greater humanity of which we, as individuals, are a part. To understand is not necessarily to forgive or even to excuse, but it is something to be aimed towards for its own sake. Take Bulstrode, for instance. A man who has made a fortune by questionable means, who has deprived others of what is rightfully theirs to enhance his own wealth and standing, and who now parades his apparent respectability, and indulges in all sorts of religious humbug: it is hard to imagine any author extending to so despicable a person any sympathy. But even Bulstrode Eliot tries to understand, insisting that he is not really a hypocrite:

There may be coarse hypocrites, who consciously affect beliefs and emotions for the sake of gulling the world, but Bulstrode was not one of them. He was simply a man whose desires had been stronger than his theoretic beliefs, and who had gradually explained the gratification of his desires into satisfactory agreement with those beliefs.
– from Middlemarch, Chapter 61

I suppose it can be said that Eliot was harsh on Rosamond (Eliot never did care for self-centred airheads, especially if they were also pretty and blonde), but even here, there is an attempt to see things from her perspective: she too, after all, is someone who has entered into a marriage with unrealistic expectations, and has found herself disappointed; and, unlike Dorothea, she doesn’t even have the consolations of contemplation and of introspection, being by nature incapable of either.

***

I said at the start of this post that I was not going to “review” Middlemarch. I think I have kept my promise: after some two and a half thousand words, I find I have barely mentioned Dorothea Brooke, and haven’t mentioned at all Tertius Lydgate – the two principal characters whose two parallel lives form the backbone of this novel.

Fortunately, Middlemarch is possibly the most blogged about of all classic novels, and there is no shortage either of plot synopses, or of analysis. (And if it is detailed analysis you are looking for, may I recommend this by Rohan Maitzen: it is excellent.) I started this post merely trying to understand, by talking to myself here, why it is that, despite admiring this novel immensely, and thinking it a majestic achievement, it did not make my spine tingle in the way Nabokov thought a good novel should. Even in this my second reading, that spine resolutely refused to tingle. It’s not because George Eliot’s vision is too small, or too narrow: far from it. And it’s not because of her moral sensibilities. I suppose it’s because George Eliot is way too sensible and level-headed; and because I, personally, prefer those writers who have about them that touch of madness. But if I do not place Middlemarch amongst my own favourite novels, I can at least understand why so many do. And with that, I am more than satisfied.

Dressing up, dressing down

For the apparel oft proclaims the man

It has long struck me that this is one of the very few pieces of sensible advice that that pompous windbag Polonius gives to his son. For, shallow and superficial though it may be, we do judge people by their appearance. But what Polonius does not seem to realise is that it is not just the question of what one wears. Or, if you prefer, it ain’t what you wear, it’s the way that you wear it. Take me, for instance. I could be dressed up to the nines – the smartest suit, the most dignified silk tie, matching handkerchief peeping discreetly out of my breast pocket – and still look like a sack of potatoes. ’Twas ever thus. It was this innate inability to make the best of my clothes that nipped in the bud what may otherwise have been a promising career as a male fashion model.

Here, as evidence, is a picture taken from our holiday in Sicily some three years ago. There I was, not wearing the shorts and tee shirt that I believe are generally considered de rigeur on such holidays, but sporting instead a jacket, a shirt with collar and buttons, and a pair of trousers made of some material other than denim. And yet, far from looking smart, I look as dilapidated as the ruins behind me, and considerably less dignified.

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“Were you not hot and uncomfortable?” I am asked. Well, no. Although it was bright and sunny, this picture was taken in October, and the weather was mild. Also, it’s a very light jacket: I certainly found it, and find it still (much to the despair of my wife), very comfortable to wear. It’s what is termed “leisurewear”, or even “comfort wear”, that I find uncomfortable. I find jeans heavy and awkward, and the texture of denim unpleasantly rough and abrasive; and shirts without buttons are rarely flattering to a middle-age paunch. After all, even a sack of potatoes, I feel, is entitled at least to some remaining vestiges of vanity. And quite apart from the aesthetics of it all, there are the practicalities: I never know where to put the various things I have always to carry around with me – keys, wallet, phone, comb, a paperback to read while waiting for the bus – if I am not wearing a jacket. (A recent advert on television for some credit card featured, for reasons that now escape me, a nude man running down the street, and I could not help wondering – albeit momentarily – where exactly he kept his credit card.) The tie, in keeping with the tenor of our times, I have reluctantly forgone, but this does leave me not knowing what to wipe my glasses with.

Another advantage of wearing a jacket and a shirt with collar is that for those occasions where one does need to dress up, one need make no extra effort. Perhaps change one’s usual jacket for a nicer one, and put on a tie – but that’s about it. After all, why make that extra effort when you know you’re going to end up looking like that sack of potatoes no matter what you do? Nonetheless, when I go to the opera, say, I do wear a jacket and tie. Or a decent jacket, at least. I realise that this is very stuffy and elitist of me: when one goes to the opera, especially when one goes to the opera, one really should wear “comfort wear”, if only to demonstrate how unstuffy and un-elitist one is. One should wear “comfort wear” even if one happens, as I do, not to find it very comfortable. Those who do not go to the opera, and imagine the auditorium to be populated by ladies in tiaras and gentlemen in tuxedos, are likely to be somewhat surprised were they actually to go and see for themselves.

However, formal wear has not gone completely out of fashion. If, at work, I am to meet with customers, I am still expected to wear a smart jacket and tie. Or, preferrably, a suit. Everyone will dress smartly when going for a job interview, say; and prospective employers still tend to favour those applicants who have taken the trouble to dress formally rather than those sporting “leisurewear”. Irrational, I know, but, in our perceptions at least, apparel still proclaims the man. We will all wear our best clothes – and for men, that means jacket and tie – to a wedding, say, or to friends’ silver wedding anniversary at some swanky hotel: we would feel it disrespectful to go to such events in jeans and tee shirt. It is only when it comes to theatre and opera that we feel the need to exhibit how “unstuffy” we really are.

I can’t help thinking that this is because those of us who love opera have become overly sensitive to the allegations of “elitism” and “stuffiness” that are incessantly levelled at us. And that’s hardly any wonder. If we are constantly attacked and ridiculed simply for loving that which is dear to us, extreme sensitivity is only to be expected. The prices for classical music, we are told, are unaffordable. No matter how often you point out that a quick browse around the net indicates classical concerts to be no more expensive on average than rock concerts, and often considerably cheaper, these same allegation will resurface – over and bloody over again. Operas, admittedly, can be expensive, but then, so are West End musicals, which are never described as “elitist” or “stuffy”. And when I am told that opera is unaffordable by people who, almost in the next breath, tell me how much they paid for, say, a Beyoncé concert – some price I would never consider spending for a single night out, not even at Covent Garden – I cannot help feeling that it’s not the price that’s the point. When something one loves is constantly denigrated, and no evidence you adduce taken on board, one can’t help feeling a bit resentful about it all.

And if it’s not about prices, it’s about dress codes. Or alleged dress codes. Once again, no evidence one puts forward is ever taken on board. We who go to opera, and, what’s more, we who enjoy going to opera, are, we are told, dressed in tiaras and tuxedos, and anyone dressed in “leisurewear” stands out like that proverbial sore thumb, and is stared at. They may even, apparently, be asked to leave. No amount of evidence to the contrary can alter this current of opinion, and so, naturally, we all become more than somewhat sensitive to the whole issue. (Actually, if this is indeed the criterion of stuffiness, rock concerts must count as very stuffy, as anyone dressed in a jacket and tie at a rock concert will certainly stick out like that sore thumb, and will certainly be stared at.)

Perhaps it is this sensitivity surrounding these matters that explains the astonishing vitriol that has been aimed at a recent piece by Howard Jacobson, in which he laments the decline of formal wear at the opera. The piece itself struck me as comic in tone, often tongue-in-cheek, and, like most comedy, indulging in exaggeration and in hyperbole for comic effect. When Jacobson, at the end of the piece, references the sex-strike in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, I must admit I laughed. Not, maybe, as uninhibitedly as I do when watching Marx Brothers films, but I definitely emitted a few audible chuckles. And yet the vitriol, from opera lovers, from performers, from music writers, is unrelenting, both in the below-the-line comments, and also, inevitably, in social media. It’s as if all the good work that has so laboriously been performed in trying to convince people that opera isn’t elitist and stuffy is here undone.

I suppose I am going against the grain here in not objecting to Jacobson’s article. People who think badly of opera and of opera-lovers on account of their alleged “stuffiness” aren’t going to change their minds: they haven’t so far. How much longer must we keep insisting to them that we really are normal people? Yes, of course people are entitled to wear whatever they damn well want. And of course it’s how you respond to the opera that matters, and not what you’re wearing. I doubt Jacobson himself would disagree with any of that. But his point, dressed up as it admittedly is in comic hyperbole, seems to me to be that not only is there nothing wrong in dressing up specially to mark a special occasion, it may even, given we are social animals, and given further that a night out, whether at an opera or at a rock concert, is a social as well as an aesthetic event, be a Good Thing. Such a point I find entirely unexceptionable.

But of course, in my case, given that I look like a sack of potatoes no matter how I dress, it probably doesn’t really matter very much. So let me finish off by offering another picture from our Sicilian holiday of three years ago. Here I am in a Greek theatre in Syracuse, wearing my jacket and buttoned-up shirt in honour of Aeschylus, who is reputed to have performed here.

(And please – no gags about the Popular Front of Judaea: that one has been done to death!)

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“New Arabian Nights” by Robert Louis Stevenson

O wad some Power the giftie gie us…

If I were to be given the ability to write prose like any writer of my choosing, past or present, I think I’d choose to write prose like Robert Louis Stevenson. There’d be no point picking someone like Dickens, say, whose prose is so idiosyncratic that anything written in that manner would seem merely like imitation. Stevenson’s prose is also very individual – as, indeed, is the prose of any major stylist – but it is not eccentric, as Dickens’ is. It is supple, rhythmical, and eloquent; and it is marvellously expressive. And it is all of these things without the slightest hint of exhibitionism, of drawing attention to itself. Take, for instance, this passage from the story “A Lodging For the Night”, describing snow falling at night on the streets of Paris:

The snow fell over Paris with rigorous, relentless persistence; sometimes the wind made a sally and scattered it in flying vortices; sometimes there was a lull, and flake after flake descended out of a black night air, silent, circuitous, interminable. To poor people, looking up under moist eyebrows, it seemed a wonder where it all came from.

There is nothing gaudy about this: it is far from purple prose. It flows naturally, its rhythms perfectly in place, creating successive waves and troughs, neither pulling the reader up short with quickfire staccato, nor tiring the reader with long unpunctuated phrases in which, by the time the end is reached, the beginning is all but forgotten. It is almost like the conversation of a highly articulate person, its rises and falls and its pauses imitating the natural patterns of speech. And each word seems so perfectly chosen, and so perfectly in place, that neither the choice of words nor the order in which they are put seems capable of improvement. And as an evocation of the scene, as a picture in words of snow falling from a night sky, can this really be improved upon? I could turn to any page at random in this collection, and I would find the same thing – prose that is eloquent, words that are perfectly chosen, phrasing that is immaculate; and, without drawing attention to itself, writing expresses perfectly whatever the author wants to express.

This collection of stories was first published in 1882, when Stevenson was in his early thirties, but the stories had all been appearing individually in literary magazines and journals for a few years before then. The title Stevenson chose for this collection is an interesting one: The Arabian Nights stood, and still stands, for pure storytelling – storytelling of tremendous exuberance and vitality, unencumbered with anything to furrow the thoughtful brow, innocent of insights or thoughts regarding the human condition, but holding the reader’s attention purely by the question: “What happens next?”

But curiously, Stevenson does not often seem very interested in the question “What happens next?” His interest seems to lie, rather, in creating intriguing situations; and it’s these situations that stay in the reader’s mind rather than how they are eventually resolved. Two of the entries in this collection are actually sequences of linked stories – “The Suicide Club” (what a title!) and “The Rajah’s Diamond”. These stories often end without resolution: it is almost as if, having presented us with intriguing situations, Stevenson doesn’t really care too much about “what happens next”, and is moving on quickly to introduce a new thread, with new situations that are every bit as intriguing as the previous ones. This new story will contain, somewhere along the line, some detail that resolves the previous story, but these details are dropped as if in passing: it is the situations that are important to Stevenson, and the rest merely mechanics of the plot, and, hence, of relatively little interest. The resolutions are dropped almost casually, if they were but trifles. And indeed, when these resolutions are eventually presented, we find ourselves already so wrapped up in the new story, that we don’t care too much about how the previous one had worked out. I don’t think I have ever encountered anything of this nature before.

It is all carried off with a tremendous panache. And what situations they are! A quiet, retiring man receives a letter from a mysterious woman, proposing they meet; he is stood up, but he returns to his room to find there a corpse. Or there’s the Suicide Club, a secret organization where men meet who are either suicidal, or are seeking excitement; there, cards are drawn, and the he who draws the ace of spades is to be killed, and he who draws the ace of clubs must do the killing. And so on. The stories may end without resolution (although that will be dropped in later) , but no matter: within a few paragraphs of the next story, we are hooked all over again.

Apart from these linked stories, there are four others, of varying character. In “A Lodging for the Night”, Stevenson recreates medieval Paris on a winter’s night, and presents to us the great poet François Villon, who was also a cut-throat brigand. That one could be both intrigued Stevenson, and what emerges is masterly both in terms of evoking time and place, and of evoking also a character of endless fascination. We are in medieval France again for “The Sire de Malétroit’s Door”, where, once again we are presented with an intriguing situation: it eventually resolves itself into a rather charming love story, but I can’t help feeling that it’s the intriguing nature of the set-up that most attracted Stevenson’s imagination. “Providence and the Guitar” is a rather whimsical tale pitting the improvident artistic temperament against more stolid and more dependable – but also more boring – approaches to life; there is, once again, much charm here, and also a vein of the comic that I don’t always find in Stevenson’s writing.

But the masterpiece of this collection is, I think, “The Pavilion on the Links”. It was a great favourite of Conan Doyle’s (another great storyteller, who was born only a mile or so from Stevenson’s birthplace). And no wonder! Adventure stories really don’t come any better than this! The prose, as ever, is tremendously accomplished, but what impresses most is the pacing, and the creation of tension. It is set on a remote stretch of the Scottish coast, and the heroes (as they turn out to be) find themselves protecting a man from bloodthirsty killers besieging them. We have had elements of this in Treasure Island, of course: there, the besiegers had been pirates; here, they are Carbonari. The basic situation later found its way into Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo, and John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13. Marvellous though both those films are, they are not, I think, superior to this story, which, though much shorter, I found every bit as thrilling as Treasure Island. No wonder Conan Doyle thought so highly of this!

New Arabian Nights was Stevenson’s first collection of short stores. He wrote more, of course, but I have only read a small handful of them so far, and can’t imagine why I have left it so long to read the others. In the meantime, if adventure stories are your thing – and even if they aren’t, and you simply enjoy fine writing – this collection can be recommended with the warmest enthusiasm. What a writer Stevenson was!

A Frenchman in a Bengali bar

There’s something about this video on Youtube, a mere two minutes or so probably filmed on someone’s phone, that fills me with joy:

Now, normally, I wouldn’t dream of posting a private video on this blog without permission, but since this has been on Youtube, a public forum, for many years now, I guess I am quite safe sharing this. And if the makers of this video, or any of the participants in it, should object, I will most certainly take it down.

Since videos do come and go on YouTube, let me describe what is captured here. The scene is, presumably, a bar somewhere in Bengal. The people here all appear to be local, except for one person, who is clearly a Westerner (the notes accompanying this video tell us he is French). And, to the delight of everyone in the bar, this Westerner starts singing a Rabindrasangeet (a song by Rabindranath Tagore). His Bengali pronunciation is very good: it is not an easy language for Westerners to master, containing as it does various sounds not used in European languages. And although I doubt his singing will have music companies rushing to his door with recording contracts, it is nonetheless rather impressive. This man has obviously absorbed Bengali culture, learnt the language, learnt the songs. He has adopted all of this as his own.

And the reaction of the others is interesting. No-one seems at all put out by this Frenchman “appropriating” their culture: quite the contrary – they seem delighted. A cheer goes up when he starts singing; the ladies at the next table start singing along with him; and there are approving cheers and enthusiastic applause when he finishes. There is something joyous in all this.

This is what those puritan killjoys who moan about “cultural appropriation” seem unable to appreciate: sharing each other’s cultures, adopting aspects of other cultures as one’s own, is a joyous thing. “Appropriation”? No-one has any exclusive proprietorial rights over any culture; so how is it possible to “appropriate” what doesn’t belong to anyone?

Feasts of various kinds are laid out all around us, and they are rich feasts. We only have to look. So let us leave those killjoys who disapprove of this kind of thing festering in their narrow and resentful little cultural ghettoes, while the rest of us get on with the business of sharing and partaking of each other’s cultures, and adopting as our own whatever appeals to us. For this sharing is indeed joyous.

“The Painter of Signs” by R. K. Narayan

*** SPOILER ALERT: I suppose it’s fair to warn readers who care about such things that this post may contain a couple of mild spoilers for those who haven’t read it. But I don’t think there’s anything here that would spoil the experience of a first reading. ***

 

It is difficult to write about Narayan without using adjectives such as “elegant”, “charming”, “delightful”. For, indeed, he is all of these things. There are readers who prize him precisely because he is so effortlessly enchanting – although, of course, it must take tremendous effort to appear so effortless. But it seems to me that, quite often, there are darker themes lurking in there. Narayan never short-changes these darker themes, but so gentle is the narrative voice, and so formidable the charm, the reader can easily be tempted to overlook them. Or, at best, see them as but minor flies in an otherwise emollient ointment.

The Painter of Signs is a case in point. Looking around the net, many, I see, read this as a bittersweet love story, a quirky and whimsical romance. Maybe it’s my own vision that is too gloomy, but I really cannot see it in such terms. Yes, it has all the trademark charm of Narayan, and all the gentle and compassionate humour one expects from him, but I found it nonetheless troubling. “Bittersweet”? Not much sweetness here as far as I can see. And if it is indeed a love story, it’s a damn strange one.

The principal character, Raman, is depicted in third person, but we are rarely outside his head: the world is shown as he sees it, and his vision is limited. He is very characteristic of the figures who populate Narayan’s novels: as Naipaul put it, Narayan’s novels are full of “small men, small schemes, big talk, limited means”. Raman is the “painter of signs” of the title – a title that invites us to search for a metaphorical interpretation, but then, rather teasingly, refuses to make any such interpretation obvious. For a painter of signs is literally what he is. He paints signs for small businesses in the fictional town of Malgudi. But he is an artist. Or, at least, a craftsman who believes in the importance of his work, and takes it seriously. In the early pages, we follow Raman dealing with various eccentric customers, and the gentle wit and subtle humour of the writing reassure us that we are indeed in an enchanted and enchanting fictional world.

But the sense of security is a false one. Raman is a bachelor, living with an aged aunt, and he is – should we choose to look beneath the surface charm – clearly sexually frustrated.

Then, Raman meets with, and, although he doesn’t quite realise it himself, falls in love with, a newcomer to town, Daisy – an unusual Western name for an Indian. She is independent, and is working on a government scheme promoting birth control. (This novel was published in 1976, during the Emergency declared by Indira Gandhi, and birth control was then very high on the agenda.) And, to go with her un-Indian name, she is also very independent: disciplined, strong-willed, business-like, and unattached. In a strongly patriarchal society, a young woman, on her own, looking after herself unaided and unintimidated, was something of a rarity.

She employs Raman to paint various signs for her campaign, and soon, he finds himself accompanying her on tours around various remote villages, as she speaks to massed assemblies of strangers on the intimate details of birth control with unembarrassed and business-like frankness. There is much comic potential in all this, of course, but Narayan is careful not to overdo it: his humour, as ever, is subtle, and subtlety frequently demands understatement. And anyway, Narayan has more important matters in mind.

For Raman is clearly attracted to her, although it is unclear whether this is love – as those who insist on seeing this as a “bittersweet love story” will have it – or a manifestation of his unfulfilled sexual desire. But when he fantasises about her, as he frequently does, he – rather pathetically given his somewhat feeble personality – imagines Daisy as someone dependent on him. For this, after all, is what he has unwittingly absorbed in the society in which he has grown up: woman is weak, and man, being the stronger, protects woman; and hence, woman is dependent on man; and hence, so should Daisy be dependent on him. The very notion of the strong-willed and determined Daisy being dependent upon a milksop like Raman is, of course, absurd, but Raman does not see the absurdity of it. Until, one night, the fantasy of Daisy being dependent upon him slips over into a fantasy of Daisy being dominated by him, and he tries to rape her. She, alert to the situation, gives him the slip; and even if she hadn’t, it seems unlikely that Raman would have had the strength to get the better of her. But that’s hardly the point: the intention was there. Whatever idea we may have had till now of this being a “bittersweet love story” is here shattered.

Raman almost immediately regrets his attempt. When he meets Daisy again, he is shamefaced. But so wrapped up is he in his own self, so unaware is he of Daisy as an autonomous being, that, quite without irony, he thanks her for saving him from himself: it hardly occurs to him that saving him must surely have been the last thing on Daisy’s mind.

We find out later about Daisy’s past. She had, even as a child, rebelled against the stifling patriarchy of her family background, and, rather than be married off, had run away. She had been taken up by a Christian mission, and had adopted the Western name Daisy – after a flower that does not even grow in India. Just as Raman never really gets to know her as a person, neither does he, or we, the readers, get to know her real name. She is determined to be independent, and yet, if we read between the lines, she is also lonely. And for some time, she sees in Raman a possible solution – as someone who, despite the weaknesses of his character, could provide, if nothing else, companionship. Raman, of course, leaps at the chance offered: by this stage, he is obsessed with her. His aged aunt, a devout lady, is horrified: not only would he (most likely) be breaking caste by such a marriage, he would also be breaking religion – for surely a woman with an un-Indian name like Daisy must be a Christian! Rather than tolerate this, she asks to go on pilgrimage to the source of the sacred Ganges, expecting, given her advanced years, never to return. Raman raises no objection: far from it – he offers his own money to help her. And in any case, it’s barely “marriage” that he and Daisy are planning: Raman has found some ancient Hindu form of marriage that does not require a ceremony – what we would nowadays simply describe as a couple “shacking up together”. But it has the imprimatur of the Hindu religion itself, and that’s good enough for Raman.

Of course, it is hardly to be expected that things eventually work out. It’s all too complex. Lovers meet, lovers part … it is, I suppose, a “bittersweet love story” after all. There is certainly a tremendous sadness and sense of desolation about it all, especially towards the end. And there is, as ever with Narayan, compassion for his characters. Raman, after all, is no villain: the patriarchy that he has grown up with, and has unwittingly absorbed, has damaged him, and he cannot even recognise, let alone understand, the deep frustrations pent up within himself. And there’s Daisy, determined, intelligent, but doomed forever to be lonely. For all the humour, it’s a tremendously sad novel.

Bittersweet love story? Quirky and whimsical romance? Yes, I suppose it is, in its own way, all of these things. But that hardly seem adequate to describe so wise and so subtle, and, indeed, so disturbing a novel as this.