Reading “Dracula”

There is still something about the name “Borgo Pass” that causes an involuntary shudder to run down my spine. I gather it is a real place: Wikipedia informs me that it is actually called “Tihuța Pass”, and that it is situated “in the Romanian Bârgău Mountains”, and the pictures I find in Google images show a landscape that is disappointingly pleasant and welcoming. But in my imagination, it is the dark, sinister mountain pass through which Jonathan Harker is driven towards Castle Dracula, the driver of his coach being, as he discovers later, no other than the Count himself.

Stoker had never been anywhere near Transylvania: he had merely picked up the names from an atlas. The picture in most peoples’ minds when these place names are mentioned comes not so much from Stoker’s novel, but from the various film adaptations – especially (for my generation, at least) the films made by Hammer, featuring Christopher Lee. And if you have ever wondered why Transylvania is so flat in those films, it’s because much of the location shooting was done in a place called Black Park, near Slough. But no matter: the substitution of south Buckinghamshire for the Carpathians is a relatively small disbelief to suspend given how much is suspended already.


I have expressed my enthusiasm for those Hammer films elsewhere on this blog, so I’ll leave them to one side for now. It’s the book I am interested in here. It is my current bedtime reading – when all is dark, with only a bedside reading lamp throwing eerie shadows about the room, and with a deathly stillness reigning outside – and I had frankly forgotten just how good it is. It is holding me spellbound, and I find myself looking forward to bedtimes. It is genuinely frightening. The Hammer Dracula films with Christopher Lee, despite being of far more recent vintage than Stoker’s novel, are unlikely to scare too many modern viewers, but it is a testament to the power of Stoker’s writing how well the novel has retained its power to frighten, and, indeed, how much more frightening it is than any of the screen adaptations. The first four chapters especially, where Jonathan Harker travels to castle Dracula, and, once there, finds himself effectively a prisoner, trapped with unimaginable horrors, still terrify. The 1977 BBC dramatization, which featured Louis Jourdan as the Count (and which is still the filmed version that is most faithful to Stoker’s novel) horrified many viewers with a scene in which Dracula brings back in a bag a live baby for his brides to eat: Hammer, for all their alleged luridness, never went anywhere near so far. And yet, this scene was not an addition by the scriptwriters to excite a jaded modern audience: it is there in the novel, dating right back to 1897. All the various Dracula films– from Murnau’s silent Nosferatu to Werner Herzog’s remake from 1979, the Bela Lugosi version from 1931, and the Christopher Lee versions with Hammer, stretching from 1958 to 1973 – all had to tone down rather than otherwise the contents of Stoker’s novel. And even then, many of these films were considered unnecessarily lurid and sensational at time of release.


Stoker’s novel has been interpreted in all sorts of ways. It has been seen as a political statement, as a religious statement, as an encyclopedia of sexual neuroses, and so on. I can’t say I’m very convinced by any of these. Dracula is indeed a foreigner importing a nasty foreign plague into good old Blighty, but, then again, the man who leads the fight against him (van Helsing) is also a foreigner. (Yes, admittedly, van helsing’s homeland, Holland, is closer to Britain than Translvania, but if Stoker really had intended this novel as a broadside against foreigners, he could easily have made Dracula’s protagonist a sturdy Englishman.) And yes, holy water and sacred wafers and the like are used in the fight against Dracula, but that in itself hardly counts as promotion of Catholicism: the Magic of Evil had to be countered by Magic of Good, and it’s the Catholic Church rather than the Protestant that provides these items that magically represent the Power of Good: Stoker (himself an Irish Protestant) didn’t really have much of a choice in the matter.


And then, of course, there’s sex. Dracula is, in admittedly rather perverse ways, a very erotic novel. The similarities between Dracula’s bite and the act of sex are rather obvious, and has certainly not gone unnoticed by the various film adaptations. (After all, when busty ladies in low-cut dresses wear a crucifix to ward off the vampire, it’s not necessarily the crucifix that the camera is focussing on.) But this is hardly a devastating critical insight: the sexual element is so obvious that it’s hard to see how even the most casual reader could miss it. Take, for instance, that famous scene in the third chapter where Jonathan Harker, having fallen asleep, finds himself, in a state of half dreaming, surrounded by three beautiful but terrifying female vampires:

Two were dark, and had high, aquiline noses … The other was fair, as fair as can be, with great wavy masses of golden hair and eyes like pale sapphires. I seemed somehow to know her face, and to know it in connection with some dreamy fear, but I could not recollect at that moment how or where. All three had brilliant white teeth, that shone like pearls against the ruby of their voluptuous lips. There was something about them that made me uneasy, some longing and at the same time, some deadly fear. I felt in my heart a wicked, burning desire that they would kiss me with those red lips.

I find this terrifying, and it is surely the erotic element that determines the nature of this fear. Had these vampires been withered old women, the effect might have been equally frightening, but the fear would have been of a different nature: here, much of the sense of terror comes from Harker actually desiring these creatures, and finding them sexually attractive. He seems to know one of the faces, but can’t quite place it: he knows it only in connection with some “dreamy fear”. This fear, it seems to me, is not merely of the vampires around him, but also of the sexual desire within, that desire he has glimpsed only in dreams: it is the “burning desire” that he feels in his own heart that he characterises as “wicked”.

Of course, this can be read as a depiction of an English Victorian gentleman’s inhibitions relating to sexuality; but this is so clearly intended by Stoker, and made so explicit, that it hardly requires any great act of interpretation to tease it out. Of course it’s about sexual inhibitions. But to see this as the principal thrust of this passage (if I may use the word “thrust” in this context) is, it seems to me, to miss the point, which is nothing more, but nothing less either, than to evoke in the reader a sense of terror. And the greatest terror is not so much the terror of what’s out there, but of what lies latent inside us. Stoker, in this passage, mingles together these two fears – the vampires out there, and the sexual desire within – and, in doing so, intensifies the terror. Which, after all, is the whole point of the novel.


Yet, to read the endless piles of criticism, it is easy to get the impression that the novel is about all sorts of things – politics, religion, sexuality – anything, indeed, other than what it clearly is on the surface – a horror story designed to send shivers up the spine. It is almost as if commentators feel that a mere horror story, intended purely to frighten the reader, is beneath their consideration unless they can find deeper meanings in it. And hence all the stuff about the novel’s politics, the novel’s religious subtext, and, most of all, about sexuality: it has been seen variously as an expression of revulsion from sex, about anal sex, about bestiality, and Lord knows what.

Fair enough, I suppose, if that’s what some readers see in it. Personally, I see a damn fine horror story, expertly paced and narrated, and full of all kinds of ghastly terrors. And that’s good enough for me.

It’s six in the evening now as I write, and it’s very dark outside. Soon, I’ll e pouring myself a whisky, settling into my armchair, and reading a few more pages of this shabby little shocker that has already outlasted many a book hailed in its time as unassailable masterpieces.


The pictures illustrating these posts are pictures taken by myself of my copy of “Dracula”, published by the Folio Society 2008, and with  the splendid illustrations by Abigail Rorer.

A November prospectus

In traditional Indian music, each raga is associated with a time of day, or season of year, and I wonder sometimes whether the same can apply to books. A Blandings Castle story by Wodehouse, say, or Fielding’s Tom Jones, really needs to be read on a lazy summer afternoon, whereas creepy ghost stories or the turbulent novels of Dostoyevsky need ideally to be read on long, dark winter nights, preferably with the wind howling outside. Similarly, when the month of December comes round – seemingly more quickly with each passing year – I find myself, with dreary predictability, reaching for my Dickens. It’s not just the Christmas stories, or the seasonal celebration at Dingley Dell: even in his other works, even in his gloomiest writings, there is something about the human warmth he provides in the midst of enveloping darkness – a warmth perceptible even in the rich plum-pudding texture of his prose – that makes it ideal for this time of year.

But be that as it may, I rather fancy revisiting Little Dorrit soon. It is certainly one of his very finest novels, but, like so much of his later work, it is decidedly gloomy. That is not intended as a criticism:  I must admit I never did understand those who turn away from darker works because they find them “too depressing”. Art does not need to look at darkness if it doesn’t want to – Wodehouse never did, for instance – but when it does, and when it gives form to that darkness, then even the most depressing of content becomes transformed into something that can exhilarate. But let us keep that paradox for a later post. (Or I may have addressed it already: after so many years, it’s difficult to keep track with all I’ve spouted on here.) Let us, for now, concede that Little Dorrit is indeed a gloomy novel, with little in it (other than the richness of its prose) that may be considered conducive to Christmas cheer. But it provides cheer of a different sort – the cheer felt by those who love literature when they encounter and recognise literary value. And I want to read this now, while the season is right, so all my other reading plans can go hang.

Not that I am planning to give up on Dante – far from it. I recently read Prue Shaw’s excellent and illuminating book Reading Dante, and am reading through the Penguin collection Dante in English, edited by Eric Griffiths and Matthew Reynolds, which traces the presence and influence of Dante in English verse from Geoffrey Chaucer right down to Seamus Heaney. The introduction, some 14 pages long, is a book in itself, and is alone worth the admission fee. Of course, I have long been aware of Dante presence in just about all European literature that followed: that in itself is hardly an eye-opener. What I want to know is what all those subsequent poets found in Dante that clearly fascinated them so, and why they chose to make themselves Dante’s heirs. And in conjunction with this, I am continuing reading through Robin Kirkpatrick’s translation, and looking into two other translations I recently purchased – one by Peter Dale, in rhyming terza rima, and the more recent translation, in rhyming quatrains rather than in tercets, by Clive James. Different translators obviously have different ideas, and so, from my own position of relative ignorance,  it makes sense to try out a variety. Both Dale and James agree that rhyme is important, but James feels that terza rima simply doesn’t work in English, whereas quatrains do. (The  only  example  I can  think of where terza rima has been successfully used in English is Shelley’s The Triumph of Life.) Dale’s rendition in rhymed terza rima does seem a tour de force, but to what extent he (and James too, for that matter) has had to compromise in order to get those rhymes I’m not really in a position to say. Kirkpatrck preserves the tercets, but not the rhymes that both Dale and James consider vital. And his edition is a dual-language edition, so I can glance over to the original, and get a feel of how it sounds. (And there are a surprising number of Italian words that I can actually understand!)

So do I like Dante now? I am asked. I am postponing answering that question. Any opinion formed without judgement to support it is, quite literally, pre judice, prejudice; and judgement requires at least a modicum of understanding. So my aim for now is, quite simply, to gain that modicum of understanding, and not worry about opinions till I have done so. There are, after all, worse things than not having an opinion.

After dividing the next few weeks between Dante and Dickens, I think I’ll focus a bit more on poetry. Like, I imagine, most readers of my generation, I have focussed far more on prose than I have on verse, and I feel I am at a stage where I have read a fair range of prose works, but nowhere near enough of poetry. Which will probably mean a slowing down, at best, of my rate of blogging: I have a reasonable idea now of how I want to write about novels and such, but have never really got my head around how I should be writing about poetry. Well, one can but try, I suppose. There will no doubt be a few bad posts to begin with, but maybe,  after a while, I could find a way of writing about poetry that may not be entirely worthless.  Maybe a change of direction is just what this blog needs.

I doubt I’ll be posting too much between now and the New Year. ’Tis the season to get drunk, after all: what with alcohol, and with Dickens and Dante, I expect to have a fine end to the decade, despite the various bits of political madness that appear to have so much of the world (the country I live in included) in its fearsome grip.

Between now and the end of the year, I’d like to progress a bit on the series of posts I have embarked upon on the plays of Ibsen (they don’t get too many readers, but as I keep saying,  I am writing these primarily for myself); and I may treat myself to an occasional rant (there haven’t been too many of those lately).

But for the moment, let us progress with Dante and Dickens: an unlikely pair, perhaps, but they should keep me  going for a bit.

“Little Eyolf” by Henrik Ibsen

*** SPOILER WARNING: The following post inevitably reveals some of the plot details of this play, and so, if such things are important to you (they needn’t be), it is possibly best not to read this post till you’ve read or seen the play for yourself.  

All quoted passages are taken from the translation by Barbara Haveland and Anne-Marie Stanton-Ife, published by Penguin Classics


In 1958, the London premiere of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof coincided with a revival of Ibsen’s 1894 play Little Eyolf, and critics were quick in comparing the two, much to the disadvantage of Williams’ play. In New Statesman, T. C.  Worsley wrote about Little Eyolf:

Its subject is a marriage and it takes that marriage apart as frankly and twice as truthfully as, say, Tennessee Williams … and it is (written though it was in 1894) just as modern if not more so …

John Barber in Daily Express thought it made Tennessee Williams “look like pap for infants”, while Alan Brien in The Spectator wrote “[Little Eyolf] wipes the smile off your face and puts the fear of God into your heart before you can say Tennessee Williams”.

All this is undoubtedly most unfair on Tennessee Williams – who, after all, did not set out to compete with Ibsen in the first place – but I think I can understand the critics’ reactions. Tennessee Williams, after all, had the reputation of being shocking, of pushing the envelope of what could be expressed on stage; while Ibsen’s image (one which still,  I think, persists) was that of a staid and stolid bourgeois dramatist, writing rather stuffy plays set in middle class drawing rooms. (Brecht had, rather condescendingly, said of Ibsen’s plays  that they were good for his times, and for his class.) And yet here was an Ibsen play – and not even one of his better-known ones – that shocks more deeply than what was reckoned at the time to be cutting edge drama, and which, as Alan Brien put it, “puts the fear of God into your heart”.

I can certainly vouch for the effect it has in performance. I have been to two productions, both performed (as it ideally should be, I think) in a small, intimate space; and both times, even though I knew the content, I was left shaken. My wife said to me on coming out of the first of these performances that she needed a stiff drink: I have never heard her say this before or since. She declined the suggestion that she accompany me to another performance of this play, so emotionally harrowing and draining did she find it, and it was only my own obsession with Ibsen, coupled, I guess, with a strong streak of masochism, that persuaded me to repeat the experience. And I remember taking the train back home afterwards, and thinking: “Did Ibsen really expect people to pay to spend an evening having their souls harrowed in this manner?” But I suppose that, by this stage of his artistic career, Ibsen was writing primarily for himself, and using drama, that most public of literary art forms, to express his most private of thoughts. This is not to say that he was writing autobiography: but it is to say, I think, that he was not prepared to compromise, to sweeten the pill, or to any way dilute the strength of his moral and artistic vision. Little Eyolf is a short play – much shorter than works such as, say, A Doll’s House or An Enemy of the People: but, remarkable though those earlier works were, Ibsen had now developed ways of saying much more with much less: the unyielding and almost ruthless concentration of Little Eyolf is in itself terrifying.

The play actually opens in middle class surroundings – “an elegant, lavishly appointed conservatory”, says the stage direction – with a view of the fjord through the French  windows. In the second act, we are outside, in the open air, by the shores of the fjord, and the dialogue seems to return almost obsessively to the depths of the waters, in which the child Eyolf had drowned, and from which the powerful undercurrents had carried his body out into the open sea. In the third and final act, we climb upwards: we are once again in the open air, and we look down upon the fjord below. This movement from indoors to the open air, and the vertical journeying – first downwards towards the depths, and then upwards towards the peaks – reflect the emotional temperature of the various parts of the play. The bourgeois certainties that seem implied by the “elegant, lavishly appointed conservatory” seem blown away by the end of Act 1, and in the middle act, we are forced to look into the darkest depths of the human soul. But towards the end of this act, an unforgettable image develops – of water-lilies that shoot up from the unfathomed depths of the waters and bloom suddenly and unexpectedly upon the surface. This image refers to all sorts of things. It refers to thoughts and perceptions hidden deep within our unconscious, that suddenly, and without warning, manifest themselves; and it also refers, I think, to the possibility of our rising from the depths. It is this possibility – possibility, nothing more – that the play settles upon in the beautiful but deeply uncertain final act, set high above the fjord. This final act is difficult to bring off, and many have found it disappointing. Viewed superficially, it may even seem that Ibsen is copping out – that, having presented us with the profound agony of the soul, he is merely suggesting a simplistic way out for these characters. Rita Allmers speaks of running an orphanage for homeless children, and her husband, Alfred, asks to join her. It may seem facile, perhaps even sentimental. But it is dangerous to look at anything in this play merely on the surface. When, after the first performance of the play, someone had said to Ibsen that they couldn’t imagine Rita running an orphanage, Ibsen had seemed surprised, and had asked: “Do you really think she would?” Ibsen was not depicting moral redemption in the final act; but he was depicting, I think, the possibility of these people, who, for all their flaws, are not evil, recognising the emptiness within themselves, and, at least, searching for something with which to fill that emptiness. Rita says this quite explicitly:

You’ve created an empty space inside me. And this I have to try to fill with something. Something resembling love of a sort.

Something resembling love of a sort. This is one of the most haunting lines that Ibsen ever wrote. Here are people, aware of the emptiness inside them, and knowing that, to continue to live as humans, they need to fill that emptiness with human love; but also knowing that this is precisely what they cannot do. So they try to fill that space with something – something resembling love. The means to climb higher isn’t there – not yet, anyway – but the aspirations are, and that is what matters. Brecht’s play The Life of Galileo had ended with the magnificent line “We are only at the beginning!” And at the end of Little Eyolf, that is precisely where we are: only at the beginning. As with Raskolnikov at the end of Crime and Punishment, or Levin at the end of Anna Karenina, Rita and Alfred have a long and uncertain journey still to undertake.

This final scene is difficult to bring off in performance, but I know from having experienced it that it can be done, and that when it is, the effect is unlike anything I think I have experienced in the theatre. It doesn’t wipe out the terror and the pity we had experienced earlier: one still leaves the theatre somewhat traumatised. But one does not leave in utter despair either.

But, to get to this point, where Rita and Alfred come to an understanding of the emptiness of their souls, and to an understanding of their need to fill that emptiness at least with “something resembling love”, we, like the characters, have to make a long journey. And it is this journey that forms the action of the play.

It all starts innocuously enough, in a wealthy middle class household. At the start, we see Rita, seemingly delighted that her husband Alfred had arrived home unexpectedly early the previous night from some trip he had undertaken. We see also Asta, Alfred’s half-sister: she and Rita appear to be on good terms. The only fly in the ointment appears to be Rita’s and Alfred’s ten-year son, Eyolf, who, disabled, can only hobble on his crutch. But otherwise, we appear to see a close-knit, loving family.

Eyolf, naturally, would like to be able to play with the other children, but, because of his disability, he cannot. Little Eyolf wants to be a soldier, but the other boys tell him this is impossible. “How this gnaws at my heart,” says Alfred softly to Rita. This “gnawing” becomes a sort of leitmotif in the rest of the play: we hear it often. And, soon after it is first mentioned, we have the emergence of the mysterious “Rat Maid”, a woman who rids houses of rats.  “Would your lordships have anything a-gnawing here in the house?” she asks.

The appearance of the Rat Maid at just this point, repeating the image of “gnawing”, warns us that we are not inhabiting the very strictly realist world Ibsen had presented in the earlier plays of this cycle. In a sense, all plays involve the use of co-incidence: for a satisfying arc of action to play itself out in some two hours on the stage, the various incidents that define the arc, the various comings and goings, have to be carefully co-ordinated, creating co-incidences that novelists writing in the same realist tradition would normally try to avoid. The skill of the dramatist often lies in camouflaging these co-incidences, so the audience doesn’t notice the breaches in the naturalistic surface. But Ibsen, in his late plays, seemed to go out of his way to point them out. So in The Master Builder, say, immediately after Solness had spoken about the younger generation toppling the older, and of how youth will come “knocking at the door”, we hear Hilde’s knocks. Dr Herdal even points this out. Similarly here. Soon after Eyolf hears about the Rat Maid from his aunt Asta, and finds herself fascinated by her;and soon after Alfred speaks of his son’s disability “gnawing” at his heart; the Rat Maid appears in person, and asks if there is anything “a-gnawing” in the house. We do not need to examine the text closely to pick up the reference.

The consequence of pointing out rather than trying to hide the breaches in surface realism is to move the play away from a strictly realist plane, and to focus our minds on matters more abstruse. The Rat Maid has come to rid the house of that which is gnawing: she may mean rats, but we know what is gnawing at Alfred’s heart. The Rat Maid  then proceeds to explain how she gets rid of the gnawing rats: she  walks around the house tree times, and then plays the Jew’s harp; and  when the rats hear her, they come out of the cellars, and they follow her. And she leads them to the water, sets sail in her boat, and the rats, following her, drown.

THE RAT MAID: … All those creeping, crawling creatures they follow us and follow us, out into the waters of the deep. Aye because they must, you see.

EYOLF Why must they?

THE RAT MAID: Simply because they don’t want to. Because they’re so mortal afraid of the water – so they must go out into it.

EYOLF: Do they drown then?

THE RAT MAID: Every last one.

We seem very far now from the bourgeois drawing-room realism that the opening of this play may have suggested.  The Rat Wife seems (like the Button Moulder in Peer Gynt) to be a figure out of folklore. Parallels with the Pied Piper of Hamelin seem, and are no doubt intended to seem, obvious. First, the Pied Piper had rid the town of rats; and then, he had rid the town of children. That which gnaws at the heart will soon be got rid of, rats or chikdren: they’ll go because they don’t want to.

So it comes as little surprise when, by the end of this first act, Eyolf really is drowned in the fjord: the Rat Maid had played her Jew’s harp, and Eyolf had followed, presumably because he didn’t want to. And, being disabled, he could not swim. He was doomed by his disability.

But before this happens, Ibsen, perhaps rather unexpectedly given the almost dreamlike scene with  the Rat Maid that had preceded it, plunges us into a scene between Alfred and Rita – a scene of the most utmost and violent passion. Alfred, we learn, had returned the previous night from a trek across the mountains, and he had had some sort of experience there – the true nature of which he does not spell out. But he has returned from the trip with a new resolution. Till now, he had devoted himself to what he felt would be his life’s work – a philosophical treatise, “On Human Responsibility”. But now, he feels, he knows what his own true responsibility is: not his writing, but his son, Eyolf. From now on, he will devote his time, his entire life, to the welfare of his poor, crippled boy.

But Alfred had not thought about Rita. Indeed, despite having been married for so many years, he barely knows her. But Rita knows herself – perhaps too well:

ALFRED [softly, eyeing her steadily]: Many’s the  time when I’m almost afraid of  you, Rita.

RITA [ darkly]: I’m often afraid of myself. Which is exactly why you mustn’t rouse the wickedness in me.

And then, in a scene of quite shocking frankness, it all comes out: Rita cannot keep it in. She desires Alfred – physically. And he is unable to return her passion. The previous night, when he had returned unexpectedly, she had brought out the champagne: but he had not drunk from it. It hardly needs spelling out further. Alfred has either become sexually uninterested in her, or has become impotent: either way, he is unable to respond to her still flaming sexual desire.

RITA: … And there was champagne on the table.

ALFRED: I didn’t drink any.

RITA [eyeing him bitterly]: No, that’s true. [Laughing shrilly] “You had champagne, but you touched it not,” as the poet says.

Rita says openly she wants Alfred for herself, and is not prepared to share him with anyone. She sees Asta, Alfred’s half-sister, as coming between them. And she sees her own child, Eyolf, also as a barrier.

RITA: Oh, you have no idea of all that could rise up in me, if –

ALFRED: If – ?

RITA: If I felt that you no longer cared about me. No longer loved me as you used to.

ALFRED: Oh, but Rita, my dearest – the process of human change over the years – this is bound to take place in our life too. As it does in everyone else’s.

RITA: Not in me! And I won’t hear of any change in you either. I wouldn’t be able to bear it, Alfred. I want to keep you all to myself.

And those who she feels comes between them, with whom she feels she must share her husband, are Asta, and her own son Eyolf.

Alfred is shocked – even more so, when, soon afterwards, Rita refers to “a child’s evil eye”. And it is at this point the tragedy happens – the tragedy that had been so clearly foreshadowed earlier. Ibsen, highlighting the mechanics of the drama rather than attempting to camouflage them, ends the act with a hubbub from the fjord: a boy has drowned. And yes, we know who boy is: Eyolf had slipped out unnoticed, and that which had gnawed at the heart has been taken away by the Rat Maid. Little Eyolf is dead.

The middle act of Little Eyolf is possibly the darkest, most harrowing thing Ibsen ever wrote. We are at the bank of the fjord. Alfred and Rita haven’t spoken to each other since their child’s death, and Alfred is sitting on his own, staring out at the sea, but he knows his son’s body does not lie in the depths: there is a powerful undertow, a hidden current, that has carried Little Eyolf away. Alfred tries to make sense of what has happened, but cannot find any pattern to anything: it all seems to him entirely random, utterly pointless: reason has no part to lay, for there is no reason to anything. It just happens.

Asta appears, and they find themselves reminiscing about their past together. After their father had died, they had lived together, half-brother and half-sister. It had been a hand-to-mouth existence, but it seems, in retrospect, like some prelapsarian paradise: they had been happy. They remember how Asta used to dress up in men’s clothes, and how she used to call herself Eyolf. It is clear how fond they had been of each other, and how fond they remain; it is equally clear that their feelings  for each other had been more than merely that of brother and sister – indeed, in that detail of Asta dressing up as a man, there are more than hints of a certain homo-eroticism. But their relationship, as siblings, had been chaste. And for this reason, they can look back on it as, essentially, innocent.

But suddenly, Alfred pulls up short: while they had been reminiscing, he had forgotten about Little Eyolf.

ALFRED: Here I was living in memories, and he wasn’t part of them.

ASTA: Oh yes, Alfred, Little Eyolf was there behind it all.

ALFRED: He wasn’t. He slipped out of my mind. Out of my thoughts.

Alfred is horrified at himself: how could something such as this, even momentarily, slip out of his mind? And neither is this the first time this has happened. He admits to Asta that as he had been sitting there, staring out at the fjord, he had found himself wondering what they would be having for dinner that night. Alfred vaguely senses that he may not truly have loved his son, and the very possibility horrifies him.

The main section of this act is taken up with Alfred and Rita. They had been avoiding each other, but there’s no avoiding anything now. They must face the truth – about each other, about themselves. Rita tells Alfred how, when Eyolf had first fallen into the clear water, the other boys playing there had seen him lie at the bottom, his eyes open, and Alfred responds

ALFRED [rising slowly, and regarding her with quiet menace]: Were they evil, those eyes, Rita?

RITA [blanching]: Evil – !

ALFRED [going right up to her]: Were they evil eyes, staring upwards? From down there in the depths?

RITA [backing away]: Alfred – !

ALFRED [following her]: Answer me that! Were they evil child’s eyes?

RITA [ screaming] Alfred! Alfred!

Rita seems to crumble under the weight of Alfred’s accusation. She has no answer to this: her grief is compounded by her guilt. Alfred remarks bitterly that it is now as she had wished – that little Eyolf will no longer come between them. But Rita knows better: “From now on more than ever, maybe.”

But Alfred is hardly innocent himself. Rita accuses him of never really having loved Eyolf either. He used to spend all his time writing his book on “human responsibility”, of all things, and had no time for his son. He protests that he gave the book up for little Eyolf’s sake, but she knows her husband well:

RITA: Not out of love for him.

ALFRED: Why then, do you think?

RITA: Because you were consumed by self-doubt. Because you had begun to wonder whether you had any great vocation to live for in the world.

Alfred finds he cannot deny this. It is true, and Rita had noticed. But Alfred has one further accusation to fling at Rita: Eyolf’s disability,  the reason Eyolf couldn’t save himself when he had fallen into the water, was Rita’s fault. When he had been a baby, they had left him sleeping soundly on the table, lying snugly among the pillows.

ALFRED: … But then you came, you, you – and lured me to you.

RITA [eyeing him defiantly]: Oh why don’t you just say you forgot the baby and everything else?

ALFRED [with suppressed fury]: Yes, that’s true. [More softly] I forgot the baby – in your arms!

RITA [shocked] Alfred! Alfred – that’s despicable of you!

Alfred accepts his part in his guilt too. So there may have been a pattern to it after all, he reflects grimly: Eyolf’s death may have been “retribution”. But this is merely posturing. As the scene progresses, and the two torture each other and themselves, and they strip away from each other all the lies they had surrounded themselves with, until they face their naked unadorned souls. They had, neither of them, truly loved Eyolf: he had been a stranger to them both. Alfred asks Rita if she could leave behind all that is earthly, if she could make the leap to that other world and be united with Eyolf again, would she do so? After hesitating a while, she finds that she has no option now but to be honest with herself: no, she would not. Alfred too has to be honest with himself: he would not either. They are both creatures of this earth – this world, not any other world.

And Alfred has one final terrible truth he has to acknowledge. He had married Rita not for love of her, for security – security for himself, and, more importantly, security for his beloved Asta. It is for her sake that he had married Rita, and had come into possession of her “green and gold forests”. Between him and Rita, there had been sexual attraction, yes, but not love, not really love.

Throughout this remarkable scene, Ibsen weaves various motifs and images, that all appear to mean far, far more than what they ostensibly signify: the powerful undercurrent that sweeps all away; the open eyes of the drowning child; the floating crutch; the insistent and implacable “gnawing” at their hearts; the green and gold forests; and, finally, the beautiful and mysterious image of the lilies that shoot up from  the dark and mysterious depths of the water and bloom upon the surface. For all the harrowing nature of the content, this act is also very deeply poetic, and, in a certain sense, beautiful.

There is one further revelation before the act ends. This is something Asta had been trying to tell Alfred before, but couldn’t. However, when Alfred, convinced that he and Rita could no longer carry on living with each other, proposes to Asta that the two of them depart and live together as they used to, she has to tell him: they cannot live together as they used to: Asta has recently discovered that her birth was the consequence of an affair her mother had had, and that, hence, there is no blood tie between her and Alfred. Their past days of seeming innocence had not really been so innocent after all, and those days can no longer be recaptured.

Having reached the very bottom, there is nowhere further  for Alfred and Rita to go. The last act remains for many problematic, but I find myself agreeing with translator and biographer Michael Meyer that, in this act, Ibsen achieved precisely what he had wanted.

Alfred and Rita, now frightened of being left alone together, beg Asta to stay, but she too is frightened. She had previously rejected the proposal of Borghejm, a gentle and pleasant man who is clearly besotted with her. Borghejm is an engineer, a road-builder, and, for him, life is simple: when you have obstacles in road building, you get rid of the obstacles. It’s straightforward. And so in life. Not for him the tortured doubts and mental lacerations. Now, faced with the possibility of staying on with Alfred and Rita, Asta changes her mind about Borghejm, and accepts his proposal. And she leaves behind Alfred and Rita, alone with each other, and both aware of their incapacity to love, and of the essential emptiness within themselves; and aware also of the need to fill that emptiness with something.


I find Little Eyolf the most terrible, and yet, in some ways, the most beautiful and poetic of Ibsen’s plays. He examines once again human lives lived on lies, on self-deceptions; he examines once again the cold emptiness within us – those “ice-churches”, as he had characterised it in Brand. He takes us through the most harrowing and traumatic of journeys. When Alfred Allmers had been trekking through the mountains, he had strayed from the path, and had become lost in the wilderness. Death, he says later, seemed to him, as it were, to be a travelling companion. He had, eventually, found the path again, but his brush with death had compelled him to re-examine himself: he would now discard his precious writing, and spend all his time with Little Eyolf. But this too was yet another lie, yet another self-deception: after Little Eyolf’s death he is forced to admit that he had been motivated not by love for the child, as he had tried to persuade himself, but by doubts about his own ability. But now, with no more illusions, he has to try to understand what his experience in the mountains had really meant. And he sees within himself the same emptiness that Rita sees within herself: in this, at least, the two are united. And he, too, sees the need, as Rita puts it, of filling that emptiness with something resembling love.

A bit of literary fun

This post is a bit of fun. Yes, fun. I do that sometimes.

The Guardian, a paper that often publishes cultural commentary that I find myself taking issue with, regularly runs a rather diverting feature, in which various writers are set a literary questionnaire. The questions are fairly general, and the respondent seems free to use these questions as springboards, as it were, to talk about various literary matters of interest to them. Here is an example of what I mean.

Now, I thought to myself, why should only established writers have all the fun? Just because they are distinguished, and have achievements to their name! So I thought I’d have a go at this myself. Some of the questions have been modified, since they ask about the respondent’s writings, and, apart from some blog posts and some technical documents at work, I don’t really have any writing to boast about. But as I said, this is just for fun. And if any other blogger out there wishes to join me in doing this, please do go ahead!


The book I am currently reading
I am currently immersed in Dante – one of the undisputed pillars of western culture who has, so far, eluded me. I have been reading, with great pleasure and profit, Reading Dante by Prue Shaw. In this book, she elucidates most eloquently the historic and theological background of the Commedia (and both, I think, are essential for an adequate understanding); and also traces the various themes, demonstrating how these themes interact, and are developed across the span of this vast, multi-faceted work At the same time, I am reading through, as carefully as I can, the Purgatorio in Robin Kirkpatrick’s admirable translation. (His copious notes and annotations are also most valuable.)

In short, I am determined to crack this bugger! I flatter myself that I am, at long last, making some headway. The Cambridge Companion to Dante (edited by Rachel Jacoff) and Eric Griffiths’ Dante in English are both on order.

The book that changed my life
I don’t think any single book has had such a dramatic effect on me, but, in a sense, each and every book that has made an impact on me has changed my life in some way. One is the product of one’s experiences, after all, and what one finds in books can be an experiences as powerful as anything that happens outside. This applies not merely to books with depth: I doubt too many people will ascribe any great profundity to, say, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and yet the dark untamed moors and the Hound from Hell have been permanently etched in my mind for nearly 50 years now.

I guess the books that most dramatically changed my life were the books I read in my teenage years. Between the ages of about 5 and 12, I was really familiarising myself with the English language (not having known a word of it in my first five years). But it was in the next 6 years – my teens – that my literary tastes and values, such as they are, developed. The writers I came to love then – Shakespeare, Dickens, Flaubert, the 19th century Russian novelists, and that lone novel so far out on a branch that it still has no near literary relative – Wuthering Heights – remain still at the centre of my literary consciousness, although, I guess, I love them now for reasons somewhat different from those that inspired my early enthusiasm.

But since this question enjoins me to nominate just one book, I think I shall nominate The New Oxford Book of English Verse, edited by Helen Gardner. This was the volume that opened for me the doors to English poetry. I won’t give a history here of my long relationship with this book, since I have already done so in an earlier post.

The book I wish I’d written
I wish I had written King Lear. Or The Iliad. Or Don Quixote, perhaps? War and Peace? The odes of Keats?

All right, I’ll be serious.

Since I am not in the business of writing novels or poems or plays, but, rather, dashing off short (and sometimes not so short) pieces for this blog, I really wish I had the writing skills of Howard Jacobson. He is, of course, an eminent novelist, but I am referring to the short pieces he used to write regularly, and still writes occasionally, for various papers and journals. He could be light-hearted or deadly serious, funny or grave; and he had a distinctive authorial presence that carries the reader (this reader, at least) along, even when I do not agree with him. He couldn’t write an inelegant sentence even if he wanted to; and, at times, he raised the writing of a newspaper column to the level of art.

There are two collections of pieces he wrote weekly on Independent on Sunday. And I wish I could write like that.

The book that had the greatest influence on my writing
I had better rephrase that question, since I am not a writer. Let me consider instead the book that has had the greatest influence on my thinking.

I haven’t really read much philosophy, or political polemics – or religious polemics either, for that matter. Most of my reading has been prose fiction, drama, and poetry. What political or religious views I have, I have acquired through reading newspapers and journals, articles by political commentators, and the like.

My outlook on life, such as it is, has mainly been garnered from the writers who have meant most to me – Shakespeare, Cervantes, Wordsworth, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Ibsen, Tolstoy, Hopkins, Tagore, Yeats. It’s not that I accept everything they have to offer: in some cases – Dostoyevsky and Yeats especially, though not exclusively – I dissent vehemently with what they have to say. But one doesn’t read merely to be able to nod away in agreement. Sometimes, a good fight with an author can be quite invigorating.

The book I think is most under/overrated
I am really not very comfortable with the term “overrated” in this context, as to declare something to be “overrated” – that is, to say that a certain book has received more praise than it deserves – is to imply that I know precisely how much praise it deserves, and that those many who praise it don’t. That strikes me as extraordinarily arrogant. Better surely to concede that no single person’s perceptions and receptivities can encompass the vast range of literature that has been created across the ages, and that there are bound to be some, at least, that lie outside the range of what we may take in.

Which is not to say that one cannot criticise. No book is above criticism, though many, no doubt, are beneath it.

(I might as well confess that the epigram above is most probably not my own: however, I honestly cannot remember where I encountered it, and, until such a time as someone points out to me its source, I am happy to claim it as mine. At all events, it is far too good not to recycle.)

As for underrated books, just about the entire literature of India that is written in Indian languages is underrated in the West. I have ranted about this before, and since I am in a genial mood right now, would prefer not to engage in another angry rant. So let me suggest two novels by Bibhuthibhushan Banerji (or Bandopadhyay: there are two forms of his surname): Pather Panchali and Aparajito. The trilogy of films made by Satyajit Ray from these two novels (the “Apu Trilogy”) is rightly famous, but these films are very different from the novels. I should add that these novels are by no means underrated in the Bengali-speaking world, but in the Western world, they remain virtually unknown. And they shouldn’t.

The book that changed my mind
I said earlier that I don’t often read polemics. But one of the few I did read, and which I think has made a profound impact on me, was Political Emotions by philosopher Martha Nussbaum. I had long maintained, and still do to a great extent, that when it comes to politics, we must keep as far from us as we can our emotions, which all too often cloud our powers of ratiocination. But , in this extremely erudite and eloquent polemic, Nussbaum proposes that human emotions are not that simple; that while some may no doubt be dark and destructive, there are other emotions too that can and should be harnessed for a better and a more just society. That is an inadequate summary of Nussbaum’s thesis, but since any brief description of so rich a book is necessarily inadequate, I think I’ll leave it as it is.

The last book that made me cry
Long Day’s Journey Into Night, by Eugene O’Neill.

I am not really an admirer of O’Neill’s other plays, but this one is different. I suppose I have something of an obsession with it. It is a very long and very gruelling play, emotionally draining, about a family, four people who are closely bound to each other, and who seem to love and hate each other at the same time. I have often tried to work out just why it is this play means so much to me, and I have never quite managed to find an answer. I don’t know how many times I have read it, or seen it – the film adaptation, various stage productions … And I even have a recording on audio! Why do I put myself through this gruelling emotional experience repeatedly? Am I some sort of masochist? Maybe. I just know that it moves me intensely each time.

The last book that made me laugh
Wodehouse would be too obvious a choice, wouldn’t it? OK, I won’t nominate Wodehouse then.

Not a book, I know, but Viz makes me laugh out loud, consistently. For those who don’t know, it is a British “adult” comic – by which I mean it is extremely rude, and frequently quite obscene. It’s not really the kind of thing you’d leave lying around when you have guests coming; and you certainly wouldn’t want your maiden aunts to read them. Or even to know that you read them.

But their combination of obscenity, mad flights of surrealism, and sheer childishness, I find an endless source of delight. As well as a regular cast of comic grotesques – Johnny Fartpants, Sid the Sexist, Roger Mellie (the Man on the Telly), the Fat Slags, etc. – there are frequently some quite inspired one-offs. One that still makes me laugh just thinking about it was called “Fireman Fritter – he’s got Twitter up his Shitter”. (“Fireman Fritter was no ordinary fireman,” it goes on to explain, “he had a social networking site up his jacksy.”) If you do not find that funny, I wouldn’t recommend Viz.

The book I couldn’t finish
The Canterbury Tales. I started with the best intentions. I had read the Neville Coghill translation into modern English, and I thought I would venture into Chaucer’s original (I have a lovely dual language edition). But I really am unfamiliar with Chaucer’s English, and while, with effort, I could piece it out, the spontaneity was lost. There were other issues too. I started on a story about a man who lived in “Surrye”. That’s fine, I thought, this chap lives in Surrey. Then I glanced over at the modern English version, and it turned out he lived in Syria. Well, how was I to know?

I read about half the stories, and promised myself to come back later for the rest. But I must admit, I haven’t yet. And worse, I’m in no hurry.

The book I’m most ashamed not to have read
I am quite ashamed of having read so little outside the western tradition. The Shahnameh, The Tale of Genji … you name it, I am ignorant of it. Even within the western culture, I am painfully aware that I haven’t yet read the whole of the Bible. But I suppose the must-read book I am most ashamed of not having read is Boswell’s Life of Johnson.

My earliest reading memory
This was back in India, which I left aged 5. Abol Tabol, a book of the most delicious nonsense poms by Sukumar Ray. I still love that book, and I need only look at those illustrations (by Sukumar Ray himself, and by his perhaps more famous son, Satyajit) to be carried away into that wonderful mad world. By the  time I left India, I remember, I knew most of these poems by heart,

I tried translating one of those poems here.

My comfort read
I’d like to say that I do not read for “comfort”. That I read to be stimulated, to discover new ways of looking at things. That I read to be disturbed, to expand my horizons into new and unfamiliar territory.

I’d like to say all that, but it isn’t quite true. Indeed, it isn’t true at all. There are all sorts of books I read for comfort – simply because I feel good entering the world they create: the Sherlock Holmes stories and the Brigadier Gerard stories by Conan Doyle; the sunlit comedies of Wodehouse; creepy ghost stories for late night in bed; Dumas’ swashbucklers; Stevenson’s adventure stories; and the like. I am not claiming any profundity for any of these books, but they are products of a craftsmanship so fine and imaginations so fertile that the question of whether they constitute literary art become irrelevant. (But just in case that question is asked, the answer is yes.)

The book I give as a gift
I tend not to give books as gifts, as, in circles I mix in, books as gifts wouldn’t be anywhere near as much appreciated as a good bottle of booze. But I did present someone with a volume of Wodehouse once simply because she was quite unbearably miserable and I wanted to cheer her up a bit.

(I don’t think it worked, by the way.)

The book I’d most like to be remembered for
The great novel that I know I’ll never write. It’s hard enough writing decent blog posts, for heavens’ sake! Why do you think I’m filling up this blog writing easy pieces like this one?

Impressions of Florence, and of Michelangelo

It is difficult to be in Florence and not have one’s head full of lofty thoughts: it’s the city of Dante and Michelangelo, after all. And it is equally difficult to be in Florence and not get fleeced, for it is also, traditionally, a banking city, a city for making money. You have paid to see the Medici Chapel at San Lorenzo? Yes, of course you have. You don’t come all the way to Florence without seeing some of Michelangelo’s most astounding sculptures. But if you think that ticket entitles you to walk into the basilica, then think again. Well, I thought again, and, since I was there, I figured I might as well pay a bit more to enter the basilica. That library in the San Lorenzo is of Michelangelo’s design, and is reputed to be very beautiful, and naturally, I was keen to see that. So I bought my ticket, and headed for the library. But no – my ticket is for the basilica only: you need to get another ticket for the library, sir. And so on.

Sorry, I didn’t mean to carp about the money. Although, I do admit I couldn’t help thinking of Rome which we had visited about three years ago, and where entry to all the various churches, even the St Peter’s, was actually free. Admittedly, you paid to see the Sistine Chapel, but if you wanted to see Michelangelo’s Pietà, say, or the great Caravaggio paintings in the San Luigi dei Francesi, you just walked in. Perhaps I should be praising Roman generosity rather than moaning about Florentine commerce. For, after all, those extra euros did not inhibit the loftiness of thought to which the rightly fabled Florentine art all too easily gives rise. Well, perhaps they did a little, but only a little: I like to think, at least, that I am not as mean and as petty as my opening paragraph may perhaps have suggested.


For how can one stand before Michelangelo’s statue of David, graceful and noble and suffused with what I can only describe as a sort of radiance, and not have Hamlet’s paean to mankind going round one’s head? What a piece of work is Man, indeed! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, and all the rest of it. In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a God. But then, afterwards, intoxicated with such lofty thoughts, I find myself in one of the many tourist tat shops (which, despite my loftiness, I love), and spy a postcard picturing a close-up of the genitals of this same noble David, with dark glasses sketched in at the base of the penis, and the upturned mouth of a smiley face drawn across the scrotum. I doubt that even as a sniggering dirty-minded schoolboy I would have found this particularly funny. All that loftiness seemed suddenly deflated, and not in a manner I found myself comfortable with – although, I suppose, those of a more cynical frame of mind than mine may perhaps differ on this point. How was it Hamlet’s speech ended again? Ah yes – Man delights not me. No, nor woman neither.

That afternoon, I was sitting outside a café, reading a book. (Yes, it was Dante, since you ask.) A middle-aged man and an elderly lady walked up to the café, and he asked her, in English, if she would like to sit outside. “No,” I heard her reply, “it smells too much of people.” I am sure I didn’t mishear her. There was no reason to think the remark was directed specifically at me: I was not the only one sitting outside, and neither was I the one nearest them, so there was no reason to take offence personally. Naturally, I tried to construct a story to go with this lady’s rather extraordinary comment. Of course, she could simply have been very eccentric and very rude. But I pictured to myself a much younger lady, with a formidable mind and a keen aesthetic sense; she had loved art, and had always promised herself a visit to Italy, to see some of the great masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance; but the years passed by, as they do, and now, in what is merely early old age – her mid-sixties, perhaps, only a few years older than I am now – she has been diagnosed with an early onset of dementia. And, in the shadow of this impending tragedy, her dutiful son is fulfilling her lifetime’s dream, showing her around Florence while her weakening mind is still capable of taking it in.

Of course, I could have got a few details wrong. Indeed, my entire story could be utter nonsense. I do not insist on it. But I was, I admit, rather moved by my own construction. And that strange line she spoke – “it smells too much of people” – kept resonating in my mind. Let me kiss that hand: let me wipe it first, it smells of mortality.


The next day, we were at the Medici Chapel. I wasn’t thinking about the expense, honestly: I was grateful just to be there. At the altar of this chapel was a Madonna and child, with the upper part of the child’s torso turned towards the Madonna – contrapposto, as I believe such twisting of the body is known – and the Madonna herself wearing an expression of infinite sadness. This Madonna seems already to be anticipating her part in the Pietà, when the twisting baby now upon her knee would become so cruelly transformed. Of course, foreknowledge of tragedy in depictions of Madonna and child is fairly commonplace, but this sculpture seems drenched in a sorrow that appears to overwhelm everything else. To my eyes, anyway. But maybe that lady I had encountered the previous day was still in my mind.

On two opposite walls of the chapel, facing each other, are the two Medici tombs, for Lorenzo and Giuliano, two relatively minor figures (historically speaking, that is) of that famous family. In niches on the wall above the two tombs are highly stylised and idealised sculptures of Lorenzo and Giuliano. But it’s the monumental figures immediately on top of the tombs that take one’s breath away. On Giuliano’s tomb, there are figures representing Night and Day; on Lorenzo’s, there are similarly two figures, this time representing Dawn and Dusk. Four times of the day, four phases of our existence: birth, life, old age, death. There is about Michelangelo’s work an intense ingrained seriousness. In his younger days, he had sculpted a Bacchus (now in the Bargello Museum in Florence), depicting a young man holding a cup of wine, with a glazed, vacant expression on his face, and, quite clearly, unsteady on his feet. It remains a quite delightful celebration of inebriation, one with which, I admit, I can readily identify. But such youthful frivolity was far behind Michelangelo now (as I fear it also is with me): his mind had now moved on to other regions – regions that ordinary mortals such as I cannot perhaps inhabit too long without feeling a bit giddy.


Night is a sleeping woman – but whether she is sleeping serenely or uneasily, it is hard to say. On the one hand, she leans her head rather precariously upon her hand; but then again, the expression on her face appears undisturbed. Her body is not that of the fresh and young maiden: this is the body of someone who has borne children. And yet, there is also a certain beauty to the body – not the untouched beauty of youth and its vacancy of expectation, but the beauty of one who has lived, of one who has experienced life’s fitful fever.


Day is frankly terrifying. He is a giant, titanic in strength. The legs are crossed, the upper part of his torso turned away from us towards his left, and the head turned back again to his right over his shoulder – the entire form twisted in a sort of double contrapposto. (I don’t know if that is a proper term, but since I have now written it, it might as well stay.) The head is unfinished, whether deliberately or otherwise I do not know, and its rough, inchoate texture seems to heighten a sense of menace. And throughout that body, the muscles are taut, tense, stretched to the utmost, straining at the very limits of what is possible. His left arm is folded behind his back, with veins on his forearm bulging prominently. There is nothing here of the grace and the radiance of David: what we have instead is a sense of raw concentrated strength, and also, I think, a fury – a fury at having reached the limits of the physical, and of striving vainly but defiantly to transcend them.


All passion seems spent in Dusk. This is a man who had once been as strong and as powerful as Day, but those muscles are now sagging. As with Day, the legs are crossed, but now, there is a sense of resignation in the posture. His flaccid penis lies almost apologetically upon his thigh, and the head, also in a somewhat unfinished state, seems held up with effort. The battle has been fought and lost, and there is little dignity in defeat, except, perhaps, what dignity there is in a weary acceptance.


And there’s Dawn, a nude woman, graceful in posture, but with an expression of intense sorrow upon her hauntingly beautiful face, recalling the sorrow on the face of the Madonna with the infant Christ upon her knee. This is Dawn born with the foreknowledge of what is to come: vain gaiety, vain battle, vain repose – themes of an embittered heart, or so it seems.

But I don’t know that Michelangelo’s heart was embittered, as such. Certainly the Michelangelo who sculpted these figures was a very different Michelangelo from the young man who had sculpted David, and who, in the Vatican Pietà, had found a transcendent beauty even in death and in grief. These astounding figures in the Medici Chapel seem to me the work of a deeply troubled man, a man disturbed by the smell of mortality, but not a man who turns away from that smell in disgust.

In his old age, Michelangelo turned back to the theme of his first great triumph – the Pietà. There are three late Pietàs, all unfinished, one disfigured (by himself, in a fit of divine dissatisfaction), and another of doubtful provenance. This last, known as The Palestrina Pietà, is in the Accademia in Florence, and, whoever the sculptor may have been, it is a moving work: in contrast to the youthful Pietà in the Vatican, Christ’s body here is vertical, and Mary, standing behind him, is striving  to hold up the weighty, inert mass. The very last Pietà, known as The Rondanini Pietà, is in Milan, and I have only seen it in reproduction: once again, the thrust is vertical, with Mary standing behind Christ, striving to hold up the body. But individual features are removed, and the two bodies seem almost to merge into one. Michelangelo here seems intent upon removing anything that is not essential, leaving behind only the essence, a sort of abstraction, of those themes of death and of grief that appear to have haunted him so.  Seemingly, he was working on this right up to the day of his death, aged 89.

Michelangelo Pietà Bandini

And there is a there is a third unfinished Pietà, known as The Bandini Pietà, in the Museo del Opera del Duomo in Florence. Michelangelo had worked on this for some eight years in his 70s, but, for reasons still subject to scholarly debate, in 1555, aged 80, he took a hammer to it. Much of it has been reconstructed from the broken fragments, but Christ’s left leg, presumably beyond repair, is missing. And the figure of the Magdalene, under Christ’s right arm, was finished by another hand. It shows: competent though the Magdalene is, compared to the intense expressivity of the rest of the group, it is, frankly, rather bland.

Here, once again, the figure of Christ is vertical, and Mary, here crouching, is trying desperately to hold up the inert mass of his body. Her face is close to his, and the propinquity is more than merely physical. Christ’s right leg zigzags across the lower part of the group, while his left arm, reconstructed from the broken fragments, hangs loose and twisted, its once powerful muscles now incapable. Above these two figures is the hooded figure of Nicodemus (possibly a self-portrait of the artist), leaning forward, and looking down upon this desolate scene with the utmost compassion. I do not think I have seen a visual depiction of mortality and of mourning that is quite so powerfully affecting as this.

One cannot, as I say, remain on these heights for any length of time without beginning to feel giddy. This may have been an emotional world that Michelangelo no doubt inhabited every day, but ordinary mortals like myself need to climb down after a while to the lower slopes. Maybe go into a café, and not mind that it smells too much of people.

Of course, there is much, much more to see in Florence. We were there for five days, but that’s hardly adequate. Merely looking at a painting or a sculpture for a few seconds, or even for a minute or two, and then passing on, is like listening to music in the background while doing something else: it’s not quite taking it in. One really needs a lifetime to truly absorb all the riches. But we all have our lives to get on with: one takes in what one can in the time one has, and is grateful for the opportunity of doing so. Yes, I had my head filled with lofty thoughts; and some very troubling ones too.  But then, I need that glass of Chianti. And – I won’t hide it – something a bit lighter, perhaps, than Dante.

Colons and semi-colons

Apparently, there’s debate raging right now on whether we should use colons and semi-colons in writing.

Of course we should use them! When you want the reader to pause longer than they would for a comma, but shorter than they would for a full-stop, you use a colon or a semi-colon. And that’s all there is to it. Bugger the rules of grammar!

And when you want the authorial voice to fade away into silence …

Completing the set

“Why seems it so particular with thee?”

Poor Gertrude never could understand. Why is someone else so bothered by something when it doesn’t bother me? We are all like that, if we’re honest with ourselves. Our own hobbyhorses we take seriously, but other peoples’ are … well, they’re a bit silly, aren’t they? There’s our boy getting worked up because he has got the tiniest dent in his trombone. Look, I explain to him, the dent is so small one can hardly see it with the naked eye; and what’s more, it doesn’t affect the sound. Why seems it so particular with thee? Or there’s my wife worrying about some pot plant that, despite all the care and attention and watering it could possibly ask for, seems quite clearly to be on its last legs. It’s only a pot plant, I explain sagely; why seems it so particular with thee? Get another bloody pot plant when this one dies!

Well, actually, no – I don’t say that. I’m not quite the insensitive yob I sometimes make myself out to be. But I’d be lying if I were to say I didn’t think it. However, regardless of what I may or may not have said, my wife knows me well enough by now to know that I was thinking it. And …

But let’s not go there. The point, I think, has been amply demonstrated: if something doesn’t particularly bother us, we think it unreasonable that it should bother anyone else.

When I was a lad, I remember, we – that is, all the other boys in my class, the girls being too sensible for this sort of thing – used to collect football cards. Small packets containing a bit of bubble gum, and three pictures of footballers then playing in the league. And it was vitally important to get the whole set. I remember still the disappointment when I opened a newly purchased packet, and found that I already had the cards it contained. Of course, I could try to swap them for others I didn’t have, but it wasn’t always easy to get the ones I was missing. And my mother, I remember, was a bit nonplussed by all this. “Why seems it so particular with thee?” she asked. Or she would have done had she affected a Shakespearean diction.

Or take what happened to me recently. We were out shopping, when I happened to chance upon a reflection of myself in a shop window, and found, to my horror, that I had a few grey hairs in my moustache all congregated together right under my left nostril, and making it look for all the world as if I had forgotten to blow my nose. And I couldn’t get this thought out of my mind. Passers-by, I imagined, were all staring at me, and, I’m sure, shunning me, not wishing, understandably, to come close to some dirty bugger with semi-liquid snot dribbling all down his moustache. And it is not vanity that made me want to go home immediately and apply the scissors to the offending grey hairs. My wife told me I was being too sensitive, and that no-one was thinking what I thought they were thinking. But I could tell by the look in their eyes that they did. Once again, why seemed it so particular with me?

More recently – to return this post to a suitably literary theme – I reported on my failure to appreciate Dante. Fine, people told me. We can’t all like everything. Shrug your shoulders and move on. But once again, I can’t. Over the years, I have come into contact with many of the major pillars of the Western literary traditions. Shakespeare I guess I’m a bit obsessed with; Cervantes I love; I have a healthy respect and admiration for Homer and for Virgil; and I now need Dante to complete the set. Don’t ask why: I just do.

Well, tomorrow we go to Florence. Tickets are already booked for the Uffizi and the Pitti, the Accademia, San Marco, The Medici Chapel, the Brancacci Chapel, the Duomo museum, the Bargello … each costing a bloody fortune, I know, but it has to be done. And, given many of these places are closed in the afternoons, I think I’ll be spending quite a bit of time sitting in Florentine cafes. And what better place to try once again to get to grips with Dante?

Following some advice after putting up the last post, I have bought myself Prue Shaw’s introduction to the CommediaReading Dante; and I have bought (and thoroughly enjoyed) a witty comic strip rendition of Inferno, illustrated by Hunt Emerson, and with a text by Kevin Jackson. This latter purchase may not, perhaps, have enhanced my understanding as such, but it was a genuine pleasure to encounter erudition so lightly-worn, and such affection and respect displayed without a trace of pomposity or hushed-tone reverence. And as for the former, I have been glued to this all last weekend. Enthusiasm is such an infectious thing! I find myself happy just to see someone’s enthusiasm, even enthusiasms I may happen not to share.


With football cards, I never did get the whole lot. It is now my belief that they used deliberately to withhold a few footballers to encourage kids to spend more pennies trying to complete the set. Bastards. But this is a different matter entirely. Tomorrow morning, we fly to Florence, and damned if I don’t get Dante this time. Why seems it so particular with me? Nay, it is – I know not seems.