“Weir of Hermiston” by Robert Louis Stevenson

Of all unfinished novels, Stevenson’s Weir of Hermiston is the one I most wish had been completed. There’s Dickens’ Mystery of Edwin Drood, of course, but that’s really Dickens trying to do a Wilkie Collins: I’m sure it would have been very good – even the unfinished stump we have is very good, if not, perhaps, quite top drawer Dickens – but it would still have been Dickens dressed in the borrowed robes of Wilkie Collins. But Weir of Hermiston is pure Stevenson. While the literatures of England and of Ireland have contributed some of the very finest of novels, Scottish literature, frankly, hasn’t. Even the odd masterpiece it has produced – Confessions of a Justified Sinner, say, or Sunset Song, seems to elude widespread international recognition. Weir of Hermiston, had it been finished, could well have put the Scottish Novel more firmly on the literary map.

I wonder to what extent Scott may have been responsible for all of this. In his own time, and possibly for at least a century afterwards, Scott was, arguably, the most famous, and, perhaps, the most influential novelist in the world. Since the death of Scott, the novel developed in all sorts of ways, but I wonder whether it was the case that Scottish novelists felt themselves too much under Scott’s shadow. I really do not know: those better read in Scottish literature, and, indeed, in Scott’s novels themselves, are in a better position to answer that. But the shadow of Scott is very apparent here. And what seems remarkable to me is that, far from being intimidated by it, Stevenson seems, if anything, inspired.

The time is the early years of the nineteenth century, when the aftershocks of the French Revolution were still being felt; and the place is between Edinburgh and the Scotland-England border. Indeed, it’s the very time and place in which Scott himself had lived, but which, by the 1890s, when Stevenson was writing this, had become “historical”.

The central tale concerns a conflict between father and son. The father is Weir, laird of Hermiston, and a hanging judge. In the brilliantly drawn early chapters, Stevenson narrates, with all the verve and concision of the master storyteller that he so undoubtedly was, the melancholy facts of Weir’s marriage: Weir had married for social position, and once married, had, within that very patriarchal society, treated his wife with the utmost contempt: he had, effectively, bullied the unfortunate woman to her death. The story of the marriage could have made a remarkable novel in its own right, but it is here a prologue to the principal drama – the conflict between Weir, and his son, Archie.

Stevenson’s art was that of a storyteller. He was certainly aware of the various developments that had taken place in the novel, and was no dab hand himself at the various other elements that, already by the 1890s, was displacing the story, the plot, away from the centre of interest: nonetheless, it was the plot that Stevenson was primarily interested in. And the plot that Stevenson sets up is fascinating. Weir’s son, Archie, a law student in Edinburgh, witnesses to his disgust the casual and unfeeling contempt his father displays in court for a man he sentences to hang. Interestingly, Stevenson does not tell us what the crime of this man was: it is the routine disregard his father shows for the life of a fellow human being – reflecting as it does the similar disregard he had shown for the life of his own wife, Archie’s mother – that disgusts him. Unable to hide his feelings, Archie makes clear in public what he thinks of his father; and his father, who, despite everything, actually loves his son, orders Archie back to his family estate in the border country, away from the public eye.

In the border country, we are very much in Walter Scott territory. Like Scott – and also like Burns, to complete the triumvirate of Great Literary Scots – Stevenson loved folklore, and he loved the sounds and rhythms of the local dialects. The story of the brothers Elliott, and the terrible revenge they took on the man who had killed their father, is almost mythical, like some ancient story handed down through generations. One can but imagine the delight Stevenson must have taken in revisiting in his imagination the sights and sounds of his homeland, and refashioning its folklore, while writing under the torrid sun of the South Sea Islands.

The plot is beautifully set up. Archie, now nominally the Laird of Hermiston, falls for the Elliotts’ sister, Kirstie; meanwhile, a friend from Edinburgh, whom Archie doesn’t quite trust, comes to visit. Everything seems set up for a stirring drama. But then, it all stops abruptly: in 1894, with only one third or so of the novel written, Stevenson died of a brain haemorrhage. What may well have been the Great Scottish Novel remained unfinished.

Stevenson had not quite decided on how the plot was to continue, but the ideas he was playing with are fascinating. What he knew would happen was that Archie would kill his Edinburgh friend. He had initially planned for Archie to be tried by his own father, who would have no choice but to sentence his own son to the gallows, but since Scottish law wouldn’t have allowed a son to be tried by his father, Stevenson had to give up that idea. Plan B was to have the wrong person charged with the crime, and Archie’s father, in trying this person, to realise who the real killer was, ordering the defendant to be released, and recommending the arrest of his own son. What would happen after that remained unsure. In some of his notes, it seems Stevenson played with the idea of the daring Elliott brothers rescuing Archie from prison, but it’s hard to see how such a gung-ho plot development could fit in with what was becoming, by this stage, an intricate psychological study. But it is all conjecture: there can be no right answer to “what happened next?” since Stevenson himself seemed to have been undecided.

Stevenson is remembered primarily as among the finest of storytellers: it would be a sad day indeed if children no longer grew up with Treasure Island and Kidnapped. He was also the author, of course, of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde: Nabokov surprised everyone by writing about this, alongside such undoubted masterpieces as Madame Bovary, Bleak House and Metamorphosis, in Lectures on Literature, but I for one have never doubted that Stevenson’s story deserves to rub shoulders with the very best: in terms of brilliance of conception as well as mastery of execution, it is a tremendous achievement. There are also a handful of short stories of the highest quality, as well as essays, travel books, and a quite delightful collection of children’s poetry. What is missing in his oeuvre is, I suppose, a full-length novel. Of course, there’s Treasure Island and Kidnapped, but, for all their merits, these were books aimed specifically for children; and other novels – The Black Arrow, Catriona, The Master of Ballantrae – all display potential rather than its fulfilment: indeed, they are all essentially children’s novels. There is no major full-length novel aimed specifically for an adult readership. Weir of Hermiston could have been that novel. Here, far from being intimidated by the legacy of Scott, Stevenson happily embraces it, and renews the tradition for his own times. It seems terribly sad – and not just for the history of the Scottish novel – that it remains unfinished. But what was completed remains, I think, a quite fascinating read.


At what point does a novel become literature?

The title isn’t mine. I came across it while browsing the net.

But it’s an intriguing question: at what point does a novel become literature? I took a wild guess: when it’s any good, perhaps? I don’t know … I’m only guessing.

But I must be wrong: I had a quick glance at the article attached to the headline, and it didn’t seem to touch at any point on the concept of literary quality. But I do learn that:

While some intellectuals continue to canonize individual works and authors, others argue that the very concept of literature is at best subjective and at worst oppressive.

Good heavens! Well, I certainly wouldn’t want to oppress anyone…

So I’ll hand this matter over to all you readers out there. It is, after all, fraught question: “At what point point does a novel become literature?”

Any ideas welcome, but please do keep it non-oppressive.

Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” at Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Of the three late plays – Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest – it’s The Tempest that I find the most difficult: it has seemed to me – and seems to me still, even after having seen this fine production – almost entirely lacking in dramatic tension. Prospero the magician appears, through his faithful servant Ariel, to be in perfect control: neither Caliban’s threat on his life, or Sebastian’s and Antonio’s threat on Alonso’s, generates any tension at all: the audience is assured that these attempts are doomed to failure. And by the end of Act Three, what little dramatic tension there was dissipates as Alonso acknowledges his guilt. As for the strand with Ferdinand and Miranda, we know that Prospero is but testing Ferdinand, and everything Ferdinand says and does assures us that this is a test that he will pass with ease. So where is the tension?

I had not, till this production, seen this play on stage, and I had thought, or hoped, that a stage production will reveal a drama that my readings had missed: but no – there was little tension in performance either. But I have learnt, over many years’ experience with Shakespeare, not to be too hasty in criticising: that only leads to a presumption that embarrasses me when I read my posts over again a few years afterwards. Shakespeare knew what he was doing, and if he has drained this play of dramatic tension, it is for me not to criticise the play on that score, but to try to understand why he did so. For, despite the lack of dramatic tension, the play held my attention throughout the performance: there must have been something else in the work that held my attention so powerfully – though what that something else is, I am even now not entirely sure.

And yet, this most undramatic of plays starts with the most dramatic of scenes: we are plunged into the heart of things right away, with a fearful tempest at sea, and with the mariners and the passengers fearing imminent death. At the end of this scene, the ship appears to sink, and then, as we move to an island near the shipwreck, an entirely different music comes to the fore. It is a strange and solemn music, mysterious, elusive, and very beautiful, but also curiously static. Even as late as The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare had given us verse of the utmost dramatic power that had moved the play forward in surges of untrammelled passion, but we seem here to be in a rather different world: we seem almost to be at the bottom of the sea itself, with the drowned mariners and their passengers. And maybe that’s where we are: maybe what we experience here is some vague dream world between life and death – a communal fantasy experienced at the very moment of death itself. There’s something similar, I think, in the final act of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt: at the start of this act, we see Peer in a shipwreck. A fellow passenger tells him not to worry, as the protagonist of a play is never killed off at the start of the final act, but Peer does, I think, die here, and what we see in the rest of the act is Peer’s life unreeling at the point of death in a grotesquely transfigured form; and it is in this unreeling that Peer has to try to find some semblance of meaning, of significance, in the life that he has led. This final act of Peer Gynt is often seen as Ibsen anticipating much later movements in theatre, but I can’t help wondering whether, in The Tempest, Shakespeare had anticipated Ibsen.

It may be objected, of course, that by the end of The Tempest, no character is actually dead: on the contrary – the ship is magically rigged and ready to sail back to Naples, to the reality of the physical world. If what we had witnessed in the course of the play is indeed the unravelling of minds at the point of death, it is not death but to a renewed life that the characters return to. But the effect of the ending is very much to suggest a return to the real world, of a resurfacing; and if we are returning to reality, and resurfacing back to the light of common day, we have to ask ourselves which regions we are returning from, and from which uncharted depth of our unfathomable minds we are resurfacing. We cannot begin to conceive of a Naples or a Milan being anything like the magic island of Prospero: Naples and Milan are real – and Prospero’s magic island isn’t, quite. Shakespeare had done this kind of thing before – in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where, once again, the characters seem to enter an enchanted dream world that isn’t quite the world of reality, and where mortal sensibilities are translated, much as Bottom is, into some region where, accustomed as we are to the everyday world of reality, there is no foothold for us to hold on to. But here, the tone is different: the thoughts are not on the absurdities and the vagaries of human love, but on other things – on the nature of Man, on nature and on nurture, on transgression and on reconciliation, and, indeed, on death itself. In one of the most famous passages in the entire canon, death is likened to a sleep (“our little life is rounded with a sleep”), and if we extend that metaphor, the magic dream-world of this play, suspended between sleep and wake, can be seen as suspended between life and death also. If there is no dramatic tension here, no dramatic movement, it is because this is not what Shakespeare is interested in: what he is interested in, however, though easy to be affected by (especially when performed as wonderfully as it is here), is less easy to articulate. Perhaps Shakespeare’s miraculous poetry is the only way there is to articulate it.

The Tempest has been seized on by post-colonial schools of criticism, which – to summarise – see Prospero as a tyrannical colonialist, and Caliban as the downtrodden and exploited native; but I am unconvinced that this is an adequate way of looking at the play. For one thing, the island is no more Caliban’s than it is Prospero’s: Caliban says “this island is mine” because he had inherited it from his mother, the witch Sycorax; but Sycorax was no more of the island than Prospero is. The island had been uninhabited, except for the spirit Ariel, whom Sycorax had imprisoned in a tree, and whom Prospero had rescued (although he threatens in one of his frequent fits of rage to imprison Ariel again). And Caliban himself is a deeply enigmatic figure. At one level, he is earthy and brutish, and proposes killing Prospero by driving a nail through his head while he is sleeping; and he credulously imagines the drunken Trinculo and Stephano to be gods, and is happy to abase himself before them. But he is also given lines of quite unearthly beauty:

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.

Such realms of poetic imagination are worlds removed from the drunken baseness of Trinculo and Stephano: only a character of fine sensibility could speak lines such as these. And at the end, Caliban vows to “be wise hereafter, and seek for grace”. It is hard assembling together these fragmentary aspects of Caliban into one coherent whole, but I get the impression of an unrefined creature who nonetheless has the potential to rise to a higher state of being. “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine,” says Prospero, allowing the possibility that Caliban is an aspect of Prospero’s own mind, much, perhaps, as Ariel is – that these two are his slaves not merely in literal terms, but also metaphorically, representing as they do different aspects of his psyche. But of course, in a work such as this, they may be seen simultaneously as both literal and as metaphorical.

It is, perhaps, not Caliban, but those denizens of the civilised world, Trinculo and Stephano, who are so base that nurture can have no effect on their natures. Unlike Caliban, Trinculo and Stephano cannot even conceive of “grace”, let alone seek for it. And neither is Caliban the true monster of the play: the true monsters are Sebastian and Antonio, who remain to the end unrepentant and unreconciled. If, in these three late plays, Shakespeare had looked beyond the ruptures of tragedy, and had tried to explore the possibility of reconciliation, he had painted very different pictures. In Cymbeline, the reconciliation seems complete, with repentance and atonement one on side, and unreserved forgiveness and love on the other; in The Winter’s Tale, matters are a bit more complicated: the repentence and atonement are sincere, and the forgiveness loving, but the events of the past continue to cast their shadows upon the present, and what rejoicing there is must inevitably be subdued: the sorrows and evils of our lives cannot be wiped clean even by the Resurrection itself. In The Tempest, Shakespeare seems to go one step further: now, he seems to show the impossibility of reconciliation. Prospero decides not to punish, but that is hardly the same as forgiveness. For what kind of forgiveness is this?

For you, most wicked sir, whom to call brother
Would even infect my mouth, I do forgive
Thy rankest fault

Whatever Prospero may say, this is no forgiveness. Antonio and Sebastian remain silent: there is no repentance there either. The evil remains, ready to burst out again. Even Miranda’s famous lines about the beauty of mankind are immediately undercut by her father’s more experienced voice:

O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t!

‘Tis new to thee.

And what of Prospero himself? I generally try to resist interpretations that are based on the author’s biography; the suggestion that Prospero is Shakespeare’s self-portrait, and that the passage in which he abjures his art is effectively Shakespeare’s retirement speech, may or may not be true, but either way, they cast no light on the play itself. Interpretations of Prospero may, of course, vary, from the good and kindly main driven to rage by the wrongs done upon him but who finally triumphs over his vindictive side, to a man cruel and bitter and almost psychotic in his hatred, but who nonetheless manages to rein himself in for the greater good. Tim McMullan’s fine performance wisely charts a course somewhere between these two extremes, neither underplaying his frequent fits of rage, nor depicting a man beyond the reach of human pity. The turning point seems to me to come when Ariel, but a spirit, feels compassion for the human condition:

Your charm so strongly works ’em
That if you now beheld them, your affections
Would become tender.

Dost thou think so, spirit?

Mine would, sir, were I human.

And mine shall.
Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling
Of their afflictions, and shall not myself,
One of their kind, that relish all as sharply,
Passion as they, be kindlier moved than thou art?

Prospero seems at this point to be shamed into compassion, though there are bounds even on this: to call Antonio “brother” still infects his tongue. Even in a world as magical as this, complete reconciliation is not possible: the ruptures of tragedy are too great ever to be healed. Such a view does not necessarily negate the visions of reconciliation we had seen in Cymbeline and in The Winter’s Tale: it merely gives as a different perspective.

This magical play works particularly well in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse: lit by candle-light only, there was little scope for fancy lighting techniques or for special effects, but with Dominic Dromgoole’s sure-footed direction, it didn’t need either: although there must be an element of the spectacular – as indicated in the stage directions – it is that miraculous verse that conveys so much of the magic of this play. At the end, they all sail back to the now united kingdom of Naples and Milan, with the marriage of Miranda and Ferdinand carrying a promise of a better future. But by the same token, the unrepentant presence of Antonio and of Sebastian also threatens further outbreaks of evil. Such is our human condition, that even a spirit such as Ariel may feel compassion for, and to which, ultimately, there can be no reconcilement. If this play is indeed Shakespeare’s last word, then I am afraid I can see in it at best a guarded optimism, and at worst, a profound pessimism. But no mystical vision: for all the magic of Prospero’s island, Shakespeare’s interest remained very much of this world, and of human affairs.

See here for my post on Cymbeline at Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

See here for my post on The Winter’s Tale at Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

The Picasso of hip-hop

Aficionados of Laurel and Hardy will need no recap of this scene, but on the off-chance that there are some readers out there who are not aficionados – and such readers really should have a word with themselves – I’ll describe it anyway. It occurs quite early in the short film Below Zero. Stan and Ollie are out in the snow and ice, busking in the bitter cold, and singing, rather incongruously, “In the Good Old Summertime”. A passer-by hits Ollie in the face with a snowball, and Ollie, after stoically allowing the snow to fall from his face, sets out to confront his assailant. But at this point, Stan holds him back with the sage advice, “Ignore him: he is just one of the lower elements”.

It is a piece of advice that I am often told I should take myself. That there are bound to be, I am told, all sorts of things that will enrage me for all sorts of reasons: ignoring them is by far the best option. And the fact is, I do. Most of the time, at any rate. But every now and then there comes that proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back, and I can no longer ignore. After all, I say to myself, I have a blog at my disposal, and the very least I can do is to go there and let off some steam about it.

And so, while instances of my forbearance pass by unnoticed, the instances of my rage do not, and, over the years, the blog becomes filled with intemperate rants. As a consequence, far from being perceived as the gentle, avuncular soul that I think I am, radiating a warm conviviality and a quite Pickwickian goodwill to one and all, I show myself instead to be a bitter and angry hothead, forever at or near the boiling point. It is all most unfortunate, but what can one do?

The straw that has most recently broken my camel-back may be considered by many to be too slight a matter to get very upset about. Well, of course it is: it is but a straw, after all. But it is nonetheless an example of the sheer witless drivel and inane triviality into which mainstream commentary on the arts has sunk, and which, yes, I confess, does enrage me. Here it is. It is taken from the arts pages of a serious and prestigious British newspaper, the Guardian, and is written by one of their regular arts columnists.

(For those of you who do not want to give the Guardian website extra hits, the headline reads “Is Kanye West Hip-Hop’s Greatest Cubist?” and the sub-heading reads “Whether West’s latest album The Life of Pablo is a homage to Picasso or not, the two artists share a genius for presenting the world in creative collage”. Both the headline and the sub-heading are entirely consistent with the gobbledegook that follows.)

Now, those readers who think that Kanye West is possessed not merely of genius, but of genius of such magnitude that bracketing him with Picasso is not incongruous, and that to question genius such as his is but elitist and snobbish, and even, perhaps, racist, may well be wondering what I could possibly have found in all this that is enraging. I won’t argue those points. “Why Picasso Is a Greater Artist than Kanye West” is a post that a blogger with greater patience than I possess may care to write: I do not wish to go there myself. Rather, I would like to focus on matters I find more interesting – such as why and how we have come to the stage where professional writers plying their craft in mainstream and prestigious papers can pen such embarrassing nonsense without so much as batting an eyelid.

Not so long ago – at least, an oldie such as I can remember those halcyon days – arts commentators had a fairly fixed idea of what constitutes “art”. Michelangelo and Rembrandt, Dante and Shakespeare, Bach and Beethoven – not only are they “great”, but they, and others like them, define what greatness is; and our part is not to question, but to take the time and have the patience and make the effort to understand. Of course, this was never going to last very long in an age such as ours that is, often for very valid reasons, suspicious of and frequently hostile to the very concept of authority. Also, it was pointed out, such an approach to the arts excluded the immense contributions made to the enrichment of our lives by popular art: it is blinkered, at best, to sing the praises of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko while ignoring a popular artist such as, say, Edward Hopper; it is foolish to consider the art of fiction by focussing on Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, but overlooking Agatha Christie and P. G. Wodehouse; and that if we are to talk about the art of song-writing, why focus on Schumann and Mahler and Berg but leave out Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Bob Dylan, Lennon & McCartney? These are all entirely valid points: to exclude the popular, merely on the grounds that it is popular, is certainly snobbery.

But not excluding merely on the basis of popularity is not quite the same as praising on the basis of popularity. If popularity is deemed the principal, or even the sole, criterion of artistic merit, then  sales figures alone determine quality; judgement and discernment then become pointless, and there is really nothing further to talk about. And that, it seems to me, is where we have arrived: arts pages, even in prestigious publications, are filled with utter garbage simply because there is nothing further to talk about. It is not so much that discourse on the arts has become diminished – it has become meaningless. And, even taking Stan’s advice on board, it does become difficult, at least for myself, to keep ignoring this, for, after a while, constantly ignoring it is effectively to condone it. One can at least express one’s dissent – even if it is just a post on a personal blog that not many people will even read.

So is Kanye West really the Picasso of Hip-Hop? Yes, absolutely – why not? As I said, I don’t want to argue that point. So let Kanye West be the Picasso of hip-hop by all means! But only if the Carpenters can be the Proust of Easy Listening.

Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

I seem to have started this year immersed in late Shakespeare. First, there was the cinema broadcast of Kenneth Branagh’s fine production of The Winter’s Tale. And, in a fit of bank-balance-depleting enthusiasm late last year, I bought myself tickets to all three of the late threesome (I hesitate to call it a “trilogy”) of Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, that beautiful little theatre attached to the Globe that attempts to recreate the environment in which these plays would originally have been performed. I reported on their production of Cymbeline a few weeks ago, and, earlier this week, I was back there to see The Winter’s Tale. The Tempest will follow in a couple of weeks’ time.

(The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse are also putting on the late play Pericles, and perhaps I should have gone along to that too: but I refuse to believe that Shakespeare wrote more than a few scenes at most of that work; and, further, my bank balance was in a parlous state as it was…)

I find these plays fascinating, but maddeningly, sometimes frustratingly, elusive. Cymbeline has particularly puzzled me. When I first wrote about it in this blog, I presented it as a work in which Shakespeare was setting out in a new direction, but in which he had not quite found his feet; that he was experimenting, though not always successfully. When I read that post again before sitting down to write this, I found myself embarrassed by my presumption. That Shakespeare was moving into a new direction – a direction already foreshadowed, incidentally, by the earlier All’s Well That Ends Well – is undeniable, but the more I read that play, the more certain I am that the old boy knew precisely what he was doing.

The production I saw last month at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse seemed to confirm this: for all the play’s manifold absurdities – none of them, I think, unintentional – Cymbeline, in performance, came across as a cogent and highly satisfactory piece of theatre. As in All’s Well That Ends Well, Shakespeare seemed fascinated by the plotlines and the conventions of the fairy tale: this was, in many ways, Shakespeare’s re-writing of the story of Snow White (variations of which, I gather, had been widespread long before the Brothers Grimm included it in their collection). To the fairy story element, Shakespeare added knockabout humour – an element that the production I saw played up to the hilt. Nonetheless, through all this, we seemed transported at points into what I can only describe as another dimension. I am not sure how this happened.

Cymbeline ends – as do, in their different ways, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest – in reconciliation and in joy: it seems as if Shakespeare, having depicted in his tragedies the darkest of visions, looked beyond the tragic in his late plays; but what he glimpsed when he looked beyond remains, though wondrous, enigmatic and elusive.

Of the three plays, I tend to find The Winter’s Tale the most approachable. By that I mean this this is the play I think I understand best. This is in no small measure due to the first half of the play returning us with the utmost force back into the world of his earlier tragedies. And yet, there is a difference. When thinking about the earlier tragedies, we must, if our thought is to be more than merely superficial, consider the source and the nature of the evil that is depicted as engulfing humanity; but in The Winter’s Tale, neither the source nor the nature is debatable: they just are – brute facts, beyond analysis, beyond discussion, beyond thought. The evil emerges from nowhere: Leontes is Iago to his own Othello. It wreaks havoc, destroying all in its path: never has Yeats’ famous line “the ceremony of innocence is drowned” seemed more appropriate. And, having destroyed all in its path, it disappears as mysteriously as it had appeared. There’s no point looking for reason here: it’s all beyond reason. And as the first half ends, and we emerges dazed into the interval, what we have witnessed seems to challenge us: after such evil, what reconciliation?

We can never tell whether or not Shakespeare knew Greek. There certainly were scholars of Greek in London – Shakespeare’s friend Ben Jonson, for a start – and it is not, I think, stretching credulity too far to imagine that Shakespeare, given his literary curiosity and his mastery of language, may well have taken the trouble of learning Greek, and reading its literature. We simply do not know. But, whether by design or by accident, this first half of The Winter’s Tale seems to me to be in many ways a recasting of Euripides’ Heracles: there, too, we see a man in the grips of an irrational madness, and who, beset by delusions, destroys that which is most precious to him – his own family; and, having done this, the sanity cruelly returns, so he has now to live not merely with his loss, but also with his guilt. At this point, Euripides’ play ends, but Shakespeare was determined to pursue the drama further: the end he has in sight seems to look towards another play by Euripides – Alcestis, which finishes, like The Winter’s Tale, with a dead queen brought back from the dead, and with subsequent reconciliation. The question is how to work one’s way to such an ending from the total devastation with which the first half finishes.

Shakespeare’s solution is a curious one, and one that I am not sure I quite understand: he negotiates the path back from tragedy to reconciliation through a pastoral, through song and dance, and through earthy, rustic comedy. Admittedly, the sudden outburst of rage from Polixenes threatens even here to turn the plot back towards the tragic, but that possibility is quickly averted. The knockabout humour continues even into the final act, and then, seemingly out of nowhere, Shakespeare rounds off the drama with a scene that is miraculous in all respects: Hermione is miraculously restored to life, and, for reasons which seem to defy analysis, the audience miraculously accepts this. I don’t think I have come across any other scene in any other plays that conveys such a sense of wonder.

I have seen quite a few productions of The Winter’s Tale now, both on stage and on screen, but I don’t think I have seen any that projects, as this production does, the horror of the first half with such unremitting power. As I sat there watching the scenes I thought I already knew, I could almost physically feel a knot in my stomach, tightening. The closing scenes of that first half were particularly affecting: the candles – the entire hall is lit only by candles – all went out, the physical darkness engulfing us an apt metaphor for the spiritual darkness; and Antigonus, charged with abandoning the newborn baby in the wilderness, entered with the helpless child, lit only by a hand-held lantern. Some commentators have suggested that the infamous “Exit, pursued by a bear” should be played for laughs, but this production, quite rightly, doesn’t go for that. Instead, a terrifying bear-like shape moves vaguely in the profound darkness behind Antigonus, and the lantern extinguishes, leaving the entire hall in utter darkness. And then, the audience, still in utter darkness, hears the eerie moans of Antigonus’ mariners perishing in the shipwreck. Nature itself seems to be taking its revenge, indiscriminately, on errant mankind. And I, for one, could not help asking myself: after this, what reconciliation can be possible?

I must admit that the long, pastoral fourth act, with its knockabout comedy, continues to puzzle me. It all works in the theatre, and for many, that is a justification in itself. Perhaps it is I who am at fault for trying to rationalize that which is beyond rational thought.

The joy engendered in the final scene always seems to me a subdued joy: it acknowledges rather than banishes the tragedy. Productions at the Globe Theatre – and in the Sam Wanamaker Theatre, its indoor venue – end, as the original productions seemingly did, with an elaborate dance in which the entire cast takes part, but, after the subdued nature of the final scene, I could have wished the dance here to have been less exuberant. Such exuberance as was conveyed seems not to fit with what had gone before: a solemn dance would, I think, have been more appropriate. But if that indeed was a false step, it was the only false step in the entire production. Everything else about it seemed perfect: John Light’s frightening portrayal of the mad Leontes; Rachel Stirling’s passionate Hermione; the compassionate Antigonus of David Yelland; the superbly feisty Paulina of Niamh Cusack (whom I had seen all of thirty years ago playing Juliet at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre); the earthiness of the pastoral comedy; and, of course, the splendidly judged direction of Michael Longhurst. I do not think I’ll see a better production of this play. The power and intensity of the first half, especially, will henceforth remain, I suspect, firmly etched in my mind.

Two weeks later, I am back in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse to see The Tempest, another late play that I find elusive. Having now seen the other two late plays of this late threesome, expectations are, I admit, very high.

“The Heat of the Day” by Elizabeth Bowen

This was not what I had expected.

I had been expecting a spy thriller. That is not to say I wasn’t expecting seriousness of purpose, but, as various authors have demonstrated, spy thrillers need not eschew seriousness. I have, indeed, heard of this book specifically referred to as a spy thriller. The way the plot is set up leads one to expect a work of narrative tension: during the Blitz, a man claiming to be a government agent tells a woman that she will have to sleep with him if she wants to protect her lover, who is known to be supplying secrets to the enemy. Not, perhaps, the most original of set-ups: it is reminiscent of, amongst other things, the plotline of Puccini’s Tosca. But it’s certainly a most promising start to a thriller. And given such a set-up, I was expecting, as they say, a rollicking good read, full of tension and generating a narrative momentum.

In the event, I got neither. It didn’t really take too long to figure out that Elizabeth Bowen, a consummate writer of short stories, is more interested in situation rather than in plot. She can communicate atmosphere, describe the inner workings of the mind, depict characters interacting with each other; but what she isn’t interested in doing is moving the plot forward, create tension, or even generate some kind of narrative momentum. It can, of course, be argued that momentum isn’t merely pace: it is a product of velocity and mass, and what the narrative lacks in the former it can compensate with the latter. For Bowen’s prose certainly has great “mass” to it: it is intricately wrought, subtly nuanced, and laden with imagery; but it is so lacking in pace that, even with its mass, the momentum generated is negligible.

After a few chapters, I had to re-adjust my expectations. There is, after all, no point criticising a novel for not being something it never set out to be in the first place. But even with my expectations re-adjusted, I must confess I came across grave difficulties.

My main difficulty concerned the shaping of the novel. In the first chapter, Louie, a young working class girl whose husband is serving in the army, tries to flirt with a man at an open air concert in Regent’s Park, and is rebuffed. The impression is given in this chapter that it is Louie who is the novel’s principal character, but after this chapter, she disappears from the novel entirely until she appears in another chapter about half way through.

Neither is the man with whom she tries to flirt the novel’s central character. This central character, introduced in the second chapter, is the person whom the man at the open-air concert visits after having rebuffed Louie. And it is here, I suppose, the “plot”, such as it is, gets going. The man gives his name as Harrison, and he tells Stella, the woman he is visiting, of her lover’s treasonous activities; and makes to her his indecent proposal on how she could save him. Even at this stage, I thought this would be a spy thriller, and that the earlier focus on Louie had simply been to wrong-foot the reader – as a good spy thriller should. But it wasn’t. After this chapter, instead of moving the plot forward, we are taken backwards rather than forwards: we have a long flashback, in the course of which any narrative tension generated is allowed to dissipate. Then we have a long chapter describing a visit to the family home of Stella’s lover, and by this stage, the spy-thriller element that had been introduced earlier seems entirely forgotten. And so on.

I got the picture: this was not a plot-led novel. Fine, I could take that – but it did leave me rather puzzled as to why the spy-thriller element had been introduced in the first place. It also left me puzzled about Louie: why give her so central a role in the first chapter and then allow her to disappear from the novel till we’re some half-way through it? And when she does appear half way through, we see her inhabiting a world quite disconnected with that inhabited by the other characters. I appreciate that the plot is not the point here, but I couldn’t really see any thematic connection either; and I couldn’t help wondering what purpose she served in the novel.

Louie appears again towards the end of the novel, and this time, she meets with Stella, but it’s a rather inconsequential meeting: nothing much leads up to it, and nothing much comes out of it either. Of course, it is entirely valid for a novel to have more than a single centre of gravity, but such novels are big, multi-stranded novels – Bleak House, War and Peace, and the like; in a novel of a mere three hundred or so pages, as this one is, structural unity tends to demand that there is one single centre of gravity, with, perhaps, a few orbiting satellites – subsidiary strands related to, but less important than, the principal one. In this novel, Stella clearly forms the novel’s centre of gravity, but the various satellites that orbit around her seem so tenuously related, that one wonders why they have all been forced together in the same work.

For instance, we are taken to Stella’s lover’s family home, and introduced to his authoritarian mother and to his rather bumptious sister, but once again, I couldn’t figure out what part they play in the novel: they certainly don’t advance the plot (Bowen seems to have lost interest in the plot almost as soon as she has introduced it), and neither do they advance the work thematically, or even, I think, in terms of character. We are taken to Ireland, where Stella’s son has inherited some property, and are introduced to a new set of characters: once again, they seem unrelated either to the central plot or to the novel’s principal themes. Elizabeth Bowen is fine in depicting atmosphere and describing situations, but a novel needs to be more than what seems to me a series of more or less random collection of situations: these situations never seem to cohere into a satisfying unity.

There were also certain sudden shifts of narrative perspective that I found jarring. Most of the novel has Stella at its centre, and it is Stella’s mind that we principally occupy. Yet, in one chapter very conspicuously isolated from the rest, we have Stella’s son, Roderick – who is mostly a character on the periphery of the novel’s action – meeting with a cousin who had not appeared earlier in the novel, and who is forgotten about immediately afterwards. And the entire purpose of this curious chapter is to impart to the reader a detail of the plot. Admittedly, this plot detail does give us an insight into Stella’s character, but setting the whole thing up in so elaborate (and disruptive) a manner simply to give us a plot detail – and this in a novel in which the plot is relatively unimportant – seems to me clumsy in the extreme.

And what of Stella herself? We are given the impression that she is an intelligent and thoughtful person, and are taken quite deeply into her mind. And yet, she appears never to think about her work: she works in some government department, but she never thinks about it, and we, the reader, never get to find out what exactly her work is. Neither does she think about the war. When her lover, towards the end of the novel, spouts his fascist ideology, she appears to have no response, either spoken, or in her thoughts. Had she opposed fascist ideology, she would have been repulsed; had she supported fascism, she would have been in agreement; had she been ambivalent about fascism, she would have had some shade of reaction in between; but not to have any response at all seems to indicate that she has never even thought about fascism. And it is simply not credible for an intelligent person living during the Blitz, with Nazis just across the channel threatening to invade, never even to have thought about the nature of fascism. It is all very well praising Bowen for entering so well into the mind of Stella, and delving so deeply into her consciousness, but if, after all that delving, all one finds are the trivial thoughts of a trivial person, the one can’t help wondering what the point is.

Of course, yes, the book is not devoid of merits. The atmosphere of the Blitz is very strikingly conveyed; there are many subtle parallels drawn between various characters; there is a sense also of time itself distended: there are references throughout to time, to watches and clocks, and to photographs that freeze moments in time, and so on – all those things that book groups take delight in spotting and which earn bonus marks when laid out in school essay assignments. But what purpose all this serves, I do not know.


I normally do not write about books I do not like, as, quite apart from anything else, I don’t want to rain, as the bowdlerised saying goes, on anyone’s parade. And one tends not be too perceptive about things one doesn’t like: I am sure I have missed a lot here. I am sure that were I to look at this novel from a different perspective, I would find many riches. I know this because this novel has many admirers, and, presumably, they admire it because they find things in it that I couldn’t. I’d be very happy to hear from such admirers: it’s not that I will necessarily change my mind about this novel, but I would genuinely like to know why this novel is so admired. I myself have often admired many of Bowen’ short stories, but I’m afraid I could find little here other than a misshapen and unfocussed narrative.

The Poo of Chairman Mao

In the third part of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Gulliver visits the scientific academy at Lagado, where, amongst various outlandish studies and experiments, he comes across this:

Another professor showed me a large paper of instructions for discovering plots and conspiracies against the government. He advised great statesmen to examine into the diet of all suspected persons; their times of eating; upon which side they lay in bed; with which hand they wipe their posteriors; take a strict view of their excrements, and, from the colour, the odour, the taste, the consistence, the crudeness or maturity of digestion, form a judgment of their thoughts and designs; because men are never so serious, thoughtful, and intent, as when they are at stool, which he found by frequent experiment; for, in such conjunctures, when he used, merely as a trial, to consider which was the best way of murdering the king, his ordure would have a tincture of green; but quite different, when he thought only of raising an insurrection, or burning the metropolis.

(from Part 3, Chapter 6)

What a wonderful idea, I thought reading this. It is, of course, true that “men are never so serious, thoughtful, and intent, as when they are at stool”, so it is entirely reasonable that examination of human excrement should reveal their thoughts and intentions. Ah, I thought to myself, if only Stalin had thought of this!

I had, however, seriously underestimated Stalin in this matter, for, as I recently discovered, he had indeed thought of this. From this report that recently appeared on the BBC website, it seems that Uncle Joe had put his chief henchman Beria in charge of a top secret laboratory in which the excrements of foreign leaders –and, who knows, possibly others – were analysed in an attempt to figure out what was in their minds. Stalin, it seems, was particularly interested in the poo of Chairman Mao, going so far as to build special plumbing that would carry his ordure into special boxes, and, hence, to a laboratory for analysis.

What will the shade of Swift be doing now, I wonder? Shaking his head sadly? Throwing up his arms in despair? Laughing uproariously?  Venting his fury and his disgust? I suppose it goes to show that there’s no lengths to which totalitarianism will not go, and no satire so outlandish that it cannot become a reality.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 532 other followers