“The Trickster of Seville” by Tirso de Molina – the first Don Juan

The myth of Don Juan is possibly unique in that we may pinpoint precisely its origins: it’s a Spanish play, first published in 1630 but written much earlier – possibly as early as 1616, Wikipedia tells me – written by Catholic monk Tirso de Molina. The full Spanish title of the play is El Burlador de Sevilla y convidado de piedra – which, roughly translated, reads The Joker of Seville and the Guest of Stone. The English title of this play varies by translation, but in the one I read – the verse translation by Roy Porter – the title is given as The Trickster of Seville. So let’s stick with that.

The story caught on almost immediately. In the decades following the first performance, there were – in those copyright-free days – any number of variants. Further variants continued to appear at a dizzying pace: Armand E. Singer,  Professor of Romance languages at University of West Virginia, has listed no less than 1,720 of them. And the myth has attracted the attention of some of the greatest creative minds of the Western world – Molière, Mozart, Pushkin. Indeed, Molière’s version appeared a mere 35 years after the publication of Tirso de Molina’s. Clearly, there is something in this story that resonated powerfully, and, given the undiminished popularity of various works based on this myth, continues to resonate still.

At the most basic level, it is, of course, is a male wish-fulfilment fantasy – a man addicted to sex whom no woman can resist is, I’d guess, the stuff of dreams for most heterosexual men, and the punishment at the end is no more than an obligatory piece of stuffy moralising we need to put up with. This, of course, is to interpret the myth at its most basic level, but perhaps we shouldn’t dismiss this basic interpretation: there is, it seems to me, a lot going for it: wish-fulfilment is, after all, a powerful draw. However, it seems fair to say that it is not this crude piece of wish-fulfilment that has drawn to it some of the greatest of creative imaginations: the myth clearly resonates on other levels also.

The last time I broached this subject on this blog, one correspondent very kindly directed me to this fascinating account of the myth by Paul Berman. In his essay, Berman argues that Tirso de Molina, who, despite his Catholic credentials, was a convert from Judaism, critiques in his play the Christian viewpoint that replaces the Principle of Law with the Principle of Grace, of Justice and Retributon with Repentance and Forgiveness. “The trouble,” Berman argues, “ … is that society that depends on conscience has no defense against a sociopath who has none”, and that “Christian reliance on the Attribute of Mercy at the expense of the Attribute of Justice … frees Juan to formulate a sociopath’s theory of salvation”. I shall not repeat Berman’s thesis here, since, firstly, I don’t think I have taken it all in fully; and, secondly, because it available online in its original form, and any paraphrase on my part can only distort. I do, however, recommend it to the interested reader.

However, there seems to me other angles as well that are worth exploring. The most striking, for me, is the means of Don Juan’s punishment. Of course, in a traditional morality play, the wrongdoer must be punished, and Don Juan is; however, perhaps rather surprisingly given the long list of earthly enemies he has accumulated, the punishment does not come from any earthly source: it comes from the other world. This creates for some dramatic untidiness – an untidiness that not even the stagecraft of Molière, of Mozart and da Ponte, or of Pushkin, could quite get around: throughout the action of the play, conflicts are created that are, by the end, left merely hanging in the air, since the resolution comes not from any of Don Juan’s worldly antagonists, but from a very unworldly one. As a consequence, the various characters whom Don Juan encounters are left, once Don Juan has finished with them, with no real dramatic purpose to fulfil. As Don Juan moves on from one set of characters to another, the sets of characters he leaves behind have little to do except to disappear from the action, or merely to crowd the stage for no discernible reason.

In Mozart’s opera, this seems to me the very point: the earthly antagonists are no match for Don Juan (or Don Giovanni), who emerges therefore as a character beyond the reach of earthly justice: the disorder he brings to the world can only be set right by a force from another world. The ineffectuality of mere mortals in the face of the phenomenon that is Don Juan is, it seems to me, is at the very centre of Mozart’s opera. But I am not sure this is the case in de Molina’s play: as in Mozart’s opera, there are several characters who, once their interaction with Don Juan is finished, mill about the action without contributing anything, but their inability to act effectively seems to me here more a dramatic encumbrance than anything else.

However, this other-worldly punisher is a remarkable figure. The idea of the other-worldly nemesis being a statue, a creature of stone, is, as far as I know, entirely Tirso de Molina’s creation, and while, it appears from various modern productions of Don Giovanni, many in our own times find rather risible and are embarrassed by the idea of a moving statue exacting retribution, it is precisely this feature that excited the imaginations of Molière, Mozart, and Pushkin. For Don Juan, who glories in being a creature of flesh and blood, who rejoices in pleasures of the flesh and is fired by desires of the blood, must be punished by one who has neither flesh nor blood about him – who is, indeed, quite literally, made of stone.

But of course, to speak of Don Juan’s punishment by the statue as the punishment of the human by the non-human is too crude a representation. For Don Juan is more than just human, of course. Or, to be more accurate, he is less than fully human. He is a character entirely without conscience, and, as such, no human consideration can touch him. His utter lack of human conscience places him beyond the human pale. In Freudian terms, he is the id set free, with no superego to impose any form of control. It could be argued, I suppose that this man, seeking merely pleasure, without any form of control restricting his actions, is a form of wish-fulfilment, and a very potent one at that: he is certainly a very attractive figure, as was recognised from the very start. But while we may find such a figure attractive, we also recognise his dangers: no ordered society could accommodate such a figure, and his very presence of fills us with a sense of dread, even of terror. Don Juan fills us with both joy and with terror: he both attracts and repels in equal measure. It is easy to see why so many have been drawn to de Molina’s myth.

The Trickster of Seville is, despite some dramatic clumsiness, a remarkable play, and not merely because it originates so powerful a myth: de Molina seems fully aware of the resonances of his creation – although, of course, there is always a danger that we may be reading back into this work various elements that later dramatists have introduced. De Molina presents both the attractive nature and the charisma of Don Juan, and also the misery he leaves in his wake: the lamentations of Tisbea (called Thisbe in Roy Campbell’s translation), is particularly striking, especially given that, unlike Don Juan’s other conquests in this play, she is of a lower social order:

Fire, oh fire, and water, water!
Have pity, love, don’t scorch my spirits!
Oh, wicked cabin, scene of slaughter,
Where honour, vanquished in a fight,
Bled crimson! Vilest robber’s den
And shelter of the wrongs I mourn!
O traitor guest, most curst of men,
To leave a girl, betrayed, forlorn!

Even in Shakespeare, I cannot think of an instance of a woman from the lower social orders accorded such tragic stature.

But at the centre of the play is, of course, Don Juan, the man who is beyond the control of society because he is beyond the control of his own conscience, a fulfilment of our deepest desires and also of our most fearful nightmares, and who both attracts and appals in equal measure. He is a figure who has appeared in all sorts of guises since in Western literature, and, I guess, he will continue to appear: for while we may all secretly desire to be a person who is utterly unconstrained in the obtaining of desires, the very thought of such a person existing can but fill us with terror. We need to be our own Stone Guest to keep out flesh and blood in ord

“That is what Fiction means”

The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.

– Miss Prism, from “The Importance of Being Earnest” by Oscar Wilde

Miss Prism is referring here to a novel she herself had written – a novel later described by Lady Bracknell as being of “more than usually revolting sentimentality”. Be that as it may, Miss Prism’s view of fiction, which always gets a laugh in performance, is one that is still, perhaps rather surprisingly, widely shared. A character thriving at the end is still seen as indicative of the author’s approval; and conversely, a character coming to a sticky end indicative of the author’s condemnation.

In certain cases, such a view does indeed hold. In Aesop’s fable “The Ant and the Grasshopper”, the ant ends up well, thus indicating he has behaved well; and the grasshopper ends up badly, indicating he hasn’t. But I remain unconvinced that so clear-cut a moral distinction can, or indeed should, be looked for outside fables. And when they are seen in fictions as complex and as sophisticated as Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina, I find myself moved to protest: reducing the complexity and the sophistication of works such as these to the level of Miss Prism’s simple-minded dichotomy is surely to diminish and to misrepresent them.

The latest instance of this kind of thing appears is a column in today’s Times by Janice Turner (which is, sadly, behind a paywall, though here is a link for those who can access it). Now, I do rather enjoy Janice Turner’s columns, and I regret that hers had to be the straw that broke this camel’s back. But this camel’s back is, if not perhaps broken, at least fractured to such an extent that a quick blog post on the matter does not seem an over-reaction.

Ms Turner writes about a television drama called Apple Tree Yard, and complains that the rather nasty fate visited upon its principal female character indicates the film-makers’ moral condemnation of her sexual transgression. She writes:

Although written, produced and directed by women, Apple Tree Yard contains the same 19th century moral reproach to bored wives as Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary.

Now, I cannot comment specifically on Apple Tree Yard, not having seen it; but, in more general terms, seeing fiction through the prism of Miss Prism does seem a very naïve approach, to say the least. And when this rather simplistic critique is extended to cover works of such moral complexity and sophistication as Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary, excitable tempers such as mine tend to get … well, a bit excited, I suppose.

I wonder what other works this critical approach may be extended to. Let us try Hamlet. I don’t think I need to put up a Spoiler Alert before saying that Hamlet dies at the end. But then again, the poor bugger was so bloody indecisive, it’s no wonder Shakespeare wanted to punish him! So there you have it, folks. Moral: don’t beat about the bush. In the immortal words of Buck’s Fizz, you’ll find that there comes a time – for making your mind up.

Claudius dies too, and that, surely, serves him bloody right: no sympathy there. Gertrude dies as well: I guess Shakespeare didn’t approve too much of her “o’er-hasty marriage”. As for Polonius, Laertes, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – well, they all had it coming, didn’t they? But that still leaves Ophelia.  Now, what did Will have against her? He certainly kills her off, so he must be punishing her for something. I guess I’d better read the damn thing again, and find out.

On the bright side, though, Horatio and Fortinbras keep going. Will must, I guess, have approved of them.

For if, as Miss Prism opines,  the Good end happily, and the Bad unhappily, then it must follow, as day follows night, that those who end happily must be Good, and those who end unhappily must be Bad. And at a stroke, literary criticism becomes simple. Anyone can do it.

And, looking around the net, anyone does. Even me, for heavens’ sake!

The Don Juan Myth

I am not so much intrigued by the Don Juan myth as I am by its having intrigued so many others. On the face of it, I can see nothing particularly remarkable about the myth: Don Juan, an insatiable satyromaniac whom no woman can resist, strikes me as little more than a frankly rather crude male sexual fantasy. And yet, this seemingly uninteresting myth has exercised minds as distinguished as those of Molière, Mozart (and his librettist da Ponte), Pushkin, Byron, Richard Strauss, and, in a modern twist in which the mythical Don Juan Tenorio becomes the contemporary John Tanner, Bernard Shaw.  I am intrigued by what they all saw in this myth.

The only work based on this myth that I think I can claim to know to a greater depth than that merely of a nodding acquaintance is Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, and, as I indicated in a recent post, this opera, despite some forty or so years of listening, I find puzzling in many respects. For Don Giovanni himself, the central character around whom everyone else and everything else seems to revolve, seems, to me at any rate, a complete blank. Music which would strike us as deeply felt if sung by any other character becomes, when sung by the Don, insincere: we know that his ardent avowals to Donna Elvira of his repentance are false; in the serenade that follows, we know that the heart-achingly beautiful avowal of love he expresses is not deeply felt, nor even shallowly felt: it is not felt at all. This creates a peculiar tension: how can music so richly expressive not express anything? Through centuries of interpretations, all sorts of things have been written by commentators who refuse to accept that this can be possible: music of such emotional depth must, they assume, indicate emotional depth in the character who is singing it, and they have tried to see in the character of Don Giovanni all sorts of things that simply cannot be justified by the text. Many Romantics thought the Don Giovanni is searching for his ideal love: he isn’t. As Leporello’s “catalogue aria” makes clear, it is mere prosaic quantity rather than any poetic quality that counts for the Don. More recently, director Kaspar Holten, who directed the piece for Royal Opera, thought Don Giovanni was trying to escape his own mortality, but, once again, there is nothing whatever in the text to indicate this. Not an inkling.

So let us accept what Mozart and da Ponte gives us. Much of Don Giovanni’s music suggests that it should be deeply felt, but it isn’t, and the sense of unease this imparts to the listener is, I think, precisely the point. Mozart’s music endows Don Giovanni with a tremendous vitality, and an irresistible charisma, but there’s nothing behind all this vitality and charisma – no search for Ideal Womanhood, nor Fear of Death, nor any of the other things that the preoccupations of the interpreter’s own time may choose to saddle him with. This lack of substance where substance is to be expected makes this, I think, a very disturbing work – perhaps even more so than Mozart’s next opera, the deeply disquieting Cosi Fan Tutte.

But I remain uncertain. Mozart’s operas – especially the three he wrote to libretti by Lorenzo da Ponte – are endlessly complex works, and one should always be prepared to modify one’s views on them. But I am now intrigued by how others have interpreted this myth.

So I am planning a course of reading on the matter. Over the next few weeks, or however long it takes, I am planning to read Tirso de Molina’s play The Trickster of Seville (which, I believe, is where the myth began), Molière’s Don Juan, Pushkin’s The Stone Guest, and Bernard Shaw’s variation of the myth, Man and Superman. (I suppose I should really add Byron’s poem to that list, but let us restrict ourselves to drama for the moment.) And I am planning to record here, for what they’re worth, my thoughts on these works. And maybe, at the end of it all, I’ll have some inkling of why this myth has exerted to firm a grasp on the imaginations of so many.

And even if I don’t, a project such as this sounds fun.

I now therefore declare the Don Juan season officially open.

“Life is a Dream” by Calderón de la Barca

The Golden Age of Spanish Drama is something I’ve only heard about rather than known about, and so, to remedy that, it seemed reasonable to start at the very top, as it were – with what is possibly the most famous play of that era, Life is a Dream (La vida es sueño), written in the mid-1630s by Pedro Calderón de la Barca. And reading it (in a translation into English blank verse by poet Roy Campbell), I could not help wondering to what extent I needed to be acquainted with the theatrical traditions of an era in order to appreciate its drama. I am not at all acquainted with this era, but I would guess, from reading this play, that theatre-goers of mid-17th century Spain went to the theatre with expectations considerably different than those of modern audiences.

One could, of course, forget about theatrical traditions, and read it as a closet play, but I am not sure that works either. Take for instance, a passage such as this (one of many I could easily have chosen):

        Those snowflaking haloes,
Those canopies of crystal spread on high,
Lit by the sun, cut by the circling moon,
Those diamond orbs, those globes of radiant crystal
Which the bright stars adorn, on which the signs
Parade in blazing excellence, have been
My chiefest study all through my long years.

Passages such as this belong to a dramatic tradition in which discursive, rhetorical flourishes are relished for their own sake, and take precedence over such matters as dramatic pace or momentum. This passage is part of an extremely long expository speech, the essence of which could easily have been communicated in a half dozen lines or so, but, quite clearly, the mere expository facts are of lesser concern here than relishing words for their own sake. One gets a few such passages in the earlier plays of Shakespeare also, but, very noticeably, Shakespeare soon learnt to tailor his speeches to serve his dramatic ends; but here, in what I think I am right in saying is among Calderón de la Barca’s most mature and considered works, dramatic ends are almost invariably secondary to a delight purely in language.

That is not intended as a criticism. Placing delight in language ahead of dramatic purpose is no doubt alien to our modern tastes – which may well deem passages such as the one quoted above as bombastic and otiose – but there is no reason why e should judge works from the seventeenth century by our modern criteria. But the problem comes when one is not entirely sure what the criteria actually are whereby a work such as this should be judged. To determine that, one needs ideally to immerse oneself in the literature of that period, and to read both primary and secondary texts: otherwise, one is, as I was, at a distinct disadvantage.

I took for granted that Calderon knew what he was doing, and that these long speeches, rather like the arias of a Handel opera, far from being errors of judgement, are intended primarily to be admired for their own sake, and only secondarily to advance the drama. I do not know whether or not I was right in thinking this, but there was no other way I could make sense of the work. I remembered Ana’s husband in La Regenta, reciting the great speeches from Spanish drama, and rolling his tongue round their magnificent sounds and sonorities – enjoying them, indeed, for their sounds, their imagery, their poetic resonance, rather than for what they communicate: for he felt nothing of their passion.

But while these many speeches retard any sense of forward movement, it could be argued, I suppose, that forward movement is not even something Calderón was aiming at here in the first place. This play, as the title suggests, presents life as essentially a dream, an illusion, and forward movement is as irrelevant in this play as it is in a dream. The entire action of the play seems to be taking place not so much in the real world, but in some strange hinterland of the mind – not of a mind that is awake, but of a mind asleep and dreaming. There is about this play a sense of the phantasmal, of the incorporeal, at times appearing even to foreshadow the dream plays of Strindberg. This did surprise me: I had always associated the idea of life as something essentially unreal to be a feature of Hindu philosophy, which describes the physical world as maya – illusion; but Life is a Dream was written long before awareness of Hindu philosophy had entered the western world. It is true, I suppose, that Plato had famously described the physical world as shadows cast on the walls of a cave by a greater reality of which we are but vaguely aware; St Paul, too, had spoken of those things we perceive in our lives as seen “through a glass darkly”; but both had indicated that there does exist a greater reality beyond our perception, and that what we perceive is but a shadowy, distorted glimpse of that greater reality. But, in Calderón’s play, there’s no such indication: our perceptions here are not even a glimpse of any greater reality; indeed, there isn’t even any indication that a greater reality may exist. What we see on stage is the only reality there is, and this reality is, possibly, utterly insubstantial.

The dramatic situation is as unreal as a dream.  A royal prince has spent all his life imprisoned, because his father, the king, had foreseen that this prince, should he succeed to the throne, will cause havoc. But now that this prince has grown into adulthood, the king his father, considering the possibility that his prognostication may have been wrong, has his son drugged into a sleep, and brought from the isolation of his prison-house into the royal palace. There, when the prince awakes, he runs wild – not surprisingly, perhaps, given how isolated from reality he has been for his entire life. His father’s prophecy had proved a self-fulfilling prophecy: as in Sophocles’ play, the very steps taken to avoid a prophecy ensure that the prophecy comes true. So the prince is drugged again and taken back into his prison; and when he awakes there, he is told that all he had experienced was but a dream. But then, the borders between dream and reality become further blurred: the prince is now freed by his father’s soldiers, and is declared king; and he takes this, too, as illusory, since, after all, all of life, everything, is a dream. And if a dream is all it is, one might as well live life as such. For what else is there?

Into all this is woven various subplots concerning family honour, long lost children and siblings, and the like – all that paraphernalia that modern audiences may well find a trifle dull. But we see all this, as it were, through a gauze: all this, too, we sense, is unreal. Nothing is real. All that seems real, all that seems to us tangible, is but the product of some sleeping mind, which may or may not be our own. And that calls into question even our own identity. If I exist only because I think, then the thought precedes the existence; and if that is so, how can I claim that thought to be my own? In short, how can “I think” precede “I exist”?

No doubt those well versed in ontology will point out where I have gone wrong here – for I am sure that an ignoramus such as myself is bound to go wrong when speaking of such matters. But in any case, what we are discussing here is not a philosophical treatise, but a play. And it is a play in which the very certainties of our own existence are questioned – not from the perspective of philosophy, but of the imagination. Shakespeare had questioned it too: the events in the enchanted Athenian wood in A Midsummer Night’s Dream may be seen, as the title suggests, as a sort of communal dream; The Tempest, too, may be seen as the dreamlike unweaving of reality in some mysterious region of the mind. But before the lovers and the rude mechanicals enter the wood, the world they inhabit is a real one; and the world they return to afterwards is similarly real, albeit transformed by their dream. And similarly, once all is resolved in The Tempest, they sail away from the dreamlike island back into reality. But here, in Calderón’s play, there is no reality to go back to, just as there is no reality from which they had emerged: here, all is unreal.

I do not know whether my reading of this play is a valid reading: I will need to acquire a better knowledge and understanding of this literature before I could make any pronouncement on this matter with any confidence. But I am glad I encountered it; and, while I may draw certain parallels with Shakespeare, or even with Strindberg, this really is quite unlike anything else I think I have encountered. I only draw these parallels because, when one comes across something so entirely new, it is natural to try to relate it to things one does know, if only to get one’s bearings. And I am glad that I encountered these works in Roy Campbell’s translation, as his blank verse really is quite splendid. (I had a look as well at the translation by Edward Fitzgerald – he of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam fame – but, at first glance at any rate, it seemed to me like second rate Victorian verse. That may be unfair: I’ll look into it again.)

How a play such as this may be performed on a modern stage, I have no idea: I don’t even know whether it can hold a modern audience with modern expectations, but, no doubt, an imaginative director may find interesting ways of staging it. But the work itself, despite depicting the world and our lives within it as essentially insubstantial, has sufficient substance to merit not merely revisiting, but further study of the literary and theatrical cultures that produced it.

Turgenev’s shorter fiction

I’m never quite sure what the difference is between the short story and the novel – whether the difference is merely a question of length, or whether there is something else involved. For if it is merely a question of word-count, the borderline isn’t clearly defined: where exactly is the demarcation line between the two? And if there is no clear demarcation line, how do we classify those works that seem too long for short story, and yet not long enough for a novel?

To resolve this issue, a third category was introduced – the novella. But this doesn’t really improve matters, as where, previously, there had been one undefined demarcation line, now there are two. And even if we know roughly – since all questions of taxonomy in these matters are inevitably imprecise – where these demarcation lines lie, we may question why they lie where they do, and not elsewhere. For instance, we can all agree that Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer”, say, is a short story, Heart of Darkness a novella, and Nostromo a novel. Yet, although we take the trouble to separate out these works, we lump  together Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons and Tolstoy’s War and Peace in the same category, even though the latter is some seven times as long as the former. It all seems so arbitrary that I can’t help wondering whether these classifications purely in terms of length serve any purpose at all.

So maybe it isn’t merely a question merely of length, but of scope. But if we follow this line of thought, we run into even greater problems:  length is, at least, quantifiable; heaven only knows what we mean by “scope”. And yet, it does seem reasonable to assert that War and Peace has a broader scope than Fathers and Sons: the former addresses a great many themes, and the latter only one. (Or, at best, only a few.) Tolstoy’s novel has a great many narrative strands and focal points of interest; Turgenev’s doesn’t. This is not to say that Turgenev’s novel is, for this reason a lesser work of art: a songwriter is not attempting to compose a symphony, and it would be foolish to judge a song and a symphony by the same criteria. But a distinction along these lines may, perhaps, give us an insight into why we feel it natural to distinguish between the short story (or the novella) on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the novel. The former contracts, focusing our attention on a single issue, or on a small handful of issues: the latter expands to take in more.

Such a definition does not, I fear, stand up too well to close scrutiny. Many of Chekhov’s stories, for instance, imply so much more than is directly stated, that they seem to have the scope of novels. On the other hand, a novel such as The Golden Bowl by Henry James spends its immense length focusing on the interactions of just four characters – although such is the significance that James finds in the course of his painstaking dissections, that the few focal points upon which he closes seem to imply an entire universe. In short, differentiating the short story and the novel in terms of scope is fraught with all sorts of difficulties and inconsistencies. But in discussing the short fiction of Turgenev, it is, I think, useful. For Turgenev’s literary imagination was such that it eschewed vast canvases, with its intersecting strands and multiple themes: he preferred limiting his focal points, concentrating on fewer things, and achieving, in the process, a unity and a perfection of form that is usually denied those writers whose scope is broader. Turgenev is, in short, a songwriter rather than a symphonist.

This is apparent even in his full-length novels. If many of Chekhov’s short stories seem like novels in miniature, Turgenev’s novels often give the appearance of long short stories. Indeed, I am not entirely sure why Rudin is counted as a novel, and The Torrents of Spring a novella: although I haven’t counted the words, they seem to be of similar length, and in neither is the scope particularly broad. In both, Turgenev deals with the theme of the sadness of life – of our inability, due either to fate or to the weaknesses in our characters, to seize happiness when we can, so all we are left with in the end is a regret for what might have been. This, indeed, seems to be a running theme in virtually all of Turgenev’s work, and it usually presents itself in the form of a sad love story. For Turgenev delighted in writing love stories: he had a natural gift for lyricism; he could write prose as exquisite as any nocturne by Chopin (and this lyricism survives even in translation); and he could describe with a disarming openness and poignancy the most tender and intimate of thoughts, feelings, sensations. The battlefield of Borodino may well have been beyond his range, but there aren’t many who could depict so perfectly the gentle, nocturnal musings of a pained and stricken heart.

If all this makes Turgenev sound a bit twee, perhaps, a bit precious, then yes, our modern sensibilities, hardened as they are by the abrasive and the garish, may well perceive his writings as such. But I can’t help thinking that that is our loss, and that we should, at least for a while, put the neon lights out of our minds so as better to perceive the softness of a moonlit night.

In the course of pursuing his theme of the sadness of unfulfilled lives, he strikes upon another theme that is often regarded as archetypally Turgenevian – that of the “superfluous man”, the man who, despite being intelligent and even gifted, is, nonetheless, for reasons not easy to articulate, curiously ineffective. Indeed, one of his novellas is actually titled The Diary of a Superfluous Man, and, once again, it takes the form of a love story – in this case, a rejected love. Both the title and the form recall Gogol’s “Diary of a Madman”, but the content could hardly be different. Gogol’s story is phamtasmagoric, garishly coloured, and nightmarish: Turgenev prefers pastel shades, gently probing into the seemingly unanswerable question of why a human, not noticeably deficient in any obvious way, should nonetheless be “superfluous”.

The theme of the “superfluous man” has political and social implications as well of course, but, while Turgenev explored these implications in some of his novels, I distinctly get the impression that he was drawn into political themes simply because, as an intelligent man living in those times, he could not very well avoid them; but that he was happier focusing on the personal, the intimate. In Asya, we see the narrator too indecisive to respond adequately to a love that is offered him: the narrator is ostensibly at the centre of the story, but, very subtly, it is the title character, Asya, whom we see purely through the narrator’s eyes, who is really at its centre: the focal point is not the narrator’s “superfluity”, as such, but the pain of rejection experienced by Asya.

First Love too is about unrequited love – in this case, of a teenage lad, unused to and puzzled by the sudden stirrings of the heart. It is often regarded, with good reason, as a perfect example of Turgenev’s art: the narrative line is clear, uncluttered, and elegant; the psychological depictions are acute; and, in terms of form, it is about as close to perfection as is possible. But perhaps the best of all – at least, the one that affected me most – is the late novella Torrents of Spring. This was one of Turgenev’s last works, and the narrator, like the author, is a man in his late middle age, and lonely. He tell of his youth, when he might have found the happiness that he now lacks, but which, through the weakness of his own character, he threw away even as it was within his grasp. The story itself is deeply poignant, and the storytelling is absolute perfection: the uncluttered elegance of the narrative line, and its sense of artless ease, could only have been achieved by the most refined and sophisticated artistry; and its evocation of sadness, regret, and of loneliness, continues to haunt the mind long after one has finished reading. Fathers and Sons is often held to be Turgenev’s masterpiece, partly, I suspect, because of its political and social implications, but I am not sure that his masterpiece isn’t The Torrents of Spring: here, Turgenev isn’t concerned either with politics or with society: he focuses instead on what, I think, interests him most – the vagaries of the human heart.

There are two novellas that aren’t love stories – Mumu, a heart-rending story of a mute serf (i.e. slave) forced by his unfeeling and uncaring mistress to kill his own dog, because its barking disturbs her. (By “mistress”, I don’t mean, of course, a woman with whom he is having an affair, but, rather, the woman who owns him, body and soul.) And there is King Lear of the Steppes, a late masterpiece, which tells a story the narrator had witnessed when still a young lad, and not mature enough to understand the significance of what he sees. It is a tale of a peasant family, told with Turgenev’s characteristically direct and uncluttered style. However, it lacks his usual lyricism: we have here, instead, a story of immense power. It is also bleak and pessimistic: the “Lear” of this tale, an aged peasant, does not even have the consolation of a Cordelia. Turgenev was not always the soppy romantic he is sometimes made out to be.


Turgenev is often ranked with his great contemporaries Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, but this comparison does him no favours. For trying to compare Turgenev’s fiction with that of the other two is, essentially, comparing songs with symphonies: inevitably, the song is drowned out. But Turgenev’s voice, though quieter and less powerful, and, perhaps, more difficult to appreciate in our more abrasive times, remains potent. Certainly, few writers have conveyed with such artistry and refinement the sheer sadness of our unfulfilled human lives.


The translations I read:

“First Love and Other Stories” translated by Richard Freeborn, Oxford World Classics (contains The Diary of a Superfluous Man, Mumu, Asya, First Love, King Lear of the Steppes, The Song of Triumphant  Love)

“The Torrents of Spring” translated by David Magarshack, published by Folio Society (originally published by Hamish Hamilton)

A sentimental post to start the year

That there hath pass’d away a glory from the earth.

There comes a time in middle age when the Ghosts of one’s Christmases Past begin to outnumber even the most optimistic of estimates of the Ghosts of Christmases Yet to Come. Since I have long passed that tipping point, and the weight of Christmases Past lies so heavily in the balance, I trust I may be excused for focusing on the former rather than on the latter. And as I do so, it is hard not to feel, as Wordsworth did, that there has indeed passed away a glory from the world. Now, before I am accused of sentimentality – as is usually the case when I try to speak of such matters – let me expand a little.

Something has changed – something is very different now from what it had been in our childhood years, and the difference, as any smug commentator will tell you, is in what has changed in ourselves rather than in the outside world. Wordsworth – never the sentimentalist despite ignorant claims to the contrary – recognized this. The innocent brightness of a new-born day, he knew, is lovely yet. There’s no point asking where is fled that visionary gleam: it’s still there – we just can’t perceive it any more, and that’s all. It’s the way things are: no point lamenting the inevitable. But Wordsworth himself, though determined to find strength in what remains, could not help lamenting. We cannot, after all, stop feeling things merely because “there’s no point to it”.

One of the most touching of these laments is the poem “The Oxen” by Thomas Hardy, written in the darkest days of 1915, when he was an old man of seventy-five years, and when Europe, as if justifying the prophetic pessimism he had expressed in his novels years earlier, was in the process of tearing itself apart. In this wonderfully touching poem, Hardy looks back on childhood innocence and naivety; but the poem is not really about either: it is about one’s longing for a time when such innocence and naivety had been possible. There may not be any point to such longing, but we feel a great many things that have no point to them. That such longing is futile does not make it ridiculous, but, rather, imbues it with a profound sadness.

I find a similar lament in a piece that is often regarded merely as candy-coated decorative fluff – in the score of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. It is, of course, a perennial Christmas favourite, to be wheeled out every year along with the crackers, the Christmas tree, the mince pies, and the Dickens; and few, I think, will deny its charm. But what frequently is denied is its profundity. Tchaikovsky himself, we are told, considered the subject matter to be too light, and although, being a consummate professional, he gave it his finest craftsmanship, what he withheld was his artistry. It is merely decorative, merely a bit of fluff.

I have never been able to reconcile myself to this view, as I find the music genuinely and very deeply moving. I can’t deny that it is full of music that is decorative; neither can I deny that its subject – a Christmas Party, a child’s subsequent entry into a world of fairy tales, and her journey to the Kingdom of Sweets – is very slight, even, perhaps, trivial. But I was very interested to read recently this excellent piece by music critic Gavin Plumley, in which he argues that The Nutcracker is a piece that deserves to be taken seriously. Whatever Tchaikovsky’s initial feelings about the nature of his commission, he argues, the composition of the piece was taken very seriously indeed, and not merely in terms of craftsmanship.

Although it’s always dangerous relating a work of art to the artist’s biography, it was good to have confirmation of what seems to me obvious from the music – that, far from being decorative fluff, it is a serious and deeply felt work, and a response to an emotionally shattering event (the death of Tchaikovsky’s sister). As Plumley puts it, “The Nutcracker undoubtedly poses much larger questions than is often suggested”. But what exactly those “larger questions” are is not obvious, and different listeners will have different views on this.

To me, these larger questions are not about mortality: Tchaikovsky kept that for his 6th symphony, a work that, for me, in many ways complements The Nutcracker. Neither is The Nutcracker, as is often suggested, about Clara’s progress from childhood to womanhood: true, the nutcracker become a handsome prince, but I can detect no eroticism in the music, nor any indication of Clara’s sexual awakening. Indeed, she and the Nutcracker Prince go to the Kingdom of Sweets, which hardly suggests leaving childhood behind. These are not what I see in this piece, although what I do see seems difficult to articulate.

One thing that never ceases to strike me about the score (the full score, that is, and not the series of bleeding chunks that form the suite) is a sense of tenderness, a sense of yearning, and a profound melancholy that seems quite at odds with its alleged light-hearted fluffiness. Is there anything in all music that is more tender or yearning than that beautiful passage at the start of the forest scene towards the end of Act One? Or what about the passionate longing in the Act Two pas de deux? (“How is it possible to make so much just out of a simple descending scale?” Britten had wondered.) The underlying seriousness of passages such as this bleeds, as it were, into the rest of the score, infusing even the most joyous of numbers, the most seemingly uncomplicated of childlike dances, with a sense of something more deeply felt – something more deeply interfused, as Wordsworth might have said.

The Nutcracker depicts childhood innocence and naivety, but, as with Hardy’s poem, these are not, for me at least, its central themes: at the centre of this piece there is, I think, our adult longing for childhood innocence and naivety. And this longing, Tchaikovsky knew as well as did Wordsworth or Hardy, is futile: no matter how fervently we may long, we can never return to our childhood state. Indeed, this state of blissful innocence may never really have existed in the first place. But that does not prevent us from longing for it. It is this sense of futility of such longing that infuses this otherwise joyous music with so profound an underlying sense of sadness: I find it almost heartbreaking in its poignancy. Longing for something that can never be attained is a familiar Romantic trope: in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, for instance, this longing was for erotic fulfilment; here, it is for a childhood that is for ever gone.

That, at least, is how it seems to me. Underlying the joyous festivities of The Nutcracker (for it is indeed joyous), I seem to hear a lament similar to what I find in so much of Wordworth’s poetry, or in Hardy’s “The Oxen”.

Tchaikovsky’s next great masterpiece, his last, was his 6th symphony – an unblinking stare into the face of death itself, and among the most shattering of any works of art, in any medium. If The Nutcracker is Tchaikovsky’s Song of Innocence (albeit innocence seen from the perspective of experience), his 6th symphony is his Song of Experience. They are two very different works of, for me, comparable artistic stature. While one looks back at the Christmases Past, evoking its joys but imbuing these same joys with the profound sadness for that which is lost, the other looks heroically and unflinchingly at what is Yet to Come. As another poet put it, we look before and after, and pine for what is not.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Greetings from my sickbed

It’s taking longer than I’d expected. After my recent operation, I thought I’d be more or less back to normal within a few weeks. Well, without going into tedious details, I am more or less back to normal – up to a point; but not up to the point where I can focus on serious reading, or engage my mind sufficiently to write blog posts. Random babblings such as this post I can just about manage, but anything more ambitious is currently beyond me.

But that itch for writing posts persists, despite my inability to put together anything too coherent. There is so much I’d like to read, and write about. Before my recent illness, I was reading the Penguin Classics version of the Mahabharata, which I was expecting to finish around this time: that’s currently on hold. Before that, I read a number of novellas by Turgenev, and was planning to write something on them here. Shortly after my operation, on the recommendation of Amateur Reader, I got myself Roy Campbell’s translations of four plays from the Spanish Golden Age: I thought I could focus on those during my recuperation, but that turned out to be over-optimistic. I guess they must all wait till later – after Christmas, perhaps.

I was also planning a post comparing the performances of King Lear by Michael Pennington, Anthony Sher, and Glenda Jackson. The first two I had seen earlier this year, and had tickets for the third. However, that Glenda Jackson performance for which I had tickets was just a few days after my triple bypass operation, and, though they were hot tickets that could easily have exchanged hands at far more than the price I had paid for them, this was hardly the foremost thing in our minds at the time, and I am afraid those tickets went to waste. Where the greater malady is fixed, the lesser is scarcely felt.

We did, however, get to see Don Giovanni about two weeks ago.  We had tickets for the Glyndebourne Touring Opera production, which was playing in nearby Woking. My fear was that I might fall asleep during the performance, but not only did I manage to stay awake, I loved every minute of it. (Although I do wish they performed the usual text that conflates the version originally performed in Prague, and the later version, with changes, that was performed subsequently in Vienna: here, they chose to perform the Vienna version, with the consequence that some of the most wonderful music – notably the gorgeous tenor aria Il mio tesoro – was missing.) It made me wonder again just what it is about this opera that makes it so great. Of course, the quality of the music is beyond compare, but this is not merely a great work of music, it is, self-evidently, a great opera – i.e. a great musical drama – and to this day, after some forty or so years of close acquaintance with it, I am not sure why. The last time I wrote about this work, I opined that the character of Don Giovanni is a complete blank: beyond a desire for constant sexual gratification, there is absolutely nothing to the character at all, and that any moral or philosophical depth that people see in him is but the projections of their own preoccupations on to what is essentially a blank screen. I hold by that still. But it leaves open the question of how it can be possible for a drama so dominated by so shallow a personage to achieve such profundity. I really do not know. That it is profound is beyond question,  but while I think I can explain, at least up to a point (since works of such stature can never be exhausted), what Le Nozze di Figaro and Cosi Fan Tutte are about, I find myself at a loss in trying to account for the greatness of Don Giovanni. It is little wonder that so many people across so many ages have projected on to the figure of Don Giovanni their own preoccupations: the idea that what exists at the centre of this immense work is but a vast vacuum is very difficult to take in.

Now, if I had been more my usual self, I could have made a decent post out of all that. But this will have to do for now I am afraid.

Whether my recent experience will change my blogging style I do not know. Maybe there will emerge from my chastening brush with mortality a less abrasive blogger, gentler and kinder, in keeping with the gentler and kinder politics we have recently been promised.  But then again, maybe not. We’ll have to wait and see. For the moment, I am trying my best to keep my blood pressure under control, and that means keeping away from political developments – both domestically and internationally; and keeping away also from blog posts and opinion pieces that I know will light my admittedly short fuse.

In the meantime, I would like to thank all of you who have sent me good wishes either in the comments section of this blog, or by e-mail. I know I have not responded to them individually, but they really are much appreciated. Sending good wishes may not seem like much, but it is: that there are people – many whom I have not even met – who are thinking about me when I’m going through a bad time really does count for a lot, and is very comforting. It is something I will remember, and hold dear. My sincere thanks to you all.

And have a very happy Christmas, and New Year. May you all enjoy to seasonal excess the food and drink that I, following medical advice, cannot!


“The Census at Bethlehem” by Peter Bruegel the Elder, courtesy of Musée des Beaux Arts, Brussels