Posts Tagged ‘BBC’

“The power of the black earth”: Mussorgsky’s “Khovanschina”

It’s a fairly uncontroversial contention that Verdi and Wagner were the two towering opera composers of the nineteenth century – especially in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Even those allergic to either of these composers (and there are many who deeply dislike one or the other, or even both) will concede their importance. I certainly don’t dispute this, but there are times when I think the greatest operas of that era were neither by Verdi nor by Wagner, but by a Russian civil servant with no formal training in music – Modest Mussorgsky. And last night’s concert performance at the Proms of Khovanschina was as memorable an operatic evening as I think I have ever experienced.

Both Mussorgsky’s two major operas are problematic. Boris Godunov exists in two very different versions, which are usually conflated: this practice of conflation is understandable, as fixing on one or other of these versions necessitates the omission of some of the finest scenes in all opera; but a conflation is not what Mussorgsky himself ever envisaged, and it certainly weakens the drama. As for Khovanschina, it was left in a sadly unfinished state when, in 1881, Mussorgsky died aged only 42, as a consequence of severe alcoholism. The textual issues surrounding this opera are immense, and I am certainly no expert, but, from what I understand, Mussorgsky had orchestrated a few parts, left piano versions of most of the rest, but had left the endings of the second and fifth acts uncomposed.

After Mussorgsky’s death, Rimsky-Korsakov prepared his own version on Khovanschina, and re-orchestrated the whole of Boris Godunov, to make Mussorgsky’s own highly idiosyncratic orchestrations more palatable. Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestrations are brilliant, and it is perhaps to be regretted that, in our authenticity-fixated times, they are going out of fashion. However, there is no doubt that these orchestrations, brilliant though they are, are not what Mussorgsky had himself intended; and, given that our ears have now become so accustomed to strange sounds and harmonies that Mussorgsky’s sound-world no longer seems particularly odd, there is no reason not to return to his original intentions in Boris Godunov. This leaves the problem of Khovanschina, which was left in such an incomplete state that we do not often know what Mussorgsky’s original intentions were. Now that Rimsky-Korsakov’s re-imagining of Mussorgsky no longer seems acceptable, what do we use?

Most performances nowadays use the version prepared in the late 1950s by Dmitri Shostakovich, with whatever modification the conductor in question may see fit. And, it has to be said, Shostakovich’s version is quite splendid. However, this is not always the best solution either. Shostakovich was working in the era of Soviet Communism, after all, and belief in progress was not merely taken for granted, but routinely extolled. And, in this most political of operas, that puts a slant on matters that Mussorgsky himself would most likely not have gone along with. In a recording made of a live performance from the Vienna State Opera, conducted by Claudio Abbado (to my mind, one of the greatest recordings ever made of any music), Shostakovich’s version (judiciously edited) is used for the main part, but, for the final chorus, it is Stravinsky’s version that is preferred. Stravinsky’s quiet ending, which can be seen as imparting a mood either of serenity or, as Simon Morrison’s programme notes of last night’s Proms performance puts it, of “quiet desperation”, is very different from the thrilling blaze of sound that Shostakovich provides; and, maybe because I am so used to hearing Abbado’s recording, it is Stravinsky’s ending that seems to me just right. But Shostakovich’s ending is worth hearing as well: there is an embarrassment of riches to choose from.

The problem with Khovanschina is not merely textual: there is the matter of the content also. Heaven knows how many times I have heard this opera (mainly in recordings, and, last night, for the first time ever, also live in concert) – I still cannot follow the damn thing. If anyone were to ask me to summarise the plot, I’d be all over the place. This is not because the plot is “silly” – as opera plots are supposed to be, according to a not-very-accurate cliché – but because it is so complex. Various characters seem to move in and out of the action, and it’s hard to say what exactly lies at the centre: indeed, it seems at times that there is no centre. It’s not really about a principal character, or even a group of principal characters: it is about an entire nation in the throes of upheaval – social, political, religious. The scale is as vast as can be imagined: epics don’t really come much more epic than this. Even Wagner’s Götterdämmerung only ends with the end of the world.

The historical upheavals depicted in this opera took place in the late 17th century, when the young Czar Peter, later known as “Peter the Great”, ruthlessly consolidated his power. The political landscape of the time was hugely convoluted, with various factions fighting each other for power with untrammelled brutality. There were various factions of the aristocracy – princes and boyars; there were the modernisers, who looked towards the West; there were the Old Believers, the faction of the Russian Orthodox Church who bitterly opposed the church reforms of the mid-17th century, and maintained their adherence to the old rituals and practices. There were, nominally, two Czars – the young Peter, and his half-brother Ivan, who appeared to have had what, in modern parlance, we’d describe as “learning difficulties”. Since both were essentially children, Ivan’s sister, Sophia, acted as Regent. With the various factions contending against each other, and, sometimes, amongst themselves, the nation was in utter turmoil: violence and brutality were everyday things, hardly worthy to be commented upon. It was out of this turmoil that Peter, the liberal reformer, emerged with absolute power, and created what in Mussorgsky’s time would have been recognised as “modern Russia”. A triumph of Enlightenment, some may say. And, indeed, that is the impression one might get from the famous prelude, depicting dawn over the River Moscow – the emergence of light to banish the darkness.

But if only things were that simple. Mussorgsky, unlike Vladimir Stasov (who had helped him put together the libretto from historical sources), did not believe in progress. The liberal progressive, Peter the Great, who had dragged feudal Russia kicking and screaming into modern times, had, after all, used the most ruthless and cruel of means to achieve his ends: his liberalism had cost the nation uncountable lives and immense suffering. In the earlier Boris Godunov, the Fool – the Holy Fool – had famously lamented that whoever rules, whoever has power, the people go on suffering: mere dumb, animal suffering, and nothing more. And this seems to have been Mussorgsky’s view also, although, given the unfinished state of Khovanschina, it’s hard to pinpoint precisely what Mussorgsky himself thought of these matters.

But we have a guide, I think, in a letter Mussorgsky wrote to Stasov while putting the libretto together. This letter is quoted in just about every piece of writing I have come across on Khovanschina, so I might as well quote it too:

The power of the black earth will manifest itself when you plough it to the very bottom. It is possible to plough the black earth with tools wrought of alien materials. And at the end of the 17th century they ploughed Mother Russia with just such tools, so that she did not immediately realise what they were ploughing with, and, like the black earth, she opened up and began to breathe. And she, our beloved, received the various state bureaucrats, who never gave her, the long-suffering one, time to collect herself and to think, “Where are you pushing me?” The ignorant and confused were executed: force! … But the times are out of joint: the state bureaucrats are not letting the black earth breathe.

“We’ve gone forward” – you lie! We haven’t moved! Paper, books have gone forward! – we haven’t moved. So long as the people cannot verify with their own eyes what is being cooked out of them – until then, we haven’t moved! Public benefactors of every kind will seek to glorify themselves, with buttress their glory with documents, but people groan and, so as not to groan, they drink like the devil, and groan worse than ever: we haven’t moved!

 

  • (I have quoted this from the programme notes from last night’s concert. Since no translator is credited, I assume that the writer of the notes, Prof. Simon Morrison, has translated this himself.)

 

Mussorgsky’s image is perhaps a bit laboured, and his articulation clumsy, but what he is saying seems clear enough: Russia has its own deeply rooted traditions (symbolised by the “black earth”), and foreign ideas (“tools wrought of foreign materials”) implemented by force will not better the people’s lot: whatever happens, the people, as predicted by the Holy Fool in Boris Godunov, will go on suffering.

This is far from Stasov’s faith in progress. And indeed, this is a hard and bitter pill to swallow for someone like myself, believing firmly as I do that certain principles – human rights, freedom, democracy, and so on – are of universal value. But can these values that we may consider “universal” be imposed upon a recalcitrant people, emotionally wedded to their own traditions? Can it be done without “force”? And even more pressing perhaps than the question “Can it be done” is “Should it be done?” If works of art pose difficult and troubling questions, I know of none that is more difficult and more troubling than this.

Mussorgsky, like Conrad, seemed to have had no faith in any political solution. In Nostromo, Conrad rejected one by one all possible political solutions: all are found wanting; all are corrupt, or become corrupted; and those that become corrupted do so because corruption lies latent in the very foundations. So where are we to turn? In Under Western Eyes, written some eight years after Nostromo, Conrad faces precisely this question. There, the protagonist, Razumov, becomes embroiled in political and moral complications despite his best efforts to keep aloof from it all; and he declares to Privy Councillor Mikulin his intention to “retire”. Privy Councillor Mikulin’s response is as simple as it is unanswerable:

“Where to?” asked Councillor Mikulin softly.

One has to stand somewhere. But where?

Mussorgsky’s opera ends spectacularly with the Old Believers declaring quite unambiguously where they stand: they immolate themselves en masse. This was no invention on Mussorgsky’s part: many Old Believers, in shockingly large numbers, had done just this after their sect had been proscribed. From our enlightened liberal viewpoint, we may look on this with horror, as we do on any mass suicide of religious cults (e.g. the horrific incident of mass-suicide in Jonestown). And indeed, it is horrific: it cannot be anything other than horrific. But this is the Old Believers’ answer to Mikulin’s seemingly innocent question: “Where to?” The Old Believers choose eternity rather than the corrupted here-and-now, and, unlike enlightened liberals like ourselves, they had the strength of their faith to embrace their choice.

I find it frankly difficult to know what to make of this ending. Wagner’s Götterdämmerung – which received its first performance while Mussorgsky was still busy at work on Khovanschina – had also ended with an act of self-immolation: there, Brünnhilde threw herself on Siegfried’s funeral pyre, and this act of sacrifice destroyed the entire world, and brought down heaven itself;  and then,  after the destruction of this inevitably corrupt and irredeemably compromised world, the work ended with a radiant reprise of a theme we had heard in Die Walküre, an earlier work in the Ring Cycle – a beautiful theme representing hope that a new world, free from the corruption both of humans and of gods, may be able to rise again from the ashes. But the libretto Mussorgsky left behind offers no comparable cosmic vision: he is dealing with history, not creating mythology, as Wagner had done. And it isn’t easy to figure out how Mussorgsky would have finished it. Shostakovich’s ending offers us splendid spectacle (this is the ending conductor Semyon Bychkov used in the Proms concert last night, although he stripped out the Dawn theme from the start of the opera that Shostakovich brought back at the very end); and, undeniably thrilling though this ending is, I remain unconvinced that it offers an adequate resolution to what had gone before. In Stravinsky’s ending, the chants of the Old Believers merely fade away into silence, and we are left to make of that what we will.

Whatever text we use, whatever pick’n’mix approach we may take regarding the various orchestrations, Khovanschina, vast and unwieldy though it is, is a masterpiece. This, and Boris Godunov, are, for me at least, among the highest of peaks in the operatic repertoire. Music criticism is not my line, and proper reviews by proper music critics can, I am sure, be found at the touch of a search engine, but the performance I heard last night, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra hugely expanded, with no less than three different choirs joining forces (the people, as represented by these choirs, are perhaps the most important protagonists of all in this opera), and a cast of soloists one really can’t imagine being improved upon, offered a musical and dramatic experience of exceptional quality.  If you are reading this post within 29 days of my posting it, and have some four and a half hours to spare, I can warmly recommend hearing the broadcast of the performance on the BBC website.

Repin-portrait-of-the-composer-modest-mussorgsky-1881

Portrait of Mussorgsky by Ilya Repin, courtesy State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Mussorgsky himself, of course, died untimely, with Khovanschina in a sadly incomplete state. A few days before he died, Ilya Repin painted a famous portrait of him. It is a striking image. At one level, we may think of it as comic: with that madly unkempt hair and beard, and the glazed expression of the eyes, it is hard to imagine anyone looking more drunk, and drunks are always good for a laugh. But it is also a deeply tragic portrait: it is the portrait of a visionary, a dramatist and a composer of genius, but sunk to a state that he could not help sinking to. The portrait itself, I think, is a masterpiece: it is painted with a realism and unsentimentality that is almost brutal, but also with an immense compassion.

That we can hear at all Mussorgsky’s great uncompleted work is something of a miracle. We owe an immense debt of thanks, first of all to Rimsky-Korsakov for helping keep Khovanschina in the repertoire for so many decades, and to Stravinsky and to Shostakovich for presenting to us at least something of what Mussorgsky himself might have gone on to achieve.

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A damp squib and a thing of wonder to start the New Year

I didn’t want to write about the new BBC dramatisation of War and Peace – really I didn’t: I wanted to start the New Year on a positive note.

That’s very prejudiced of me, isn’t it? But we all have our prejudices, and it’s perhaps better admitting to them than pretending that we come to everything with an entirely open mind. But I don’t know that my negativity on this score is completely a matter of prejudice: the dramatisations that have appeared on television in recent years of classic novels have not, after all, been such as to inspire much confidence. Not in me, at any rate.

One may justly say “So what?” I don’t need to watch if I don’t want to. And, as Bogart didn’t quite say, we’ll always have Penguin Classics. But it seems to me, nonetheless, a question worth posing: why is it that these classic novels, so crammed with dramatic potential, make for such poor television drama?

Of course, not everyone will agree that this is poor television drama: just browsing through Twitter, I see that reactions to it are, on the whole, quite favourable. So let’s rephrase the question slightly: why is it that these classic novels, so crammed with dramatic potential, make for what seems to me to be such poor television drama? Now, no-one can object to that, surely!

It’s not the acting: there really is no shortage of acting talent. Neither is it the cinematography or the set designs: just about everything on television these days looks superb, and far outstrips the BBC productions that I grew up with back in the 70s and 80s, with their cardboard sets, and their handful of actors doing their best to teem in the crowd scenes. I’m afraid it’s the script. The underlying assumption appears nowadays to be that any individual scene that lasts longer than a minute or so will bore the audience, weaned as they all are on pop videos and on computer games; and so, before any scene is given a chance to get going, we have to be whisked off elsewhere to stop us reaching fro our remote controls.

This approach to drama has many problems. For one, it becomes very difficult to characterise to anything beyond a superficial level; and when the characters are profound and complex, and the relations between them intricate (as they generally tend to be in novels of any quality), all the profundity and complexity and intricacy are ironed out, leaving only a skeleton outline of the plot. Now, I have myself written a part-by-part synopsis of War and Peace (I did this many years ago when I was leading a group read of the novel on a now defunct books board: I have put these synopses up here), but let’s not pretend that mere synopses of the plot can be in any way representative of the novel itself. All they can convey is a sequence of events: the various complexities of character and of situation that have given rise to these events; and the significance of these events; don’t even reach the surface. In short, the very features that make these novels such towering works of the human imagination go missing.

On top of this, it becomes impossible to control the pacing. In any well-paced drama, there are finely judged rises and falls in tension, giving the drama its shape. But when the pace of editing is more or less the same throughout, all that emerges is a mere shapeless sequence of events, each following the preceding with the same monotonous plod.

And, of course, there’s the assumption that the modern audience, being ever so much more sophisticated than the readership Tolstoy had written for, needs sex. And lots of it. Sex, rumpy-pumpy, screwing, shagging, bonking, how’s your father – whatever we modern sophisticates choose to call it. In the novel, Tolstoy hints, only in passing, of an incestuous affair between brother and sister Anatole and Hélène, but modern sophisticated minds such as ours can’t handle hints. So, while so much of vital importance in the novel was cut in this adaptation, room was made for a scene in which Anatole frolics in bed with his naked sister: for, of course, only when sex is presented explicitly can it get through our thick modern sophisticated skulls.

Well, let’s not labour the point: this latest adaptation is obviously not aimed for me, so what I may have to say about it is quite irrelevant. But it saddens me, nonetheless: it was, after all, the BBC dramatisation from 1972 that first aroused my enthusiasm for this novel. I was only twelve or so at the time, but I remember fondly saving up my pocket money in an old biscuit tin, and, once I had enough, triumphantly marching into a Glasgow bookshop and taking the Penguin Classics edition up to the sales desk. I read through the whole thing that summer: as with my first encounter with Shakespeare a few years earlier, when I had seen Timothy West play King Lear on stage at the Edinburgh Festival, my reading War and Peace in the summer of ’73 was one of the turning points that helped make me, for better or for worse, the person I now am.

The adaptation that had so inspired me was marvellous: true, the sets indeed look very cardboard these days, and the battle scenes, done on a 70s BBC budget, are less than spectacular; but Jack Pulman’s script really set standards for transferring a great novel to the screen. As for the acting – Morag Hood’s rather stylised performance as Natasha didn’t quite come off (possibly Natasha, as described by Tolstoy, is an impossible character to bring off convincingly in performance), but the rest of the cast, including a then relatively unknown Antony Hopkins as Pierre, was without exception superb.

Well, that’s enough nostalgia for one post. I always fear I’ll come across as some crabby old git who automatically damns anything modern in favour of what things used to be like back in my days … and, no doubt, such an image is not too far from the truth. But it’s not, I hope, the whole truth. After all, I have nothing but praise for an audio version of War and Peace that was broadcast on BBC radio only ten years ago (and yes, ten years ago counts as “modern” in my book!). And, lest it be thought that I am too curmudgeonly in starting a new year of blogging with a “why oh why?” piece, let me try to balance that a bit: for, only hours before the first part of the BBC War and Peace, I saw in the local cinema a broadcast of The Winter’s Tale that was simply a thing of wonder.

The production was by the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company, and Branagh himself played Leontes. I had never actually seen Branagh play Shakespeare on stage before: his stage production of Twelfth Night was just wonderful, but he only directed that, and didn’t appear in it. There are the films he made, of course, but, whatever Branagh’s talents, film direction doesn’t appear to be amongst them. But no matter: the performance he gives here on stage is as remarkable as his direction (he co-directed with Rob Ashford). And the generally young cast is well supported by such experienced old hands as Judi Dench and Michael Pennington.

The play itself is a miracle. It is about love and jealousy, about irrational evil that breaks out for no apparent reason and destroys all in its path; it is about guilt and atonement, and forgiveness and renewal; it is about the cycles of life, about pain and grief, and about joy and hope; it is, indeed, about everything that is important in our human lives, all encompassed in its fairy tale form. And finally, it is about the Resurrection itself. A rational explanation is suggested towards the end to explain away the miracle, but we don’t believe it: as Chesterton’s Father Brown put it, it is easier to believe in the impossible rather than the improbable:

“I can believe in the impossible, but not the improbable … It’s what I call common sense, properly understood,’ replied Father Brown. ‘It really is more natural to believe a preternatural story, that deals with things we don’t understand, than a natural story that contradicts things we do understand. Tell me that the great Mr Gladstone, in his last hours, was haunted by the ghost of Parnell, and I will be agnostic about it. But tell me that Mr Gladstone, when first presented to Queen Victoria, wore his hat in her drawing–room and slapped her on the back and offered her a cigar, and I am not agnostic at all. That is not impossible; it’s only incredible.”

  • From the Incredulity of Father Brown by G. K. Chesterton

 

Shakespeare knew this, of course: he knew everything He knew that we wouldn’t attach any credibility to that absurd story of Hermione living apart for all those years: far easier to believe that she was brought back like Alcestis from the grave. That final scene, which never fails to strike me with a sense of wonder, is Shakespeare’s vision of the Resurrection itself. But there is no triumph here: the joy is subdued, and sorrowful. In Shakespeare’s vision, the sorrows and griefs we experience in our earthly lives cannot all be wiped away: they continue to cast their shadows even in eternity, and the best we can hope for is a forgiveness and a sorrowful understanding that is, at least, a sort of joy. It is an ending that leaves me in tears every time I experience it, whether in the study, or in the theatre, or, as here, in the cinema.

And this would not have been possible in those good old days of my childhood that I look back on so fondly. Thanks to modern technology, the glories of our theatres – where standards seem to me as high as they have ever been – and of our opera houses can now be beamed worldwide to far greater numbers than previous generations could have dreamed possible.

So there – having said that, I think I can safely say that I am not a curmudgeonly old sod after all. Not completely, at any rate.

A Happy New Year to you all!

Reflections on a Facebook meme

Those of us who have Facebook accounts may have seen a meme currently doing the rounds that asks:

The BBC believes that most people will have read only 6 of the 100 books below. How many have you read?

Those of us with more time on our hands than sense to know how best to use it may even have completed the questionnaire, ticking off those titles we have read and checking our score against those of our Facebook friends. I know I have.

There is no indication of what, if anything, this list is intended to indicate. If it is intended as a measure of how well-read or badly-read we are, it does seem, to be sure, an odd selection of titles. Is there really anyone who has read, for instance, both Ulysses and The Da Vinci Code? Or would want to? It seems highly unlikely to me. After all, the former can only be enjoyed by readers who love language and delight in its usage, while the latter can only be enjoyed by those who do not care much if anything at all about language: it is hard to see where the two may intersect.  So what can a list containing both these titles possibly indicate? What could all these titles possibly have in common?

This is the point where I should have shrugged my shoulders, thought no more about such nonsense, and gone off to spend my time more wisely by … oh, I don’t know … by reading a good book, I suppose. But good sense never was among my strong points: I went to the BBC site to find the source of this list. I couldn’t find it.

The list contained in this Facebook meme seems remarkably similar to the results of the BBC Big Readers poll from some eleven years ago: I haven’t  made a detailed comparison between the two – I’m not that obsessed! – but it seems fair to infer that whoever put together that later list had based it on the earlier. In the Big Read poll, the BBC had asked the British public to nominate their favourite book. I cannot after all these years remember whether they had stipulated that the book nominated must be a work of prose fiction, but certainly, neither non-fiction, nor poetry, nor drama featured in the final results. The poll was quite a big thing at the time; and in case anyone should think celebrating books is elitist – a vile and unpardonable thing to be, of course, either then or now – an article in BBC’s in-house listings magazine, Radio Times, helpfully informed us, as I remember, that this poll was intended to discover what we really liked, rather than what critics tell us we should like. And thus the BBC’s democratic credentials remained unscathed.

Not that I look down on something like the Big Read. Far from it. Literature, as we all know or should know, isn’t a competitive sport, but most people realised, I think, that this poll was really no more than a bit of fun, and took it in that spirit. As a beneficial side effect, it spawned on the BBC site a discussion board, which very soon became a lively place with all sorts of people talking about whatever book they wanted to talk about, and at whatever level they were happy with: both inverted snobbery and right-way-up snobbery were conspicuous mainly by their absence. I made some very good friends on that board, many of whom remain friends still, long after the BBC decided, for reasons not entirely clear, to pull the plug on the board.

As for the poll itself – all those books we really like rather than the ones critics tell us we should like – it ended up a rather predictable mish-mash: mainly modern and contemporary novels, with a sprinkling of a number of titles from the nineteenth century and the earlier twentieth century that we think of as “classics”; many books we have grown up with, and continue to hold in affection; a few highbrow titles (which presumably we do really like), and, to get it right up the critics, a few lowbrow ones also; but most, it seems to me, unexceptionably from the middle range. As one might expect, I guess. Nothing really to complain about – except for their ascribing The Alchemist to some chappie called Paulo Coelho when everyone knows it was written by Ben Jonson – but, perhaps, nothing really to get too excited about either.

While this list is a reasonable measure of the reading tastes of the reading public, I’m not sure that counting up from that list the number of books we have read tells us much about how well-read we are. Perhaps, to get a representative list of books one should read in order to be considered “well-read” – a representative list, since a comprehensive list of this nature would be too vast even to contemplate – we should have asked the critics after all: for sometimes, even in our democratic age, it is no bad thing to be told what we should like by people who have spent much time and effort developing their understanding and their discernment. One may, of course, end up disagreeing with their choices, but such disagreement only carries weight when one can disagree from a comparable level of understanding and discernment. Otherwise, it’s rather meaningless.

What sort of list would we have had, I wonder, if we had asked the critics? There are many titles in the Big Read list as it is that could very easily have made this hypothetical List of the Cognoscenti: few, I imagine, would quarrel with the inclusion of Pride and Prejudice, say, or of War and Peace, or of Great Expectations, or of Ulysses, in any list of great books. But wouldn’t it have been good to have had a list which, rather than confirm back to us what we already know and like, encouraged us to try out, maybe, The Scarlet Letter? Or Clarissa? Or Fathers and Sons? Or The House of Mirth? Or, if we expanded the remit beyond prose fiction, to, say, The Oresteia? Or The Odyssey? Or Njal’s Saga? Or Paradise Lost? Or, if we expanded the remit even further to include works of non-fiction, to, say, the Dialogues of Plato? Or The Histories of Herodotus or The Peloponnesian War of Thucydides? Or the essays of Montaigne or the Ethics of Spinoza?

It’ll never happen, of course. It is not so much that we resent the idea of critics as such:  after all, in this age of the internet, we are all, myself included, quite happy to become critics ourselves. What we find ourselves resenting is the idea that certain people, by virtue of their having spent time and effort applying their intelligence and their analytic skills to the study of literature, have developed keener discernment and understanding than the rest of us.

And so, we end up merely repeating the same handful of titles over and over again, and we determine how well-read we are on the basis of how many of those titles in the list we may tick off. And we know – or, at least, I know – that the next time another such Facebook meme comes along, we’ll be falling for it all over again.

Oh, and by the way, I got 52/100 in that Facebook meme. Made me feel thoroughly inadequate when I looked at the score of some of my Facebook friends. Oh well … back to my Chaucer …

On Jane Austen, love, and instant erections

Pardon me, gentle reader, for the coarseness of the title, but the coarseness isn’t mine. I am merely quoting Andrew Davies, who dramatised the phenomenally successful mid-90s BBC production of Pride and Prejudice :

“Pride and Prejudice is all about sex and money, about young people with pumping hormones,” explained Davies, who has cornered the market in TV and film adaptations of classic novels. “Darcy is supposed to marry this sickly aristocrat, but as soon as he sees keen-witted, rosy-cheeked Elizabeth Bennet panting from a walk, he gets an instant erection.”

I have not seen the adaptation, and so will refrain from commenting on it. But, despite being only a relatively recent convert to Austen, and yet to count myself a fully paid-up Janeite; and despite Mr Davies having no doubt lived with this novel for far longer than I have; it seems to me that his assertion that Pride and Prejudice is “all about sex and money” (my italics) could do with some scrutiny. For if this is indeed what Pride and Prejudice is all about, my own reading of the novel is quite considerably wide of the mark.

That Austen was keenly aware of the significance of money and of the social status it confers is a commonplace observation. And yes, Austen was also keenly aware of, and depicted (albeit with the utmost delicacy), sexual attraction. One may say that this delicacy on her part was dictated by the conventions of her times – conventions that didn’t allow her to write of, amongst other things, instant erections; and that, indeed, if she could, she would, but she couldn’t, so she didn’t. And further, that had she had the good fortune to live in our own less squeamish times, when talk of “instant erections” raises not even the most conservative of eyebrows, she would eagerly have ventured into areas that had in her own time been closed to her. For, as we all know, Austen was, like all others whom we see fit to admire, modern: and so far in advance is modernity in all respects from what had come before, there can surely be no greater praise than that.

An enterprising publisher is even now making available works from the past as their writers – unimpeachably modern  as they were in outlook – would no doubt have wished to write them, and would have done  if only they could. In these re-writes, Catherine Morland is introduced by Henry Tilney to “a whole new world of eroticism … where sex knows no boundaries”; the mutual passion of Holmes and Watson is at long last realised; and what Mr Rochester says to Jane Eyre about his own instant erection, dear reader, I blush even to acknowledge.

The idea behind these re-writes, I must admit, I find quite funny – but that’s only because I retain still an immature, schoolboy sense of humour. I don’t know, though, that I find the idea so funny as to want to read these re-writes: the joke would wear out pretty damn quick, I imagine. But I doubt the publishers are being serious. I doubt also whether Martin Amis is being entirely serious when he writes:

These days, true, I wouldn’t have minded a rather more detailed conclusion–say, a twenty-page sex scene featuring the two principals, with Mr. Darcy, furthermore, aquitting (sic) himself uncommonly well.

At least, I hope he isn’t being serious: I’d hate to imagine the man who declared war against cliché endorsing the clichéd perception that physical representation of sex can adequately represent the reality of love. For, pace Andrew Davies, Pride and Prejudice is not all about sex and money: central to the novel is the theme of love. Sex and money, yes, are present; and yes, these things are important. But when Elizabeth asks Darcy towards the end of the novel why he had admired her, he does not reply – and nor would he have replied even if the conventions of the time had allowed it – that he loves her for her body, and that he finds her “hot”: he replies: “For the liveliness of your mind”. He loves her for her personality; he loves her for being for the person she is. And if we in our enlightened modern times find this merely soppy; if we feel that there can be nothing beyond the physical, and that love can be nothing more than instant erections; then, it seems to me, Jane Austen, living though she did in her benighted times, was wiser by far than our modern selves.

Blandings at the BBC

So soon after writing about adaptations, and claiming that there was no requirement for any adaptation to be faithful to its original source, I found myself watching the first episode of BBC’s new adaptations of P. G. Wodehouse’s Blanding stories and find myself muttering the word “travesty” under my breath. Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. But then again, perhaps I don’t: if this first episode had been good television comedy in its own right, then it wouldn’t have mattered how far it strayed from the original. But since it isn’t, the gap between the adaptation and the original becomes too large to overlook.

Wodehouse is notoriously difficult to adapt, since so much of his effect relies on his prose. Simon Callow, who has recorded some audiobooks of Wodehouse’s work, speaks of a certain Mozartean quality. Now, this may appear to be the sort of pseudo-intellectual gibberish that regularly graces Private Eye’s Pseuds’ Corner, but I can actually see what he means: Wodehouse’s sentences are all so exquisitely crafted, so artfully phrased, that not the slightest detail can be altered without spoiling their delicate perfection. The effect is admittedly very different from the effect of Mozart’s music, but the delight in the sense of utter perfection that is beyond any possible improvement is evident in both.

And the humour of his writing comes, in the main, from his phrasing. And once you take away that prose – as one must in an adaptation – what are we left with? Merely childish and absurd stories.  Even when the plotting is ingenious, as it frequently is, the ingenuity seems but to serve mere childish and absurd ends.

Not that there haven’t been successful adaptations – by which I mean adaptations that have stood up well in their own right. I am not old enough to remember the adaptations of the Jeeves and Wooster stories with Ian Carmichael and Dennis Price, although I have heard fine things about them; but the more recent adaptations of these stories with Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry were, I thought, pretty good. By no means perfect, of course: Stephen Fry was arguably a bit too young to make a fully convincing Jeeves; every time the scriptwriters substituted their own gags for Wodehouse’s, the sense of bathos was all too apparent; there was far too often a reliance on slapstick, a type of comedy that is most un-Wodehousian; the location for certain stories was changed for no good reason from the English country house to US – even for something such as Joy in the Morning, an archetypal English country house farce if ever there was one; not enough was made of Madeleine Bassett, one of Wodehouse’s most glorious comic creations; and so on. But generally, the production values were excellent, the supporting cast was good, and Hugh Laurie seemed the definitive Bertie Wooster. The misjudged slapstick episodes apart, the feel of the original stories was well caught. If the BBC Blandings Castle series could be as good, I thought, it would be worth watching. Sadly, it wasn’t. Not by a long chalk.

For the Blandings Castle stories depict an idyllic world. As Evelyn Waugh famously put it, “The gardens of Blandings Castle are that original garden from which we are all exiled.” In these stories especially, the skies are clear and cloudless, the amber summer sunlight dapples the lawn and the terraces, and there’s always a pint of the finest ale to be had at the cosy pub in Market Blandings. There may occasionally be a bit of summer lightning, but it passes quickly, and it’s nothing serious. Indeed, there’s nothing serious in mortality at all: all is but toys, and life is an endless delight. This may all sound unbearably twee and sentimental to the uninitiated, but so formidable is the charm of Wodehouse’s writing, it’s surprising how even the most embittered and cynical of souls can so easily fall under its spell. Evelyn Waugh for one – not known for being the cheeriest of souls. And even Kipling, who doesn’t really appear to have had most easy-going of natures to judge from his often disturbing later stories, described “Lord Emsworth and the Girl-Friend” as “the perfect short story”. Delight and contentment don’t normally  make for compulsive reading, but here we have a miraculous exception: Wodehouse is the only author I can think of who has managed to pull it off.

Of course, it’s all make believe. It is difficult to discern the time in which Wodehouse’ stories are set, but the 1920s or the 1930s seem most probable. Historically, this was the time of the Depression, the General Strike – a time of great poverty and of mass unemployment, of hardship and even of starvation. In this context, a bunch of frivolous people who have never done a day’s work, and who lead lives of ostentatious wealth and luxury without the slightest thought of their social responsibilities, cannot be seen as anything other than morally despicable. But all that’s in the real world: the world Wodehouse depicts is very, very far from all that. His world is, as Evelyn Waugh put it, Eden, a vision of that paradise itself from which we are all exiled.

So, how should these stories be filmed? At a leisurely pace, I’d imagine. With gentle, nostalgic lingering of the amber sun dappling the lawn in the mornings, and the lazy cotton-wool clouds drifting gently by. Or something like that. I don’t know – I am not a film-maker, and don’t really have much idea on how best to convey the feel of these, or indeed of any other, stories. But I would know better, I think, than to adopt a jaunty pace; or to focus on the plotline (which is more than a bit silly and not really of much interest to begin with); or to use fast editing techniques. Everything here was utterly misjudged: just about everything that could be done wrong was done wrong. Shame really. Let’s just hope it doesn’t put off those who have yet to enter Wodehouse’s endlessly delightful fictional world.

On adaptations

I see there’s yet another film adaptation of Great Expectations doing the rounds. And the question “What’s the point?” does come to mind. There seems to be a new adaptation of this novel either for the big or the small screen every other year – I’ve frankly lost track of them all. I suppose it shouldn’t really come as a surprise: so powerful a story with such a gallery of memorable characters is bound to attract adaptations. But perhaps it raises a wider question of why one should choose to adapt books in the first place. After all, we have the novel: is that not enough?

An obvious answer to this, I suppose, is that far more people watch films than read novels, and so, by adapting it, one could reach a far wider audience. This is undoubtedly true, but it would be wrong to infer from this that watching a film adaptation, no matter how faithful, is a comparable and equivalent experience to reading the novel. Even when the film-makers set out to be faithful, they are translating a literary experience into a cinematic experience; and the two are essentially different. There are certain things that the written word can communicate better than cinematic images; and, of course, vice versa.

Of course, this is but one type of adaptation: there is, it seems to me, another type – where the intention is not so much fidelity to the original, but to take the original as a starting point to create something that is new.  If the former category includes such works as, say, John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath, David Lean’s Oliver Twist and Great Expectations, and – my own personal favourite – The Innocents, Jack Clayton’s adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, then the latter would include Kurasawa’s Shakespeare-inspired Samurai films (Throne of Blood based on Macbeth, Ran based on King Lear), Bresson’s Pickpocket (which takes Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment as its starting point), and Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy (based on the novels of Bibhuthibhushan Banerji). Indeed, if we were to widen our scope to include adaptations other than cinematic, then we could also include Verdi’s great Shakespeare operas Otello and Falstaff. Or indeed, Shakespeare’s own plays, which almost invariably are derived from other sources. In this type of adaptation, fidelity to the original is not a serious consideration: we do not judge Shakespeare’s history plays on how closely they reflect the chronicles of Holinshed. But in the adaptation that sets out to be a translation of the original work into a different medium, then, as with any other type of translation, fidelity to the original is inevitably a major consideration.

However, when translating from a literary to a cinematic medium, some things are bound to differ. Most obviously, one cannot squeeze so much into a two hour film as one can in a novel of several hundred pages. This is why even as strongly plotted a novel as Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo is not really good material for cinematic adaptation: over its thousand and more pages, Dumas delights in introducing new plot strands at every possible opportunity, and, with all the finesse and exuberance of a master showman, allows these various strands to overlay each other to quite exhilarating effect; but in any film adaptation of reasonable length, this dense narrative texture has to be thinned out considerably, thus robbing the work of the very feature that makes it so wonderful a reading experience.

There is another problem: cinema isn’t as effective as is the written word in depicting the inner lives. What goes on in a character’s mind can at best be communicated in voice-overs. But even voice-overs can be clumsy, and cannot be used at all when, as is often the case, the characters themselves are but vaguely aware of their own selves. Of course, skilful film-making can overcome even this (The Innocents once again comes to mind), but usually, complex psychologies that we often find in novels go missing in film adaptations –  even in the finest: David Lean’s version of Great Expectations, for instance – a landmark film in its own right – conveys very little, I think, of Pip’s complex psychological development.

But of course, other aspects of literature can translate very well into film: it is hard now to read the atmospheric opening of Great Expectations now without conjuring up in one’s mind the images of David Lean’s film. (This is even more true of David Lean’s film of Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago: whatever criticism one may have of the film version, Freddie Young’s cinematic images, once seen, haunt the mind insistently.)

And sometimes, a film adaptation can add to the original: Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon is a wonderful little thriller, but how much richer is its effect when enhanced by the directorial skills of John Huston, and by the now iconic performances by Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre et al!

One may say, of course, all that matters is whether or not the film is good – as a film. That there’s no point in complaining that the latest version of Great Expectations or of Anna Karenina is not true to the book; the question is – did it make a good film? But I am really not so sure on this point. If one does know the original; and if the adaptation falls far short of the standard of the original (as is virtually unavoidable when the original is of the quality of Great Expectations or of Anna Karenina); then comparisons, odious though they may be, are inevitable. The latest Great Expectations may or may not be a fine film – I don’t know: but if it isn’t, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to ponder of the size of the gap between what it is based on, and what it is.

And finally, there’s the argument that at least it may encourage people to read the book. This is undoubtedly true: I was about 12 or so when I found myself enthralled by the BBC production of War and Peace. (The production values of this adaptation look very primitive by modern standards, but the quality of Jack Pulman’s script, and of the acting in general – a then relatively unknown young actor called Antony Hopkins gives a quite sensational performance as Pierre Bezuhov – are exceptional.) It was this adaptation that encouraged me to tackle the novel itself, and now, some 40 years on, I’m still hooked. Would I have tried to read Tolstoy had I not been taken by this adaptation? I don’t know. But I am certainly grateful to have seen it at so impressionable an age

But there’s a possible downside to that as well: a poor adaptation may convince readers that the book is not worth reading. Or it may project the wrong impression: nowadays, it seems virtually de rigeur for television adaptations to use fast-editing techniques, and not allow any single scene to go on for more than, say, a couple of minutes at most; and this really does not lend itself to communicating much of the complexity or the intricacy of literature of any quality. Or film-makers may decide that the novel may have been good enough for its own times, but we moderns are so much more sophisticated now that we can’t do without a few sex scenes. Now, why we sophisticated moderns should require sex scenes in adaptations of classic novels when pornography is so easily available on the net for one and all, I really do not know – but there it is.

So will I be rushing out to see this new Great Expectations? No, I don’t think I will. I did not rush out to see the recent Anna Karenina either. But it is possible for a great work of literature to be translated successfully into a great work of cinema: unlikely, perhaps, especially given current cinematic fashions, but nonetheless possible. So I suppose there’s no reason why they shouldn’t keep on trying. And if they happen to be somewhat less than masterpieces – well, we still have the books, don’t we?

Shakespeare for the MTV generation: continued

Sir Richard Eyre, formerly director of the National Theatre and, more recently, director of those execrable adaptations of the Henry IV plays on BBC (I am assuming that the second part, which I haven’t seen, was filmed in much the same way as the first, which, sadly, I have), gives a rather interesting interview in the Daily Telegraph. He speaks, quite rightly, of the importance of the BBC, Britain’s national broadcaster, taking Shakespeare seriously: 

But one thing I did bleat on about then, and have continued to say since, is how philistine the BBC had become as an organisation, and about how it wasn’t taking Shakespeare seriously. 

I certainly can’t argue with that. But before he gets to this, he treats us to an obligatory denigration of BBC’s past effort: 

Next door, he remembers, was an ageing producer who had been “put out to grass” with the brief to televise the complete works of Shakespeare. “The result was a catastrophe, because what he churned out were hidebound versions, filmed in studios, that were not well-acted or well-designed. It was a chance squandered, and worse, these dreadful films are what has been shown ever after in schools all around the world as evidence of the BBC’s commitment to Shakespeare.

 The “ageing producer” in question was Cedric Messina, who did, indeed, “churn out” very conservative productions. And many of them are exactly as Sir Richard describes them. But certainly not all. 

As I had said in a previous post on the BBC Shakespeare series, many of the productions were mediocre and uninspiring: sadly, the list of poor productions include some of the major highlights of the canon –  Macbeth, Hamlet, King Lear, and a quite unwatchable Romeo and Juliet. But even in Messina’s time, a number of productions transcended the flatness of design, and the hidebound conservatism of the directorial approach: I remember in particular a tense and dramatic Measure for Measure, and a delightful Twelfth Night; and, rather interestingly, the very plays that Sir Richard has recently filmed so badly – the Henry IV plays. And, contrary to Sir Richard’s assertion, these plays were superbly acted, with Anthony Quayle an unforgettable Falstaff, and David Gwillim distinguishing himself as Prince Hal.

 I wonder whether Sir Richard deliberately forgot in his interview that the “ageing producer” who had been put out to grass was replaced after a while by Jonathan Miller; and that the quality of the series improved markedly after that. There were, admittedly, a few duds even then, but the best were certainly as fine as any production of Shakespeare as I’ve seen, and quite undeserving of Sir Richard’s derision. The BBC Othello – with Anthony Hopkins, Bob Hoskins and Penelope Wilton – is a particular favourite of mine, but that remains a controversial interpretation (not least because it featured a white actor blacking up), so let us leave that to one side: but I certainly haven’t seen better productions of The Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline, All’s Well That Ends Well Even those problematic early plays such as The Taming of the Shrew or Titus Andronicus were done about as well as I can imagine. But the crown of the series, for me, was the tetralogy comprising the three Henry VI plays, and Richard III, magnificently directed by Jane Howell. I have never seen Shakespeare done better on screen. And, far from being hidebound and conservative, these productions were far more cutting edge than Sir Richard’s recent versions: Jane Howell set the whole thing in a bare studio, relishing the artificiality of these works; the only sets represented a children’s playground, and they became progressively shabby and battered as the plays progressed; Jane Howell also made imaginative use of doubling, with the same actors appearing in different roles throughout the series, and thus highlighting in unexpected ways the various dramatic shifts. All in all, it was a triumph of the director’s imagination. Now, let us compare his to Sir Richard’s recent adaptations, with the predictable medieval settings of castle chambers and cathedral cloisters. It seems pretty clear to me that it is Jane Howell’s productions that are imaginative and cutting edge, while Sir Richard’s productions remain in comparison merely dull and, to use his own derisive epithet, “hidebound”. 

And above all, these older productions respected the text. A rather important point, I would have thought, if one is to take “Shakespeare seriously”.

Of course, Sir Richard would no doubt claim that he, too, respects the text, but I can see little evidence of any respect in statements such as this: 

I saw [the allotted two hour timeslot] as a licence to remove the repetitions that work well in the theatre but not on TV.

Of course! – silly, boring old Shakespeare, not realising he was being repetitive! Good job we have a superior modern sensibility such as Sir Richard’s to put the old boy right on these matters! “These adaptations are not dumbing down,” he continues, “I see them as dumbing up.” Anyone have any idea what he’s on about?

Having read the interview with Sir Richard Eyre, I really am not surprised that his recent adaptations are so poor. Better than nothing, some may say? I respectfully disagree. It is better not to do Shakespeare at all than to misrepresent his works in this manner.