Posts Tagged ‘Books’

“Pnin” by Vladimir Nabokov

Pnin and Lolita were written at around the same time, and it is hard not to compare the titular character of the one, the academic Timofey Pavolovich  Pnin, with the principal character of the other, Humbert Humbert.  Both are European émigrés in America, and both are highly intelligent; but in everything else, they are direct opposites. Humbert Humbert is personable and good-looking: from the description given (“ ideally bald … an infantile absence of eyebrows … apish upper lip, thick neck … a pair of spindly legs …”), Pnin isn’t. Humbert Humbert deceives his wife, Pnin is deceived by his. Humbert Humbert is a predatory paedophile, who grotesquely exploits his step-daughter: Pnin is selflessly kind and generous to his wife’s son. Humbert Humbert is a monster: Pnin is a good man. Indeed, it may not be going too far to describe him as a saint. And whereas, in Lolita, Nabokov encourages a degree of sympathy, and possibly even empathy, with his monster creation, so we, the reader, can feel shocked by where our empathy has taken us, the game Nabokov plays with Pnin is quite different: he depicts him throughout as an absurd and laughable character, so that we, the reader, find ourselves shocked that we could even think of laughing at so good and so selfless a human. He was one for games, was Nabokov.

In Lolita, Nabokov allowed the vile but deeply seductive voice of Humbert Humbert to tell us his story.  Here, the narrative voice belongs to someone else, and it is not entirely obvious to begin with who this someone else is. What this narrative voice gives voice to is highly individual: there are pot shots at various aspects of academia, for instance; there is also a dislike of fashionable psychiatric ideas (“Victor was a problem child insofar as he refused to be one”), and, frequently, a waspish sense of humour that often descends into outright sneering; and there is an openly expressed dislike of such literary figures as Stendhal, Dostoyevsky, Dreiser, Mann. And all this is expressed a razor-sharp, precise, glinting prose. It is hard, given all this, to escape the notion that this narrator is Nabokov himself. Certainly, it is the same voice I hear in my mind when I read his fascinating (though highly idiosyncratic) literary criticism. But if the narrator is Nabokov, why is he so cruel and so unfeeling to Pnin? Do we put this down to yet another of Nabokov’s games?

But it’s not that the narrative voice misleads us. What this voice depicts is so clearly at odds with its sneering tone, that we learn very quickly not to take that tone of voice at all seriously. It would take a deeply insensitive reader, after all, to share the narrator’s obvious amusement when Pnin breaks down in tears in his landlady’s presence (“I haf nofing left, nofing, nofing!”)

There isn’t really much of a plot, as such. Nor is there much continuity between chapters, with each chapter emerging as a sort of tableau, and not moving anything on noticeably. In one chapter we meet Pnin’s ex-wife, who had shamefully exploited him, and continues shamelessly to exploit; and while Pnin is heartbroken, the narrator invites us to laugh at his heartbreak, and his astonishing lack of rancour. In another chapter, Pnin looks after his wife’s son, and treats him with a greater kindness and understanding than his biological parents have ever done. This, too, the narrator seems to find rather funny. In another chapter, we see Pnin at a gathering of Russian émigrés: here, he seems a bit more at home. And so on. None of these tableaux seems to be part of any particular line of development: they simply reflect different facets of Pnin’s life, of his past, and of his miserable state of exile.

It is in the chapter relating the gathering of Russian émigrés that we learn that Pnin, in his youth, had loved a young Jewish woman, Mira Belochkin, who had later been murdered in a Nazi extermination camp. In a more conventional novel, this would have been at the centre, but here, it is dropped almost as if in passing, as if it were but an incidental detail. And  afterwards, it is never mentioned again. But the few sentences given to this apparently incidental detail gives us all that is needed for our imagination to latch on to:

Pnin had taught himself, during the last ten years, never to think of Mira Belochkin … no conscience, and hence no consciousness, could be expected to subsist in a world where such things as Mira’s death were possible.

The narrator, though at other points seemingly insensitive, goes on to say:

And since the exact form of her death had not been recorded, Mira kept dying a great number of deaths in one’s mind, and undergoing a great number of resurrections, only to die again and again, led away by a trained nurse, inoculated with filth, tetanus bacilli, broken glass, gassed in a sham shower bath with prussic acid, burnt alive in a pit on a gasoline soaked pile of beechwood.

The narration is clearly inconsistent here: if Pnin had indeed taught himself not to think of her, Mira could hardly have died and undergone resurrection “over and over again” in his mind. (The narrator does cover his back by saying “one’s mind” rather than “his mind” – my italics – but it’s hard to imagine who this “one” could be if not Pnin himself.) And the whole thing is never referred to again. A momentary mention, and that is it. It is left up to us, the reader, to take what is presented but as an incidental detail, and put it at the centre of things where it belongs. Nabokov plays games with the reader, yes, but, at the same time, he is openly asking the reader to see through his games.

After this little detail is dropped, the narration resumes as before, but the reader now must see the new events in the context of this detail, and re-evaluate everything that has gone before. If Pnin is a man hopelessly lost, a man hopelessly out of place, this is not merely because he is an émigré: it is not merely America in which he is a fish out of water – it is the world itself, a world in which no conscience or consciousness can be expected to subsist.

The comedy, however, continues. There is one delicious scene reminiscent of Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 in which it is decided not to assign Pnin to French classes because he actually knows the language. And, in the final chapter, the narrator emerges, revealing himself to be a fellow academic and fellow Russian émigré: indeed, he reveals himself to be, as we had always suspected, Nabokov himself. And the various inconsistencies in his narrative compel us to consider just why these inconsistencies have been introduced. There is possibly no definitive answer to this question: certainly, all the reams of literary theory concerning the use of the unreliable narrator is of little use to us here (one suspects that Nabokov himself would have aimed some sharp and well-aimed barbs at such theories). I rather suspect that these inconsistencies point to Nabokov’s recognition, and yet, at the same time, his inability openly to acknowledge, that human goodness, and indeed, human saintliness, can still exist in a world in which no conscience or consciousness could be expected to subsist. And Nabokov recognises quite clearly this conflict within himself: his inconsistencies are quite deliberately placed.

In the end, Pnin is relieved of his post, and he disappears. And at this point, the author, Nabokov himself, suspends his game-playing, and the razor-sharp precision of his prose gives way, if only momentarily, to a vision of another world that, somewhere, may still exist:

Then the little sedan boldly swung past the front truck and, free at last, spurted up the shining road, which one could make out narrowing to a thread of gold in the soft mist where hill after hill made beauty of distance, and where there was simply no saying what miracle may happen.

No waspish wit here, no sneering. Just for a single moment, Nabokov has let down his defences, and has given us what is perhaps as close to a religious vision as is possible in a world in which no conscience or consciousness could be expected to subsist.

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“New Arabian Nights” by Robert Louis Stevenson

O wad some Power the giftie gie us…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oresteia redux: “Mourning Becomes Electra” by Eugene O’Neill

This post is going to be a short one. I know I’m a bit loquacious: when I’m writing about a book, I rarely post less than a thousand or so words, even when I have little to say. But this one, I promise, will be short: Eugene O’Neill has, after all, written Long Day’s Journey Into Night, a work that for many years now has resonated with me most powerfully; and it is frankly painful to have to say anything too detrimental about a writer one of of whose works, at least, has meant to me so much over so many years. So I’ll keep this one short.

Mourning Becomes Electra is a trilogy of plays set in the aftermath of the American Civil War, and is based upon the three surviving Oresteia plays of Aeschylus. Of course, these great myths are capable of renewing themselves for different generations, but the problem here is that O’Neill doesn’t renew anything at all: he merely takes the outline of the story, and dresses it in modern clothes. He dutifully plods through the major events – a general returning triumphantly from war murdered by his adulterous wife, his son and daughter revenging their father’s death, and so on – but, apart from a rather lumbering Oedipal relationship between mother and son, he adds nothing at all. The psychology is crude, the drama plot-driven, the dialogue lumbering and, at times, ludicrously sensational and melodramatic … and it all leaves me shaking my head and wondering how a writer who could have produced that infinitely moving and poetic masterpiece that is Long Day’s Journey Into Night could even conceive of something so ham-fisted as this.

The above paragraph contains merely assertions: I have provided, I am aware, no analysis. The purpose of this post is merely to record my reactions rather than to account for them. I could, I suppose, spend some time analysing these three plays, but such an exercise would, I fear, prove too depressing. I haven’t yet read all of O’Neill’s plays, but of what I have read, The Iceman Cometh seemed to me a fine (though highly idiosyncratic) work; Long Day’s Journey Into Night is a play of searing intensity and of emotions almost too raw to be expressed, but also the work of a profound poetic sensibility; and the rest I have found unremarkable. This trilogy of plays seemed to me even less than merely unremarkable: it is so depressingly ordinary and uninspired – especially given the lofty dramas of Aeschylus that inspired them, if “inspired” is really the word I’m looking for here – that I really can’t see myself returning to them. Not even to check if I have been mistaken.

But Long Day’s Journey Into Night remains as fine a monument as any literary artist could hope to leave behind. It is a work that moves me beyond words. So why dwell on the rest?

“The Member of the Wedding” by Carson McCullers

*** SPOILER ALERT***

It might seem a trifle absurd, perverse even, to preface a brief discussion of a novel as plotless as this with a spoiler alert, but, given the few disgruntled e-mails I’ve received when I have previously failed to provide such an alert, it’s best to stray on the safe side in these matters.

For plot appears to be the least of Carson McCullers’ concerns. Which raises questions about what her concerns actually are, and I wish I knew how to answer that. I deliberately delayed writing anything about this novel till a few weeks after I had finished reading it, hoping that its various powerful resonances would settle in my mind somewhat, and allow some sort of coherent picture to emerge; but, so far, that has not happened. It continues, however, to resonate, and if, as T. S. Eliot famously said, a poem may be appreciated even before it is understood, it may, I thought, be worthwhile articulating some of my uncomprehending appreciation. It may even be worthwhile merely to register my bemusement.

Part of the reason why themes and concerns of this novel are so difficult to articulate is that Carson McCullers herself leaves them unarticulated. Much of the novel is filtered through the consciousness of its principal character, the twelve-year-old girl Frankie, or F. Jasmine as she likes sometimes to style herself, or the conventional Frances as she becomes at the end; quite frequently, she does not have the ability to articulate what she thinks, or feels. Throughout the novel, we are told that she feels things that she does not know how to name, and Carson McCullers is happy to leave these feelings unnamed. And there is much unfinished also: the only plotline of sorts that develops concerns a soldier who, mistaking Frankie for a girl somewhat older, tries to have his way with her in a hotel room, whereupon she strikes him on the head with a glass pitcher, and runs off. She does not know how badly hurt the soldier is, nor, indeed, whether she has killed him. And we, the reader, never get to know either. It is left as unfinished and as unresolved for us as it is for Frankie. To introduce a narrative line and then refuse to resolve it may seem a cardinal crime in the art of storytelling, but here, it is quite deliberate: the narrative strands, such as they are, remain unresolved, because they are, by their very nature, incapable of resolution.

And yet, the novel is certainly about something. Edmund Wilson, presumably frustrated and bemused by it all, declared the entire work to be “pointless”, but it seems highly unlikely that so fine an intelligence and so subtle an artistry as Carson McCullers’ would labour so many years over a narrative that is ultimately “pointless”. Leaving that aside – for, of course, biographical details of the author should play no part in literary criticism – the novel, whatever may lie at its centre, resonates far too powerfully for “pointlessness” to be a valid option. If the novel refuses to articulate its themes clearly (under the cover that Frankie herself cannot articulate them), we must conclude that they cannot be articulated – that they are, essentially, as incapable of being articulated as the narrative strands are of being resolved.

What we can say with some confidence, I think, is what this novel is not. This is not a coming-of-age novel. Neither is this a novel about teenage angst (or, more accurately, pre-teenage angst): Frankie Addams is not a female equivalent of Holden Caulfield. We may say this with confidence because neither of these pat explanations can account for the effect the novel makes upon the reader. (Well, this reader, at least.) The appreciation that Eliot spoke about that precedes understanding is, in this instance, an appreciation of certain vague, mysterious regions that are well outside the scope of novels of adolescent angst.

We are taken at some length into Frankie’s thoughts, and, at the centre of her thoughts, it seems to me, is a vaguely glimpsed concern for the nature of her individual identity. Here, I think, we need to be careful, because there is so much guff currently spoken and written on the question of “identity”, that it might be easy to see this novel as a comment on what is currently termed “identity politics”; but such a view of the novel would be even more facile and reductive than to see it as a coming-of-age novel, or as a novel about adolescent angst. What concerns Frankie, though expressed with a childlike naivety, is that age-old philosophical issue of our consciousness of our own individual identity, as distinct from the individual identities of others:

“Doesn’t it strike you as strange that I am I and you are you? … And we can look at each other, and touch each other, and stay together year in and year out in the same room. Yet always I am I and you are you. And I can’t be anything else but I, and you can’t be anything else but you.”

What is it that fixes us in our own, personal identity? Is there some sort of essence of self, of “I”, that is independent of this person whose body I happen to inhabit, and whose name I happen to bear? If not, why not? And if so, why am I stuck, constrained, to be this person?

Frankie wonders also about our perceptions. Are they consistent from person to person, from “I” to “you”, from “I” to, perhaps, another “I”?

“I see a green tree. And to me it is green. And you call this tree green also. And we would agree on this. But is this colour you see as green the same colour I see as green? Or say we both call a colour black. But how do we know that what you see as black is the same colour I see as black?”

If we are indeed, each one of us, an “I” and nothing but “I”, how can we be confident of a commonality of perception? And if we cannot be confident of this, how can we even communicate with each other?

Frankie is isolated from others. Her father works in a store, and barely appears in the novel. She is what is known is a “tomboy”, and appears, for reasons not entirely made clear, to have no friends of her own age. She spends most of her time hanging out in the kitchen with Berenice, a black cook, and John Henry, her six-year-old cousin, and much of the novel is taken up with scenes set in the kitchen with the three of them – a child, an adult, and Frankie, on the borderline between these two states – talking to each other, seemingly inconsequentially. But their conversations, while believable as conversations between a small child, an adolescent, and an uneducated adult, always seem to be pointing towards something else – towards something none of them can articulate, and which Carson McCullers refuses to articulate on their behalf.

Frankie longs to inhabit identities other than her own. John Henry would like everyone to be half-boy, half-girl. Berenice, a black woman with a blue glass eye, wants a world where people are all the same colour – a light brown, “with blue eyes and black hair”. These characters may not be able to articulate or even perhaps recognise it as such, but all three of them, in their own ways, feel constrained by the fixed nature of the world, that allocates them but one identity that they must regard as uniquely their own.

For Berenice, a black woman living in the Deep South in the 1940s, her identity – however fluid she may like it to be – is certainly fixed: she is “black”. This one simple fact of her identity condemns her. And yet, she had been happy once. Her first husband, Ludie Freeman – whom, we learn with a shock, she had married when she was only thirteen, just a year older than Frankie – she had loved, and had been happy with. And the memory of that happiness remains for her something precious, something she did not at first wish to share with Frankie. But then he died, and she married again, three more times, with each marriage more disastrous than the previous. She had chosen her later husbands with no better criteria than that they had shared certain superficial resemblances with her beloved first, but these resemblances did not define them: identity, despite its fixed quality, remains an elusive and unnameable matter. Her fourth and last husband had been the worst: he was violent, abusive, possibly mentally unstable, and had gouged out one of her eyes. This horrible detail is imparted to us in an almost casual manner. Although Bernice still dreams of a world in which all racial identities are merged into one, her first husband, whom she continues to love even beyond his death, had an individual identity that cannot be replicated: “he” was “he”, and no-one else.

Frankie, however, longs for a fluidity within which individual identities may merge. Her older brother, a soldier (this novel is set during the final stages of WW2), is to marry his girl-friend, and Frankie dreams of, and, eventually, becomes obsessed with, leaving behind her home town, which restricts her in ways she cannot articulate, and go off with her brother and his newly-married wife. Frankie is not satisfied being a “member of the wedding” only in the sense of being the groom’s sister: she longs for nothing less than to be one of the wedded parties herself, to merge her own personal identity with those of the married couple. This obsession she develops of merging her personal identity with those of others soon takes centre-stage in this novel. Thoughts of the wedding begin to obsess to such a degree that even the sudden death of an uncle barely makes an impact on her, because, after all, it’s nothing to do with the wedding, is it?

Typically, the wedding itself is not narrated directly: resolving narrative strands in terms of “what happened next” is not what this novel is about. We are given to understand, however, that Frankie had had to be physically restrained and pulled back when she had tried to leave with the newlyweds. She is utterly disgraced, humiliated. The world of fixity may be questioned when one is a child, but as an adult, it has to be accepted. But with this acceptance comes a loss:

She was sitting next to Berenice, back with the coloured people, and when she thought of it she used the mean word she had never used before, nigger – for now she hated everyone and wanted only to spite and shame.

Everybody is caught, one way or another, as Berenice says at one point.

Frankie makes one final attempt to escape this world of tyrannical fixity: she tries to run away, she knows not where. But the police are alerted, and she is soon found, and taken back home. In a novel such as this, where everything seems charged with meaning, it is no accident that the police are referred to as “the Law”, with a capital “L”. She has tried to escape, but the Law returns her to where she had been.

All through this, the war, now in its final stages, is raging in faraway Europe, and forms a sort of discordant background music. News from the distant war comes through – the horrors of the fields of combat, the slaughter of civilians, the unimaginable and unnameable abominations of the newly liberated death camps. Berenice muses on a perfect world that – who knows? – may be possible still, if only the Law would allow for it:

“No killed Jews and no hurt coloured people. No war and no hunger in the world. And, finally, Ludie Freeman would be alive.”

The very ending of the novel is as enigmatic as the rest of it. John Henry has died suddenly and horribly, from an attack of meningitis: this is related so directly, and so casually, that it is brutal. Frankie is now Frances, older and more mature, no longer yearning for a fluidity that the Law will not allow. The final paragraph seems charged with meaning:

Frances turned back to the window. It was almost five o’clock and the geranium glow had faded from the sky. The last pale colours were crushed and cold on the horizon. Dark, when it came, would come on quickly, as it does in wintertime. “I am simply mad about – “ But the sentence was left unfinished for the hush was shattered when, with an instant shock of happiness, she heard the ringing of the bell.

The sentence, like so much else in the novel, is left unfinished, and we don’t know what it is she is “mad” about – or, indeed, whether her “being mad” refers to her loving something, or being angry with something. Neither is it explained what the bell signifies at the end. It’s possibly just someone at the door. For, after all, what else can it be?

This is a novel I shall be returning to.

Penny-in-the-slot criticisms

TRIGGER ALERT: This post contains some intemperate views, and expresses no small degree of irritation on my part regarding various comments I have seen online over the years. If such things trigger you, then I would advise giving this one a miss.

There is a kind of criticism that I have heard referred to as “penny-in-the-slot criticisms”. Which means that these criticisms are automatic reactions, instinctive and unthinking – reflexive rather than reflective.

When it comes to literature, and to books in general, there is a set of criticisms that, I think, could come under this category. Perhaps the worst thing about these criticisms is that they are immutable: no matter how vehemently you may argue against them, you won’t change anyone’s mind, because your argument will not be engaged with. Not that your argument was necessarily right: one is – or, at least I am – grateful when one’s argument is shown to be flawed, and one is forced either to refine one’s ideas, or to rethink them, or even to withdraw them altogether. But no, in an environment in which even to questions someone’s opinion is viewed as an act of aggression, that kind of thing doesn’t happen. It’s not even a case of one’s argument not being countered: it’s simply not engaged with. But nonetheless, as sure as night follows day, that penny-in-the-slot criticism you had argued against will re-appear, as if you’d never said anything at all to counter it.

Here are a few such criticisms I’ve picked up over the years (in bold), along with brief arguments against them (in italics) that are regularly ignored.

“People don’t really enjoy reading difficult books: they only read books such as Ulysses to show off.”

If it were true that it is not possible to enjoy anything that is difficult, it’s hard to explain why so many are attracted to chess, say, or to difficult cryptic crossword puzzles.

And show off to whom? We do not live in a world where erudition is much valued. Reading something like Ulysses in order to “show off” seems like an awful lot of hard work for very little in return.

“People who write difficult books – again, like Ulysses – are just showing off how clever they are.”

Once again, showing off to whom? And why?

And if you don’t like “clever” writers, do you really prefer stupid ones?

“Male authors couldn’t/can’t create convincing female characters.”

Odd, isn’t it? Good writers of fiction can imagine themselves into the minds of all sorts of people different from themselves – children, old people, people from different walks of life, people from different social class, and all the rest of it. But the one barrier that is, seemingly, insurmountable is the barrier of gender. Not sure why: no-one has bothered explaining.

And in any case, how do you know that men writers cannot create women? Do all women think and feel in the same way? And are you privy to all their thoughts and feelings?

A good many of these penny-in-the-slot criticisms refer to Dickens. Some do lead to a bit of an exchange, but they never really get anywhere:

“Dickens really couldn’t create women.”

Miss Havisham, Betsey Trotwood, Sarah Gamp –

“Yes, but those are caricatures.”

But caricatures are not failed attempts at portraiture. You did not specify –

“You know what I meant. Dickens could not depict real women.”

Esther Summerson, Lady Dedlock, Harriet Beadle, Rosa Dartle, Lizzie Hexam…

“Dickens could only create caricatures.”

As said previously, a caricature is not a failed attempt at portraiture. It takes skill to create a memorable caricature. And as for Dickensian characters who are complex people and most definitely not caricatures, we have Steerforth, John Jarndyce, William Dorrit, Pip, Miss Wade …

“But Dickens’ heroines are awful”.

Some of Dickens’ romantic heroines, especially in his early novels, are certainly bland and colourless. But so are his romantic heroes. Nicholas Nickleby is as colourless as Madeleine Bray, the adult David Copperfield as colourless as Agnes Wickfield, Martin Chuzzlewit as colourless as – and so on. It’s not just his heroines. The convention that romantic heroes and heroines had both to be spotless created all sorts of problems for writers. Dickens later overcame this and created heroes and heroines who are genuinely interesting – Pip and Estella, Bella Wilfer, Louisa Gradgrind, etc.

Silence. No response. And then, soon after:

“Dickens couldn’t create female characters, and all his characters are merely caricatures anyway.”

And also, for good measure:

“Dickens was just soap opera of his day”.

Just for clarity, could you define what you mean by “soap opera”, and specify how it differs from other (and presumably superior) forms of drama?

No, of course they can’t. At least, they don’t. The whole point of these criticisms is that you don’t need to follow them up.

And then you get the killer one:

“Dickens is sentimental.”

Sentimentality is a difficult thing to define adequately. Yes, in many of his works – especially the early ones – he can be genuinely mawkish. But that is by no means the full story: there is also much in his novels that has real emotional depth and complexity. For instance …

And you put together a long, detailed catalogue of examples, but no-one is listening. They have demonstrated how superior their taste is to yours by proclaiming that they are above Dickens and you aren’t, and that’s the end of the matter. They may even add, for good measure:

“I don’t have to like something just because the critics say I must.”

The implication is that I am blinded by the authority of these “critics” (whoever these mustachio-twirling pantomime villains may be), but they, being more independent in their thought, aren’t. And you might as well stop there, unless you want to create a scene.

Dickens certainly gets more than his fair share of penny-in-the-slot criticisms, but other writers aren’t exempt either:

“The Brontës were the bodice-rippers of their day.”q

“Austen was the chick-lit of her day.”

You can write entire essays trying to refute these claims, safe in the knowledge that no-one will engage with anything you may have to say. Well, some might, I guess – but you know that the same comments will come up again, and from the same people.

And then, on Shakespeare, there is that old bugbear of mine:

“Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be seen, not read.”

How do you know this? Are you privy to what Shakespeare intended? And even if that is what Shakespeare had intended, why deny ourselves the experience of reading these plays when reading them can be so enriching?

Then there is that perennial one:

“I read to enjoy myself.”

My protestations that I, too, read to enjoy myself pass unnoticed.

“At the end of the day, it’s all just a matter of personal opinion.”

This is the point where you decide you’ve had enough of book boards, and create your own blog where you can let off steam to your heart’s content. As I have done here.

(If anyone has been triggered by any of this, please do bear in mind that I had placed a Trigger Warning at the start of this post, and I don’t think I can be held responsible for any distress or trauma caused.)

Dostoyevsky in Europe

Winter Notes on Summer Impressions by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, translated by Kyrill Fitzlyon, published by Alma Classics. All quotes in the post below are taken from this translation.

 

Among the many things in life I find myself utterly at a loss to account for is the tremendous attraction I feel for the writings of Dostoyevsky. When his many faults are listed to me, I can do little but nod away in agreement. Yes, his novels are hysterical, irrational – indeed, he seemed to laud irrationality; they are loosely structured baggy monsters. He was also a fervent Slavophile, while I despise nationalism. He was politically conservative, and hated liberalism and liberals with a vengeance, whereas I tend to describe my politics as “liberal”. (Indeed, I was amused to find recently that I had described my politics on my Facebook profile as “Turgenevian liberal”. I don’t remember writing this, and suspect I was drunk at the time and not entirely serious; but I did laugh at what was presumably my own joke, and decided not to change it.) Dostoyevsky hated those Russians such as Turgenev who had adopted the values of Western liberalism, and I can’t help but see my own adherence to these same Western liberal values, despite my Indian background, as a sort of parallel (even though I have, I suppose, the excuse of having lived most of my life in the West). I suspect that if Dostoyevsky had known me personally, he would have despised me, and my values. And, by rights, I should also be repelled by Dostoyevsky, who stood for so much that I do not, and who loathed so much that I do. And yet, I find myself irresistibly drawn to Dostoyevsky. Which, I suppose, demonstrates Dostoyevsky’s dictum that we are far from being the rational creatures we like to imagine ourselves.

Dostoyevsky had not always been a right-wing Slavophile, of course. In his youth, he had been very left-wing indeed. He had been member of a revolutionary group, had narrowly avoided the death sentence (he had, famously, been led out to be executed before it was announced that his sentence had been commuted), and had served many years in a labour camp. His early works had been of a somewhat sentimental nature, focussing on “poor folk”, on the “insulted and the injured”, and lamenting the social injustice that cause so much suffering. But then, in the early 1860s, a very profound change took place in his outlook. As translator Kyrill Fitzlyon says in his preface to Winter Notes on Summer Impressions:

His earlier novels aim at the entertainment of the reader; undeterred by considerations of verisimilitude or psychological probability, they glide over the surface of life without stopping to take soundings of what goes on underneath; they shun deep analysis and they lack the later Dostoyevskian eagerness to reconcile the actions of men with their consciences, conceived in terms of spiritual anguish.

It was in the summer of 1862, at what we may see as the turning point between Dostoyevsky’s earlier viewpoints and his later, that Dostoyevsky visited Europe for a few weeks. That winter, he wrote of his travels in Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, and here we may see quite clearly his mature thoughts and ideas taking shape.

The West was what liberals, such as the hated Turgenev, pointed towards: it was in the liberal values of the West that Russia must seek salvation; by looking West, and adopting its values, Russia, so far from the major centres of civilisation, could, at long last, civilise itself. But Dostoyevsky was not having any of this. This is not necessarily because of his Slavophilism: what he saw in the few weeks he spent in Paris, and the week he spent in London, did not suggest to him a Heaven to be aimed for. That Russia was no Heaven he already knew: but salvation did not lie in emulating the West.

Before he goes into all this, he writes a preface, to which he gives the title “Instead of a Preface”. This sense of playfulness is apparent throughout the book. Dostoyevsky tells us right away that he is not a reliable narrator. He has spent only a few weeks in London and in Paris, he tells us, and his views are not only based on limited exposure, but are also, no doubt, biased and jaundiced in all sorts of ways. As he goes on to expand on this, he seems to create an authorial persona that may or may not be himself. At times, he seems almost to present himself as of those Gogolian grotesques who can’t stop digressing into all sorts of irrelevancies. The narrator he presents is, in short, a comic character, the first of the many weird and unreliable voices who come and go in the narration of his later novels. Giving the authorial voice such a persona allows Dostoyevsky to pursue his ideas into unexpected areas, and explore thoughts and concepts that may appear eccentric or whimsical, but without necessarily giving these ideas the seal of authorial approval.

He spends some time in London, and presents it in almost apocalyptic terms. He is shocked by the level of extreme poverty and vice. This may be surprising: as is apparent from his own novels, extreme poverty and vice aren’t exactly unknown in Russia. But perhaps he had expected better from London. What shocked him, I think, was the open acceptance of these things. He gives a description of a pathetic half-starved young girl, a child, openly trading herself in Haymarket, right in the centre of fashionable London. The English are often chided for their hypocrisy, but it seems to be the lack of hypocrisy, the openness of such moral depths, that seemed particularly to strike Dostoyevsky.

He has more to say about France, and, rather interestingly, he seems shocked by the very aspects of Russia that had shocked Europeans of that age – the lack of freedom, adulation of the Emperor, police informers, and the like. And he considers especially the middle classes, the bourgeoisie. The inspiring slogans of the French Revolution – liberty, equality, fraternity – are, he feels, an immense sham: all that has happened is that the middle classes have now taken on the power to exploit the lower classes. All ideals, all morals that people pretend to live by, are sham:

Paris has an unquenchable thirst for virtue. Nowadays the Frenchman is a serious and reliable man, often tender-hearted, so that I cannot understand why he is so afraid of something even now, and is afraid of it in spite of all the gloire militaire which flourishes in France and which Jacques Bonhomie pays so much for. The Parisian dearly loves to trade, but even as he trades and fleeces you in his shop, he fleeces you not for the sake of profit, as in the old days, but in the name of virtue, out of some sacred necessity. To amass a fortune and possess as many things as possible – this has become the Parisian’s main moral code, to be equated with religious observance.

Dostoyevsky keeps probing: what, exactly, are the bourgeoisie afraid of?

Whom should he fear then? The workers? But the workers are all of them capitalists too, in their heart of hearts: their one ideal is to become capitalists and amass as many things as possible.

This is not the solution, Dostoyevsky felt, for Russia. Rational precepts, and noble sentiments – liberté, égalité, fraternité – end up meaning nothing, and not merely because humans are not rational creatures: as he goes on to examine in Notes From Underground (which was written shortly after this book), humans are, if anything, anti-rational creatures, who, far from accepting ideas because they are shown to be rational, would choose, rather, deliberately to reject them in order to proclaim their freedom from the tyranny of reason. All he can see in the great cities of Europe are “anthills”: any attempt from above to bind humans into a unity is bound to fail disastrously, because they misunderstand the essentially paradoxical nature of humanity.

I can understand Dostoyevsky’s argument – at least, up to a point. Our lives have, if anything, become worse in certain respects: they have become “atomised” – to use the word popularised by the title of Michel Houellebecq’s novel – as never before. Not only do we not have fraternité between the classes, solidarity even within the social classes is becoming more problematic. But I don’t really understand what Dostoyevsky’s own solution is. Are we to expect a mystical fraternité to spring up spontaneously?

Of course, Dostoyevsky was not so foolish as to think that. His novels are not didactic novels: they are multi-voiced works, in which many of the voices rebel against their author and speak out against him, unanswered; and where, furthermore, many of the voices articulating some of Dostoyevsky’s own most deeply held beliefs are presented in a ridiculous light. Those great novels are seething cauldrons of ideas and counter-ideas, endlessly contesting and intermingling with each other, never resolving; but never are these ideas presented as something abstract: they are, as Kyrill Fitzlyon says in his preface, “conceived in terms of spiritual anguish”.

I still do not know why I am so drawn to the writings of Dostoyevsky, when, all things considered, I shouldn’t be. But there is something about these very strange books of his that has about it the air of prophecy.

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)