Posts Tagged ‘Chekhov’

When Chekhov’s gun fails to fire

The principle of Chekhov’s Gun is a well-known one. If a gun is shown in Act One, it must go off some time before the end of the play. In other words, there must be no such thing as an irrelevant detail. Everything must serve a specific purpose within the work.

And yet, I can’t help wondering how good this advice necessarily is. If the purpose of one’s writing is to depict some aspect of reality as truthfully as one can, then a fictional world in which there is no place for the arbitrary, the random, the irrelevant, is very far from the real world as we know it.

Although Chekhov repeated this advice several times, one wonders how seriously he took it himself. At the start of the second act of The Cherry Orchard – for many, Chekhov’s dramatic masterpiece – Yepikhodov produces a gun on stage. It never goes off. Indeed, it is never referred to again in the rest of the play, either directly or indirectly. It is almost as if Chekhov is drawing attention to his having flouted his own rule.

I guess it merely goes to show that “rules” are for lesser writers. The Chekhovs of this world made up their own, as and when required. And when a rule previously formulated is no longer required, it is discarded.

The problem still remains for writers – whether they are Chekhov or some teenager convinced he has a novel in him: how does one steer a course between, on the one hand, that air of contrivance that can all too easily appear when the arbitrariness of life is removed, and, on the other hand, the shapelessness that can occur when it isn’t?

Well, I have no idea how to solve this. This is one of the many reasons why I don’t try my hand at writing fiction myself, and why I admire so much those who do pull it off.

“On the Eve” by Ivan Turgenev

“On the Eve” by Ivan Turgenev, translated by Gilbert Gardiner, Penguin Classics

 

I wonder to what extent Turgenev was interested in plot. Not a lot, I’d guess, judging from his first three novels, since the central plotline in all three of them is more or less the same – a young girl with a sheltered upbringing in a provincial town awakens emotionally, and falls in love with a newcomer into the closed society she inhabits, but it all ends sadly. However, what is of interest is not so much the plot but what the author makes of it, and in these three novels, Turgenev uses this basic plotline to make quite different things. In his first full-length novel, Rudin, he had explored the character of the “superfluous man” – a man who is intelligent, articulate, and capable, but who is, nonetheless, curiously ineffective; his next novel, Home of the Gentry, is more a “pure” love story, for the most part, as far as I could see, unadulterated with political and social concerns: I got the impression reading that novel that had these concerns not been so pressing, and so weighing so heavily on Turgenev’s mind, this is the kind of novel he would have preferred to write. But these concerns could not be dismissed: in his next novel, On the Eve, the very title vibrating with social and political resonance, these issues return, as it were, with a vengeance. The dreamy melancholy of balmy evenings and singing nightingales has not gone away, but there are other matters simmering furiously below the surface.

The principal character here, Elena, is, like Liza in Home of the Gentry, pure-hearted and loving, recently grown into adulthood; but unlike Liza, hers is a restless soul, not at peace either with those around her, or, indeed, with herself. The older generation, once again, has little to offer, but where Liza’s mother had merely been foolish, Elena’s father is immoral, openly keeping a mistress while at the same time demanding respect for himself and deference to his social standing. The future this father demands for his daughter is one of unaspiring mediocrity and moral corruption, and the husband he proposes for her is every bit as uninspiring and as mediocre as himself; Elena, a somewhat less gentle soul, perhaps, than Liza in the previous novel, cannot even begin to take him seriously.

It is easy to see why Elena falls instead for Insarov, the newcomer into her society, and, to a far greater extent than the corresponding figures in the previous two novels, very much an outsider. He is not even Russian: he is a Bulgarian, committed to the cause of his country’s freedom. He is quietly heroic, undemonstrative, but of firm integrity and of unwavering principles, and it is easy to see why Elena falls for such a man: she finds in him a moral seriousness that she longs for, but which she has been starved of.

It is this sense of moral seriousness, or the lack thereof, that marks out the difference between the older generation and the newer. Turgenev was to return to this theme with quite explosive effect in his next novel, Fathers and Sons, which, in its nuanced depiction and its even-handedness managed on publication to alienate both fathers and sons, but here the depiction is more schematic. It’s not that the younger generation are all necessarily admirable: there is, after all, Elena’s proposed husband who appears to have taken on willingly all the shortcomings and absurdities of the older generation (and who is, incidentally, one of Turgenev’s rare forays into caricature, although it is perhaps fair to say that it is not in caricature that his gift primarily lies). But despite the presence of this unpleasant young suitor, all that is genuinely admirable in this novel comes from the young. There’s the talented young sculptor, Shubin, who sees through the hypocrisies of Elena’s father (although he is more amused than outraged by it all); there’s Bersyenev, the student of philosophy, who is himself in love with Elena, but, Sidney-Carton-like (though not in quite so spectacular a manner), forgoes his own happiness for hers; there’s Insarov himself, whose undemonstrative heroism and tenderness for Elena were such that I couldn’t help picturing him as the Paul Henreid character (Victor Laszlo) in Casablanca; and, of course, there’s Elena herself, determined that her own life would be free from the moral turpitude of her father’s, or the submissive acquiescence of her mother’s. The scope for action was far more limited for women than it was for men, but, given this, Elena’s determination not to succumb to what is expected of her, and her actions both before and after tragedy strikes, are every bit as heroic as Insarov’s.

(Chekhov, curiously, picked up this theme in one of his finest short stories that is variously translated as “A Marriageable Girl”, “The Fiancee”, “The Betrothed”, and “The Bride”: in this story, a young woman, in order to give herself the education that she had been denied, walks out of an engagement that promises a future merely of comfortable mediocrity.)

The story itself is simply told, with all Turgenev’s gift for gentle lyricism. Admittedly, there are fewer balmy evenings and singing nightingales here than in his previous novel: the political and social tensions simmering under the surface don’t allow too much room for that kind of thing, but, as with Home of the Gentry (although to a somewhat lesser extent), it is hard to read this without feeling that one is in the hands of a consummate lyric poet. The characterisation is deft, particularly of the minor, incidental characters: I couldn’t help feeling that the lovelorn but self-sacrificing Bersenyev would have made an interesting protagonist in his own right in another novel. And once again, Turgenev knew better than to overload so short a narrative and so slender a plotline with too many characters: the errors of judgement in Rudin are not here repeated.

It is towards the end of the novel that Turgenev offers us a major surprise: having set it all up as another novel of love in a provincial town, he suddenly switches the scene to Venice, a sophisticated European city, and, in every way, as far as can be imagined from the setting of the rest of the novel. A writer of Turgenev’s lyrical gifts could easily have given us page upon page of the most exquisite description, but the novelist takes precedence here over the lyrical poet: he gives us only as little as is required to convey a sense of changed locality – albeit a locality very dramatically changed. And here he develops a theme that had only been hinted at earlier: death. I am not sure what it is about the city of Venice that seems to suggest forebodings of mortality, but Turgenev certainly got there long before The Wings of the Dove, or Death in Venice. There is a sense here of decay and of death, but even in this there seems to be a curious beauty:

“Venice is dying, Venice is deserted” – so her inhabitants will tell you; but it may be in the past she lacked such charm as this, the charm of a city fading in the very culmination and flowing of its beauty.

Here, in the city in whose very decay is its beauty, Elena and Insarov attend a performance of Verdi’s recently composed opera, La Traviata – a work Turgenev describes (rather disconcertingly for those of us who love the work) as “in truth rather a commonplace piece”*. But whatever Turgenev may have thought of its artistic worth, he had certainly been struck by its death-haunted quality: it, too, like Venice, fades in “the very culmination and flowing of its beauty”. He gives us a fascinating account of the performance of this “commonplace piece”, and the tragedy is foreshadowed: it is no great surprise when it comes.

But tragic though the plot is, thematically, it is the quiet and undemonstrative heroism both of Insarov and of Elena that seems to me to be at the centre of the novel, and this heroism suffuses the entire work with a radiant, optimistic glow: one is left feeling that where the older generation had failed – where, indeed, they had scarcely even tried – the younger may perhaps succeed. And even if they don’t, their effort to progress morally from the state they have been left in by their fathers has about it an innate nobility. Such sense of optimism and belief in the essential nobility of humans are perhaps somewhat alien to modern sensibilities, and Turgenev himself was to revisit them; but if, indeed, such ideals are out of phase with the modern mind, a novel such as this serves to remind us of what we have lost.

 

 

* According to volume 2 of Julian Budden’s invaluable The Operas of Verdi, La Traviata was given its first performance in Venice in 1853, and, for various reasons, it was not a particular success, although Verdi may have exaggerated the extent of its failure. The performance attended by Elena and by Insarov would have been the revival in in 1854, when its qualities became more apparent, although, presumably, Turgenev remained unimpressed.

“Thunder in the Air” by August Strindberg

It is difficult to argue with the contention that through the nineteenth century, while the novel was flourishing, and, some may say, establishing itself as the principal form of literary expression, drama – the form that had in the past given us the Athenian tragedians, Shakespeare, Calderón and de Vega, Racine, Corneille and Molière – had stagnated; and that it was only with the emergence towards the end of the century of Ibsen, Strindberg and Chekhov that it was once again revitalised. However, while the plays of Ibsen are dear to me, and while I love the last three of four plays of Chekhov, I have never really come to grips with Strindberg. He’s an odd ’un, as they say.

Both as a person and as an author, Strindberg was what may kindly be described as “eccentric”. His plays, even the more ostensibly realistic ones, such as The Father, Miss Julie or The Dance of Death, seem to take place not so much in the real world, but, rather, in some curiously disembodied region, some vague and obscure chamber of the author’s very strange mind – a mind filled with paranoia, bitterness, and misogyny. It is hard to think of any other dramatist who communicated such private and personal visions in so public a form as the theatre. And yet, his influence has been enormous: both Synge and O’Neill cited Strindberg rather than Ibsen as a major influence; and while Ingmar Bergman (to judge from the account given of him by Michael Meyer in his memoirs) was at best ambivalent about Ibsen, his closeness to Strindberg, whose plays he had frequently directed on stage to much acclaim, seems obvious.

According to his biographer and translator Michael Meyer, “[Strindberg] had a much narrower vision than Ibsen, but wrote better than anyone except perhaps Dostoevsky and Poe about that borderland where sanity and insanity merge.” This closeness to insanity certainly gives his dramatic work – the best of them, at least – a certain frisson; but, at the same time, unless one has a certain sympathy with his particular brand of insanity, it can also leave the reader or the viewer bewildered. And that is the effect his plays tend to have on me: I find myself bewildered, and really don’t know that I understand them adequately.

Meyer himself seemed to have an oddly ambivalent attitude to Strindberg, both as man and as writer. His biography of Strindberg is certainly authoritative, but while his earlier biography of Ibsen was a triumph, this one seems vitiated by his dislike for his subject. (There is a more recent biography of Strindberg by Sue Prideaux: I have not yet read this, but the consensus of critical opinion appears to be that this now supersedes Meyer’s biography for the very reason that Prideaux has greater sympathy for her subject.) Meyer is also frequently censorious of much of Strindberg’s work, describing his dramatic output as “wildly uneven”; while he is clearly keenly appreciative of Strindberg’s finest plays, there are others which he is happy to dismiss with an almost casual nonchalance. Here, for instance, is Meyer on the five late works Strindberg wrote for the Intimate Theatre (Intiman), and which he designated as “chamber plays”:

…the new plays which Strindberg wrote for the Intimate [Theatre] were not good, apart from Storm … and The Ghost Sonata, which was too far in advance of its time for the cast to encompass or the critics to understand.

This is certainly not the opinion of translator Eivor Martinus, who, in the short essay that prefaces her translations, describes all five of these plays as “miniature masterpieces”. There was only one way to find out: read these works for myself. For, clearly, I was missing something.

017

I had intended to read all five plays one after the other, but after reading the first one, Thunder in the Air (the one Michael Meyer refers to as Storm), I felt I needed a break from that claustrophobic environment. That I felt this way indicates in itself the power of the work; and, yes, I shall certainly go on to read the others. But not right now. The play itself is not too long: it takes about ninety minutes to read without a break, and a performance would, I imagine, similarly take about ninety minutes; but, as with the other plays I have read by Strindberg, I had a sense of being trapped in that vague, obscure chamber of Strindberg’s mind; and, strange and fascinating though that mind is, even so brief a period as ninety minutes in there has one gasping for a bit of fresh air, for a bit of sanity.

The play is partly about the serene detachment of old age; and also about the fragility of this detachment. The protagonist, unnamed, is an old man who has left behind, as he thinks, his earthly entanglements, and who wishes merely to spend his remaining days with equanimity, without bitterness, remembering only those aspects of his life that had been beautiful:

And it’s nice and quiet like this … no love affairs, no friends, just a little company to break the silence. People appear really human and they don’t make any emotional demands on you. In the end you become loose like an old tooth and fall out painlessly.

This renunciation of earthly ties in preparation for death is a common theme in Hindu and Buddhist scriptures; it was enthusiastically taken up by Schopenhauer, and found its way into several of Wagner’s operas. But such detachment is not easy to achieve: renunciation does not come easily. The unnamed protagonist’s equanimity is shattered when his young ex-wife and their child intrude once again into his life. He who had wanted to keep only the most beautiful memories of them must once again be forced to enter the world of human passions: the tooth he had thought was ready to fall out painlessly is still rooted in all the hatred and bitterness and anger that he had thought he had left behind. By the end, he looks forward once again to his departure from the world:

Shut the windows, and pull down the blinds, please. And we’ll leave our memories in peace! The peace of old age! And this autumn I shall move away from this silent house.

But his equanimity has been ruffled: the detachment he so yearns for has proved a fragile thing.

This is a play rich in veiled imagery, and Eivor Martinus’ translation is a work of limpid beauty: I think I am beginning to understand why Strindberg’s works, even at their most discordant, are so frequently described as “poetic”. But this is not a serene work. The hatred that resurfaces on encountering his ex-wife takes us into those regions of the mind that many of us some time or other may have entered, but in which it is unhealthy to stay too long: it is a deeply oppressive world. And Strindberg, it seems to me, couldn’t keep away from it – from that borderland where sanity and insanity merge, as Michael Meyer put it.

Once, only once, does Strindberg allow us to see something of the perspective of Gerda, the protagonist’s former wife:

And when I was prisoner in this house it wasn’t because of the jail-keeper that I was unhappy but because of the prison!

This is a striking image, but Strindberg doesn’t seem very interested in exploring further the implications of this. Despite this sudden and unexpected shaft of light, this play is less the story of a failed marriage than a depiction of the bitterness and unhappiness the failure has left in its wake. It is certainly a powerful and fascinating work, and, having read it only once – and so soon after the reading – I am not at all sure that I have yet taken it in to an adequate degree. I shall certainly return to it: it merits re-reading; and, despite Michael Meyer’s airy dismissal, I shall certainly read also the other four chamber plays. But not yet. I need first  a few breaths of fresh air. Even a mere ninety minutes of Strindberg goes a long way.

Gogol’s “Dead Souls”: a comic inferno

A preamble
I first read Dead Souls when, as a teenager, I developed a mania for 19th century Russian literature, and determined to read everything I could lay my hands on. The version I read then was the work of an anonymous translator, and probably one of the many versions that had been so mercilessly attacked by Nabokov as “worthless”. Nabokov did, however, praise the translation by Bernard Guilbert Guerney, a revised version of which is still available. Since Nabokov’s critique, a good many well-received translations have appeared. I re-read Dead Souls a few years ago in the highly rated modern translation by Robert Maguire published by Penguin Classics. This third and latest reading was in response to a mini-group-read organized by Richard, who blogs in Caravana de Recuerdos, and by Scott, who blogs in Six Words for a Hat. I have, till now, deliberately avoided reading their posts on Dead Souls until I had put my own reactions down on paper – or, at least, on computer screen. I’ll remedy that once I have posted this.

The translation I read this time round was the older version published by Penguin Classics, by David Magarshack. All quoted passages in this post are taken from this translation.

***

Anyone familiar with 19th century literature will know the landscape. An unutterably dreary, drab little town, somewhere in the provinces, miles from anywhere, riddled with filth and poverty and decay and corruption, and stinking of moral stagnation and decay. It is the place from which any person of sensitivity longs to escape – like Chekhov’s Three Sisters; those who don’t, like Chekhov’s Ionych, become embroiled in the corruption; or, like Dr Ragin in Chekhov’s “Ward 6”, become victims of it. It is this town that forms the grey setting of Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and it is this town we see collapsing into psychopathic violence and an almost apocalyptic disorder in Dostoyevsky’s Demons; and it is this town also that is revealed in Tolstoy’s Resurrection as containing behind its shallow façades of faux-respectability the most unutterable institutionalised cruelties. Meanwhile in Saltykov-Schedrin’s The Golovlyov Family, this town seems to stand for Hell itself, from which no-one can ultimately escape. This town is as much a landscape of the mind as it is a real landscape, and it looms large in Russian literature.

The earliest appearance of this town, as far as my admittedly limited reading allows me to judge, is in Gogol’s play The Government Inspector. And it reappears in the novel Dead Souls. In the play, an ordinary man, at a loose end and unable to pay his hotel bill, is mistaken by the corrupt town officials for an inspector, and is larded with all sorts of bribes; by the time the truth is realised, he is away with his gains. And even as we’re laughing, the mayor of the town breaks the invisible fourth wall of the stage to tell us directly, the audience, that we are laughing at ourselves: we all inhabit this Town of the Mind. In Dead Souls, which Gogol referred to as a “poem” rather than as a novel, we once again have a visitor from outside, who causes consternation. But it is not the outsider, Chichikov, who seems at first to be the centre of the reader’s attention: it is the rather eccentric narrator. Chichikov is described, and yet not described, so that we, the reader, get no mental picture of him:

The gentleman in the carriage is neither too fat, nor too thin; he cannot be said to be old, but he was not too young either.

And having given us this piece of non-description, the narrator veers off for no apparent reason to tell us about two peasants speaking about Chichikov’s carriage. What they say is not quite nonsensical, but it doesn’t really seem to make much sense either:

“Lord,” said one of them to the other, “what a wheel! What do you say? Would a wheel like that, if put to it, ever get to Moscow or wouldn’t it?” “It would all right,” replied the other. “But it wouldn’t get to Kazan, would it?” “No, it wouldn’t get to Kazan,”” replied the other. That was the end of the conversation.

The narrator is in no rush to move things along. We are given a leisurely account, seemingly overloaded with utterly irrelevant detail, of the filthy inn, and of the people working there; and then, of the town itself. The details the narrator fixes upon tend towards the eccentric, or even the downright bizarre; much of what he says seems like non-sequiturs. And when the narrator uses a simile or a metaphor, the image takes on a life of its own, quite overwhelming that which it purports to describe:

As he entered the ballroom, Chichikov had for a moment to screw up his eyes, dazzled by the blaze of candles, the lamps, the ladies’ gowns. Everything was flooded in light. Black frock-coats glided and flitted about singly or in swarms here and there like so many flies on a sparkling white sugar-loaf on a hot July day when the old housekeeper chops or breaks it up into glittering lumps in front of an open window, the children gather and look on, watching with interest the movements of her rough hands raising and lowering the hammer, while the aerial squadrons of flies, borne on the light breeze, fly in boldly, just as if they owned the place and, taking advantage of the old woman’s feeble eyesight and the sunshine that dazzles her eyes, cover the dainty lumps in small groups or in swarms.

Whew! But we aren’t finished yet:

Already satiated by the abundant summer, which sets up dainty dishes for them on every step, they fly in…

And so on for another few hundred words, the reality this image has been set up to elucidate by now more or less forgotten. It is fair to say, I think, that I have never come across a narrative voice quite like this one. Dickens too loved eccentricity, and one often wonders about the sanity of some of his characters; but here, one is left wondering about the sanity of the narrator himself.

In the second chapter, Chichikov sets off to visit local landowners. The landowners and their estates are all described by that same affable but seemingly demented narrative voice. And what that voice tells us is just as bizarre as the voice itself. These elements of the bizarre are dropped in as if they were perfectly reasonable and everyday. For instance, Chichikov, having lost his way on a stormy night, and his carriage having overturned, is put up by elderly widow, who sees to his comfort:

“Take the gentleman’s coat and underwear and dry them first in front of the fire as you used to for your late master, and afterwards have them well brushed and beaten.”

“Yes, ma’am,” said Fetinya, spreading a sheet over the featherbed and laying down the pillows.

“Well, here’s your bed all ready for you, sir,” said the old lady. “Good night, sir, sleep well. Are you sure you don’t want anything else? Perhaps you’re used to having your heels tickled for the night. My late husband could not get to sleep without it.”

As the novel progresses, an extraordinarily vivid cast of characters appears – each bizarre and eccentric beyond the bounds of sanity. There’s the impossibly effusive Manilov; the bear-like, deliberate, and somewhat madly methodical Sobakevich; the disgustingly filthy and threadbare Plyushkov, surely the most grotesque and repulsive of all literary misers; and Nozdryov, the colourful braggart, bully and compulsive liar – except, of course, no-one outside a Gogol novel could lie with quite such uninhibited flamboyance and gusto. Chichikov visits these landlords to buy from them, at as cheap a price as he can, serfs (or, not to put too fine a gloss on it, slaves, which is what they were) – serfs who are dead, the “dead souls” of the title, but who are still listed from the last official census as being alive, and for whom, consequently, the landowner is continuing to pay taxes. When Chichikov’s curious business activities are known, the town is in turmoil. All sorts of strange stories start up, and are believed: it becomes common knowledge, for instance, that Chichikov had been planning to elope with the Governor’s daughter (shameless hussy that she is!) A meeting of worthies discuss who Chichikov may be. The postmaster knows: Chichikov is none other than Captain Kopeikin! And who is this Captain Kopeikin? The postmaster launches on a long story – fully reproduced, in all its Gogolian bizarreness – of a Captain Kopeikin who had lost an arm and a leg in the 1812 campaign. Only after the story has progressed through several pages does someone think of mentioning that Chichikov has both arms and both legs. The postmaster admits that he was wrong, and sits down; Kopeikin is not mentioned again. Why the postmaster had thought Kopeikin was Chichikov in the first place is not explained.

The pace of the narration is slow – for modern readers, perhaps, too slow for a comedy: but it is in the narrator’s eccentric voice that so much of the comedy resides – a voice apparently gentle and friendly and even reasonable, and yet, we suspect, utterly insane. And for that voice to establish itself, a slowness of pace is required. The narrative, such as it is, unfolds at a leisurely pace, and that leisurely pace may perhaps suggest a certain gentleness: but the sheer bizarre nature of the content, full of mad non-sequiturs and irrelevant and often grotesque details, belies any sense of the gentle. Gogol had seemingly intended this narrative to be the first part of a trilogy that was to reflect Dante’s vision of Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise: what we see here is no less than Gogol’s vision of Inferno itself. The Dead Souls of the title are not merely the dead peasants.

It is hard to imagine how these Dead Souls presented here could be redeemed, as Gogol had intended: it is hard to imagine what Gogol’s Purgatorio and Paradiso may have been like. Gogol never completed his grandiose project. Towards the end of his life (he died when still in his early 40s), he became dangerously insane, developed a sort of religious mania, and seemingly starved himself to death. And, during these last terrible days, he burnt what he had written of the second part of Dead Souls. (There exists a quite horrific painting by Ilya Repin of Gogol burning the manuscript.) Some fragments of this second part have, however, survived, and all modern English editions dutifully include these chapters, but I find them distressingly banal and uninspired. Gogol may have aspired towards redemption, but it seems to me unlikely that his imagination could conceive of anything but the hellish. The rather hellish last days of Gogol’s own life are perhaps not surprising.

What we get in this novel – or this “poem”, as Gogol insisted it to be – is a vision of Hell itself. But things are never simple with Gogol. From our viewpoint, we may think this to be the Hell of a slave-owning society; and yet, Gogol was firmly in favour of serfdom (slavery by another name), and opposed strongly liberal campaigns for emancipation. It is hard, at least for me, to imagine what really went on in that very strange mind of his. I generally try to heed the well-worn advice of “trust the book, not the writer”, but it becomes difficult here to try to put out of mind details of Gogol’s own life and opinions.

In this third reading, the sense of an Inferno seemed more apparent than had previously been the case. It’s a comic Inferno, certainly, but comedy and seriousness are by no means mutually incompatible. Somehow, the comedy renders this Inferno all the more disturbing: as with the farting devils of Dante, the comedy, if anything, intensifies the horror. Here is world that is utterly grotesque, but presented with such vividness and, despite its slow pace, animated with such vitality, that the effect it had on Russian literary culture, and, one suspects, on the Russian mind itself, is tremendous, and can hardly be over-estimated. That drab Gogolian town became for succeeding writers – for Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy and Chekhov, for Saltykov-Schedrin – the very image of Hell itself. I know of nothing quite like this outside Russian literature: in no other literature that I know of has a physical location become so firmly entrenched as also a moral and psychological landscape. But Gogol could not transcend this landscape, much though he longed to, any more than could the characters of Saltykov-Schedrin’s utterly bleak and desolate novel The Golovlyov Family. This is a Hell in which we still remain trapped.

The tone of voice

Literature in many of its branches is no other than the shadow of good talk; but the imitation falls far short of the original in life, freedom and effect.

–          From “Talk and Talkers” by Robert Louis Stevenson

Orwell, in his famous essay on Dickens, spoke of seeing in literature the face of the author, even when he did not know what he author looked like. Possibly my imagination is less visually oriented than Orwell’s, but when I read, it is not so much a face that I see, but a voice that I hear; or, rather, a tone of voice. I suppose it comes to the same thing: whether we imagine a face or a voice, an author’s personality is evident in what the author writes. It may be that the personality that emerges from the writing is quite different from the personality that is apparent to those who knew the author in real life; but since, as a reader, I have no access to the latter (even biographies can offer no more than the biographer’s interpretation), it is the former that I find of greater interest.

There are, of course, authors who attempted to efface their own personalities, but I can’t help wondering how seriously intended these attempts are. Flaubert’s personality, for instance, is very evident in his novels. At times, he even speaks to the reader directly – such as in that famous passage in Madame Bovary where he speaks of language being a cracked kettle on which he beats out tunes for bears to dance to, when, instead, he wants to move the stars with pity. I say Flaubert “speaks” of this, for, when I read it, I feel as if this line were spoken. And it is spoken to me in a tone of resigned heartbreak.

That is the tone of voice I get in much of Flaubert – resigned heartbreak: and the cause of the heartbreak is that there is no option but to be resigned. Austen, who is as deeply ironic as Flaubert and as aware of human stupidity, has, however, a very different tone of voice: although she could be deeply serious, and even at times, as in Mansfield Park, sombre, her tone of voice is amused, happy to batter the cracked kettle with a virtuosic verve and gaiety without any thought of moving the stars with pity; or, indeed, without any thought of pity at all. On a personal level, I like the sound of Flaubert’s voice, even through the services of an interpreter (since I do not know French well enough to read the originals); Austen I am a bit frightened to sit too close to, in case she chooses me as the next object of her pitiless wit: and if she does, she would veil it in such subtle shades of irony, that I might not even notice. In any case, there are far too many people as it is sitting around Austen, enjoying her wicked wit, so there’s no point my adding to the throng.

Milton is on a platform, orating. It is a grand and sonorous voice, with a wide tessitura; it has a depth to it, reverberating across the room even when he is speaking softly. He has many devotees, admirers in thrall to that voice which is by turns turbulent and serene; and for some time, I, too, am mesmerised. But after a while, my ears start hurting, and I wander off to listen instead to the blank verse of Wordsworth. He does not speak at me, but, rather, to me: far from orating from a platform, he sits next to me, conversing eloquently. And I realise why it is that I reach for The Prelude far more frequently than I reach for Paradise Lost, even though Mr Wordsworth, himself an admirer of Milton, professes himself shocked by my preference.

To hear Dickens, one must go to the theatre: there he is, holding the stage by himself, performing his one-man show. He loves playing to the gallery. One moment he will make ’em laugh, the next he’ll have ’em in tears, and then, for good measure, he’ll freeze their blood with terror. Many dismiss him as a ham, and, since modern taste does not care so much for tears, accuse him of sentimentality; but no-one doubts his charisma, or the flamboyance of his personality: and that in itself is enjoyable. And those listening closely soon find that putting on a performance need not exclude seriousness of intent, or depth of utterance. Indeed, as the curtain comes down and the lights come up in the auditorium, one finds even such revered practitioners as Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy applauding enthusiastically. It’s a damn fine trick to pull off.

Most affable of all is the voice of Mark Twain. He is sitting in a saloon bar with a bottle of whiskey, and he offers me some as he regales me with jokes, reminiscences, anecdotes, tall stories. Of course, one can’t get a word in edgeways with him, but one doesn’t want to stem that marvellous flow. And yet, despite all his boisterous high spirits, one senses at times a man struggling to come to terms with what he knows humans are capable of; and who, by the end – by the time, in other words, he came round to writing Pudd’nhead Wilson – throws up his arms in despair and admits it is too hard a knot for him to untie.

Henry James, however, specialised not so much in attempting to untie knots, but in tying them: and what intricate knots they are! He sits by the window, polishing with meticulous care the circular lenses of his pince-nez ; he speaks very softly, and very slowly, and very precisely, pausing frequently in mid-sentence to ensure his listeners have taken in what he has said so far, and taking care to give every word its correct weighting and its correct intonation. For all that, he engages; indeed, once one accustoms oneself to that insidiously softly-spoken voice, he is compelling. But after a while, I do find myself  wandering off once again to Mark Twain’s table.

Nietzsche, I admit, I find myself avoiding: I do not doubt his extraordinary intellect, nor his visionary flashes of genius, but he seems continually to be screaming into my ear. Musil I avoid as well: it’s like being lectured to at great length by an extremely clever man who unfortunately has bad breath. Of the German writers, I prefer the refined, civilised charm of Thomas Mann, or even the bleak comedy of Kafka, who is forever expressing surprise that his nightmarish flights of fancy don’t make us laugh more often.

The presence of D. H. Lawrence can be wearing. He is angry, very angry, about something or other, and I keep getting the curious feeling that, for whatever reason, he is angry with me for, apparently, not living my life as he feels I should. But when I try to find out precisely what it is that angers him, either he rants incoherently, thumping the table with his fist; or he expresses some profound vision of what it is to be human that I don’t really understand: it has something, I believe, to do with our sexuality, but that’s about as much as I can take in. He does, though, have some ecstatic moments of poetic intensity, and if there were to be some award for seriousness of intent, old DH would win it hands down. But, I must admit, I do find it difficult staying with his outsize personality for long stretches.

Even dramatists, who speak for ever through other peoples’ voices, can make their presence felt: it would be difficult, for instance, to mistake The Master Builder for a Chekhov play, or Three Sisters for an Ibsen. Only Shakespeare remains inscrutable: he is whoever one may imagine him to be – even the Earl of Oxford, if one so wishes.

***

One of the main reasons why we read is, I think, the companionship of the author. And, just as there is no accounting for our instinctive likes and dislikes of people we know, so there seems no accounting for similar preferences amongst authorial personalities. I, for instance, take far more readily to Dickens’ personality than I do to Austen’s, whereas many friends of mine, whose tastes and judgement I respect, feel otherwise. In a recent post, I had suggested that one could, to a great extent, choose what one likes and what one doesn’t: does this apply also to our likes and dislikes of authorial personae? Or is this aspect of our taste more instinctive, and, thus, something over which we have less control? Or could it be that I am mistaken (it has been known to happen!) in placing so much weight on the reader’s reaction to the authorial personality? I know it is stylistically wrong to finish an essay with questions rather than with a conclusion – even a tentative conclusion – but since I do not have the first idea what the answers are to these questions, I don’t really see how I could end otherwise.