Posts Tagged ‘Dickens’

On adaptations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A Christmas Carol” questionnaire

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As I mentioned in an earlier post, Caroline (Beauty is a Sleeping Cat) and Delia (Postcards from Asia) have very kindly organized the inter-blog event “Dickens at Christmas”. I have written two posts (here and here) as contributions to this. And today is a “readalong” of A Christmas Carol.

In preparation, Caroline had sent me a questionnaire about this book. Here it is, with my answers:

Is this the first time you are reading the story?
It’s part of my Christmas tradition to read this every year.
Did you like it?
I think I can safely answer “yes” to that!
Which was your favorite scene?
Sorry about this, but there are at least three scenes I must mention. The first is Christmas dinner at the Cratchits’ house: some find this sentimental, but I don’t. Dickens believed in human goodness, and here, we see a convincing picture of people who actually love and care for each other. The next scene I should mention is the other scene set in the Cratchits’ house: this is set in the future, after their child has died. Scrooge had asked the Ghost of Christmas to Come to show him some real human feeling, some “tenderness”: and here, we get it. This is an utterly convincing depiction of how people grieve for those whom they have loved. (Incidentally, at the very end of Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Alyosha makes a speech at after the funeral of Ilyusha, and this speech is a very close reprise of what Bob Cratchit says to his family at the end of this scene in A Christmas Carol.) And finally, I must mention that scene where the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge those two hideous children, and when Scrooge asks whose children they are, replies “They are Man’s”. It’s a scene that still horrifies me: no sentimentality here.
Which was your least favorite scene?
I love every line of this novella.
Which spirit and his stories did you find the most interesting?
All in their different ways are interesting, and vital. But if I had to choose, I’d go for the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. It starts with a glimpse into the abyss: we are shown a world devoid of human feeling, of human love. This is, indeed, Hell. If there is joy at the end of this story, this joy is hard won: it had required a glimpse into the abyss. (Previously, I had mentioned Dostoyevsky’s debt to this novella, but Tolstoy too was indebted: there is a scene in A Christmas Carol where some business associates of Scrooge talk about his death in indifferent and uncaring terms; this scene reappears at the start of Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illych.) And then, of course, when Scrooge, in despair, begs to be shown some evidence of human “tenderness”, the Spirit obliges. Whatever anguish the Cratchits are going through, they are not in that Hell in which human feelings don’t exist.
Was there a character you wish you knew more about?
I think we are told as much about each of the characters as we need to know.
How did you like the end?
Wonderful. It is a joyous ending, and this being Dickens, the joy is expressed in whimsical terms. But the joy has been very hard won.

Did you think it was believable?
Literally, no: this is intended as a fairy story. But psychologically, and morally, yes.

Do you know anyone like Scrooge?
Scrooge is obviously a caricature, so no, I don’t know anyone exactly like him. But there are people aplenty who think that paying their taxes is enough, that they don’t need to consider those in society who are less fortunate. (Some even stop short of paying taxes!) There are people aplenty who feel that following the rules of business is enough (“Mankind was my business!” says Marley’s ghost). I still hear people speak of the “surplus population”. The depiction of Scrooge still hits home- very strongly, I think. Often, to my shame, I can find elements of Scrooge in myself also.

Did he deserve to be saved?
Yes. Scrooge’s redemption comes through his own effort. It is not a gift.



Many thanks to Caroline and to Delia for arranging this.

My Ideal Bookshelf

It’s nearly Christmas. Let’s indulge ourselves a bit.

There is a book, and, inevitably, a website, called “My Ideal Bookshelf”. In this book, various celebrities are asked to list up to twelve books that are particularly important to them for various reasons. Now, as I like to think I am something of a celebrity myself, I was a bit miffed at not being asked to contribute to this. Sure, we lesser mortals are invited to contribute our ideal bookshelves to the website mentioned above, but I am loftily ignoring this: it’s celebrity or nothing for me!

Fair enough, nothing it is…

If you are thinking that this is an excuse for yet another dreary list, you’d be perfectly correct. But as I say, it’s nearly Christmas. Let’s indulge ourselves a bit!

Here’s my ideal bookshelf:


The reasoning behind the choices of most of the titles is self-explanatory. First of all – going from left to right – comes the Complete Works of Shakespeare. I was eleven when my parents took me to see King Lear at the Edinburgh Festival: Timothy West, then only in his 40s, played Lear on the bare stage of the Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh. Obviously, at that age, I took in but a fraction of it, but I was so excited by what I had seen, that I remember I could not get to sleep that night. That Christmas, I asked my parents for the Complete Works. There are at least a dozen or so of these plays that remain a constant presence in my mind. To celebrate – if “celebrate” is indeed the word I am looking for – my 50th year, I read through all these plays, in the order (as far as can be ascertained) in which they had been written. And I try to read at least one play each month. Life without these works would be unimaginable.

Then comes Rabindranath Tagore. Someone asked me once whether, given my obviously Bengali name, I knew the works of Tagore. Some of it, I replied: he wrote prolifically for decades, and I certainly haven’t ploughed through it all. Did I like his work? Well, I replied, as an educated Bengali, I don’t really have an option. His songs were probably the first music I ever heard; that extravagantly bearded visage was as familiar to me in my earliest childhood years as were pictures of my own family. Later in life, it did, I admit, come as a surprise to discover that, despite all the idolatry – which for many years put me off – his works actually are rather good. Extraordinarily good, indeed. Despite translations (which I am not qualified to judge, as they are not intended for me), the true extent of his literary greatness will be accessible only to native speakers. And for those native speakers who have come under his spell (and it is hard not to), a volume of Tagore’s poems is virtually a mandatory choice on the Ideal Bookshelf. But which volume? Even restricting oneself to poetry, his vast output cannot be contained in a single volume. After much thought, I chose Geetbitan, a collection of all his song lyrics. Literally thousands of them, covering just about every shade and nuance of human feeling imaginable. Tagore was among the greatest of songwriters (he composed the melodies as well as writing the words), and even when you don’t have the tune running round your head when reading them, these exquisite lyrics stand up perfectly well as poetry. There aren’t many song lyrics that do that.

Then comes Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, which I won’t write about here as there is already a fairly long and recent series of posts in this blog about this extraordinary novel. And speaking of extraordinary novels, there’s also Dickens’ Bleak House: I won’t write about this either, as I have done so only quite recently. Tolstoy and Dickens are the two novelists whose works mean most to me personally.

Next, I have chosen the Collected Ghost Stories of M. R. James. I have always wondered why it is I so dislike fantasy literature, find myself bored by science fiction, and yet enjoy the unreality of a creepy ghost story. Not any type of ghost story, though: the ones I like are the ones in which the solidity of the real world is very strongly projected, so that that the intrusion of the irrational, when it appears, is transgressive. The sort of story, indeed, of which M. R. James was the master. Why do I enjoy these stories so much? Well, let’s not go too deeply into self-psychoanalysis: that sort of thing is bound to be a load of simplistic tripe anyway. But the Collected Ghost Stories of M. R. James remains a constantly on my bedside table.

Piled on top of these books in my picture are six paperback volumes of the major plays of Ibsen, in the translations by Michael Meyer. Yes, I know, it’s cheating: they’re six volumes. But each volume is so indispensible that I couldn’t leave any of them out. And in any case, these volumes could easily be stitched up together into a single large volume.

I came to Ibsen in my twenties, and was fascinated by the strange world he created. He is known primarily as a “social dramatist” – i.e. as a dramatist who dealt mainly with social issues. That is indeed how I used to think of him myself. But reading his plays, I found myself transported into the deepest and most mysterious regions of the mind itself: worlds opened up that were new to me, and which fascinated me. I still probably don’t understand what many of them are about, but, perhaps for that very reason, they continue to fascinate.

Then come two more novels – Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (which I read again some two years ago, and on which I have written a series of posts on this blog) and Joyce’s Ulysses. The latter is widely considered a sort of High Altar of Modernism, and has a reputation of being excessively difficult: that’s rather unfortunate, since, quite apart from anything else, it’s about as fun as any book I have read. I can still dip into it and read passages purely for enjoyment. Dostoyevsky, on the other hand, I have rather a difficult relationship with. I first encountered his works as a teenager, and was overwhelmed: the impact these novels had on me was almost visceral. But as I became older, doubts started to creep in: Are these novels not merely hysterical? Aren’t they unstructured, rambling, undisciplined? Was not my love of these novels merely a consequence of my teenage immaturity? And yet … and yet, scenes and themes and characters and images from these novels remained seared into my mind when other novels, apparently much better-written, had vanished without much trace. These novels, in other words, left behind the strongest of aftertastes. So I started, rather guiltily I suppose, to re-enter Dostoyevsky’s world. And I realised that these novels have to be taken on their own terms, and that there is no other novel that is even remotely comparable. Yes, I still frequently find myself wondering what the hell certain passages are about; I still find myself shaking my head at other times and thinking this won’t do. But that excitement I had experienced as a teenager remains. And I’m not sure why,

I suppose if I love Tolstoy because his vision of the world I find enriching; if I like Dickens because I love entering into that idiosyncratic fictional world of his; then I love Dostoyevsky because I enjoy having a fight with him. And I have had some good fights with him, and have come away from them bloodied but invigorated. Dostoyevsky’s novels are exploratory rather than declamatory, and, as with the plays of Ibsen, they explore regions that, had it not been for these works, would have been completely closed to me.

Now, the Sherlock Holmes stories. In the picture above, these appear in a lavish three-volume set (a birthday present from my wife on my 50th birthday); but since they can also be found contained in a single volume, I’m claiming this as one choice. I still have vivid memories of checking out The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes from Bishopbriggs Public Library when I was about 12 or so, and it was love at first sight; and this love hasn’t flagged since. These stories have been a constant companion to me for many, many years now, and, as with the ghost stories of M. R. James, have become the best of old friends, and lifelong companions. I tried in this post to explain why I love these stories, but I think I gave up after a while: there are certain things that resist explanation.

I finish with two volumes of poetry – by Yeats, and by Wordsworth – sandwiching Eugene O’Neill’s play Long Day’s Journey Into Night. It strikes me writing this post that a great many of the books that mean most to me reach back into my late childhood, and my teenage years: I suppose those are the years during which my literary taste was formed. And I certainly remember watching on television, aged twelve, the National Theatre production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night featuring Laurence Olivier in one of his legendary roles. I was mesmerised. That play has a hold on me still that I cannot explain: even other plays by Eugene O’Neill don’t resonate with me the way this one does. Once again, I am not sure I understand why.

And, of course, I want some poetry on by ideal shelf. I already have the song lyrics of Tagore, and the plays and poems of Shakespeare; add to these Wordsworth and Yeats, and I think that would keep me happy. As I explained in an earlier post, I like Wordsworth’s tone of voice – civilised and eloquent, the voice of someone conversing with me rather than of someone declaiming to me. But with that conversational tone, he can depict emotions and states of mind that seem transcendent, and contain intimations of immortality. Yes, we all know that we wrote much, especially in his advanced years, that was mediocre and worse; but we should judge each writer by their best, and the best of Wordworth – “Tintern Abbey”, “Ode on the Intimations of Immortality”, “The Solitary Reaper”, the 1805 text of The Prelude, some of the finest sonnets since Shakespeare, etc. etc. – would quite easily fill a good-sized volume. And despite their apparent plainness of diction, they affect me more than I think I can explain.

I do not write much about poetry on this blog, and that is mainly because I am not sure how to write about it. Poetry tends to affect me like music: I know what it makes me feel, but am not sure why. I suppose the only way to write about poetry is to provide close analysis of the rhythms, the sounds, the imagery, etc. – but there are many who can do that sort of thing far better than I possibly could. I did try to write about some poems by Yeats once on this blog, but I’ll not provide a link to it: it wasn’t, shall we say, among my best posts on here. So I will restrict myself here to giving some rough impressions of what Yeats’ poetry makes me feel. There’s the early stuff, of course – the “Celtic twilight” poem: these are products of the fag-end of Romanticism, with their alluring sensuality and the infectious folk rhythms. But even here, those rhythms aren’t always what one would expect from folk poetry: they are considerably knottier; and the themes became increasingly complex and ambiguous, the mythology more arcane. And it is fascinating tracing the development of Yeats’ poetic style as it moves almost seamlessly from a youthful Romanticism into a personal and very passionate form of modernism. For the older Yeats got, the more passionate he became. “Give me an old man’s frenzy,” he says at one point; and there is indeed a sort of frenzy in his poetry, a passionate striving and longing for he knows not what. Perhaps he remained a Romantic after all.


Well, that’s it folks – that’s my pre-Christmas indulgence done with. Now, the real indulgence starts: I already have bottles of malt whisky and Armagnac lined up for a most convivial and alcoholic festive season, and am looking forward to two idyllic weeks with the family.

And with my books, of course!

“The Chimes” by Charles Dickens

A Christmas Carol was a hard act to follow. Festive season, human suffering and redemption, spirits guiding humans, supernatural visions, all leading to warmth and cheer at the end …yes, these are all present and correct; but somehow, that imaginative spark that had lit A Christmas Carol isn’t really there. Of course, one can’t merely repeat oneself: so, instead of Christmas, Dickens focussed on the New Year; and instead of the Spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come, Dickens gave us the spirits of the Chimes, the church bells that mark the passing of time.

And this time, the central character taught a lesson by the spirit world is not a rich miserly businessman, but a poor and somewhat feeble-minded old man. This is, perhaps, part of the problem: for Trotty Veck is decidedly not amongst those most in need of lessons. True, he does begin to subscribe to what he hears from the mouths of the rich for whom he runs errands: the poor are poor, he comes to believe, because they deserve to be so; they are naturally vicious, born to be bad; there is really no justification even for their existence. However, though he has come to believe this things true, he doesn’t act upon them: he loves his daughter dearly, delights in whatever happiness she may have, and, poor though he is, displays charity and kindness to those even more unfortunate than himself. Why should the spirits pick on someone like him? one wonders. Go pick on those more deserving of being taught a good lesson. Alderman Cute, for instance. A man of the people, is Alderman Cute:

“You are going to be married, you say,” pursued the Alderman. “Very unbecoming and indelicate in one of your sex! But never mind that. After you are married, you’ll quarrel with your husband and come to be a distressed wife. You may think not– but you will, because I tell you so. Now, I give you fair warning, that I have made up my mind to Put distressed wives Down. So, don’t be brought before me. You’ll have children — boys. Those boys will grow up bad, of course, and run wild in the streets, without shoes and stockings. Mind my young friend! I’ll convict ’em summarily, every one, for I am determined to Put boys without shoes and stockings, Down. Perhaps your husband will die young (most likely) and leave you with a baby. Then you’ll be turned out of doors, and wander up and down the streets. Now, don’t wander near me, my dear, for I am resolved to Put all wandering mothers Down. All young mothers, of all sorts and kinds, it’s my determination to Put Down. Don’t think to plead illness as an excuse with me; or babies as an excuse with me; for all sick persons and young children (I hope you know the church-service, but I’m afraid not) I am determined to Put Down. And if you attempt, desperately, and ungratefullv. and impiously, and fraudulently attempt, to drown yourself, or hang yourself, I’ll have no pity for you, for I have made up my mind to Put all suicide Down! If there is one thing,” said the Alderman, with his self-satisfied smile, “on which I can be said to have made up my mind more than on another, it is to Put suicide Down. So don’t try it on. That’s the phrase, isn’t it? Ha, ha! now we understand each other.”

Or there’s Alderman Cute’s friend, Mr Filer, who has the entire world reduced to statistics, and can prove to Trotty Veck that in eating the small piece of tripe his loving daughter has brought him for lunch, he is, in effect, taking food out of the mouths of hundreds of others. Or Sir Joseph Bowley, the Poor Man’s Friend: he, good man, clears his accounts and settles his debts before the end of the year, and can only disapprove of the likes of Trotty Veck who is sufficiently improvident to be behind in his rent. What can be done with such people? Born bad, they are, born bad.

These caricatures are crude, admittedly, but they have about them a certain vigour: the very real anger in Dickens’ voice is unmistakable. This is not mere social commentary: this is Dickens’ passionate anger at the inability of humans to feel each others’ woes, his anger at the human readiness to condemn without understanding, without compassion.

This anger, powerful as it is, seems to drown out everything else. Dickens’ characteristic sense of whimsy seems to go missing somewhere along the way: he seems too angry to care much about such matters. The moral purpose overrides all: the story is too close for comfort to a sermon. To our modern sensibilities, of course, a sermoniser is about the worst thing a writer could be. But perhaps some sermons are worth hearing: much depends, of course, on the extent to which the reader likes Dickens’ voice, but for me, he carries it off. Even if only just.

The theme is soon introduced of suicide. Trotty Veck reads of an impoverished woman who has murdered her own child and thrown herself into the river; and he reflects, once again, that he and his class are simply born bad: there can be no other explanation for so hideous a crime. But that night, New Year’s Eve, he is drawn by the chimes up into the church tower. And the spirits of the chimes show him visions of the future. In this future, he, Trotty, is dead; he had fallen off the church tower one New Year’s Eve when he had been sleep-walking. And this future he is shown is grim indeed. Promising young men turn to alcohol, and become hopeless drunks; beautiful young women turn to prostitution. And , in the final terrible vision, Trotty sees his own beloved daughter driven by desperation to commit that most hideous of crimes – infanticide, and then suicide. Our modern taste may not take too well to sermonising, but it could be that, at times, it’s our modern taste that is at fault: this is powerful, passionate stuff.

The story ends happily, of course – or, rather, as happily as possible given that the people in the story remain poor, and, indeed, still on the edge of starvation. Dickens was maturing as a writer: there is no benevolent Mr Pickwick or the Cheeryble Brothers or even the reformed Scrooge who can put everything right by throwing money around. Life is dark, and will continue to be so. Under the circumstances, it is perhaps understandable that the good cheer at the end is somewhat muted.

A Christmas Carol it ain’t: that extra turn of genius that has made that earlier work into perhaps the most potent of modern fairy tales is not really to be seen here. What has replaced it is a tremendous sense of anger, of passion; and also a deep sorrow in the contemplation of the depths to which humans sink.

“Bleak House” by Charles Dickens

Most readers who love literature would, I’d guess, have, some time or other, imagined themselves as writers. Well, Dear Reader, imagine yourself a writer now. And imagine that you are creating a location in your novel that is dark and desolate, filthy and poverty-stricken and diseased. What appropriate name would you give it? Something like, say, Acacia Gardens would certainly be out of place, unless one is trying one’s hand merely at heavy-handed sarcasm. I suppose I would come up with something like Barebones Alley: readers possessing richer imagination than mine would, no doubt, come up with names more richly imaginative. But I doubt anyone would be able to come up with Tom-All-Alone’s. Once you hear it, you realise that this has to be the name – that nothing else will do: that this name alone removes the location from a mere physical hell-hole into some region set deep within the dark interior of the mind itself. But who else other than Dickens could have thought up such a name?

The fictional world of Dickens had always presented us with a stylised version of reality – grotesquely disfigured either for comic purposes, or to inspire horror: the mirror it holds up to nature is a distorting mirror. But in Bleak House, these distortions create an effect new in Dickens – and new, I think, in any fiction: it gives us access to a world that is not merely physical. But it is difficult to describe the exact nature of this world. Psychological? Metaphysical? Perhaps. Dickens does not describe Tom-All-Alone’s in physical detail, as, say, Zola might have done: he gives us instead a powerful sense, an impression, of the desolation of the place, of a degradation of the soul that is more than merely physical. It strikes terror to the very heart.

Similarly with that famous opening chapter, describing the fog: what we get is not so much a description of the fog, but, rather, a sense of something far more overwhelming, and all-embracing. The fog of wintertime London soon envelops the entire novel. And similarly with the filth: the mud on the streets almost immediately becomes transformed to “M’Lud” of the law-courts. Words themselves become malleable: later in the novel, the hospital becomes “horse-spittle”; the inquest becomes “inkwhich”; and the little boy Jo, whose horizons have never extended beyond the degradation of Tom-All-Alone’s, knows “nothink”. All literature is constructed, after all, out of language, out of words, and it is hard to think of any novelist other than Joyce who took such delight in transforming language, distorting it as he distorts reality itself, for expressive ends.

Take, for instance, that opening chapter, which is but a series of fragments. No sentence is grammatically complete: most are missing subjects and verbs. And yet, such is Dickens’ ear for rhythms and cadences, not one of these grammatically faulty sentences could be improved upon. Let us consider that first paragraph, starting with a sentence consisting of a single word:

London. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill-temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if the day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

Let us now try to correct the grammar, as unobtrusively as we can:

The scene is London. Michaelmas Term is lately over, and the Lord Chancellor is sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. The November weather is implacable. There is as much mud in the streets as there would have been if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke is lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes — having gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs can be seen in the mire, undistinguishable from each other. The horses are scarcely better; they are splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers are jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill-temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if the day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

Every point where a “correction” has been made dilutes the effect absurdly. One may set oneself an exercise to re-write this passage in any way one wants, and we would see merely the same dilution. Dickens’ idiosyncratic syntax, his choice of words and images, are all so precise, so carefully calculated, that not the slightest detail could be changed without weakening the whole. And it continues like this for page after page.

It is a virtuoso piece of writing that sets the scene of the novel – and not merely in physical terms. It presents a deep gloom and an almost primeval murk out of which the characters eventually emerge. And it is quite not a real world they emerge into: it is a world in which metaphor can become reality – a world that can accommodate even a death by spontaneous combustion.

This world is dominated by the law-courts, and, in particular, by the Jarndyce vs Jarndyce case. It has dragged through the courts for generations, and there is still no sight of an end. Nobody really knows what this case is about. It has brought in its wake suffering and madness and death. There are documents a-plenty, but there isn’t time enough in the world for anyone to go through all these documents, and get to the bottom of it all. And in any case, these documents are in the possession of Krook – he who is later visited with spontaneous combustion – who cannot read. All of these seem like symbols in search of interpretations, but, as in the works of Kafka (who was surely the spiritual heir of Dickens), they seem to embody a mystery that is greater than the sum of all possible interpretations. It is a world that simultaneously invites and defies interpretation. Indeed, the very issue of interpretation seems to be at the heart of it all.

Miss Flite, a woman driven mad by the case of Jarndyce vs Jarndyce, awaits the judgement of the court. And, once again, we are not merely talking about the physical: “I expect a Judgement”, she says, “on the Day of Judgement”. And on that Day of Judgement, she will release all her caged birds. She names these birds in a monstrous Rabelaisian list: “Hope, Joy, Youth, Peace, Rest, Life, Dust, Ashes, Waste, Want, Ruin, Despair, Madness, Death, Cunning, Folly, Words, Wigs, Rags, Sheepskin, Plunder, Precedent, Jargon, Gammon, and Spinach.” As ever, Dickens was a man in love with words, and the sheer linguistic plenitude of this list, words toppling over one another in mad profusion, opens the door to a world that appears, like Miss Flite herself, to have lost its sanity; a world that is simultaneously terror-stricken and absurd – a world that is, by the end, merely “gammon and spinach”.

This gammon-and-spinach world is presented to us through two very different but intertwining voices. There is the voice of Esther Summerson, principled and courageous but also mannered, and, to many readers, self-satisfied and coy; and there is also an impersonal, third-person voice that we hear at the very start of the novel, speaking throughout in the present tense. Esther is illegitimate: she has grown up having had it hammered into her head that her very existence is an abomination. She finds herself ward to the kindly Mr Jarndyce, a man, who, for all his benevolence, is subject to bouts of such extreme depression that he has to shut himself away into what he calls his “growlery”: Esther is grateful to him, not merely for his adoption of her, but also for the love he offers. Indeed, so starved has she been of love, that any expression of affection she encounters she cherishes. And she tries her utmost to bring order into the world around her. But even as she congratulates herself for doing so, the other voice presents us with a world in which no order can ever be established. Esther’s view of the world is, necessarily, a limited one, and her narrative is only partly reliable: that other voice that counterpoints hers gives us a somewhat different perspective. I know of no moment in all of fiction more chilling than that when another of Jarndyce’s wards, Richard Carstone, disappears from Esther’s narrative and appears in the other.

It is up to the reader to balance the different perspectives, to judge between the different voices. And it is up to the reader also to piece together the very many seemingly disparate elements of the narrative. For, amongst other things, Bleak House is also a detective novel – possibly the first of its kind: Dickens presents us with a bewildering maze of different characters and different milieux, and challenges us to find the connections. These connections, though intricate and well hidden, are very closely plotted. And the reader has to work at it: there is no Poirot to give us a lucid exposition at the end of this immensely tangled web.

The character who comes closest to untangling the web is a comic character – Guppy, the legal clerk, in love with Esther and determined to unearth the mystery of her birth. By the time he is close to the solution, Esther herself has come to know it, and this knowledge, she realises, is a terrible secret. With commendable moral integrity and sense of purpose, she instructs Guppy not to enquire further; and the truth she now knows she does not reveal to anyone – not even to her trusted guardian Mr Jarndyce. But there are other wheels already in motion over which Esther has no control: the order she brings to the world can only be limited.

There is also the lawyer, Tulkinghorn. He is lawyer to the crusty old aristocrat Sir Leicester Dedlock. Out in the stately home of Chesney wold in Lincolnshire, Lady Dedlock is bored; Sir Leicester, on the other hand, is never bored, for “when he had nothing else to do, he can always contemplate his own greatness”. But when Tulkinghorn presents him with legal documents, Lady Dedlock, for all her immense self-composure, nearly faints. Sir Leicester is solicitous for his wife’s health, but attaches no particular significance to this; Tulkinghorn, however, is more suspicious: he knows what has brought on Lady Dedlock’s discomfiture – the handwriting on the document. So he, like Guppy, starts digging.

That handwriting was the work of a man who is now dead. His work it was, towards the end of his life, to copy legal documents – those signifiers that may, if one has the time to pursue them, lead one to the truth. He had died in poverty, and was known merely by a pseudonym – Nemo, “nobody”. Soon, a strange lady appears in Tom-All-Alone’s, heavily veiled. And she instructs Jo, the little street-sweeper who “knows nothink”, to show her around all those places that this Nemo had once frequented. She tells Jo she is a servant, but Jo has never seen a servant before with such sparkling rings on her fingers. And she is shown all these terrible places, so far removed from her own bored existence. Finally, in a scene that haunts the rest of the novel, Jo points to the awful place where Nemo is buried:

“There!” says Jo, pointing. “Over yinder. Among them piles of bones, and close to that there kitchin winder! They put him wery nigh the top. They was obliged to stamp upon it to git it in. I could unkiver it for you, with my broom if the gate was open. That’s why they locks it, I s’pose,” giving it a shake. “It’s always locked. Look at the rat!” cries Jo, excited. “Hi! Look! There he goes! Ho! Into the ground!”

The servant shrinks into a corner — into a corner of that hideous archway, with its deadly stains contaminating her dress; and putting out her two hands and passionately telling him to keep away from her, for he is loathsome to her, so remains for some moments. Jo stands staring, and is still staring when she recovers herself.

“Is this place of abomination, consecrated ground?”

“I don’t know nothink of consequential ground,” says Jo, still staring.

“Is it blessed?”

“WHICH?” says Jo, in the last degree amazed.

“Is it blessed?”

“I’m blest if I know,” says Jo, staring more than ever; “but I shouldn’t think it warn’t. Blest?” repeats Jo, something troubled in his mind. “It an’t done it much good if it is. Blest? I should think it was t’othered myself. But I don’t know nothink!”

The mystery at the heart of this novel goes further and deeper than the mystery at the heart of the intricate plot. But Dickens, being Dickens, overlays these mysteries with his characteristic exuberance – eccentrics, comic grotesques, scoundrels and madmen, all depicted in his idiosyncratic prose. Here’s Chadband, for instance, the lay preacher, “a large yellow man with a fat smile and a general appearance of having a good deal of train oil in his system”. And this is how he talks:

‘My friends,’ says he, ‘what is this which we now behold as being spread before us? Refreshment. Do we need refreshment then, my friends? We do. And why do we need refreshment, my friends? Because we are but mortal, because we are but sinful, because we are but of the earth, because we are not of the air. Can we fly, my friends? We cannot. Why can we not fly, my friends?”

Or there’s Mrs Jellyby, unconcerned with her own chaotic family (whom she leaves to take care of themselves), but obsessed with charity, though not out of love: love is a concept alien to her; but, rather, out of a desire for self-aggrandisement. Or the loathsome loan shark Smallweed. Or the demented Miss Flite, with her cage of captive birds. The sinister lawyer Tulkinghorn. The boisterous Mr Boythorne. And so on. Perhaps no other novel, not even by Dickens, is so full of such a vivid gallery of characters, for whom the term “caricature” seems somehow inadequate: these grotesques, for all their grotesqueness, are living people. Even Sir Leicester Dedlock, the contemplator of his own greatness: when the truth is revealed, and the assumptions on which his entire life had rested disintegrate, he can redeem himself morally – and, hence, take on a tragic dimension – by forgiving. But this moral redemption does not, can not, bring him happiness, or even help salve his wounds: we are far here from the simpler world of Dickens’ earlier novels in which goodness resulted in happiness. But it does allow Sir Leicester to develop into a character possessing nobility, though not the nobility that Sir Leicester had previously imagined for himself. When he had thought himself noble merely on account of his birth, he was but a caricature; but when his entire life collapses, he becomes real. Ordinary caricatures do not have the scope for development: those of Dickens do.

Perhaps best of all is Skimpole. In a novel filled with pictures of childhood betrayed, childhood abused, and childhood brutalised; of children forced by cruel circumstance to become adults; Dickens presents us with an adult who pretends to be a child. Skimpole doesn’t understand the world, not he: it is far too complex for a soul as simple and as innocent as his. Skimpole, we find, had actually trained as a doctor, but he does not practice medicine: he is far too childlike. Esther is, at first, charmed by Skimpole, but, as she matures, sees him for what he is – as yet another manifestation of the moral corruption that surrounds them all. At a strategic point in the novel, we are taken into Skimpole’s house, where he introduces Esther to his own children:

“Here I am, you see!” he said, when we were seated: not without some little difficulty, the greater part of the chairs being broken. “Here I am! This is my frugal breakfast. Some men want legs of beef and mutton for breakfast; I don’t. Give me my peach, my cup of coffee, and my claret; I am content. I don’t want them for themselves, but they remind me of the sun. There’s nothing solar about legs of beef and mutton. Mere animal satisfaction!”

“This is our friend’s consulting room (or would be, if he ever prescribed), his sanctum, his studio,” said my guardian to us.

“Yes,” said Mr Skimpole, turning his bright face about, “this is the bird’s cage. This is where the bird lives and sings. They pluck his feathers now and then, and clip his wings; but he sings, he sings!”

Quiet unexpectedly, Dickens combines here the adult-child motif with a rather different one from earlier in the novel – that of Miss Flite’s captive birds, waiting for the Day of Judgement to be set free. Entire theses can be written – and, I’m sure, have been written – about Dickens’ use of symbols and motifs.

For all its comic exuberance, Bleak House remains a tragic novel. There can be no entirely happy ending. Yes, young lovers do get to marry each other – as they had done at the end of Dickens’ earlier works – but there can be no happy-ever-after: life is too complex to allow for that. It is too inscrutable. There are signs and symbols a-plenty – if only we knew how to interpret them.

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.


I have, over the years, been sufficiently fortunate to have seen several actors play King Lear on the stage. Of these, the least impressive by some margin was the performance given by Sir Ian McKellen. This is not, I hasten to add, because Sir Ian is not an actor of quality: far from it. Rather, it is because not everyone can excel equally well at everything, and, on the evidence of his performance, Lear appears not to be a role suited to his particular qualities. However, his performance was the most difficult for which to obtain tickets; and his performance was the only one that received a standing ovation. The reason for this is not hard to discern: unlike some of the actors whom I have seen excel as Lear – Timothy West, Brian Cox, John Wood, Julian Glover – Sir Ian McKellen is a movie star.

One may see evidence of such “star gazing” in other fields as well. Last Friday evening, somewhat jet-lagged after flying back from Tokyo, I found myself flat out on the settee watching the tennis from Wimbledon. Roger Federer, one of the greatest artists of the game (or indeed of any other game) and rightly admired for being so, was having a bit of a tough time against the unfancied Julien Benneteau. Federer did come through in the end, but Benneteau played some superb tennis, and came close to winning. And yet, while every point won by Federer was greeted by the crowd with enthusiastic cheers and applause, major points won by Benneteau were greeted with distinctly audible groans. And I couldn’t help wondering: were those groaning at Benneteau winning points – often with superlative skill – really tennis enthusiasts? Or were they, like those who gave a standing ovation to Ian McKellen’s lacklustre performance, merely “star-gazers”?

There are many examples of this kind of thing. I have seen people who couldn’t distinguish a square cut from an off-drive swoon at the mention of Sachin Tendulkar. In the Louvre, people walk past without so much as a glance some of the very greatest masterpieces of the human imagination just to have a quick look at the star of the gallery, the Mona Lisa. Prestigious football teams with prestigious players attract large worldwide viewing figures, whereas less-fancied teams who may have reached the later stages of competitions on their own merits spell disaster to sponsors and advertisers. And so on. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that what really matters is not so much love of the sport, or of the art, but, rather, to participate in some way in the prestige that goes with being a “star”.

But before I behold the mote in my brother’s eye (whatever a mote may be), I suppose I should consider the mote in my own. Am I not myself guilty of this sort of thing, at least to some extent, when I find myself reading something such as Barnaby Rudge, say – a mediocre novel at best, and considerably less than mediocre at worst – simply because it is written by Dickens? There are, after all, a great many novels of far greater quality by other writers that I could be reading instead. What is the point of my reading through every single play by Shakespeare? Shakespeare when not at his best is not, after all, easily distinguishable from a host of other writers of his time: why then do I waste my time with the likes of King John or with Pericles? If it is only because they have the magic name of Shakespeare attached to them, am I not every bit as much a star-gazer as anyone else?

I think I can answer this up to a point. I can say that I recognize Barnaby Rudge, despite having the illustrious name of Dickens attached to it, as not a work of any great literary quality; I can recognize that King John is an unremarkable play, and that Pericles is possibly a bad play; and that I read these works not for their inherent merit, but for any light that they may cast on the much greater works written by these authors; that peaks such as Hamlet or Great Expectations can only be properly appreciated once one is aware of the plains from which they arise; and so on. But none of this really refutes the charge of star-gazing: the truth is that if King John or Barnaby Rudge did not have attached to them the magic names of Shakespeare or of Dickens, I wouldn’t have been bothering with them. In short, I, too, am a star-gazer; I, too, am happy to praise the exquisite artistry of Sachin Tendulkar without possessing anything like a full understanding of the finer points of cricket.

So does this make me more tolerant of those who gave Sir Ian’s performance of Lear a standing ovation? Of those who groaned at points won by Benneteau? Sadly, no. This is possibly a point where Matthew and Luke may have got it a bit wrong: considering the mote in one’s own eye does not incline one to be more tolerant of the mote in one’s brother’s: if anything, it has quite the opposite effect. What strange creatures we all are!